I: The Hour Of Intrigue
Aleph Null is a solo deck deconstruction game by Tony Boydell, where your goal is to summon Baphomet, The Sabbath Goat. What is a deck deconstruction game? Who is this Baphomet? What’s with the striking font and the cowled figures on the box cover? These questions and more raced through my head. All I knew was that as an avid solo gamer, this was one experience I was not going to miss out on. I prepared to delve into the world of deck deconstruction and demon summoning.
II: The Hour Of Instruction
Aleph Null sees you begin with all of your deck available to draw and play cards from and has a simple goal. You need to end up with nothing. No cards in your hand, draw pile, or discard pile. Why? Well, Baphomet demands it be so. He may even be displeased and punish you with a defeat if there are too many cards in the play area upon his summoning. He’s a fussy caprine fellow, is our Baphomet.
Each turn you will draw 5 cards and play or discard each one. Cards have a magical power cost, ranging from 0 to 5, or some other condition that must be met in order to play them. Cards in play can then be scrapped (placed in the discard pile) or sacrificed (removed from the game - very much what you want to happen) to generate more magical power to play more cards, or to have some special effect that will hopefully help you achieve your nefarious goal. Once your deck is depleted, you shuffle your discard pile, advance the hour with the grimoire and then begin the next round. Summon Baphomet by the end of hour 6 to (possibly) win.
III: The Hour Of Manufacturing
I feel it would be remiss of me to go further without mentioning what makes this game shine before even shuffling the deck. The production is simply stunning.
Alex Lee’s artwork makes the the ritualistic theme shine (as much as cowled figures in darkened rooms lit by ever diminishing candlelight can shine). The cards are satisfyingly large too. Very large in fact and all the better to display the artwork, clear text and iconography (which is, thankfully, pretty minimal and consistent) and they feel great in hand.
There are excellent touches in the production. Take the grimoire stand for example. Yes, there is a wooden plinth to place the cards of the grimoire on! These cards could easily have just been placed on the table top, but I am so glad that they weren’t. A little touch like this adds to the theme, the sense of occasion if you will, as you turn each page of the grimoire and advance the hour.
There are 6 tokens included in the box. 3 for magic power and 3 for damage. These could have been simple card chits. Instead they are large, chunky, coloured, carved wooden tokens that, again, make you feel like you are enjoying a premium product.
IV: The Hour Of Understanding
All this excellence in the theme and production of Aleph Null would count for nothing, should the core gameplay not be up to scratch. Fortunately, this is not the case.
Aleph Null does not hold your hand. You shuffle the deck, advance the hour of the grimoire and away you go. The first few plays I had, this resulted in spectacular failure.
Aleph Null wants you to try things. It wants you to discover its secrets, the nuances of the cards and how they interact with each other. Knowledge of this game really is power and that power is obtained gradually and satisfyingly with repeated plays. It’s no chore to replay Aleph Null either - each game easily finishes within a rapid 15-20 minutes.
The game offers no spoilers and neither will I. Like replaying levels of the very best 90s platform video games of my childhood, replaying Aleph Null allowed me to get better, to get closer to completing the ritual, to feel clever as my choices began to pay off, until I finally did it: after half a dozen plays, I’d managed to summon Baphomet and scored my first win!
V: The Hour Of Mastery
Were this simply a solo puzzle to be cracked, there would not be much more to say about Aleph Null. Luckily, the replay value is there through the interference cards that are added to the deck each game.
You will select 3 of them at random and add them to your deck between hours 2 & 3, 3 & 4 and 4 & 5. These interference cards provide Aleph Null with some teeth, as they have to be played immediately when drawn into your hand, inflicting upon you various problematic effects.
The varying difficulty of these interference cards, combined with the randomness of the card draw generally, means that each game of Aleph Null provides a slightly different take on the core puzzle. It means that even after that first victory, I still keep coming back for more and victory is far from guaranteed. I haven’t dared touch ‘The Circle of the Prince’ level of difficulty, where you have not 3, but 5 interference cards to deal with, each at level 2 or 3!
There are some general strategies to be discovered and some ways of using cards are objectively better than others. However, there is enough challenge and variety to make Aleph Null far from a one-and-done solo experience.
VI: The Hour Of Reckoning
Aleph Null is a demon-summoning delight. The deck deconstruction premise works brilliantly, the game revels in its theme (I haven’t even touched upon the specific soundtrack that has been composed to play alongside this game!) and I believe it is one of the best sub 20 minute solo game experiences out there.
If you do not find the theme objectionable and want to add a unique, short, solo game to your collection, you won’t go wrong with Aleph Null. Baphomet will be most pleased.