Review: Golem Arcana

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“We have to get this game.” The first words a friend said after I introduced her and her boyfriend to Golem Arcana. I was not expecting big things from this game. I thought that it would be a light wargame with little to no housekeeping and be easy to teach to the kids. They convinced me to open it, earlier than I expected to, because they liked the models. I then racked up 13 plays in a 2 weeks! I needed to write a Golem Arcana review!

Golem Arcana is the creation of Hare Brained Schemes (HBS), a small development company who brought us the highly successful Shadowrun Returns. Their leader Jordan Weisman is the man who brought us Shadowrun, MechWarrior and other fantastic game settings.

For the TL;DR version click here.

Opening the Box

The specs on the box:

  • 1-8 players
  • 30-90 minutes
  • Ages 14+ (I find this game to be highly accessible and easily playable by 7 or 8 year olds)

Inside the box are 6 large scale, pre-painted, plastic models belonging to two of the four factions in the game. They are easily some of the best pre-painted models that I have seen in a long time. I do think that the paint job could really be picked up with a few washes and some dry brushing.

Each of the models has a Golem Card which lists all of the abilities and vital stats of the model. There are also a pair of control cards which are used for other non-golem functions, like ending the turn and accessing special powers.

A set of 6 double sided map tiles, 2 D10 which are used for percentile rolls and a lore book/quick start guide round out the usual components.

The unusual component is a TDI Stylus, which is used to interact with a free downloadable app. I have to say upfront that you should check if you have a device that is compatible with the stylus.  The list of officially supported devices can be found here, I am using a tab that is not on the list but it is working 100%; the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition.

I do have 1 complaint about the packaging. The figures are in very cheap moulded plastic insert, which is clearly not designed to have the models put back into it. This means that they will have to be stored separately, which is normal for games of this type.

Golem Arcana review
The starter armies face off.

Theme

“The Great Khan is dead. And the world of Eretsu is once again flung into war. Now, the Khan’s rivalrous children, the Gudanna, and his vanquished enemies, the Durani, vie for control of the vast dominion he built. They battle with Golems – towering behemoths born of magic and forged for destruction. Golems are ridden to war by powerful sorcerer-knights who can summon the favor of the Ancient Ones – celestial beings who grant supernatural aid… for a price.

This is the world of Eretsu. A world at war. A world that thunders with the awesome might and terrible power of Golem Arcana.”

That’s the overview of the setting on the website. I actually went to look because there isn’t much information in the box to tell you exactly what is going on. You can tell that it’s a well thought out world with good background but what is provided feels like a teaser. The website provides a lot more information which allows you to get a feel for the setting.

All your game results are recorded online and used to impact the growth of the story, means you are actually playing in a living world which you can influence! Much like an LCG you can play your games as part on online campaigns which directly impact the ever growing story.

There are even story missions that you can choose to play and during the mission you can interact with non player characters and unlock events during your game. It’s a nice touch that adds some immersion. Honestly speaking though, the game is so much fun that you could leave out the story and still have a good time.

Gameplay

I did have some trepidation about this game, thinking that it might feel like a gimmick. A few plays of the game put that to rest very quickly.

The App is not perfect. The hit boxes don’t register my usual stylus properly but the one at the end of the TDI Stylus worked perfectly. Additionally, the scenario creator is not that intuitive but fairly easy to use, once you get to grips with it. I designed a 4 player death match mission in under 10 minutes.

The app does receive fairly regular updates. When the game launched it only supported 2 players, now it has up to 8! Since I purchased the game, the ability to save your game was also added and future plans include remote and solo play. So you will always be able to find a game.

Golem Arcana review
The best path to move is automatically calculated when you select the destination.

If you are playing 1 of the 2 tutorial missions, which do a fantastic job of teaching you the game, you can just start playing straight out of the box. Otherwise you will need to Build and save an army in the built in army builder, then you can either use a prebuilt mission or design your own.

NB: there are 4 tutorial missions, 2 are Kickstarter stretch goals which need the first 2 expansion army sets.

Each player needs to build an army to an agreed points value 500/1000/2000. Each golem has a different point value based on its size (Warsprite, Ogre, Titan and Colossus) and abilities. Then they need 1 or more knights to ride them into battle, each of which can have 1 or more active or passive abilities. After that you can equip your golem with a relic to aid in your battle. Finally you can choose an Ancient One, a powerful magic being, to grant you additional abilities in battle.

Extra relics and Ancient ones are included in the army expansion packs. You will receive quite a few Knights and Ancients for free, but there are a few available to purchase digitally. You can use currency earned by playing in the campaigns so there is no need to pay for the digital assets at all.

The game itself is deceptively simple. Each turn each team receives the same amount of Action Points (AP). All golem abilities have an AP cost. Walking/flying/melee or ranged attacks. You simply click on the ability on the base of the model or on the golem’s card and then on the target golem or map point and the app takes care of the rest.

Golem Arcana review
You can click on the Headbutt attack on the base or on the card, whichever is easier.

Range is predetermined so you can see your target/destination. Once you tap a target the app will calculate your odds of success based on the targets dodge vs your attackers accuracy, and it will factor in cover available on the tile that is it standing on as well as any buffs or de-buffs on the golems involved in the attack. Damage is also calculated so you can see what will be the final result of your attack, if it is successful.

From that point you either press confirm on the stylus to use the app to roll the dice for you or you can roll your own dice and input the result. It will then apply any effects and keep track of status and health changes for you. I cannot stress how easy it is to get playing.

A very important game mechanic is the cool down of abilities. Every time you use an ability it’s AP cost doubles. Attacks have a 2 turn cool down before they return to their normal cost, movement abilities have a 1 turn cool down. Additional uses of an ability will increase the cool down by an extra turn and double the AP cost yet again.

This prevents spamming of a single type of attack that might be cheap or particularly effective. You will need to plan well or you might end up in a position where your golem won’t be able to do anything for a few turns.

Any spare AP when you end your turn is converted into mana (which you can also collect from mana wells). This is used to power Relics, Ancient Ones and knight abilities. The biggest mana boost you get is when your golems are destroyed and the magical energy that was used to create them is returned to you.

Golem Arcana review
You don’t have know all the maths behind the game but can view it if you need to.

The mana can be used for things like placing a persistent curse (hinders enemies) or blessing (helps friends) on the battlefield or making magical constructs. The biggest Ancient Ones can perform miracles which only last for a turn at a time but they impact the entire battlefield and can potentially swing the game.

Conclusion

This game is incredibly accessible. Even young kids can learn it on their own the same way they figure out how to use a tablet or smart phone, by playing with it. Teaching adults is a breeze.

That being said it is not a kid’s game, it is just very easy to get into. Yes kids can have fun playing it, and adults with them. However, to get the most out of the game you will need to learn to plan ahead and strategize.

The correct use of terrain can setup choke points or hide you from enemy ranged attacks. Planning which golems to use at the right time can easily setup tactics like a refused flank, which can leave your enemy over extended.

Then there’s the politics of multiplayer games, arguably one of my favourite parts of any game 😉

The ability to make custom scenarios, or get the plans from the internet, coupled with the fact that only 2 of the 4 factions cannot be combined into the same army, means that replay is practically limitless.

Golem Arcana is one of the first games of the year that I find myself excited to play again and again.

It’s just a pity that the price point is so high. You can get a lot of games for the same money (although similar types of games i.e. miniatures games, cost the same if not more), but I don’t think many of them will be as much fun, straight out of the box, or as easy to get into. The use of the app also means that there will be 0 rules queries/discrepancies.

If organised play gets off of the ground for Golem Arcana in South Africa, I for one will be very happy.

Golem Arcana review
A 3 player game ready to go.

Can I play this at a braai?

The small 500 point games are easy and relatively quick to play. The larger games with more models and map tiles will require a lot more table space. It won’t really need more than a regular wargame which uses 4′ x 4′ – 4′ x 6′ tables, unless you want to go bigger.

I would play Golem Arcana at a braai or a games day, for sure. An 8 player game on a 6 x 6 map would be something to see.

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