Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March Game of the Month: Seasons

At the beginning of the year, I resolved to expand my game collection this year. I've already made some progress toward that goal with San Juan, which was more or less an impulse purchase after a few friends mentioned I'd like it. Seasons, though, is a game I've had my eye on for a while--both Paste Magazine and my local gaming shop had excellent things to say about it, and the idea of a relatively quick, aesthetically beautiful card game is right in my gaming wheelhouse. I bought Seasons with the intention of playing it at an upcoming game night... then promptly forgot about it until far too late in the evening. Fortunately, Steph was around and up to the challenge of learning a new game.

Style and Gameplay

Seasons is a turn-based, tableau-building card game. You assume the role of a wizard trying to win a tournament and be crowned the next archmage of the game's exorbitantly high-fantasy setting. To do that, you need to accumulate the most "prestige points" (i.e., victory points), which are earned by playing cards and accumulating crystals, a sort of currency gained and lost throughout the game. And in order to play cards, you need to both increase your capacity for "summoning" and pay an appropriate amount of "energy".

Like so many card games of its generation, Seasons' clearest influence is Magic: the Gathering. As in Magic, most cards cost a certain number and color of energy to play, and cards are broadly sorted into ones that trigger once when played, trigger once per turn, or provide a constant-effect passive bonus. Add in an optional draft mechanic, and there's a lot in Seasons that Magic players will find familiar.

But Seasons isn't just a boxed Magic clone. There's a turn tracker, a score tracker, and player trackers; there are tokens, cards, and dice. As Steph pointed out, there are visual elements of a whole lot of different styles of board games represented in Seasons. The dice in particular are clever: a die roll at the beginning of each turn determines the sorts of actions that might be available that turn. It's as if the Governor in Puerto Rico rolled dice at the beginning of the round to decide which roles would be performed, instead of the players picking for themselves.

Because there are so many visual elements--and some iconography that's Race for the Galaxy-level confusing at first--it appears that Seasons has a massive barrier to entry. But that appearance can be deceiving; Steph and I went from being utterly confused to entirely understanding at least the basic rules within the span of two games. The box's estimate of an hour to play seems about right once you've gotten the hang of it, though the four-player game could last a lot longer than our two-player games did. There are a rather large number of turns--maybe an average of 15-18 per game--but since none takes very long, the game hardly ever drags.

The visual style, promised as beautiful, is mostly very impressive, with the card art in particular absolutely delightful. The production value on the dice could be better--the engraving-on-primary-colors feels very '80s. But overall, the consistency of the colors through all the visual elements is executed especially well, with a given color representing both a season and an energy type, and featuring prominently on cards that are associated with that energy type.

Analysis and Anecdotes

Seasons is one of those games that, even though you've mastered how to play, you can be awfully far from understanding the game on a deeper strategic level. During the "setup" phase of the game, you can take a pre-assembled starting deck, deal random cards to form a deck (not explicitly endorsed in the rules, but the approach that Steph and I took that seemed to work just fine), or play through a draft. Then, you split up your cards so that a few additional cards enter your hand every game "year". This is a lot of decision-making even before the real game starts, and it's a part of the game whose surface I've barely begun to scratch.

Probably the most novel element of Seasons is its turn tracker, which advances time in both seasons and years to create a nice ebb and flow of resources within a 7 Wonders-style "age" framework. The critical challenge of Seasons becomes aligning your cards--which cost certain colors of energy--with the season, during which certain colors of energy might be abundant, rare, or impossible to find. This restriction on energy ought to be the driving tension through the entire game, but we found that it's a little too easy to circumvent. There exist plenty of cards that let you subtract from energy cost requirements, gain energy from playing a card, gain energy once, etc., without paying attention to the energy "landscape" of the current season.

Closely related, another wonderfully innovative feature of the game is its variable length. The game ends at the conclusion of the third year, but based on player choices, that might come slowly or quickly. At a base level, the die roll every turn affects the temporal progress of the game. On top of that, at least one card exists that allows manipulation of the season tracker, and it's easy to envision a "rush" strategy that involves getting a few cards out quickly then moving the game to the end before anyone else has a chance to start an engine, but at least for now, the number of ways to manipulate the season tracker seems unfortunately small. Given that the variable length and season track are such unique elements of Seasons, it would be nice if there were more ways to interact with them.

I say "for now" because Seasons seems like a game that's designed specifically to expand easily. The base game already comes with a thirty-card "beginner" deck and a twenty-card "advanced" deck, acting like a mini-expansion of its own. Further twenty- to-fifty card decks could probably be released for relatively little cost but would be a facile way to keep Seasons fresh and interesting.

Overall Impressions

It almost seems disingenuous to give an opinion of Seasons having only played a few times, simply because there's so much there, and I'm not even close to understanding the strategic implications of all the facets of the game. For instance, there are a few options, like "transmute" or "choose one of two cards but at a price," that I haven't even used but are presumably in the game for some reason. That said, I am interested in learning those strategic implications, which is a good sign.

The thing I like most about Seasons already is that its complexity can be adjusted easily to match what the players are looking for. Want to play a quick game and see what you can make of nine random cards? Use the base deck and a random starting hand for each player. Want a much deeper strategic experience that you can mine for clever interactions? Use the whole deck and start with a draft.

The apparent visual complexity of the game might tend to scare away new players, but Seasons (like many games) is best learned by hacking through a few turns of it to get a feel for what all those odd symbols and pretty colors mean. If nothing else, Seasons is at least a pretty face--but I'm positive there's much, much more than that to it.

2-4 players, 60 minutes, $50 at a game shop or $37 on Amazon.