Ion Review – Card Drafting At The Molecular Level

ION: A Compound Building Game is a card drafting and set collection game designed by John Coveyou of Genius Games.  When we last heard from, Genius Games, they were teaching RNA translation in Peptide.  Now they have brought their mission of creating educational games that are actually fun to play to the atomic level.  So let’s get to bonding!

andrewasmAndrew:  ION, the third of Coveyou’s games to be published, has succeeded at this agenda on a couple of different levels, but before I get into that, let’s talk about the basic components that make up Ion…and no, that wasn’t a pun.

The base game of ION (it comes with a few modular add-ons, more on those in a sec) is a very straightforward drafting game that plays between 2-7 would-be chemists.  Each player starts with a hand of 8 cards and, on every turn, picks one card and passes the rest.  The card they choose gets put down face up in front of them, either bonded to an existing ion or starting a new one.

A spread of some of the charged ion cards, as well as one noble gas. Personally, I love the stark art style throughout the game.
A spread of some of the charged ion cards, as well as one noble gas. Personally, I love the stark art style throughout the game.

These ions, which are all real-world chemical elements (and compounds), are all either positively or negatively charged, and the goal of ION is to complete as many electrically-balanced compounds as possible per-round.  A compound is balanced when the sum of all its charges is zero.  Cards which are worth more points are more strongly charged, requiring more cards of the opposite polarity to be balanced and therefore score.

By combining a Magnesium (2+) with 2 Chlorides (-), I get a balanced Magnesium Dichloride ion. It's worth 13 points (the value of all 3 component cards) as well as some bonus points this round, due to the 'Alkaline Earth Salts' goal card.
By combining a Magnesium (2+) with 2 Chlorides (-), I get a balanced Magnesium Dichloride ion. It’s worth 13 points (the value of all 3 component cards) as well as some bonus points this round, due to the ‘Alkaline Earth Salts’ goal card.

jessasmJess:  Or, to put it really simply, for every plus, there needs to be a minus.

Also shuffled into the deck are Noble Gas cards (don’t snicker, it’s science), non-reactive elements that cannot be added to ions.  Instead, they form a simple set-collection mechanic, with each card being worth more if it is part of a unique set.

Each player will have a set of three Action Tiles.  Each Action Tile is a 1-time-use ability that lets you take extra cards and rearrange the cards you have in front of you (and optionally steal a single card from an opponent).  Once used, these Action Tiles are negative points to your end-game score.

A few of the goal cards. Each one calls for specific criteria for that round's bonus points to be scored.
A few of the goal cards. Each one calls for specific criteria for that round’s bonus points to be scored.

Gameplay continues with cards being drafted and passed for three rounds.  A the end of each round (triggered when players are down to 2 cards left), each player totals the value of their balanced compounds as well as points for noble gasses they have collected.  Bonus points may also be awarded for players who completed the round’s objective cards.  Once scoring is complete, players clear their workbenches and a new round is started.  After 3 rounds, whomever has scored the most points is crowned the best at science!

The add-ons are also easy to grasp:

  • Transition Metals work just like other Ions, but they can be played as having a higher or lower ionic charge, making them easier or harder to balance, with point values increased or decreased accordingly.
  • Polyatomic Ions need to be balanced just like other ions, but when they get scored, players have the option of either taking them as points or using them to unflip a used Action Tile (either to avoid the negative points given by used Action Tiles or setting them up to be used a second time)
  • Radioactive Isotopes do not need to be balanced, and are only worth a few points on the round they are collected.  Instead of being shuffled back in, each player keeps all the Radioactive cards they collect and at the end of the game, the player with the most gets a bonus, while the player with the least pays a penalty.
In-box add-ons add more replayablility, especially at higher player counts.
In-box add-ons add more replayablility, especially at higher player counts.

andrewasmAndrew:  ION is a really straightforward set collection game.  Without throwing in the modular add-ons, there is basically no complexity here – strategy isn’t deeper than ‘how do I get enough cards to score this round’.  And while that may be seen as a negative, I actually find it to be a great thing.  Which brings us back to Genius Games’ mission – bringing science and games together in an educational and fun way.

See, as far as I’m concerned, ION teaches players in 2 ways.  First, and most obviously, it provides a very basic understanding of these scientific terms.  It doesn’t particularly teach you how ionic bonds work or what each of these compounds is, but by playing ION with younger kids, it means that when they do encounter these concepts in the classroom, it won’t be the first time they hear them, and once they do understand things like polarity, ION provides a fun, playful way of reinforcing these concepts.  And the straightforward simplicity of the gameplay means that even young kids will certainly be able to participate.

The other thing that ION teaches, quite well, actually, is the entire concept of ‘drafting’ card games.  Setting aside the scientific theme, ION can easily be someone’s introduction to this game mechanism.  All too often, drafting games require you to make informed decisions about what cards to take from the very first action, likely to set up future combos, and all that can be deeply challenging for a new player – 7 Wonders, possibly the quintessential drafting game (which we love, incidentally), is infamous for taking four times as long to explain as it does to play.

Not so with ION; newbies need only know that they score points for forming groups of cards that have an equal number of pluses and minuses.  There is practically no barrier of entry and simultaneous plays keep everyone engaged at all times – that’s a fantastic thing.

jessasmJess:  So, would you say that, while ION’s weight is low, its playability is high?

andrewasmAndrew:  Yes, I absolutely would…wait, don’t-

jessasmJess:  So for every negative…

andrewasmAndrew:  Please don’t-

jessasmJess:  There’s a positive?

andrewasmAndrew:  Ugh.

jessasmJess:  Hey, I’m just trying to get a balanced perspective!

So, uniquely, ION is an educational game in the realm of science, but it is also a very effective gateway game completely apart from its subject matter.  Sure, gameplay is decidedly on the light side, but considering where it is coming from, I can’t find any fault in ION’s design.

We think ION: A Compound Building Game is a great filler, perfect for introducing players to card drafting, set collection, and basic molecular bonding all at the same time.

(Thanks to Genius Games for providing us with a copy of Ion for review. Despite their generosity, our reviews always start out neutral – any positive charge was developed strictly from gameplay)

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