16th Apr2018

‘Guards of Atlantis’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

GOA-Box

Guards of Atlantis is the debut game from Artyom Nichipurov and Wolff Designa, but in almost every way, you’d never know. The game is branded as a “Tabletop MOBA” (with the MOBA acronym standing for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) and it supports play for up nine players out of the box, or eleven including the bundled mini-expansion.

So what the heck is a Tabletop MOBA then? Well, in a nutshell, each player chooses one (or more) characters from the impressive and varied roster, then depending on player count, sets up either side of the board with hero and minion figures on the appropriate spaces. The board is split into zones that represent progress from one side of the board to the other, with the winner being the team that can push the opposing team all the way back to their throne room.

To do this, each character has a hand of five cards, which starts out fairly weak and develops over the course of the game. Each turn comprises of four rounds and uses a straightforward card system to determine who will act first and what action(s) will be available to them. By the fourth round, players will only have two cards in hand, which adds a certain amount of tactical planning to the proceedings.

In order to progress on the board, the two teams will be attempting to “push the lane” which is achieved by defeating all of the opposing team minions in the currently active area. This isn’t challenging in and of itself, because minions don’t actually participate in combat. Instead, they simply offer negative effects to adjacent enemy players, but that is bad enough when you realise how easily death comes in Guards of Atlantis.

Heroes, basically, have just a single hit point. If a valid attack from another hero hits them, then the attacking player will declare the value of the attack used as shown on the relevant card. If the defending player is unable to use a card (from their hand) that shows at least the same value in defence (adjusted either way for minion modifiers) then the hero is defeated.

When that happens, he or she is placed on their player card and must wait out the remainder of the round, foregoing any further opportunity to use cards. Worse still, the returning hero restarts from the second round of the turn, rather than the first, so dying early in the previous round can take a hero out for quite a while.

Defeating heroes and minions nets coins for the victorious player, which can then be spent on upgrades. This process is quick and simple, but impactful and interesting in respect of how it affects the game. In the starting hand of five, each hero has access to a hold (pass) card, a basic attack, a special attack, a skill and a defence card, each of which is aligned to a specific colour.

At the point of upgrading, players will often have two choices about how to upgrade the card of a given colour and using special attacks as an example, the choices can vary quite dramatically. One choice might make a character into a strong ranged spell caster, whilst the other might enable them to deal with several enemies at close range.

In an ingenious twist, the upgrade cards that are not added to the hand are instead slid under the character card to leave just a footnote that describes a slight buff. For example, a speed increase or a small amount of damage resistance might be added, which (in addition to the specialisation given by the primary choice) is a very video-gamey thing that really does help Guards of Atlantis to deliver on its Tabletop MOBA promise.

What this does mean is that a powerful character can tend to have a significant advantage, however the game has an excellent way of balancing itself out – simply put, the higher a characters level is, the more coins another hero will gain for taking them out. Also, whilst abilities certainly make some heroes very powerful, none of them break the basic game structure, so there’s always a chance to defeat them using teamwork and smart play – or simply by avoiding them and focussing on pushing the lane.

After the four rounds in any turn have been played, all cards are refreshed and play continues, so Guards of Atlantis tends to flow quite quickly. In general, each card allows the character who plays it to do just one thing – move, attack, or perform the special action detailed on the card. It is rare for a card to allow both a movement and an action to happen, so you’ll almost always be thinking two or three cards ahead, whilst also considering the opposing team actions at the same time.

Much like the videogame MOBA’s that it seeks to replicate, Guards of Atlantis certainly rewards team play, and understanding how to build the right mix of hero and minion killing characters is very important. The difference in competence level between first time players and those who have a lot of experience with the game is telling, but as with all board games, it’s the job of a good group to self-regulate how experienced players are split between the teams.

Another excellent feature of Guards of Atlantis is how it caters for uneven player numbers. The game actually comes with a pair of ape-man characters who have the combined power level of one of the other heroes. This allows matches of say five versus four, or three versus two to run smoothly and fairly, whilst offering a different solution to the standard model of having one player control more than one character.

The way in which Guards of Atlantis scales so well for higher player numbers can’t be understated either, because I’d say that relatively few games can expand to six, seven or more players without serious issues. Guards comes with a dual-sided board, with the reverse side being dedicated to playing with more than six characters, which is fantastic.

Although I think Guards of Atlantis is a fantastic game and a real achievement considering that it is both a debut design and a first time publisher, it isn’t perfect. For whatever reason the manual is perhaps just a little too brief, meaning that it fails slightly to overcome just a few of the common questions players might have (and which are obvious once you understand the game).

It’s also not amazing with just two characters in play (one on each side), although having experienced that once, I simply introduced a minimum of two characters per side even with only two players controlling them. Even so, the game is really designed to have six characters or more on the board I would say, and it excels at either exactly six (on the standard map) or eight on multi-lane alternative board.

Ultimately, the team at Wolff Designa has achieved something remarkable – a miniatures based game that delivers exceptional artwork and components interlinked with a fast paced, straightforward game that is underpinned by great mechanics. Guards of Atlantis also has great scaling for player count and excellent balance with all of the team combinations I tested, which makes it a unique and interesting addition to any shelf. Most impressively of all, it delivers exactly the experience that it sets out to – it is a Tabletop MOBA.

**** 4/5

A copy of Guards of Atlantis was provided by Wolff Designa for review purposes.

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