Seasons (Mixed Review/Reflection)
Assuming the role of one of the greatest sorcerers of the time, you will be participating in the legendary tournament of the 12 Seasons.
Your goal is to raise the most victory points by gathering energy, summoning familiars and magic items. If you amass enough crystals and symbols of prestige, you will become the kingdom’s most illustrious mage. Optimize the cards through skilful combinations, using the seasons wisely to access the energies of crystals and become the the new Archmage of the kingdom of Xidit.
Starting with this review, I am going to make a slight departure from my usual format. Previous to this review, I had been sticking to a strict order of games to write reviews for. But, thanks to the magic of online play and the desires of my gaming partners, I have played this game almost forty times. Through this extended amount of plays my thoughts and feelings about the game have evolved significantly enough, that I felt compelled to write this review.
One aspect that has risen out of these later plays is the theme. I am mostly a mechanics-first gamer, and the mechanics are still very much the focus of this game when I play. But, I have noticed that if a game sticks around for awhile, it will likely live or die on my proverbial gameshelf if the theme is strong enough to carry it across the finish line. Throughout the review, I hope to highlight where the game succeeds and fails in both areas.
The components in Seasons are exquisite!
First, the dice. The dice are fat, chunky, and look delicious. You heard me right. Delicious! They look like plump little candies that come in four vibrant flavors (or colors): red, blue, green, and yellow. The custom etchings are very clear and easy to read from across the table. You will be rolling these dice several times and the extra heft makes them very pleasing to roll.
Photo by James Brooks
The other component that you will be interacting with constantly are the cards. The cards provide the main focal point of the game. The illustrations are extremely surreal and evoke a whimsical, even slightly sinister feel. A lot of the artwork reminds me of a psychedelic dream about to go very wrong. Several of the characters and artifacts depicted seem childlike on the surface, but when you juxtapose them with some of the nasty gameplay effects, they take on an almost apprehensive and chilling vibe.
In addition to an assortment of tokens and cubes for players to manage their various resources, the game comes with a few different boards. These boards are used to track various things like the current season and individual player scores. For the most part, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about these pieces. But, I’ve heard of people bumping the table to catastrophic effect, knocking the cubes off of the scoring track, leaving the game in an unfixable state. I can definitely see that happening, but it’s never happened to me in the several face-to-face games I’ve played of Seasons.
However, I will say that I have seen players, including myself, fumble with the scoring cubes. But, we have always been able to fix the score with the help of the other players at the table. The same can be said for the cubes used to manage your summoning gauge. Each player tracks their summoning gauge which indicates how many cards you can place in front of you. It could be important to the game if you accidentally bump the cube use to track this gauge, and now have no idea how many cards are you allowed to have in front of you. It’s a bit frustrating, but not a deal breaker if you are considerate with your arm movements at the game table.
Seasons is played over a variable number turns over three rounds (or years). Each year is broken into four seasons: Winter (blue), Spring (green), Summer (yellow), and Fall (red). Players will be rolling dice and playing cards to try and accumulate the most crystals. Crystals are effectively the victory points of Seasons. Each card played will also be worth an amount of crystals to be added to a player’s score at the end of the game.
Seasons is at it’s mechanical heart a card game mashed up with a dice choosing game. Dice will be rolled every turn and players will each choose one. The die chosen will usually generate energy tokens which are used when paying the cost for playing cards. These energy tokens can also be converted directly into crystals. The dice may also allow players to draw more cards or even just gain a fixed amount of crystals. Crystals are mostly just “points”, but can also be used to pay various costs during the course of a game.
After choosing a die, players will possibly play cards. There are fifty unique cards in the game, two of each, each with some kind of effect that will generate crystals, act in synergy with another card, or inflict harm on one’s opponents. There are rules for a basic game where players are dealt a set of nine cards. But, the best way to play the game is to begin the game with a card draft. As players become more familiar with the various card abilities and how best to create synergies, the beginning draft phase will increasingly become the most important part of the game.
Whether playing with a fixed deal of cards or engaging in a pre-game card draft, players will always end up with nine cards to begin the game. Before starting the game proper, each player will need to choose three of these cards to make up their initial starting hand. Then players will put aside the rest of their cards. These cards will be added to their hand in groups of three at the start of rounds two and three. There is a lot of frontloaded decision making at the start of the game. Not only do players need to be awake during the draft portion, they need to be smart about which cards to start the game with, and which cards to put away for the last round of the game.
Let me pause a moment from discussing the mechanics, to bring up the theme of the game. The rule book describes the theme as three year competition between sorcerers in a magic forest located in the kingdom of Xidit.
This is not the real theme. The real theme is that of a bucking bronco of magical forces that need to be corralled and brought to bear. This begins with the card drafting. Initially, players will not understand all of the possible interplay of cards and just how devastating different combinations can be. I have noticed my valuation of cards fluctuate dramatically based not only on the game situation, but also in a much more general sense as I have become more experienced with the game. Surprisingly, at least to me, I have seen a fantastic attachment to the theme arise out of this simple mechanic.
Take two or more sorcerers, plop them into an insane and unpredictable forest, and have them do battle!
The swirling chaos that is the “Magic” in the kingdom of Xidit is not your typical tropes of magic. There are no magic arrows, fire, lightning, or healing spells. It does not necessarily fall easily into the categories of low magic or high magic. This magic has a mind of it’s own. It is a kin to some kind of mash-up described in the lands of Krynn, Alagaesia, and The Dreaming. It’s not something any novice should trifle with and expect complete mastery of. It will you bite you back if you speak these spells in the incorrect or least efficient order!
At the start of the game, the forest is swirling with a variety of creatures and disembodied artifacts that seem more alive than not. Even at these early moments of card drafting, players will need to be on their toes trying to pull these magical forces to their aid, but also keep an eye toward the synergies they expect their opponents are constructing.
At the start of each round the start player will roll a set of dice based on the current season. Players will then take turns choosing a single die from the set, and executing the effects of the chosen die. The various dice effects range from collecting energy tokens to gaining crystals, drawing cards, and increasing a player’s summoning gauge.
The dice choosing is surprisingly the most thematic aspect of the game. The enchanted forest where your magical competition is taking place is behaving like a living entity. It’s almost like “weather”. The dice are there to be tamed. But one can never fully control the weather! A master sorcerer should be able to adapt to their surroundings, and learn to flow with the surrounding magic of the forest.
More chaos to be broken and brought to one’s will!
In the early stages of the game, it is going to be extremely important for players to increase their summoning gauge. Everyone starts with their gauge set to zero, which means they cannot have any cards played in front of them. For each step you increase your summoning gauge, you may have one card played in front of you. This can be one of the more frustrating aspects of the game if it comes to the point where are just not getting any dice with a summoning star to increase your gauge. Thankfully, the start player rotates every turn so you have an equal shot at getting a summoning star as much as anyone else.
The other choices available are only slightly less important. It will quickly become obvious to new players that they need to store up a nice reserve of energy tokens to give them more flexibility in the cards they can play. However, you will also want to build up a reserve of crystals. It will not necessarily be obvious on your first play how important this is. As you start playing with the more advanced cards, you will find several ways in which players can force others to spend extra crystals when they want to take actions or play cards. It’s going to be important to have some extra crystals in reserve. Otherwise, you may fall into a black hole of magic that will strangle your every attempt to escape. Quite simply, it’s possible to suffer a crushing defeat if you do not choose your dice carefully. In fact, it’s possible no matter how carefully you choose!
This crushing devastation will be exacerbated in games with more than two players. With more than two, it is possible for the game to move more quickly than I would like it. With the constantly rotating start player of a two player game, I don’t feel like I’m constantly being screwed out of vital resources. More detail on this in the next section, but suffice it to say, one must be very thoughtful in choosing the optimal die each turn. It’s advisable to plan ahead here. Build up a reserve of energy and crystals, as well as spend some turns increasing your summoning gauge, to set yourself up to play your cards with maximum efficiency. But, don’t wait too long and let the game get away from you.
Crystals: Scoring Points and Playing Cards
Seasons does a good job of balancing the points scored during the game, with the points tabulated at the end of the game. During the game, there are a variety of ways to score points, either through playing cards or Transmutation.
Transmutation is available to a player when they have chosen a die depicting a kind of halo-looking border around it. Depending on the what season the game is currently in, players may exchange energy tokens directly for crystals. For example, in Fall (the red season), you can only exchange its own tokens for one crystal a piece. However, you can exchange the Winter (blue) energy tokens for three crystals a piece. In addition, you have a better chance of rolling and collecting the Fall tokens during Fall, and the least chance of collecting them during Summer (the yellow season). It won’t be until the following Summer that you can get a good exchange rate on your Fall tokens. So, you would have to hold onto the tokens for almost an entire year if you really wanted to bank on Transmuting as optimally as possible. This would not be an efficient game plan, but there are various combos available through the use of cards to quickly build up a vast store of energy to Transmute right when you need it.
In addition to Transmutation, there is also some direct scoring available with card effects. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the game is piecing these together during the draft portion of the game, and seeing your plans come to fruition.
There are also several cards geared towards directly hindering your opponents’ ability to do much of anything on their turn. Again, this is exacerbated in a game with multiple players. With two players, you can easily memorize what your opponent is capable of during the draft portion at the start of the game. They will also have a good idea of what you have. So, the game becomes an extremely interesting exercise in cat and mouse, and even the dice choosing becomes vitally important. You should have a good read on exactly what energy tokens your opponent needs. You should also be able to anticipate when they are ready to get their engine rolling.
With more than two players, all of these tactical and strategic elements start to fly out the window quickly. It’s more difficult to get a good read on the other players during the draft phase. But, more significantly, it’s much easier to become locked out of doing anything on your turn. Not anything meaningful… anything at all! It is every easy for nasty synergies to appear in concert between multiple players. Here’s a quick example. There is card that requires all opponents to pay you one crystal per card they summon. It’s quite likely that two different players can get this card out. Two experienced players will get this card out as quickly as possible. So, now you have a situation where two players have a proverbial lock on the other two players and can now play the rest of their nasty stuff with ease.
It’s not impossible to come back from this kind of situation, but it can be a total exercise in frustration to do nothing but collect energy three turns in a row while other players take their sweet time setting up more combos. Oddly enough, I find this frustration (flaw?) with the game to be thematically sound. A persistent, effervescent, and wild force such as the magic depicted in Seasons should be something that can backfire, betraying the wielder and strangling their every attempt at recovery.
Finally, any cards that are still held in hand are worth minus five points apiece. I love this aspect of the game. You can’t just hold onto garbage cards. Even though you may not be excited to put some of your cards into play, you really want to get them out of your hand. This also prevents massive amounts of card draw toward the end of the game. You don’t want to get stuck with a bunch of cards you can’t pay the casting cost for! It keeps the game moving along, and acts as an exhilarating counterpoint against attempts at maintaining a reserve of your resources.
Was It Fun?
The majority of my initial plays were via BoardGameArena.com. Most of those games were two player games. I did dabble a bit into multiplayer games early on, but it was not until I purchased the game and got it face to face that I was able to really pursue the multiplayer aspects. The game presents a nice plethora of combinations and synergies, which is one of the gameplay mechanics I enjoy the most. Once you get your feet wet, there is a lot of meat here. I have seen games where players will build up a large reserve of their summoning gauge, energy, and crystals and play out fantastic and devastating turns. Unlike many recent card drafting games, Seasons is not just about the drafting. The timing of card play is equally important to the cards chosen at the start of the game. It’s been amazing to see just how situational certain cards can be. It’s been a pleasure to see my skill at the game evolve to the point where certain cards that I thought were either really good or really bad, have presented themselves in unique situations where their perceived worth has changed dramatically. It’s almost like every card is situational and no card is “strictly better”. I really enjoy that.
That being said, I was quickly able to see that I would not enjoy this game with more than two players. I experienced too many games with too many turns, where I said to myself, “Wow. I get to do nothing… again.” That’s unacceptable.
Seasons was an initially fantastic game. If you like to explore synergies and really push the limits of setting yourself up for giant turns, it has plenty of variety and card interplay to investigate.
Is It Still Fun?
Yes! But, with two players only. Playing with more players is interesting for about half a game, until the leader (or leaders) are already determined. In a four player game, I would almost prefer player elimination after each round. It is possible to have an interesting game with more than two, but not likely. It’s more likely that one player will be locked out of doing anything… at all…for several turns in a row.
This flaw with the game was about to make me trade it for something more enjoyable, but I have recently been playing two player games again and found myself really getting into the theme of the game. It’s possible that some will argue that the theme in Seasons is not really “theme”, but more “atmosphere”. Well, I yawn like a hipster at that whole argument. That differentiation is such a trite and tired discussion. None of these board games really execute theme that well for me anyway. The rolling of dice alone completely dissolves any immersion I may pretend to have in the theme.
Getting back on track. What Seasons excels at in terms of theme, is the ability to present magic as an elusive monster, seductive and not completely controllable. Magic is something to first be gently tamed and then later wielded with almost unexpected, but spectacular effect. Players may find themselves muttering quietly for the first year or so of the game. I have found it be very tense to start laying out cards and hope that one has done enough preparation in anticipation of a desired out come.
It is dazzling when it goes off.
Conclusion & Rating:
I know this is being touted in some corners as one of the best games of 2012. I am not sure that it sits even in the Top 10 for me, but it is definitely a game I thoroughly enjoy and will not refuse if there is only one other player available. The game can be enjoyable enough with three or four, but only if it’s with experienced players who play quickly. As I stated in a few spots previously, I have become enamored with the theme and the unbridled magical fury that the game presents. However, the mechanical pitfalls when playing with multiple players do not excite me in the least. I had initially rated this game an 8/10, and that would be what I rate it as a two player game. But, the experience with more than two players drags the game down to a 6/10.
I originally subtitled the Video Review as “Anticipated Killer”. Why? Seasons is very much about anticipating what your opponent will do. You will need to juggle what cards you think they have with how much those cards cost to play and which energy tokens will potentially become available in upcoming turns. Now, put all that in the back of your head, and try to correctly choose the best die each turn. What season is coming up next? When is a good time to get this combination out safely? Should you try and fetch more cards from the draw deck? If I wait a bit, and get the right energy, I can play all four of these cards at once and get back some nice energy to transmute in two or three turns. Gee, my opponent has a lot of energy tokens! I wonder if they drew any more items. I know they have that card that gives a bonus if they have only items. That will give them a nice advantage. Stop doubting yourself! You got this!
The subtitle is a bit of a play on words as well. Seasons was probably the most anticipated release of Gen Con 2012. And, I felt like some of the initial feedback on the game was a bit of a short shrift and basically inaccurate. That didn’t change once I had a chance to play the game more extensively with a variety of playgroups. There seems to be the impression that this is a light and fluffy game that played perfectly fine with more than two players. Obviously, if you’ve read this far (or watched my original video review), you will know I find that be contradictory to my experience.