Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dave Reviews: A Game About Rifts And... Cards And... Stuff


Let's be wizards! Or, you know, riftwalkers. Which must be some kind of wizards. There's magic involved. Elements, at least. Which are critical to magic. Because... that's how magic works.

Welcome to Tautology: The Game!

Riftwalker revolves broadly around two things: rifts and elements (this is hopefully not a surprise). There are fifteen double-sided element cards, which allows each pair of the game's six elements to be represented once. Nine of these are set out randomly in a 3x3 grid, with the other six set aside as the deck. On the first phase of your turn, you choose an element by either flipping a card on the grid with that element to its opposite side or taking the top card of the deck, placing it on the grid with the element you want face up, and replacing a card which then goes to the bottom of the deck.

The element you choose determines what type of rift you can play (water lets you play a water rift, storm a storm rift, and so on). Either you can explore a rift, which means playing it from your hand on to the table, or shift a rift, which means turning a rift already on the table. When first explored, a rift is worth zero points; shifting it once makes it worth three, shifting it a second time makes it worth seven. Rifts also have special abilities which can be used when they're explored or shifted. Once a rift is worth seven points, however, it can't be shifted anymore, which means its ability is no longer available unless a different rift ability makes it so.

After exploring or shifting a rift, you can burst a rift. This is how you score points. If the element grid has three elements in a row, and you have a rift of that element shifted to be worth points (ie. you can't burst a zero point rift), you can burst the rift and move it to your score pile. Most rifts are worth three or seven. Occasionally you'll come across a rift that lets you score bonus points. Some of these are relatively straightforward (e.g. bonuses for having enough burst rifts of different types), some are a phenomenal pain in the ass (e.g. bonuses for discarding other rifts).

Because the game ends when any one player bursts a certain number of rifts, and each other player gets one more turn once that happens, in theory bonuses are worth chasing since they can swing a game in your favor even if you have fewer burst rifts. Sticking with the aforementioned examples: the bonus for having different rift types is sensible, since you're not really changing your strategy to go after it; you still need to shift rifts and get three in a row, it's just a question of what rifts you target. The number of players can alter their viability, though--a four-player game ends when someone bursts five rifts, so if a bonus maxes out at having four different rift types in your score pile, that might be hard. In a two-player game, which requires someone to burst seven rifts, it's a lot more viable.

Discarding rifts, though, especially ones you've already explored, means you burn a turn getting a rift on the board so another rift can eat it, usually for just a one point bonus. Scoring two bonus points means spending two turns exploring rifts you won't burst. On the other hand, if you take those turns to explore and shift a rift, it's already worth three. One more shift and it's worth seven. If you're behind, you won't have time to build those small bonus points, and if you're ahead, you're better off bursting more rifts so you can end the game.

This is where Riftwalker gets caught between its intriguing mechanics and the thinness of the strategy involved in actually winning. Trying to play the element board to explore and shift the rifts you have, piecing together combinations of rift abilities to burst rifts for maximum points before an opponent can stop you (since they can see exactly which rifts you have down and ready to score)? That's pretty good for a little game like this. You constantly have to play around the possibilities, look at the rifts in your hand and plan ahead, and decide if you need to throw out some of your hand to try and draw new rifts that might better fit what you're doing. Even lacking the ability to mess with your opponent's hand or explored rifts, you're still playing around what they can do, what you think they're setting up, and what they'll try and stop you from doing.

That's what makes the simplicity of the scoring in Riftwalker disappointing. If you're the first to burst however many rifts it takes to end the game, you score seven points on each of those rifts, and no one catches you on their last turn, you're going to win. If you try and rush the finish with multiple three point rifts, most likely if the opportunity arises and you're not sure you'll have a chance to score those rifts once they're worth seven, someone who's only getting sevens will beat you with one less rift. Thus scoring those threes early actually puts you behind, because your potential maximum score is lower and there's no guarantee you'll be able to stay ahead. For the most part, the only time playing a three point rift is worth it is if it's the last one and it'll end the game with you in the lead. Likewise, that makes bonus points only worth it as a way to stop someone from ending the game with a cheap rift and leaving you ahead of them.

Of course, there will be situations where this doesn't hold true. Once people play the game enough and are familiar with the combos, they may find an experienced opponent is too good at stopping them from scoring seven point rifts, making a string of threes the better option. But it's hard to see the game being a draw for long enough to reach that point. There's all this beautiful art and interesting gameplay concepts, and it adds up to an experience that no one thinks is bad, but no one seems to be in a hurry to repeat, either.

Score: Nine burst water rifts flooding the basement out of thirteen

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