Game Buzz: The Ares Project

Listeners to the Dice Tower podcast have been hearing about The Ares Project for a couple of years now.  Geoff Englelstein does the Game Tech segments on that show, and he did a few segments (along with his son and co-designer Brian) about the process of creating the game.  It’s really fascinating to hear Geoff talk because he’s extremely intelligent and really understands how games work.  That alone caused me to be interested in what they would come out with.

The Ares Project - image by BGG user engelstein

The Ares Project should be coming out soon from Z-Man Games.  It’s a two-player game, though you can also play with three or four.  The age range is 13 and up, and it should take around 60 minutes to play.  The plot of the game revolves around a post-apocalyptc future where humans are forced to colonize Mars after the devastation of planet Earth.  Four factions are battling for control – the Terrans, who are the last remaining members of the Earth Defense Force and who are trying to bring democracy to the project; the Kahoum, an ancient cabal that has mastered psychic powers; the Colossus, described as the ultimate fighting machine; and the Xenos, the original inhabitants of Mars.

The game comes with 212 cards, consisting of four faction decks, start building cards, and several shared utility cards.  There is a frontier board showing the contested area, as well as four base mats (which will only get used if you’re playing a full game).  There are 360 tokens, including four types of unit tokens (infantry, armor, air, and building), power tokens, and frontier control tokens.  Additionally, there are four d6 and four player screens.  There are also rules for the basic game and the full game, and extra rule sets for each of the four factions.

Each player starts with a faction, taking the corresponding deck, start building card, and unit tokens.  Stuff is kept behind your screen, though the rules recommend that you play in the open for the first few turns as you’re learning the game.  During the Basic game (2 players only), you should just be using Terrans and Kahoum, with Xenos and Colossus added for the full game (though you can still play with just two players).  Each player starts by selecting two cards from their deck, and also a standard attack card.  After shuffling the remainder, the standard attack goes on the bottom of your deck, and you draw a third card.

On a turn, you play a card, start the battle sequence if necessary, and then all players draw back up to three cards.  There are four types of cards – buildings, attacks, specials, and special buildings.  Cards can be played face up to use the power shown, or face down to be used as resources (specials and special buildings are not used in the basic game, and therefore can only be played as resources).  Buildings are played into your base to produce units.  There are two halves of the card, and you get to choose which side to use, orienting the card so it is on top.  Cards show the cost for placing (if any), the name and type of the unit it produces, initiative, and ranges against the possible opponents.

To produce units, you play a card face down on top of your building card.  During the battle sequence, you’ll trade those resources for unit tokens.  You can never have more than four unit tokens on a card at once, and excess cards are kept for future construction.

So, let’s talk about attacks.  There are nine attack cards in your deck.  If you play an attack card, the first thing that happens is that you choose an opponent (assuming that you have more than two players).  The attacker secretly chooses normal or deep strike.  Normal attacks mean that you’re either attacking the base from the Frontier if you control it, or attacking the Frontier to take it over.  Deep strikes mean that you’re attacking their base from your base.  If the Frontier is neutral, you can also just take it over as long as you have a non-Base defense unit.  If this is the case, the attacker will construct units (take away their screen and trade in resources for units).  The defender doesn’t get a turn in this instance, and the battle ends.  If the Frontier is not neutral, the defender does construction first before the attacker reveals normal or deep strike and does their own construction.

You’ll then place your forces on the battle line.  The attacker places one, which the defender matches.  The defender then places another which the attacker matches.  And so on until you run out of units.  If a player runs out of forces, the opponent may then place the rest of their forces unopposed on either end of the line.  If one player has more scouting points than the other (indicated on the buildings), the player with fewer places forces equal to the difference to start the battle line.

Now it’s time for combat.  If a base is being attacked, the defender may play cards as resources and immediately turn them into units (emergency defense).  You can then reorganize unengaged forces by moving them into a flanking position (behind a force that is directly in front of an opposing unit), or moving them into an unopposed position at the end of the battle line or between two friendly forces.  Flanking forces give a +1 to attacks.

Once everyone is in position, the attacker can declare a retreat.  If he doesn’t, the defender can (unless defending their base).  The retreat ends the round after attack rolls are resolved.  Attack rolls are resolved within initiative groups, with the highest initiative rolling first.  The attacker selects a force to attack (or an empty building in your opponent’s base), rolls, and determines hits based on the attack rating against that unit and modifiers.  You want to roll a number equal to or less than the attack rating to score a hit.  Rolls of 6 always miss.  There are several combat rounds – after the last one, if the defender is still standing, the attacker loses.  Retreats end combat after the round in which it was declared.

Attack cards that are used for attacks (not resources) get kept by the player who currently controls the Frontier.  If you control the Frontier, you can play an attack card, not launch an attack, and just put it in your scoring pile.  The game ends when one player conquers another player’s base.  The conqueror wins.  The game can also end if no player has cards in their hands or draw piles.  In this case, you score one point per attack card you collected, plus two if you end in control of the Frontier.  If there’s a tie, the player in control of the Frontier wins.

This game seems pretty involved to me.  I don’t think there’s any way I can really make a determination about how I’ll like it until I’ve had a chance to play it and see how all the cards actually work.  It reminds me a bit of Summoner Wars in the way you have a limited set of specific character cards, and a strategy that revolves around trying to determine how to use each card to its maximum potential.  I’m also reminded of Neuroshima Hex, which I haven’t played, but which has a similar post-apocalyptic battle feel to it.  I’m not sure how sold I am on the combat system, but as I mentioned before, Geoff Engelstein is one of the smartest guys in the podcasting world, and I’m eager to see what he’s put together.  Plus, I love that it’s a family affair with his son, and I definitely want to encourage that.  I understand that the game is making its premiere at the Origins Game Fair this weekend, so I’ll be looking for some early reviews to start hitting the net.   It’s a game that’s up on my radar, but I think I want to know more before I commit to wanting to add the game to my collection.  Thanks for reading!

PS: Here are the links to the Dice Tower Episodes where Geoff and Brian talk about the game: Episode 154, Episode 156, Episode 166, and Episode 168.

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