Shards of Infinity is a brand-new deck-building game from designers Gary Arant and Justin Gary, artist Aaron Nakahara and publisher Stone Blade Entertainment. Arant, Gary and Stone Blade have been successful with deck-builders before, as the team behind the popular Ascension series, but they've decided to see if they can replicate that success with a new, improved game.
Despite being the spiritual successor to Ascension, Shards of Infinity has moved away from its predecessor's points/honour system, instead featuring the 50 health points system that fans of Star Realms will be familiar with.
In other ways, however, Ascension's influence is clear. The centre deck contains four factions - Homodeus, Wraethe, Undergrowth and the Order - that correspond to the Mechana, Void, Lifebound and Enlightened factions of Ascension in colour, theme and, to a lesser extent, mechanics.
Whatever it has inherited from Ascension and other deck-builders, Shards of Infinity is its own game - one that's made quite a splash. The first I heard of it was the Dice Tower's Tom Vasel saying that it has completely replaced Star Realms for him. At the time I thought that was a pretty big claim to make. Now that I've got a few plays under my belt, I feel like it's time to offer my own thoughts.
Shards of Infinity is set in a futuristic fantasy world. Humanity mastered phenomenal technology in the form of the Infinity Engine, but its power destroyed our species and left four strands of descendants in our place: the human/robot blend of the Homodeus, the technology worshipping Order, the mysterious, forest-dwelling Undergrowth and the Wraethe, humans that were warped and twisted by contact with the Void.
The leaders of these four factions each possess a fragment of the Infinity Engine, known as an Infinity Shard. Players assume the role of one of these leaders in their quest to unite the shards and rediscover the power of the Infinity Engine.
Everyone starts with a player board, which contains nice art and two dials: one for health (0-50) and one for mastery (0-30), which we'll come back to. They also get a 10 card starter deck - fairly standard in these games - which contain seven Crystals, a Blaster, a Shard Reactor and an Infinity Shard.
Eight of the 10 starting cards are fairly nondescript. The Crystals generate gems, which are the game's currency, while the Blaster generates combat. You use gems to buy cards from the centre row and combat to damage your opponent. These are two of the game's core resources. The other two cards also generate gems and combat, but they power up throughout the game, which is a new feature in Shards of Infinity. We'll look at how that works shortly.
Mechanically, the game is almost identical to Star Realms or Ascension. Players start the turn with five cards in hand, play as many as they want, discard them all, then draw five new cards. If there aren't enough cards in their deck, players shuffle their discard pile and draw the remaining cards from there. Gems are used to buy new, more powerful cards from the six-card centre row, and damaging your opponent is how you win the game.
Centre row cards can give you more gems or combat, or they might have other effects like drawing more cards, trashing your starting cards, gaining you life etc. Most cards are Allies, which means they're only used once then discarded, but some are Champions, which means they stick around and do something every turn until your opponent can do enough damage to them to kill them (however, unlike Star Realms there are no 'outposts' that must be destroyed before you can attack anything else).
Each centre row card also has an affiliation to one of the four factions, which means they'll tend towards different strategies and combos. Generally, cards of the same faction work well together, but not always. The faction of the character on your player board has no bearing on the game.
One of Shards of Infinity's new mechanics is mastery. Think of mastery like levels. Certain cards will make you go up levels between 0 and 30 throughout the game. Gaining mastery is handy because some cards, like your starting Shard Reactor and Infinity Shard, will give you more powerful effects when you reach certain mastery thresholds. You particularly want to look out for the Infinity Shard, because this generates infinite damage when it's played by a level 30 player, instantly ending the game.
In another cool twist, players can also spend a gem per term to gain a mastery level even if they don't have a card ability that lets them do so. This is really nice as it gives players something to do if they have a small amount of currency left over and nothing they want to spend it on. It also keeps the game marching on to the end game.
This is a fairly minor mechanical addition but it's interesting nonetheless. Some Allies have shield values, which allow them to absorb a certain amount of damage from player attacks. When one player declares an attack on the player (note: not their Champions, which they have to decide to attack first if they want to at all), the defending player can reveal shield values from their hand to absorb that much of the combat. It's a sort of pseudo life-gain mechanic, but one that isn't guaranteed to be helpful all the time, making for interesting buying decisions.
The game's other innovation that we haven't yet mentioned is the presence of mercenary cards. These are shown by some red detailing, and in most ways function exactly the same as other allies. They can be bought and added to decks as normal. But, in addition, they can be used one time only on the turn their cost is paid, before being returned to the bottom of the centre deck.
Why would you want to spend that much money to use a card once? Mercenaries often have effects that can come in handy in a pinch. Let's say your opponent has a Champion out with five health and you know your deck has good combat abilities, but this particular turn you don't have enough combat to clear the field. You look at the centre row and see a mercenary that costs two gems and generates five combat. In the context of your whole deck, you don't really need it, but for this turn it's perfect! You can then use its combat that turn, but you don't have to keep the card.
Mercenaries are excellent, and one of the things that makes this game stand out from its deck-building predecessors. They add a layer of interesting choices to the game and make gems more meaningful later in the game. In something like Star Realms, there comes a point where you only really care about combat, but the presence of mercenaries means that having a little trade available throughout the game is likely to give you more flexibility in certain situations where you need it most.
Should I add Shards of Infinity to my Collection?
If you know you like deck-building games or you're interested in buying one for the first time, Shards of Infinity is a must-have. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best pure deck-builders I've played. I can understand why Tom Vasel says it's completely replaced Star Realms for him, because in almost every way this game is better. The additions of mastery and mercenaries make the game more balanced and allow players to explore different viable strategies.
That strategic depth is a big strength of this game. In the first three games my wife and I played, the winner came out on top with completely different strategies. My wife beat me once by going for mastery levels and gaining infinite damage and once by going aggressive with combat from early on, whereas I beat her in a longer game after that by assembling a group of Homodeus Champions that worked really well together and took over the game.
There are a few different mechanics and sub-themes going on throughout the different factions, and each one feels both flavourful and balanced. My wife and I picked the rules up in minutes, but we do have the advantage of having played a lot of deck-builders before. Even so, I think the rules are simple and clear enough that anyone could pick it up quickly. The rule book itself is concise and well-presented and the cards are all pretty good at explaining their individual effects.
I also adore Aaron Nakahara's art, along with the game's whole look and feel. I feel like the production quality of the cards is up a level from Ascension, which I already loved, with a clean, slick aesthetic that suits the game's sci-fi/fantasy mash-up genre.
I'm trying to think of criticisms, but it's honestly really hard. I will say that if you're not a fan of deck-builders like Ascension and Star Realms, this game is unlikely to change your mind, although the design and balance of the game is undoubtedly better than both of those options. However, if your issue is with the randomness of the centre row and card-drawing, then Shards of Infinity doesn't really change anything.
One other comment that may be a negative for some people is that it feels like there's less of an emphasis on big, flashy expensive cards than there are in other similar games. Each faction only has one seven-cost card, but most of your focus throughout the game will be on smaller options. There are powerful effects from the one cost cards all the way up, and a lot of weaker cards scale when you meet certain conditions that mean you don't necessarily have to buy the most expensive stuff to have a good deck. I personally think that's a real strength of the game, though I can see how some people might find it less exciting.
Those minor comments aside, I have to say that Shards of Infinity is everything I hoped it would be. Arant and Gary have smashed it again with yet another phenomenal deck-builder. As a fan of the genre, I love everything about it. You can sign me up now for all the expansions.