It is a particularly human quirk that throughout all of history it seems that every successive generation has been convinced that it is they who stand teetering on the cusp of the Apocalypse – they who have been chosen to bear witness to the fall.
Our endless fascination with death and our subconscious lust for oblivion is played out across an endless succession of bleak scenarios conjured from the fevered existential imaginings of lectern-straddling zealots. Fear of the unknown bundled tightly in the vestments of theology to better entrance the huddled masses.
The Eschaton. Armageddon. End of Days. The Rapture. Make sure you iron your best shirt. Jesus is coming!
Seven Trumpets, Seven Bowls
Doom hovers over us now. The blighted land heaves in the throes of final conflict – cultists race to gather converts, spread vision amongst vassals and curry the favour of the dark one that he may yet embrace them as the twilight of our time astride the Earth approaches.
Who better to lash this obsession to board and card than none-more-black indie upstarts Archon Games? Their house style – one cribbed from equal parts Malleus Maleficarum woodcuts and 80’s metal LP’s – lends their designs a sense of atmosphere and immersion that sits front and centre whilst in its presence, but which crucially, is layered atop a bedrock of solid design and engaging mechanics to create compelling play experiences that beguile without burdening.
After braving the abyss of their sophomore effort Nexus Infernum, I was sufficiently intrigued enough to wend my way back to their debut benefaction Eschaton– and in doing so I found not only more expertly grafted thematic symbiosis, but a satisfying and strategically coherent take on deck building, resource management and area control.
The Whore of Babylon, drunk on the blood of saints and martyrs.
In the game of Eschaton, two to six players will gather upon the fallow fields of an accursed medieval landscape – inhabiting the robes of warring cults that each seek to circumvent doom by gaining the favour and blessings of the one true dark master. To do so they will seek to infiltrate the populace, rally the masses to their banner and inspire in their ranks the foaming eruptions of devotion and zealotry required to sate his fickle whims. They will do so by gaining dominion over the numerous territories splayed across the map, acquiring sacred relics, sacrificing followers in tribute and, perhaps most importantly- fulfilling dark omens of prophecy.
Players will commence with a hand of seven cult members drawn from a selection of archetypes such as Thrall, Supplicant, Zealot, Seer and Acolyte. Each individual class of follower has a set of attributes that outlines their usefulness to the cult and dictates their effect on the state of play when drawn and activated.
Zeal – Represents your follower’s knack for cultivating fervour and allows you to draw additional cards to your hand from your draw deck
Divination- Details their ability to auger the fates and enables a glance into the Arcana deck in search of Relics, Edicts, and Bestial adherents
Influence – Outlines their standing within the ranks of the Conclave, granting you points to recruit new followers to the cause and bolster your deck
Aggression- Demonstrates a desire for dominance – allowing you to deploy, march or ride to war upon the map of the realm
The time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.
Each turn commences with the 1st player drawing from a deck of suitably doom-laden events that will set additional conditions of play for the round. Seeded throughout this deck at semi-random intervals are the more portentous ‘omens’ that task players with fulfilling a certain objective before the revelation of the succeeding omen, offering huge point bonuses for the wily cult that outfoxes their rivals to fulfil each prophecy.
Yeah – it’s a points-based race for supremacy – with each player vying to accumulate the most favour prior to the ‘Armageddon’ card making its appearance and heralding a grim conclusion to proceedings. Angels with swords in their mouths, rains of fire, celestial choirs – Saint John’s whole bad trip juju bundle.
Points can be gained by the acquisition of the aforementioned sacred relics, exerting control over regions of the board at the game’s conclusion, or by casting minions onto the sacrificial pyre in tribute. Sacrifices made in this fashion are also used to thin your deck, ensuring that expendable early-game minions don’t clog your hand as the cult ascends in power – peons rendered expendable and given to immolation once they’ve outlived their usefulness. As with all things Archon- it’s a fantastic welding of theme to function that will leave you cackling manically as you pitch yet another beast or believer into the pyre with theatrical relish.
With numerous paths to victory players must be judicious in their acquisitions- setting their sights on a playstyle early whilst still remaining flexible enough to deal with the emerging omens as they appear. New players will wont to fixate on dominion of the realms, but the canny cultist will bide their time, eschewing conflict whilst they pepper their court with powerful adherents from the conclave to both boost their deck’s potency and expand their hand.
Fortunes will fluctuate wildly as territories are conquered and ceded in rapid succession – so it is only in the late game that dominance of the board becomes paramount. By that stage you should have marshalled enough aggressors to ensure a pitched battle but even still – victory is like to be a hard-won affair unless the omens have fallen in your favour and your reliquary is well stocked with sainted antiquities.
Further wrinkles are hefted into the pot with the option to inflict curses upon your opponents, call down the ravages of plague upon the land, or utilise majickal auras to bolster your efficiency. The element of luck generated by the divination of the Arcana deck is well mitigated by the ability to manipulate your deck and the egalitarian spin of a static conclave – ensuring a level playing field – at least until someone stumbles and the other cultists pounce gleefully upon their withered house like carrion crows.
It’s all delightfully grim and if you were to go into it with a po-faced commitment to the theme you might just bum yourself right out. Fortunately- as is so often the case with this kind of thing- in practice its joyous as shit and funny as hell. At three players and then again at five, nuance was revealed with each successive play and grudges emerged to seed stories as players wrestled for dominion over coveted regions and raced to fulfil the omens that are so key to victory.
Behold I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.
Whilst it is entirely possible that through poor play and planning one may find oneself in an almost impossible position well prior to the climax of Armageddon, it is telling that in our group one such acolyte proclaimed ‘I know I’m not going to win, but this is a great game’ as they embraced their doom and returned to the swampland meekly – content in the stories we had shared.
Instantly accessible though possessed of tantalisingly deep waters, Eschaton conspired to hold us fast in its thrall every time we gathered to duel for the dark one’s favour – entranced anew each round by an absorbing decision space and throttled by an escalating urgency as is befitting of an encroaching cataclysmic end.
Eschaton and its expansion Sigils of Ruin can be found here.