Card Game Review - Agoniste

There are lots of days I wish I could borrow pieces from other people. I don't want to completely be someone else - I'm pretty happy with my own life - but how cool would it be to have a body like that werewolf kid from those Twilight movies? Or a face like George Clooney. Or money like Bill Gates. I don't want to be Donald Trump, you understand, I just want to be able to make a phone call and destroy a local economy.

Today, though, I want to have the convoluted mind of John Clowdus. I don't know how he comes up with the games he creates, but I want to be able to do that, just for a couple hours. I would whip out some genius masterpiece, and then he could have his brain back. But since I don't think I can take manage my Calvin-and-Hobbes-style mind meld machine, I'll have to settle for playing his wacky games.

Agoniste is a good example of a game where you go, 'how the hell did you think of that?' It's about a bunch of Greek people fighting for various locations in Greece. Of course, anyone who has seen 300 knows that Sparta would win by default - they would just walk up to the other Greeks and yell, 'This is SPARTA!!' and then kick them into wells. But in this game, you don't get to win just because you're the meanest motor scooters in the known world. No, in this game, you have to play Blackjack.

See, every round, a new location card will tell you where you're fighting, and then you'll all muster armies to grab that region. One guy is the defender, and he lays down a couple cards, and the other guys attack by building armies. You'll each try to get the best army you can by playing numbered cards, but if you accidentally get more than eight points of troops, your supply train breaks down and the troops all go home, leaving you to have a huge fire sale on bronze letter openers. So you try to get as close to eight as you can without going over, and you try to beat everyone else for that piece of property.

There are lots of wrinkles that make this a pretty damned interesting game - interesting enough that we played several games in a row, when we usually call it quits after one game and move onto whatever other crap I have to play that week. Like you don't get to shuffle your discard back into your deck automatically, so if you want your cards back, you may have to pass on a fight. Or how, when you win one territory, you can use it to invade another territory, and steal cards from other players. Or the coolest twist in the game - the gods.

The god cards all have a default value of one, but you can use them for their god power instead, if you want. You might double your army strength (good if you're at four, bad if you're at five). You could shuffle all your cards together without having to pass your turn. You might just have an automatic eight, which is an instant win every time. Other cool powers can be accessed through the god cards, and these cards will let you manipulate your deck and win more fights, if you use them right. They will not let you see Xena the warrior princess naked, but if you watch that new Spartacus show, you can get all the naked Xena you ever wanted, anyway, so it's OK there's no god card for that.

One neat design consideration is that you get a pretty small number of cards, so if you're adept at counting cards, you can keep track of what other players might pull, or even get a feel for what you'll find next. This one decision means that you can have a fully functional card game with a minimal number of cards, and it's pretty darn clever in the implementation. You don't even have to be Rain Man, which is handy because you probably didn't want to shop at K-Mart anyway.

Now, as much as I love playing Agoniste, there are a few issues. For starters, the rules are fairly typical of Small Box Games, which is to say that they are slightly convoluted and confusing, with a few things that should be mentioned but are not. It will take you a few times through the rulebook to understand what you're doing, and then the first time a defender leads with an Ares, you'll wonder if that means he won, or if he's just screwed, and go to the rules, just to find out that it's not in there. That can be frustrating.

The second problem is the art. Clowdus is a good designer, but he could pick up some tips on the art. The drawings all look like badly Photoshopped clip art, and while that doesn't really impact game play, it does make you grimace a little when you look at the picture of Athena and realize there's no way you want to see that chick naked. The maps are smudged and the hoplites look like plastic action figures that got left in the oven. It's not horrible, but it's not awesome.

But you gotta cut some slack. Well, I do, anyway. Small Box Games is making these games on a miniscule budget, and if he had to put big-box graphics on everything, he could never afford to turn out so many brilliant games. While it would be nice if he could afford to have every card professionally illustrated, it's not even remotely reasonable to think that he could break out all these games and still pay for art. So I shrug, and accept the good with the bad, because in this case, the bad is barely irritating, and the good is just about awesome. It's the closest I'm going to come to hijacking John's brainpower for an afternoon.


Surprising amount of depth in a game that is basically Greek blackjack
Cool follow-on actions let you plan and exploit weakness

Rules are a little muddy
Art is just not good

It can be tricky to get your hands on a Small Box game, because they tend to sell out, real fast. Run over and preorder this one now, while you have the chance: