Sunday, 28 June 2015

Argent: The Consortium, Part 1: Box Contents

The hardest part about reviewing any game with a colon in the title is having a double-colon article headline.  That really is quite frustrating.  However, we're going to push through the pain as we bring you the latest review from our mighty game pile: Argent: The Consortium (oh God, we've done it again!) from Level 99 Games.

This had been sitting in a box for the last 3 months, with every intention of using it for our next unboxing podcast.  Unfortunately it seems that assembling the team for a game is considerably easier than assembling for a recording session, so eventually the decision was made to just open the damn thing and actually get some games out of it!  So here we now are, with this article for your reading pleasure as a result.

You lucky lot.

Anyway, 8am caffeine-fuelled ramblings aside, Argent: The Consortium  is a Euro-style resource management game for 2-5 players.  The game is set in a magical university, and the university chancellor's seat has been left vacant.  Each player takes on the role of a high-ranking member of the university faculty, and through resource-gathering and worker-placement they must win as many votes as possible over the course of 5 rounds, securing themselves as the next chancellor.
As is our usual MO for board games, we'll be vigorously studying (see what we did there?) the box contents in this article, before a thorough exam (okay, we're done with school puns now... maybe) of the gameplay mechanics in part two.
So, wands down, time for first period, and let's see what's inside the box of delights.

Before getting into the box, let's talk about the box itself.  With Kickstarter projects we like to talk about how professional the overall presentation of the game is, and the quality of the game components.  Obviously most Kickstarter games are run by very small companies or even just a couple of enthusiastic individuals, so at prototype stage we never scrutinise the physical quality of the game, just the gameplay.  Once it's been published, however, the rules change - small company or not, if you're putting your game on the shelves then you're throwing down with the big boys, and should be offering up a product which can hold its own!  The podcasted, but currently un-reviewed CLASH! Dawn of Steam was an example of a Kickstarter project which didn't result in a retail-quality product, whereas 404: Law Not Found showed us all how it's done!

We're happy to say Argent falls into the latter category.  It's a big-box game of a similar kind of size to the likes of Arkham Horror, Smallworld, BioShock Infinite: TSoC and so forth.  When you pick it up for the first time you notice the weight straight away - this is a game with a lot of content and it's not shy about it!  The box itself is nicely illustrated, cleanly printed, and of a solid build.  This is something which can end up in the middle of a big game pile and not come out any worse for wear on the other side.
It straight away gives you an idea of the overall styling of the game as well, which we feel is going to prove a divisive point amongst gamers and possibly harm Argent's potential audience.  As an American game built on Euro-game mechanics, Level 99 have interestingly chosen a Japanese Anime/Manga style for the character artwork.  It's bold and certainly very colourful, but will be less likely to strike a chord with the older generation of gamers, instead aiming much more towards the younger crowd.  Time will tell whether this will impact the success of Argent in the long run, but we can't help but feel that a more classical illustration style would probably have appealed to a wider audience.

Anyway, enough about the box, time to delve into the contents!

If you're going to vie for chancellorship of the university then you're going to need a suitable candidate.  In Argent there are 12 candidates to choose from: 2 each from 6 colour-coded departments within the university, which consist of Planar Studies, Divinity, Mysticism, Natural Magick, Sorcery, and the Department of Students.   Each department can only have one candidate in the running for the chancellor's role, so each of the 6 Candidate Sheets is double-sided giving the players the choice of a male or female character from their chosen department.
The sheets themselves are relatively simple, featuring an illustration of the chosen character, a summary of the turn sequence, a space for discarded cards, a list of starting items, and a track across the top of the card for storing the player's apprentices when they're not out running errands.
A fair few games these days - such as Zombicide - choose to print their character boards onto thick, board-quality card stock, whereas many are content to just use a standard card thickness.  Argent goes for the latter, but frankly the Character Sheets aren't really going to be getting handled, so there's no real risk of them becoming tattered in any hurry.

One of the unusual things about Argent is that it's a big-box board game without a standard board.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a break from the norm.  Instead there are 15 smaller boards, each of which represent a room in the university.  Depending on the number of players, 8-12 of these boards will be used during the game, with the white-bordered rooms always in use, and the remaining rooms drawn at random, or selected based on one of the pre-set layouts in the rulebook.  Each board is also double-sided, with side B featuring slightly more advanced rules for more experienced players.
During each round, players will send their Mage tokens on errands to the various rooms throughout the university, and reap the rewards for their success (or failure) by way of various resources.

Well if we're running errands then we'd better have some minions to do it with!  There are 6 different colours of Mage tokens, and the game comes with a set of reference cards to remind the players of the different Mages' abilities.  The red Mages, for example, can wound an opponent's Mage and send them off to the infirmary.  Green Mages are immune to wounding, and so are good for placing in key areas around the university.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that there only 5 reference cards.  Well the poor little yellow Mages (or beige, if you believe the rulebook... we don't) are neutral Mages - they have no special abilities, but when push comes to shove you might find yourself needing all the help you can get your magical hands on.

The actual models themselves are of decent quality.  Many board games these days treat their players with tabletop-quality miniatures, which look amazing on the board but often result in a higher price tag.  The models in Argent aren't particularly intricately detailed, but do the job, and at the end of the day they are simply playing pieces rather than miniatures.

You can't have a game called Argent: The Consortium without a Consortium.  Well, you could, but it would be maddeningly illogical.  It'd be like having a game called Billy The Space Penguin and basing it around a dinosaur named Joe.  That way lies madness.
As mentioned earlier, the aim of the game is to secure votes for your candidacy, and the Consortium cards represent the movers and shakers of the university whose votes you'll be canvassing.  There are 18 Consortium Voters, but only 12 used in any particular game.  As with the room boards, there are 2 white-bordered Consortium cards, which are always in play, and the remaining 10 are drawn at random.  Each of the voters has a different voting criteria - one may vote for the player with the most gold, one for the player with the most mana, one for the player with the second-highest influence, and so on.  Where the game becomes interesting is that only the white-bordered Consortium cards begin the game face-up, so at the beginning of the game the players will not know 10 of the win conditions.  As the game progresses, they'll earn the right to peek at the face-down voters, and can then start to tailor their tactics to this new information.

The Consortium Voters need a place to hang out while the players are engaged in their House of Cards-esque political maneuvering, and so the Consortium Board becomes their home.  The 12 voters take their places in the centre of the board, and the players' influence is monitored on the track around the edge.  One of the constant, white-bordered voters always sides with the player with the highest influence total, so it's an important resource to chase after in the early stages of the game.

Without magic, it would be a fairly ineffectual magical university, and so the players are going to need some spells!  The oversized Spell cards each feature a different spell, and each spell has 3 levels, which can only be unlocked through research.  The first level allows the player to take a card from the deck and opens up the most basic capabilities of the spell, whereas further levels unlock its full capabilities.  Depending on which Consortium Voters are on the table, it could be beneficial to have a wide range of low level spells, or just one or two which are fully tricked-out.  Spells can usually only be used once per round, and can be used to gain resources, hinder your opponents, or give advantages to your own Mages as they scurry about doing their master's bidding.
Each player begins the game with a spell specific to their character, with the other spells having to be earned as the game progresses.  There are also a limited number of Legendary Spells, but these have been sealed in the university vault where only the players' Mages have hope of locating them!

More cards!  The other two major sources of resources are Supporters (top) and Vault Cards (bottom).  Both can be secured by your wandering Mages to add to your arsenal during the round.  Some of the Vault Cards are classed as Treasures, meaning that you can reap their benefits every round gaining gold, mana, influence, or bonus abilities.  Others are classed as Consumables, which tend to offer a more powerful benefit but as a one-time thing.  Supporters work in much the same way as Consumables, but again both of these can contribute towards the favour of particular Consortium Voters.

The final remaining type of card - the Tower Card - is an interesting addition to Argent.  During each player's turn they are granted one action, and for that action they have the option of taking a Tower Card.  Each player may only have one, and once the last one has been taken, the round ends.  Each card bestows a different reward, from influence to the First Player token for the following round.   This means that the round won't end until every player is ready for it to proceed, and so if you have a grand masterplan to implement, no one can rush you through it.  They can also force players into difficult choices - do you place one of your Mages into a prime location on the board, or do you give up Mage placement for a turn in order to claim the Tower Card which adds to your influence?
Once the round has been completed, all of the Tower effects are resolved, and then the cards return to the table for the next round.

This then just leaves the usual plethora of tokens.  Once again these are cleanly printed onto good quality stock, so should stand the test of time as the games wear on.

One thing (or two, more accurately) we were disappointed with were the upgraded coins and mana tokens.  Originally the coins were going to just be more card tokens, and the mana tokens would have been acrylic cubes, but these were both upgraded as Kickstarter stretch goals.  If we're being completely honest, we can't help but feel they would have been better left in their original incarnations.
Many games use card tokens for coins, and as long as they're cleanly printed then they don't detract from the gaming experience at all.  The upgraded plastic coins are of the same sort of quality as the kind you'd find in a childrens' shopkeeper playset, and if anything actually lower the overall quality, feeling cheaper than the other game components.  We may at some point further upgrade ours to metal roleplay coins, but would rather that we hadn't felt compelled to take that step.
The decision to give the more random shapes to the mana tokens was understandable, giving them the general aesthetic of formless arcane energy, but the downside to this is a purely practical one - they don't fit in the box as well, and are a little more chaotic when you've amassed a decent number of them and they're piled all over your Candidate Sheet!

So those are the physical components of Argent: The Consortium.  Our overall thoughts are definitely positive at this point.  Aside from the plastic coins, everything seems to have been produced to a very high, professional standard.  If this was handed to us and we didn't know it was a post-Kickstarter game, we would have thought it to be from a big game developer.  The cards all have the satin finish which seems to be popular lately, which means that sleeving will probably be in order, but as the cards aren't cycled through as often as you'd expect, this isn't particularly urgent.  Obviously the style of artwork will be very hit-or-miss with people, but regardless of opinions on the overall aesthetic, it's all definitely of high quality.

We've already played through a number of 3 player games, so over the next week we're aiming to try it out with different player numbers and then we'll be back with the gameplay verdict shortly!  Stay tuned!

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