Fantastical creatures in a mythical setting. An epic struggle for legendary acclaim. Standout art and tactile components. Fast, competitive, tense and tactical card play. Is this Reiner Knizia at his best? Well kind of. Equinox is the new title from Plan B Games with Art by Chris Quilliams. But it's actually a reimplementation of another two-decade-old game by the good Dr Knizia, Colossal Arena. We are living in the golden age of board gaming. There's never been such a large group of people experiencing the joy of tabletop games. This of course means that there's a lot of people out there now that would thoroughly enjoy some of the games released decades ago that are out of print today. Enter titles like Equinox. Now if you're familiar with Colossal Arena or it's predecessor Grand National Derby you'll likely know what to expect. For everyone else read on.
How To Play Equinox
Equinox is essentially a card game. There are 14 creatures, each with 11 numbered power cards ranging from 0-10. Playing these cards is what makes up most of your turns. Each game 8 of the 14 creatures will be selected to battle it out over 5 rounds. With one being eliminated each round that leaves space for only 3 to survive into legend at games end. In addition to the 154 creature cards, the champion cards and row cards set out the shared play area. With the champions arrayed horizontally each one indicates the only column its matching creature cards can be played in. The rows cards 1-5 indicate the only row creatures can be played in that round.
Players take turns playing creature power cards into that rounds row. When all spots have at least one card in and a single creature has the sole lowest power on display the round ends and that unfortunate beast is eliminated. It's all very sad for the mythological monster in question but I'm sure what you want to know is why do I care?! Because all players have a vested interest in which creatures survive and which don't. See at the start of the game you'll all receive 5 stones in your player colour and through the game you can use these stones to bet on certain critters surviving the game. The earlier you bet, i.e the higher row your stone is on, the more points it's worth. Once per game, you can even make a secret bet with a face down card from your hand to keep your opponents guessing. There are other ways to ensure your favourites hold sway too, such as using unique creature abilities, "wild" chameleon cards and powerful tree cards.
Beauty And The Beasts
From an aesthetic point of view, Equinox is a truly stunning production. Chris Quilliams is the unbelievably talented and diverse artist that illustrated the Century games, both original and golem editions. With Equinox he has once again managed to create a universe of stop-you-in-your-tracks level gorgeousness. Not just the jaw dropping art but the graphic design and colour palette just pull you in and set a real atmosphere. The cards are large tarot size and decent quality. The 'stones', though clearly not stone are nice and heavy, and provide a pleasant tactile feel to an otherwise pure card game. Each of the 5 player colours are also provided with a completely unnecessary but nonetheless very well made felt bag. Unnecessary because they serve no in-game purpose and the box insert makes them redundant for storage too. They seem to increase the quality of the game purely for quality's sake.
This is perhaps a bit of a sticking point for Equinox. Sometimes its best qualities are also its worst. That's actually rather ungenerous to its gameplay which is, by the way, phenomenal. But from a physical point of view, while the generous tarot size cards give it some serious presence, they also make it an almost unwieldy table hog. They're not easy to shuffle or even hold your cards for those with smaller hands. Indeed with traditional sized cards and 25 coloured cubes instead of stones Equinox could come in a box half the size, cost half as much and be played in a wider array of settings without altering gameplay a jot. This will bother some more than others and there is in fact a lot to be said for its impressive presence, pleasing feel and big game aura. Nonetheless, it has to be noted.
Special Weapons And Tactics
Whilst undeniably simple in principle, this game actually provides a deeply tactical experience. The risk versus reward aspect of the predictions is classic Reiner Knizia and it can be exactly as mathematical and calculated as you want it to be. The main action is then split between protecting your favourites and trying to nullify your opponents scoring. This can be really tense and exciting as players try to outmanoeuvre each other with fast card play and crafty added abilities. It can be harsh, sudden and frustrating at times. With a cruelly timed 0 power card or worse, a sneakily played chameleon knocking out your biggest scorer. But that's the kind of game Equinox is. A highly competitive and consistently interactive game of card battling. Underneath the cute and flowery veneer is an aggressively cutthroat game of fiery wolf eat winged fox.
Talking of fiery wolves and flying foxes the creatures on display as well as being gorgeously illustrated provide some well thought out rule breaking powers that change the game up in interesting ways. The fact there's 15 of them but only 8 per game gives something like 3000 different combinations which is some serious replayability. Again though, this undeniably strong facet of Equinox' replayability also throws up a bit of a weakness. You have to sort all the animals into their suits to be able to chop and change which are used, but this means some serious shuffling of that big old awkward tarot sized deck every game. It is a beast to shuffle, almost enough to put this lazy gamer off swapping creatures in and out. Not quite, because the different abilities are great, but almost.
Final Thoughts - Equinox
All in all Equinox' strengths outshine its weaknesses by a decent margin. Here's a game of surpassing beauty that revels in its own excesses. While your fellow players can frustrate you and downright mess you up, you won't be bored for a minute! The game has an alluring natural arc, as each creature is eliminated the next round gets a little quicker and the tension builds a little more. The last round can play out alarmingly briefly leaving you breathlessly totting up your predictive successes. While Equinox supports 2-5 players I'd say that 3 is definitely the sweet spot. It undoubtedly works at 2 players but like all bidding/betting games, it's better at more. The caveat being that at 5 with only 4 active columns in the last round it's entirely possible someone won't even get to take a turn in that vital last round. Hence 3 being the sweet spot in my mind.
Yes if you like your games fast, brutally competitive and gobsmackingly gorgeous it's hard to imagine you not liking Equinox. It's tactical and tense in a very pleasing way. I for one am glad that Knizia's older titles are getting a new lease of life because that guy knows how to make them!