Review: Guildhall: Fantasy

The first time my wife and I tried AEG’s Guildhall (at Essen), she absolutely loved it, and I thought it was good enough to buy, so we picked it up on the spot. But when we got it home, it went on the shelves with a number of other games, and stayed there for a while. Every once in a while, we would think about breaking it out with friends, but for some reason, another game always came out on top. Frankly, I didn’t really love the look and physical feel of the cards; the artwork was a weird mess of realistic and stylized, the colors were gaudy, and the cardstock felt inflexible and easily damaged.

Should that have been enough to keep me from playing the game? Almost certainly not. But it took several effusively positive reviews to make me really want to go back to it, and when we finally did, I realized why my wife had enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, around that same time, it was pretty clear that the game was out-of-print, so me turning around to sing its praises seemed like a poor move.

But, unexpectedly, someone at AEG decided not only to reprint both the original set and the expansion, but also to add another set of cards and jumble them all together in Guildhall: Fantasy. The three sets all work very similarly, and can be combined in several ways, but they have this in common: they are a puzzle-like card game of building sets to turn in for points, with the trick of the game being that each card you play and add to your sets changes the situation of the game in increasingly powerful ways.

Each turn, you get to take two actions, the most important of which is playing one of six types of card. When you play a card, you check to see how many you already had, and that determines the strength of the effect of the card you played. And then it gets added to your sets in order to make any future cards more powerful… until, of course, you choose to discard a completed set for points, resetting your power level with those cards to zero. This is actually very easy to understand as you play. Again, there are only six card “classes,” each with a relatively simple action (such as “take a card from the discard pile” or “place cards from your hand”) and they feature very strong iconography to help you keep their functions in mind.

Because you can play two different classes of card on your turn, the simple actions that the cards provide quickly turn the game into a brain-baking puzzle. You chain your actions together, pulling cards from one place, dropping them into another, swapping cards around and developing your tableau to get ever more effective actions out of your hand of cards. You can almost see the equations and mathematical constants swirling around the other players’ heads as they try to figure out how to complete a “chapter,” one class of each of five colors, before the end of their turn.

And although the puzzle-like nature of the game is primary, you do need to complete those chapters before your turn is done, because Guildhall is anything but solitaire, and if you leave large piles of cards in your tableau, you are essentially begging for another player to screw with them. With the right combinations of moves, an opponent can disassemble your carefully constructed tableau and incorporate the leavings into theirs while you sit uncomfortably regretting leaving such an opening. And likewise, on your turns, you must be aware of all of the other cards your opponents are using or have left vulnerable, so you can make the most of their mistakes.

This does mean that as players build up their stock of placed cards, the game can slow to a crawl. When the game begins, you can play just about anything, but you gain very few benefits from those plays, so your decisions are pretty easy. But once you and each of your opponents have 15 to 20 card tableaus and the discard pile is filled with cards, it becomes increasingly important to take your time with the puzzle and figure out how you can manipulate the board state to your advantage. Making this situation worse, once someone pulls out ahead of the other players, within striking distance of the goal line, they become the number one target, and all of the destructive abilities of the game, from discarding to stealing points, will be focused on that player. Lots of games suffer from this problem, and I find myself wishing that the destruction was a little more containable sometimes. However, outside of that potential slowdown, the game moves along pretty quickly. It rarely takes more than an hour to play, and the “bash-the-leader” issues mostly just serve to keep someone from running away with the game while everyone else is barely half-way to the end.

A couple of final points: there are three sets of Guildhall: Fantasy cards, but you don’t really need more than one. The simplicity of the puzzle and the differences in each game of how your opponents are reacting to what you’ve done (and thus how you react back) gives the game a strong replayability that you won’t always find in games that try to substitute variability in set-up for varability in play. The strength of piecing together familiar actions, rather than reacting to an unexpected set of cards, is what makes Guildhall feel like a classic. Sure, get expansion sets if you want (we did)! But if you don’t, the game’s options definitely remain engaging over many, many plays without them.

Finally, in direct contrast to my initial complaint that the old edition had gaudy, bright colors, Guildhall: Fantasy has gone too far in the opposite direction. The colors are muddy, the artwork is too detailed, and the font on the cards is nearly unreadable even from just a few feet away. I rarely comment on such things, because I prefer to emphasize the gameplay over the look of the game, but in this instance, because of how fundamentally important it is to know what the other players have in front of them, it can negatively affect how well you can play. Several times per game, I have seen people mistake one color or class for another, and it ruins their plans.

That said, when played quickly and in a bright room, Guildhall: Fantasy is easily one of the most rewarding card games around. The puzzle is fun, but the pieces you are puzzling with are controlled by the other players, which means the game never really settles. You are always trying to sort through the options in your hand and on the table, and because it is more about the using a flexible set of tools than finding new tools and adapting to them, Guildhall: Fantasy makes you feel clever. And isn’t that why we play games? To feel smarter than other people?

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