Let me tell you not of the apocalypse, but of the fight that came after. Let me tell you of our downfall, and the flickering candle-in-the-dark that is the last light for humanity. Let me tell you of the unseen nameless beasts beyond the breach, and of the heroes who use the enemy’s weapons against them.
Let me tell you about the best board game I’ve ever played. Let me tell you about Aeon’s End.
What’s Become of Humanity?
Humanity has fallen. Long ago we ruled this planet, and thought ourselves untouchable. Might and courage, technology and wisdom: we had all that we needed to shape the world and make it our own. And all of our splendor was nothing but dust when the beaches opened.
Great rifts, tearing apart the sky. Darkness enshrouding parts of the world, while fires consumed the rest. And from these breaches, the nameless others arrived: demons, monsters, faceless and impossible creatures of the night. We’ve long since lost the details of the fight, but the winner is clear in the darkened sky above, the ashen and barren lands around us, the cold dead world and the single bastion of hope yet remaining: Gravehold.
Our last city, the only place humanity can call it’s home. Where we have lived for countless generations, and where the nameless others are now coming to strike. They come to our home, crawling, slithering, and flying. They come to us for a slaughter. But they don’t know we are ready this time. We have a weapon to strike back, one powered by the breaches themselves.
We have you.
The Breach Mages
You are a breach mage. Through training, skill, or through forces unknown you have gained control of the breaches themselves. You sculpt their chaotic energies, channel it into powerful spells, and wield it to cut through the nameless.
But you have more than that. You have relics of a humanity’s past, artifacts to aid you in battle. You have gems from the Earth itself, to bolster and strengthen you. And most importantly, you have each other. For no breach mage stands alone.
Aeon’s End is a cooperative deck-building card game for between 1 and 4 players. If you’ve ever played a deck-building game like Dominion before, some mechanics will make you feel right at home, and others will make you realize how much you’ve missed out on by not playing this brilliant game.
The game starts with Gravehold: The last of humankind. Mechanically, this is represented by a pool of 30HP which is slowly whittled away as nameless terrors from beyond strike. If Gravehold is ever reduced to 0 HP, then that’s game over. You, alongside humankind, lose.
However, the players stand in the way of this ruin, for each player controls a breach mage. There are tons to choose from, especially if you invest in all the expansions of Aeon’s End. Each offers a unique play style where some excel at buffing allies, others are adept at casting powerful spells, and still others manipulate basic game mechanics like the turn order itself. But regardless of which you choose, each players start with 10 HP and if all players drop to 0 HP, then that too is game over. But don’t worry if just a few players hit 0 HP, for they are still in the fight. Losing all your health means your breach mage is “exhausted”, and sure some bad stuff is triggered when that happens, but you’re still in the fight. Aeon’s End entirely gets rid of the player elimination mechanic, and it’s all the better for doing so.
To work against this doom, each player starts with their own deck of cards. These cards each perform some effect: while one card may deal damage and another may let an ally draw an extra card, the cornerstone of the deck-builder genre are the currency cards. The currency in this game is called aether, and spending it lets you buy additional, stronger cards. The cards you start with tend to be the weakest in the entire game, and the best way of getting better cards is looking at what’s available in the market. Before you start playing, you decide which nine cards will be available in the market, and throughout the course of the game you may purchase copies of these cards to add to your deck. The rulebook offers example markets that provide fun, themed experiences. But the long-term replayability of this game comes from the randomizer cards that, with a quick shuffle, let you generate an entirely unique market that you’ve never played with before. The publisher, Action Phase Games, even has an online randomizer on their website, but frankly the randomizer cards are quick enough to shuffle.
Once you’ve built your deck of cards, one of the best design choices of Aeon’s End comes to life: you never shuffle your cards. You draw cards into your hand up to your maximum hand size of five cards, and when there are no more cards to draw, you simply grab your discard pile, flip it over, and continue drawing. This means that the order in which you place cards into your discard pile is the same order in which you’ll draw them. While this seems like a small detail, it means you can purposefully discard cards in an order to create powerful combos in future hands. This has a huge impact on that game, where the strength of a single hand of cards can mean the difference between life and death.
With all these tools at your disposal, you’ll quickly work out a strategy with the other players on who should invest in which cards, in what order, to maximize each of your strengths. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often utterly fall apart when thrown against a timeless lovecraftian horror from beyond time and space.
In each game, you are pitted against a single Nemesis, the proverbial big-bad-evil-guy. Like the players, the nemesis gets a turn of their own to wreak havoc. On their turn, they’ll summon creatures, attack players or Gravehold itself, or begin channeling powers that may not come to bear for multiple turns. Which Nemesis you fight completely changes the game, where in one game you might face a never-ending swarm of creatures, and in another you might find your own spells working against you. Each Nemesis is different and has their own entirely custom mechanics, cards, and strategies.
There are two ways to win Aeon’s End: the first being dropping the nemesis down to 0HP. Which sounds easy, until you realize most start with about 60HP and basic spell Spark you start with deals a whopping 1HP in damage. Though you constantly get stronger and increase how much damage you deal, the nemesis also summons monsters for you to fight, ensuring that it always has the upper hand. The other way to win is to survive the entire onslaught of the nemesis. If both Gravehold and at least one player survives through the entirety of the nemesis’s deck of cards, then you win (barring unique nemesis mechanics that make this victory condition impossible. Yes, that has lost me the game before. No, I’m not bitter. You’re bitter).
The combination of breach mages, market cards, and the different nemeses to fight means that every game of Aeon’s End is different and you’ll never play the same game twice.
The base game of Aeon’s End comes with a lot of content: 6 breach mages, 4 nemeses, and dozens of different types of cards to put into the market. However, you can add to this by way of the many expansions. These expansions come in two forms. Small expansions that add just a few cards, maybe a single Nemesis, or a couple breach mages; and then there are large expansions that are standalone games in their own right. You can keep these standalone games separate, or you can mix them together to create a single massive library of Aeon’s End goodness.
The best thing about the way Aeon’s End’s expansions work, is that they add additional options when you are setting the game up: characters, cards, and monsters. However, no matter how many expansions you include, you’ll only ever fight a single Nemesis, each player will only control a single breach mage, and there will only ever be nine cards in the market. The game doesn’t get more complex with more expansions, it just gets more varied.
A Tale to Tell of the World’s End
I could go on an on about the different design choices that make this game so good. But let’s take a break from that and look at a single game.
In this match, the breach mages Mazahaedron and Yan Magda face off against the Wraithmonger. Before we dig in, you might wonder why these hands of cards are shown face-up. This is because Aeon’s End doesn’t have any hidden information between players. Show that hand of cards off and work out strategies together!
With that out of the way, let’s take a deep dive into each of these and see what sort of strategies we can come up with.
This is our first time looking at the player’s tableau. You see the breach mage card, complete with their ability, starting hand and deck, as well as their four breaches represented by the four tiles at the top. Each of those tiles may be used to cast spells, but only when they are opened or focused. Opened breaches, like the left-most, remain opened throughout the game and players can continuous prepare and cast spells from those breaches. Closed breaches can be opened, but doing so costs quite a bit of aether. Sometimes a better strategy is to focus a breach, which rotates the tile clockwise. Focusing a breach makes it cheaper to open on a future turn and lets players cast a single spell from that breach the turn it was focused. Most breach mages start with a single opened breach, but each mage’s configuration of breaches is different making some especially strong spellcasters by virtue of their breaches being cheaper to open.
Looking at his abilities, Mazahaedron has the abilities to acquire gems for free and heal Gravehold directly. Both of those are interesting, and he also has a card that lets him purchase cards on behalf of other players. This sounds like he’ll be able to buff his ally, Yan Magda, while at the same time acquiring gem cards without spending any aether.
Speaking of Yan Magda, let’s take a look at what she’s bringing to the table.
Yan Magda seems to be more selfish than her ally. She can acquire cards for free without paying the cost, but only for herself. Only when all of her breaches are opened does she let allies gain cards of their own. And her breaches are in the worst possible configuration. You see that “13 aether: Open” on the top of her rightmost breach? That means she’d need to spend 13 currency in a single turn to crack that breach open, which is frankly a ridiculous amount. Fortunately, Mazahaedron can purchase gems on behalf of Yan Magda, letting her get stronger and return the favor later on.
In this fight, they face none other than Wraithmonger.
Right off the bat, Wraithmonger shows up with a staggering 70HP, which is a lot to burn through. Additionally, it has a unique Terror mechanic, where it places Terror tiles on top of your character sheet. Having one of these tiles prevents you from using your breach mage’s unique abilities, and if not dealt with, eventually will cost you the game. In addition to Wraithmonger’s horrifying terror track, it comes with nine unique cards which are shuffled into it’s deck of cards. These cards range from “mild inconvenience” to “stand up and pace for a couple minutes to formulate a plan” levels of danger.
But enough of that, let’s see the outcome of the battle and how rests the fate of humanity.
Victory! – Wraithmonger was reduced to 0 HP. Some powerful combinations of cards presented themselves, and the players took every advantage they could. Despite that, the missing fourth breach and lack of HP indicator shows that Mazahaedron was exhausted (reduced to 0 HP), which means it was no easy fight.
Playing for roughly two hours (including a new player learning the game), the breach mages prevailed! Pyrotechnic Surge and Temporal Helix showed themselves to be a great pairing of cards, where the former deals a mighty 4 damage, and the latter allows for additional casts of your strongest spell. These cards were just two of the nine that made up the random market for this game, and you can see several others scattered among our hands. With these spells chipping away, humanity eventually prevailed and reduced Wraithmonger’s health to 0 HP.
Looking at the final outcome, we can see how our initial strategy didn’t quite pan out. We planned to open all of Yan Magda’s breaches and let free cards rain, but the tiles above her character sheet indicate only three of four were opened. We wound up using an entirely different approach than we initially planned, but that’s Aeon’s End.
It’s a game of reevaluating strategies. It’s a game about rolling with the punches and making the best of what’s available. Taking time, planning ahead, and watching those plans fall apart. Getting back up and trying something new. It’s a new game every time you play it, with different strategies and different obstacles. Let me tell you about the games I’ve played where victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Let me tell you about the times when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
Let me tell you about the best board game I’ve ever played. Let me tell you about Aeon’s End.
The base game alone has more than enough great breach mages, nemeses, and spells to make multiple playthroughs fun and unique. The expansions add a ridiculous amount of variety to this, making an already good game even better. However, there’s an entirely separate way to experience Aeon’s End. One that tracks progress from session to session. One that has you forging breach mages themselves and truly personalizing the game. But we’re saving that for an upcoming article, where we talk about Aeon’s End: Legacy.