Pages of War is a new game from Sanjae Duncan and J. Kloud Entertainment, going up on Kickstarter 8/1 (we will provide links as soon as the campaign goes live). A head-to-head card battle game for 2-4 players, Pages of War aims to deliver epic gameplay by allowing players to take on the roles of Bards, form up armies (Chapters) and clash against one another until only one set of Monarchs is left standing. It promises an original, engaging theme and intuitive mechanics, but is Pages of War a new chapter in the legacy of great games, or is it a dime-store dalliance, more pulp than promise?
Andrew: So, to understand all of Pages‘ rules-language, it is important to keep in mind that the game’s theme is that the players are the great bards of their respective races, and the game itself is a story-like retelling of great battles past. So when the game talks about tearing out pages and opening chapters and whatnot, that’s the lens through which we are looking.
In Pages of War, each player will control one race – the four races available here are the Men, Elves, Orcs, and Dragkins, the Ren-fair classic set. Each of these races has a unique deck of cards – 5 Royals and their 22 assorted soldiers. The battles between these factions continue until only a single player’s King and/or Queen are left standing, making them the victor.
**Kickstarter Prototype Warning – What you see may not be indicative of the final product. Y’all have been warned!**
The game begins by each player laying out their royal row face down – a player is eliminated once their King and Queen are dead, so keeping your opposition from attacking them starts with keeping their position hidden. Then they build ‘Chapters’. Each Chapter is composed of face-down cards (Spoils) and face up cards. The face up cards are the only ones that matter most of the time, since they are what contribute to the chapter’s combat value.
Then, after drawing to 3 cards, players each take 3 actions from among the following:
- Use a Hero’s effect: Heroes in your hand or in Chapters before you may have unique abilities.
- Add a Hero to a Chapter: In order to increase the power of your chapters (for attacking and defending), you will want to add hero cards to them. In addition to increasing the power of the chapter by their face value, many hero cards have special bonus rules that grant them increased power when facing certain foes or when paired with other heroes.
- Add a Spoil to a Chapter: Each chapter can be composed of 3 heroes per spoil. In order to add a 4th card to a chapter, you must use this action to add a spoil first.
- Turn the Page: In addition to being an absolutely AMAZING song from Bob Seger, this action allows you to redraw your hand.
- Use a Monarch’s Effect: This is a doozy of a move. By revealing one of the cards from your royal row, you get to activate its special power. But the hitch is that it stays face-up, so everyone now knows what it is. Reveal a Jack and tell your opponents where your king and queen aren’t. And you expose those two at your own peril.
At any time they are appropriate to use, players can also use Aces, which each have unique, powerful effects. Lots of effects in Pages of War, and getting familiar with all of them will take you a few games, probably.
In order to attack an opposing player, the attacker picks one of their chapters and indicates which of their opponents’ monarch cards they are going after (remember, most of the time those cards will be face-down, so there is some guesswork at figuring which to hit). The defender can then decide whether to toss their own chapters in the way, or let the attack through (they may need or want to do that, given the relative strength of their available chapters).
When chapters fight each other, the bigger chapter simply wins, killing off cards from the losing chapter equal to the difference in their power level and claiming all the spoils cards revealed if they manage to remove the last hero of the chapter. These claimed cards are added to the victor’s army, giving them access to their opponents’ cards. The process is the same against a Monarch, but if the attacking chapter wins, the monarch is discarded instead.
When both the king and queen of a given player’s royal row are eliminated, that player is also out of the running for victory. The remaining players enact a reboot of their tableaus and play continues.
Andrew: Ok, that’s the absolutely fast, dirty version of the rules. It omits all the unique language that Pages uses to try and keep its theme present. If you want a much deeper dive into the setup and mechanics, check out this video. It’s fine, I’ll wait.
Pages of War is not an overly complex game at all. The card interactions are fairly straightforward (this card gets a bonus if there is an archer in the chapter, and this card gets a bonus against Dragkins, etc.). Battles come down to comparing the relative values of chapters, while hero abilities can be used to manipulate these numbers and change the field in unexpected ways. By all rights, it should be a fast, accessible game with some strategic depth and lots of unique flavor.
There are elements I really liked about Pages of War. In concept, the very idea of the game, of a battle of the Bards provides fantastic framing for the crush of our armies as they collide. The idea of forming bands of heroes and clashing with other armies is certainly a classic one, and I loved the idea of capitalizing on the synergies between cards. What got me most excited about the game was the idea of telling an epic tale, using cards to narrate the battles we were describing.
However, our time playing Pages of War brought to light some issues we had with the game. Some of these were annoyances, while others were really frustrating. Thankfully, many of them have already been addressed, but we would be remiss in not mentioning the ones which still cling to the game’s underbelly, parasites glutting themselves on the game’s potential.
- It’s fiddly as all hell – the way cards grant each other bonuses mean that you need to constantly calculate and recalculate their value, since they might get bonuses from each other, bonuses from other cards, bonuses from the type of foes they face, bonuses from suit interactions…
- Partially fixed – the game will still be fiddly as all get-out, but the final version will come with tokens for each race so keeping track of these values is at least a little easier.
- Monstrous player elimination rules – As written, when a player gets eliminated, they can no longer win the game. However, they can actually use their cards to strengthen the chapters of players still in the game, essentially letting them decide who wins. Can you say grudge, anyone? Pages of War features a literal kingmaker clause in its rules, and we absolutely hate that.
- Mostly fixed – These rules have now been clearly labeled as optional, though they should probably be excised completely. Even without those rules, we do think that Pages of War makes for a better 2 player experience than 3 or 4, and kingmaking is exactly why.
- The fonts, as in the actual text on the cards – I know it seems petty, but I played this game with several graphic artists and everyone cringed at the font choices. Illegible in places, the faux-script of the cards is clearly meant to be evocative of the fantasy core of the game, but it costs more than it contributes aesthetically.
- Maybe fixed? – In all fairness, this was a prototype. The final printing will be much cleaner than this one.
- The tropes are older than dirt – there is, bluntly put, nothing original about the theme of the game. These four fantasy archetypes have been killing each other since Tolkien first set them mashing against each other (and undoubtedly before that). Ousting Dwarves in favor of Dragkins (which we simply started calling Drag Kings almost immediately, because double consonants can be difficult to pronounce and we have the same senses of humor as your average 8-year-old) does little to add variety to the worn-out orc/elf/man threesome trope. And besides, these factions quickly lost all sense of identity – after a while, they were just ‘the stack that is 13 points vs the stack that is 10 points’, exacerbated by the constant need to recalculate values. There is no real storytelling of substance to be had here – the ‘bard’ thing gets tossed aside virtually instantly.
- The issue remains – its the central theme of the game, after all, and a necessary conceit. Still, that’s a real ‘your mileage may vary’ criticism, and it absolutely won’t bother some, nor does it particularly affect gameplay.
Andrew: So, after all that, where are we? Well, here’s the thing. I simply cannot decide if I like Pages of War or not. I know, as a critic and reviewer, that’s an unhelpful position for me to take, but there it is.
More than anything, Pages of War feels simply unpolished, or at least underpolished (that’s a word, right?). From the aesthetics to the mechanics, there are glimmers of true potential to be glimpsed, and for every nit-picky misstep there are elements which could make it a very solid game. In the short time since we got our prototype, the game’s rules (in need of editing, to be sure) have undergone a few revisions, and it is already far stronger than it was the day we got it – a good sign overall. But is it enough? I’m honestly not sure.
When the Pages of War Kickstarter goes live, what you will consider backing is a game that we think has potential, but can still be improved. Whether designer Sanjae Duncan continues to iterate and test up through production will decide whether it is an average game or a good one, but we think this story has the real potential for a happy ending.
(Thanks to J. Kloud Entertainment for providing our prototype for preview. Their generosity didn’t influence our opinions)