Buzzworthiness: Sellswords

Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of this game.

I love two-player games.  I don’t get to play them often, but I like the ability to go head-to-head with someone else in a battle of wits.  So, I was glad to get an opportunity to try out

image by BGG user Espera
image by BGG user Espera

Sellswords is a two-player game from Level 99 Games that was designed by Cliff Kamarga.  It’s a quick game (15 minutes) in which players are using mercenaries to try to control the battlefield.  The game is set in Level 99’s World of Indines, so characters will seem familiar to those who have played a number of their games.

Sellswords is a pocket game that comes with a grand total of 54 square cards.  Four of these cards are terrains, though only one will be used in a game.  The other 50 card are the sellswords, the mercenaries you will be using to try to win the day.  At the beginning of a game, you will lay out one of the four terrains, then deal out 12 cards.  Players will take turns drafting one card to their hand until they have six cards.  Each card is identical on front and back, with the exception of color – one player will be blue (moon), the other red (sun).

On your turn, you will first place a card.  This card must be orthogonally adjacent to another card, and you can’t have any more than five cards in any row or column.  Cards can be rotated in any direction.  You then check the abilities of the card you just placed and resolve those.  After that, you compare numbers with the card you placed next to.  Each card has four numbers, one on each edge.  If the number on the card you placed that exceeds the number on the adjacent card, you flip the adjacent card so it is now your color, maintaining the orientation.  Many of the cards have special abilities, which you Your opponent then takes a turn.

After all twelve cards have been played, you do a scoring round.  Score each row and column separately.  If you have only 0-1 cards in that row or column, you get nothing  If you have two, you get 1 point.  If you have three, you get 2 points.  If you have four, you get 4 points.  And, if you have five, you get 7 points.  You’ll then deal out twelve more cards, draft a six-card hand again, then play out a second round, followed by a final scoring.  The player with the most points is the winner.

image by BGG user Ithry
image by BGG user Ithry

COMPONENTS: There’s not a whole lot of stuff in the game, just 54 cards.  The cards are square, about 3.5 inches each way.  The rules refer to them as tiles, and that’s misleading – they are cards.  The word “tiles”, to me, implies cardboard.  The cards play like tiles, and tiles might have been a better way to go.  It probably wold have increased the price point, however, so I can’t fault them for going with cards instead.  My cards were bent slightly in the shrink wrap, but have mostly flattened out after a couple of plays.  Each card has some art for the character it represents, as well as large numbers on each side and some small text to explain the card’s special ability.  The art is reminiscent of Pixel Tactics, and the numbers are very clear, lining up wells with adjacent cards.  The text is a little small, and can be confusing.  There’s a longer explanation of each ability in the rules, and Level 99 has included a number on each tile for easy reference.  I kind of wish they had included some symbols as well as the text – there still may be some initial confusion, but once you know what’s going on, symbols help you with just taking a quick look rather than reading every card again.

The rules included are on one sheet, but a sheet that is folded up like a road map.  The layout is good – you don’t have to spread out the whole thing to look at the rules of play, since it’s printed on one half of one side.  Scoring, variants, and FAQs are include on the other half, and the explanations of all 50 characters take up the entire back side of the rules.  I’m not a big fan of the road map style rules, but this one is pretty well laid out, and certainly functional enough.  For your first games, you’ll need the character reference handy.  There’s also no way to keep score, you’ll need to provide that yourself.

The components work for what they are.  There are some tweaks I would make, but overall, they work.

THEME: Level 99 usually sets their games in the World of Indines, and this is no exception.  They’re not all named here (some are), but you’ll recognize a lot of them from games like Pixel Tactics.  There is also a touch of Norse mythology here in the different terrains (Asgard, Ragnarök, Yggdrasil, and Niflheim).  The theme is a little thin here.  I’m not quite sure that the mercenaries story entirely works – you place a mercenary to turn another to your side, but your mercenary then might get switched to the other side.  I was thinking the concept might work well for some political lobbying theme – sending in lobbyists to turn people over to voting for your side of the issue, with the terrains becoming the issues at hand – but I think that might suffer from the same slight disconnect.  So you’ll just need to accept a certain amount of abstraction.

MECHANICS: Setting aside for a moment that you are using cards, this is a tile-placement game.  What that means is that the board is built throughout the game, and each placement has tactical and strategic value.  This is not quite like something like Carcassonne where you are building land features for points, but more like an area control type of game where you are trying to build up your own color, akin to something like Reversi or Go.  Rather than just wanting the most of your color out there, you also want to have the most in particular rows and columns.  The scoring aspect will guide your placement sometimes as you try to control most of the tiles in order to score the most points – having one tile present won’t do anything for you, but the more you have, the more points you get.

Each character in the game has its own special ability.  The Titan can never be flipped for any reason (and also has zeros on all four sides, so it isn’t an offensive threat).  The Squire, when placed, may switch places with an adjacent ally.  Khadath may choose an adjacent space, and their opponent must place there next.  The Mage may compare numbers with any card in one direction rather than just what is next to it.  The Valkyrie gets one extra point per adjacent tile at the end of the round.  King Alexian XXXVIII has 9s on all sides, and flips after use.  All of the characters are different and will help you in different ways.  The text can occasionally be confusing, and you’ll be referring to the player aid several times during the game, at least for your first plays as you’re figuring out how they play.  Timing can also be confusing as some trigger immediately, some have end of round effects, and some stay in effect for the remainder of the game.  But it’s not too difficult to figure them out.

The best part of the game, to me, is the initial draft.  Rather than just being dealt a hand of cards, you get to choose who will be on your team.  Not only that, you know exactly who your opponent is taking, and can try to tailor your strategy to deal with their moves.  Not that anything is truly secret since the cards are double-sided, but it’s still helpful to know what you’re taking.  The two round format also helps with your drafts as you know what’s already out there.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Sellswords is very much a tactical game.  Each placement has to be done to maximize what you can do right now, knowing that the board state will change before you can make your next move.  You can formulate an overarching strategy with the initial draft, but as the game goes on, you’ll have to be reacting to what your opponent has done.  Timing of how you bring out your cards is important – there are some cards that will be good early in the game, and others that will be good later on.  Knowing what you have and what your opponent has means that you can try to think ahead.  However, the game state is constantly in flux, so it’s tough to think too far ahead.

ACCESSIBILITY: The biggest barrier to entry in this game is that the text can sometimes be confusing.  I like having fifty different characters, but I can see how it could be slightly overwhelming for a new player.  However, I do think the game is not terribly difficult, and I would definitely call it less complex than something like Pixel Tactics.  And it’s fairly fast – you can be done with a full game in about 15 minutes once you know what you’re doing.

REPLAYABILITY: Because you have 50 different characters, every game is going to be different.  I can imagine that experienced players will start to have sets of characters they really like to play with, and which combos work well, but the random draw in the beginning of each round will keep that from being too much of a problem. There are a few variants included, with four terrain types that can change the play.  Asgard is the base game.  Ragnarök has each player remove three tiles from the board between rounds.  Yggdrasil is a one round game where, instead of drafting, you draw two tiles on your turn and play one of them.  Niflheim allows flipping chains – if you flip a tile, you can use it to compare numbers again.  I’ve only played Asgard so far, but I think Niflheim sounds the most chaotic, and thus the one I most want to play.

I’d also suggest a four-round variant, going up to a 7×7 grid. This means 48 of the characters will be played, and you’d need points for 6 and 7 tiles in a row (using the pattern already laid out, I’d suggest 6 tiles gets 11 points, and 7 tiles gets 16).  I haven’t play tested this, and it will make the game much longer.  But it might be pretty epic, particularly if you use Niflheim.

SCALABILITY: This is for two players only, and I don’t think there’s really a way to get more than that.

image by BGG user Prismattic
image by BGG user Prismattic

FOOTPRINT: This is a small game that fits into your pocket.  Out on the table, it’s going to take up about two feet of space.  So a pretty small footprint overall.

LEGACY: I’ve compared this game to Pixel Tactics a few times.  The two aren’t really anything alike, other than they are both two player tactical duel games.  They play completely differently.  Sellswords is considerably less complex, and fits a nice niche as a quick tactical duel game that two players can pull out with not much time to play.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I like it.  Sellswords has some good tactical opportunities, and lots to explore in terms of character interactions.  It’s fast, not terribly complex, and fun to build a team and see what happens.  So if that sounds interesting to you, check it out.  Thanks for reading!

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