Elysium is an ambitious new game that tries to meld several popular mechanics into a single, quick-playing game with a straightforward scoring system—building collections of similar cards for bonuses, with more points accruing to the player who creates each set first. With outstanding artwork for its ancient Greek mythological theme and clear iconography to indicate what cards bring what powers, it looks like another winner from Space Cowboys, the studio behind my top game of 2014, Splendor. But Elysium’s ambition doesn’t work well with its limited game length, producing gameplay that often feels frustratingly incomplete.
In Elysium, two to four players attempt to “write legends” in the form of sets of cards collected from the agora (central marketplace) in each of five epochs (rounds). These cards come in five families, each belonging to one of the better-known Greek deities; the game itself includes eight families, but in any particular match, players choose five of them and shuffle their sets into one master 105-card deck. Cards are numbered 1, 2 or 3, which affects their costs and their place in the collections called legends for final scoring. Each card also has some kind of power, which may be used immediately, once per turn, in combination with certain other cards, or at game-end for additional points.
During an epoch, each player will get to make four moves, taking three cards from the market and drawing one quest card that grants a specific combination of gold coins, victory points and transfers, the latter used to move cards from the player’s domain (where cards just drawn are placed) into his/her Elysium (where the collected legends are built for scoring). Each player has four columns, red, green, blue and yellow, which are used to collect the quest card and the cards from the agora, using a non-intuitive system: Each card or quest has one or two colored column icons on it; to take that card, a player must still have that colored column (or two columns), but can “pay” with a different column if so desired. That adds a decision-making element as players have to decide which columns to keep to maintain purchasing power for the remainder of the epoch, after which each player gets all four columns back for the next round. If a player lacks the correct columns to make a move, s/he must take a face-down card from the deck, treating it as a Citizen, a wild card that can be used to complete legends but carrying a two-point penalty at game-end.
After the purchasing phase, during which players may use some powers of the cards in their domains, players may then transfer cards from their domains to their Elysiums (Elysia?) using the transfer rights from their quest cards as well as any additional transfer powers in their domains. Legends come in two forms: Collections by color, which run up to three cards (1, 2, 3 all in the same color), and collections by number, which run up to five cards (one card in each color all with the same number). The first collection by type gets an extra bonus—for example, the first completed three-card legend of Zeus (purple) cards earns a 5-point bonus, in addition to the points earned at game-end for any completed legend. Legends that are a card short of completion at game-end earn lesser bonuses. Players don’t have to move cards from their domains to their Elysia at once, or at all, instead choosing to keep some cards in their domains to use their powers later or once per epoch.
With only five epochs, and maybe the power to transfer 12 to 15 cards over that period, there just isn’t enough time to do very much of anything. You can only write a few legends, and since at most about half of the 105 cards will appear in the agora over the course of any game—the agora holds seven, ten or thirteen cards for two, three or four players respectively—your control over whether you can finish any legend is very limited. Cards with reusable powers might get two or three plays at most before the player has to move it to a legend to score it. The result in my plays was frustration: The game has so many options and so much texture that it’s far too short to explore it, and any attempts to craft a long-ranger strategy were met with abrupt ends because time ran out.
Elysium just earned one of the three nominations for this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres award, given to the top complex (or “connoisseur’s”) game of the year, along with Broom Service and Orléns; past winners include Istanbul, Village and 7 Wonders, the last of which appears to have inspired the look and feel of Elysium. It is a beautiful game, and it’s built around mechanics that individually have long track records of success and popularity in all manner of games. Packing them all into a single game may have worked better had the designers given the players more epochs in which to work before Elysium reaches its eschaton and all players must face the final judgment in victory points.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.