Aeon's End: War Eternal is a 1-4 player co-operative deck-building game designed by Kevin Riley, and is the follow-up to 2016's Aeon's End. You are breach mages, humanity's last bastion of hope against The Nameless - inter-dimension beings whose sole purpose is the eradication of human existence.
It is your duty to defend Gravehold, the last human settlement, from the destructive machinations of the Nameless by using their own breach magic against them. By tapping into the power of gems for AEther, using ancient relics and firing off potent spells, you must destroy each nemesis and its minions, or risk falling into extinction.
Players begin by selecting their Nemesis for the game. This represents the Nameless entity that is attempting to destroy Gravehold. Each Nemesis has its own rules summary and health total on the front, with its initial set-up instructions and difficulty level on the reverse.
Gather the Nemesis' specific cards, and shuffle these in with the appropriate number and level of basic nemesis cards based on how many players are in your game. These should consist of purple Attack cards with instantaneous effects, blue Minion cards representing the hordes under the Nemesis' command, and yellow Power cards that can be disrupted before they can be unleashed. The deck should consist of the randomised level one cards on top, level two in the middle and finally level three cards on the bottom of the deck. Gather any tokens for the Nemesis if requested to do so in the set-up instructions and keep these beside the board.
Next, construct the turn order deck. This is always constructed of four player cards and two nemesis cards, but the player cards might change depending on the number of players in your game: a two-player game will have two of each player card; a three-player game will have three different player cards and one Wild card; and a four-player game has one copy of four different player cards.
Players may then select one of the eight breach mage dashboard to represent themselves, as well as the specific cards listed in the starting hand and starting deck sections. A player's deck will be made up of Crystals (providing one AEther to spend on cards or abilities), Sparks (Spells that deal one damage), and a unique Spell or Gem card specific to the mage you select. Players also collect a set of breaches of level one to four, and orient each breach according to the icon at the top of your player board: a gold circle indicates an open breach, while a blue triangle indicates a closed breach in a specific position. Players should also take a player number token as well as 10 health tokens.
Finally, players must construct their market of purchasable cards for the game. There are multiple different methods for deciding which cards to select: Players can use the enclosed randomiser cards to generate a set-up quickly, or for the more methodical players you may select a market built to fight a specific Nemesis. Your market should consist of at least two Gem cards, one Relic card and three Spell cards, but beyond that the choice is yours.
Aeon's End uses a dynamic turn-based system that varies the order of play. If a Nemesis turn is drawn from the turn order deck, players activate the Nemesis and his minions. Conversely, if a player turn order card is drawn, the specified player takes their turn. In the case of a three-player game, the wild card represents a turn that any player may take in any way the players decide.
On a Nemesis turn, players complete two steps. First, players look among the cards in the Nemesis play area and resolve any 'Persistent' effects on Minions immediately or remove tokens from Power cards in play, only resolving their abilities when the last token is removed. Cards resolve in the order they were played in.
Then, the players draw one new card from the Nemesis deck. If an Attack card is drawn, resolve its effect immediately and place it into the Nemesis discard pile. If the card is a Minion, place it into the play area with an amount of health tokens equal to its starting health value, but do not resolve any 'Persistent' effects this turn. Finally, if the card is a Power, place it into play with an amount of tokens equal to the value on the 'Power' line, but do not resolve any of its effects. The Nemesis' turn then ends and players draw a new turn order card.
If a player turn order card is drawn, that player takes their turn in three phases. First is the casting phase, where players may cast any of their prepped spells (more on this later). Any spells cast are resolved one at a time in the order of the player's choosing, and then put in that player's discard pile.
Second, players may take any number of the following actions so long as they pay the costs involved;
- Playing a Gem or Relic card - Gems often provide AEther (the game's currency), while Relics provide a multitude of abilities.
- Purchase a card - Players pay the cost in AEther on the card, and place one copy of the card on top of their discard pile.
- Purchase a charge - For two AEther, players may purchase a charge for the unique ability on their dashboard. Once all of the charge slots have been filled, players may use this ability at any time the ability dictates, spending all of the charges on your dashboard.
- Focusing a breach - Players may pay the cost in AEther on any of their breaches to rotate the breach clockwise, reducing its cost to open. When a breach is focused, it temporarily opens to allow players to cast spells from it, but the spell MUST be cast in the next casting phase.
- Opening a breach - Players may pay the open cost in AEther of one of their breaches, flipping it to its open side. An open breach can have a spell prepped to it without restriction, and the player MAY cast the spell in their next casting phase for its effect, or save it for a more opportune moment.
- Prep a spell to a breach - Spells represent your damage potential in the game. Spells must first be prepped to an open breach or one that has been focused this turn before being cast in the player's next casting phase.
- Resolve a 'while prepped effect' - Spells may also have effects attached to them that can be used outside of the casting phase.
- Resolve a 'to discard' effect - The Nemesis' Power cards might have one of these, allowing you to pay a cost to nullify its effect before it can trigger.
After players have taken their actions, they proceed to the draw phase. The player discards all Gems and Relics he played this turn, but does not discard any cards remaining in their hand. They then draws back up to five cards. Play then continues until either all of the player's become exhausted by losing all of their health, or they defeat the Nemesis be reducing their health to zero.
Aeon's End is most synonymous in style with the Marvel Legendary series of games, with a team of heroes facing off against a main adversary. However, Aeon's End does a few things to break the mould of what a co-operative deck-builder can become.
For one, the turn order deck can be a blessing and a curse: With a dynamic turn order, the game builds tension and excitement by ensuring the players don't know whether their most potent damage dealer will take a turn before the horde of minions that have amassed will get to resolve all of their abilities. The caveat is that it is possible to have blowouts: The nemesis can potentially take the last two turns of one round and the first two rounds of the next, giving them four turns with which to create havoc and despair.
Conversely, the same is also true, but depending on how well set-up you are can be the difference between temporary victory and extinction, and most games I've lost of this game have been the result of a nemesis taking two or three turns in a row without the potential for the players to answer, or having a support mage's turn come up before any of the three other players who could deal the final damage. The split turn order cards offer an alternative module that can mitigate this somewhat, allowing a choice between two players when they come out, and they are certainly worth inclusion if players are often quiet during turns, encouraging players to interact and make a case for why they should go ahead of the other player.
The Nemesis deck also has its fair share of challenges. The deck being split into three difficulty levels does add to set-up time, but gives players a period of relative ease before dropping some of the more absurd effects on them before they are ready. The Unleash mechanic also allows variety between Nemeses by giving each a unique Unleash ability on their player board, imparting more flavour into the game without the need for more than the nine unique cards from their respective decks.
Though, as stacked as the odds are against the mages, the mages have tricks as well. Primarily, it is the combination of two mechanics that give the game an air of planning that doesn't exist in other games. First, your deck never shuffles, the discard pile merely turns over to become your new draw pile. Second, any cards that you don't use in your turn can be retained in your hand. These mechanics work in unison to give players the opportunity to aggressively link combos together, putting piles of potent cards together in an order that reaps the most benefit out of your turns, without the uncertainty of shuffling and potentially seeing either of the cards in the same hand for the entire game.
Players also have access to their own unique spells, breach set-ups and powers, meaning that combination play is incredibly high when combined with the choices of market cards available. Even without any expansion, War Eternal gives you eight different mages, four Nemeses to face, and a plethora of market cards to interchange to build the best solution possible for every problem the game presents. The Nemeses' have a better spread of difficulty levels than the original base game, so players who enjoy a challenge will probably appreciate this set a bit more. Not to mention that the mages explore more unique design space than the rather generic-looking mages of the original game.
Where Aeon's End played it safe, War Eternal is the more exciting younger brother, ready to push the challenge up a few levels while maintaining the core of what the system entails.
Final Thoughts on War Eternal
Aeon's End: War Eternal is a worthy successor to 2016's original outing. It offers a challenge that fans of co-operative games like Spirit Island will appreciate, and while it does not hold the mass-market appeal of Marvel Legendary, fans of the fantasy genre can find analogues to their favourite classes in here.
If I had any criticisms, I'd suggest that quality control is a bit lacking: The dashboards are a little thinner than I would have liked and are prone to mild warping if you're not careful, and the less said about the insert the better, as I've regularly had to tape and glue the flimsy cardboard just to get some semblance of stability. It is very much worth investing in a more stable storage solution if you get a few of the expansions (especially if you sleeve your games), though one box can hold all of the content from waves one and two of the game if you can put up with the insert. I have also had a couple of concerns with missing card decks, though to their credit Indie Boards & Cards have always been quick to reply and send replacement materials when asked.
Aeon's End is only second in amount of plays to Gloomhaven for me since I bought it, and it embodies what I love in board gaming: A puzzle that evokes my roots in trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering while offering enough versatility that I can make the challenge whatever I want to be. The mechanics offered are fresh and intuitive, and beside the minor additional set-up time it's an absolute blast to play, and even in loss I feel like I can learn to overcome the challenge of some of the more difficult enemies.
It is one of those games that I will never refuse to play, and though I will suggest that it is not for everyone, it is well worth giving it a try or two if you get the opportunity.