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Card Game Review – Romance of the Nine Empires

aeg5371In August of 2012, the 15th annual world championship tournament for Romance of the Nine Kingdoms was held, and yielded five decks that made it to the finals. The game actually has nine factions (as the name might suggest), but only those five made it far enough to be memorialized. There was a tenth deck composed of unaligned heroes that used a promo stronghold, but that deck was mathematically eliminated in Swiss. Those five decks, the biggest of the tournament, were packaged into the Romance of the Nine Kingdoms starter box from AEG.

The funny thing about all that, however, is that none of it actually happened. Romance of the Nine Kingdoms has not been around for 15 years. There was no tournament in 2012, especially because the game was actually published in late 2013. Romance of the Nine Kingdoms was a fictional game created just for a film called The Gamers: Hand of Fate. Apparently, however, the game was so impressive – even as a make-believe product – that Alderac decided to actually make it.

The result is the Romance of the Nine Empires starter set. The game is not technically collectible, so the CCG label doesn’t fit, but it does allow you to build your own decks, so it’s got more in common with Fantasy Flight’s LCG format. Everything published for the game to date is contained in that single box, so you don’t have to feel the need to drain your bank account to buy booster packs, and you never have to worry that your opponent has that rare foil promo that you can’t beat because you didn’t spend $300 on eBay for a single card.

The story behind Romance of the Nine Empires takes place in the land of Countermay, a strange world at the crossroads of dimensions. It has a mostly medieval feel to it, though there are also aliens, misplaced soldiers from World War II, and undead hordes. A castle might be an actual castle, but it might also be a spaceship. Which I would think would be harder to attack, but you can do it anyway, so maybe the ship is landed in a field somewhere.

In Romance of the Nine Empires, players compete to run their opponents out of food. Really, it’s more like ‘opponent’, because this is designed as a two-player game but includes rules for adding more. You can win if you’re the only player with food, or you can destroy your opponents by laying waste to their castles, or you can go on quests and win a popular victory by collecting golden apples and discovering rare artifacts.

All of this is accomplished with a game that has a bit of a learning curve. In fact, the set comes with recommendations for playing with specific factions first, and even a ‘your first game’ primer. If you follow the suggestions in the rules, you won’t even be experiencing the whole game until you’ve played three or four times. If that sounds like a complicated game to you, you would be correct. It is. The rules are long and fairly dense, and as you play, you will have lots of questions.

Fortunately, all that effort is rewarded. This is one hell of a fun game. We played three games in a row and completely destroyed an entire evening, and we’re looking forward to trying out the other factions and then building our own decks. It’s challenging and smart, with lots of considerations – is it better to have that weak cohort or that powerful weapon? Should I raid and exhaust my heroes, or hold back to see if my opponent will mount an attack? There are tricky tactics cards that will turn the tide and important properties that will let you hire the most powerful warriors.

Best of all, you pay for many of your cards by throwing out food – and since running out of food is how you lose the game, there’s always a balance where you ask yourself if you can do without that guy or if the sacrifice will pay off if you can just win a couple fights. It is incredibly difficult to get more food, so you’ll watch your supplies dwindle and feel every loss. No decision is wasted, and that’s the mark of a fun game.

Of course, Romance of the Nine Kingdoms is still prone to the classic CCG hangups. You can get screwed by your deck when you pull a hand of powerful heroes and no properties to pay for them. You might draw all your best tactics cards in the first few turns and then not see them again for the rest of the game. That kind of luck is found in just about every customizable card game, however, so it’s hard to really level that complaint against this game in particular.

A more valid complaint, on the other hand, would be that the rules can be pretty darn confusing, especially when you’re trying to nail down just how a battle works. Attacking heroes can be immune to damage if they’re strong enough, but defenders can make up the balance by dumping food. The rules for absorbing damage change depending on which side you’re on, which can make it tricky to pick up the details. And we won’t even talk about raids.

So Romance of the Nine Kingdoms does not have a particularly inviting set of rules, but I don’t care – it’s fun as hell. I enjoyed it more than most CCGs I’ve played, because of its remarkable blend of tough decisions, cool art, and battles that come down to trickery and planning rather than luck and raw power. You’ll have to wade through some rules to play, but it’s worth it.

Summary

2 players (but you can add more)

Pros:
Tough decisions
Lots of play styles and options
Interesting thematic feel
Cool art

Cons:
A bit on the complicated side

If you’re looking for an engaging, clever, seriously fun customizable card game, you really ought to consider Romance of the Nine Empires. I know I’ll be playing it for a long time to come.

AND DON’T BE SCARED OFF BY THE RULES

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