Existenz: On the Ruins of Chaos Review

A game that came to me highly recommended by some of my fellow bloggers is Existenz: On the Ruins of Chaos (not currently available on Amazon).

I was told that because I liked the Game of Thrones: Living Card Game, I should try out Existenz.  However, I found Existenz to be much more like Magic: The Gathering.  If you're familiar with Magic, most of this will sound familiar, but I'll go ahead and give an overview for anyone else.  On your turn, first you re-activate (untap) all of your cards, you draw a card, and then you can play cards from your hand.  You may play one Crystal (Land) per turn - these give you Energy (Mana) which you can then use to play other cards.  You can play Summons (Creatures) from your hand, and there are about six different types.  You may only have one summon of each type in play at a time, and it must be summoned onto either a warp dot or a start dot.  There are also Catalysts (Enchantments) that can be played that affect gameplay, and Flux (Instants) cards that can be played at essentially any time, but are discarded after use.  On your turn, you may move and attack with your Summons, as each has a speed and range - all damage they inflict goes onto the targeted summons, and once a summons takes more damage than it has defense, it is destroyed (think of defense as hit points instead of damage they can prevent).  The game is played until one player's Life Base (a summons type that starts in play) is destroyed, reaches an end dot, or one player runs out of cards in their deck.

You have to be in position to attack
The first thing that I like about Existenz is that, through the board, it adds a spatial element to Magic.  Instead of everything being in some ethereal realm where everything is conveniently adjacent, summons actually have to get near each other in order to fight.  This makes sense.  However, one of the rules is that you cannot move over "sharp turns" (acute angles).  This is a really neat mechanic, and allows for the board to not require tons of icons representing when you can and when you cannot move (though the board is still pretty busy).  However, it also makes most creatures' movement speeds not matter very much, and it also makes the combat much less frequent - especially considering that you're only allowed to have a few summons in play at any given time.

The biggest pro to Existenz is probably that the publishers of the game are listening to their fans.  Specifically, the game was initially launched as a Collectible Card Game (where you have to buy packs of random cards).  In fact, the back of the instruction manual encourages you to buy extra packs in order to expand your gameplay.  Their fans apparently hated this (I can't blame them, I hate the CCG model, too), and so they have changed it to the "Living Card Game" model, where you still buy packs, but the packs are not random.  I appreciate any time that a company listens to their fans like this, so kudos to X610Z for doing so.

Now, there are a couple of things that I need to mention before moving on to the cons - these are just points of note.  First, my copy was mis-packaged.  I had four decks, but two of them were the same (though the boxes for each were different).  I have contacted the publishers, and they are fixing the problem - but this is something to be aware of, as I don't know how prevalent this problem was.  Secondly, as I said before, this game is very similar to Magic.  I don't know why this is - I don't know if the designer was trying to "fix" Magic, if they were trying to appeal to Magic fans, or if this really is a giant coincidence (this is my least likely scenario), but I don't think that anyone who has played Magic more than twice will see this game without immediately making the comparison (and, in fact, when I teach the game to Magic players, I teach what is different, instead of the full rules).  Honestly, though, my biggest frustration with Magic is the mana system (I inevitably draw too much Land or not enough), and so I don't understand why Existenz kept this flawed mechanic!

This is a Crystal - yet no colored background on "H1"
Now for the cons - first, the game is hard to visualize.  There are several elements that go into this.  First, the iconography is both bad and inconsistent.  Instead of having an icon to represent what type of mana you need (again, like in Magic - maybe I'll stop this reference soon), energy is represented with a letter and a number, and sometimes this has a colored background, but sometimes it doesn't.  The inconsistency of the coloring makes the coloring essentially useless.  So, you have to remember what Crystals gain H, B, R, and M.  There is also a "C", which stands for Colorless - this is not intuitive, though, as it has a white background, and the cards don't all show the background color for Energy.  In our first game, one of the players kept hoping to draw a Crystal that would give him "C" Energy.  Also, the cards in general just seem very busy so that it is hard for me to quickly see what I need to know at any given moment - I don't know if this is because of the layout of the card itself or because I have not played it enough to be accustomed to it.  I would guess that it is both.

The next thing that adds to the difficulty in visualization is that all of your summons are represented on the board with a marker that shows their summons type.  However, when looking at the board, because of the "sharp turn" rule, it takes a few moments to see what can attack and where.  Next, you have to figure out where each card is on the board - and then what your opponents pieces represent.  Nothing intuitively associates any given card with something on the board.  Part of this might be more iconography problems - instead of my card saying "dragon", and then having a picture of a dragon on the playing piece, maybe both the card and the piece should have a picture of a dragon.  Ultimately, I'm not really sure how to easily fix this problem, but it definitely caused us to have confusion when we were playing.

Who is who??
One of the biggest cons that I found is that there is a strategy that makes the game horrible.  I haven't played it out enough to know the full ramifications, however.  Surrounding all of the "start dots", there are "no attack dots."  A summon (including your life base) cannot attack or be attacked while on these dots.  So, here's a basic strategy - don't move your life base off of the no-attack dots.  Sure, you're not going to win by having your life base reach an end dot, but if you kill your opponent's life base, you win just the same.  And he can't kill yours!  However, envision what happens if both players use this strategy - nobody can attack their opponent's base.  So, you are basically playing the game until someone runs out of cards!  I will confess that this isn't entirely true, as there are some cards that allow you to attack a summons that is on a no attack dot, but I think that these cards are infrequent enough to cause this game to be wretchedly boring if two players decide to use this incredibly basic strategy.

The last couple of things are that the basic decks aren't very basic, and some of the rules seemed a bit artificial.  In Magic terms, each of the starting decks was a "three color" deck - this means that in order to play all of the cards in your deck, you had to have three of the four different kinds of crystals in play.  This really makes the decks slow - though fortunately, there are several Crystals in the deck that can give you two types of energy.  When it comes to artificial rules, the "sharp turn" rule, though neat, doesn't really seem to make much sense to me thematically.  Also, the fact that you can only have one summons of each type seems to be because otherwise you couldn't tell which piece on the board represented which summons, instead of having a thematic reason.  This rule also means that you can't always play the cards in your hand - even if you can afford their energy cost.  And, once you finally can play something (because you lost a summons), you have to play them on a warp dot or a starting dot, so they are horribly out of position for the fight that you need to reinforce (and because of the sharp turn rule, it will be several turns before they can get in position).

Overall, I give Existenz: On the Ruins of Chaos a 6.0/10.  There are definitely people that like it (that's why I tried it), but I'm not really one of them.  But, don't just read my review and discard the game completely - check out what other people have to say and decide for yourself.  If you like Magic, this game is worth trying, just to see the spatial element of the game, but for most people I would recommend trying Existenz before buying it.

If you like games like Existenz, you might also want to check out Warhammer Invasion, Summoner Wars, and Game of Thrones: The Card Game.

I would like to thank X610Z for providing me with a review copy of Existenz: On the Ruins of Chaos.

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