Ambyria: Shroud of the Shadow Demon is a card game in which an evil demon has cast a poisonous shroud over the land. There is only one hope to escape the shroud, and that is by harnessing the power of the ember stones to defeat the demon and win the game. Ambyria was designed by Ben Krieger and Josh Paugh of Paw-Warrior Games. Josh has made several prototype games in the past, however Ambyria is the first to be published. The game has been in development since early 2014 and successfully funded on Kickstarter in March 2016.
First I want to look at the shelf appeal of Ambyria. It is hard to classify Ambyria as a small box game, but the box is smaller than standard big games. It is a quality box and feels heavy for its size packed full of cards. However, the art is somewhat amateur and suffers from poor graphic design (such as the subtitle extending past the logo on one side). This continues when you open the box. Many players found the card backs too busy or distracting and would have preferred something simpler.
However, all the important information is laid out well on the front of the cards and I like that the box is divided to give spots for the four decks. I have other card games that don’t consider how the cards will be stored after they are unwrapped and they are left to slosh loosely around inside the box. If artwork is big part of what you enjoy in board games, you may be turned off by the aforementioned issues, but if you look past it you’ll find quite the enjoyable game.
The thing I heard consistently when playing Ambyria was that it looks like Magic. With cards laid out in front of each player and everlasting effect cards tapped, I can see how someone could make that conclusion. However, it does not play anything like Magic. For one, it is not a CCG. The decks are preconstructed, which I prefer to CCG. I’ve never been a fan of games where you can win purely by spending more money to have better cards. Secondly, where Magic has you attacking opponents until they lose all their health, Ambyria is about collecting cards to gain points.
You can watch a full how-to video here, but essentially you play cards into your emberscape (a row in front of you) and once full, you collect the cards to score points. The interesting part is there are four different modes that you can play in. You choose your mode by playing a card into a mode pile, which forces you to make strategic decisions as that card’s effect is not activated and will be wasted. Cards worth 20 ember stones (a.k.a. points) and -20 ember stones mean that victory is never assured. Even if you’ve been prevented from collecting your emberscape (say by someone stealing your card, so it isn’t full) and your opponent already collected several cards, playing a -20 at the perfect time can bring you right back into the race for victory.
There is a bit of a learning curve to understand the placement of cards and terminology of the game. After a few quick games you should have a good understanding of the different modes, the difference between capturing and stealing, and other little facets of the game. From there you can really dig into the strategy of the game, learn when to play cards and when to keep them in your hand. For example, new players often get excited when they draw a card worth -20 and play it into my emberscape right away despite it being empty. This gives me time to remove it and play it into their emberscape just before their collection phase.
Ambyria has a heavier experience than deck building games like Dominion and could be less enjoyable for not-so-competitive players. Where attacks in Dominion affect all opponents, abilities in Ambyria are targeted. If players in your game group don’t appreciate being picked on, don’t bring Ambyria to the table. That said, I really enjoyed the player interaction in Ambyria. You can change a player’s mode with special cards, steal or capture their cards, or even exchange hands. One advantage of the preconstructed deck is that it doesn’t require players to know all the cards well enough to be able to create a strategic plan of which cards to acquire (as in Dominion). Ambyria’s preconstructed decks have been carefully balanced by the designers and the cards in each deck already work well together. I’ve played with people who can never figure out which card they should buy in Dominion, yet despite the higher complexity they find it easier to build a strategic plan in Ambyria.
One aspect I didn’t like was the arcane cards. These are the cards that get played when you successfully collect a full emberscape and end the game when one player has played all 4. The cards are randomly dealt from your deck and could be anything. If you are lucky your arcane cards will have effects that suit you well at the time, but sometimes you may have to waste a good ability or expose a high value card into your emberscape to potentially be stolen, captured, or destroyed before you can collect again. Additionally, all too often did I find “Mysterious Elixir” cards in the arcane cards. With the ability to “Play one of your arcane cards” this set off chain reactions that unexpectedly ended games. Maybe that is part of the luck element of the game, but I didn’t enjoy it. I would have preferred a separate deck of arcane cards with abilities not found in any of the four hero decks.
Ambyria retails in the Paw-Warrior Games online shop for $24.99, which considering you get over 200 cards is a fair price. If you like chaotic strategy games and sticking it to your friends, Ambyria will be a great addition to your shelf. The main barrier to entry is the artwork, I think most gamers that have the chance to play Ambyria will enjoy the unique mechanisms and interaction with other players. I can understand some of you are on a budget and might have other games higher on your want list, but if you want to support indie game developers, Ambyria gives good return for a relatively inexpensive game.
Follow Paw-Warrior Games on Twitter and Facebook to keep an eye out for the three planned expansions for Ambyria. The first expansion will launch on Kickstarter in early 2017 and introduces two new hero decks that can be played with alone or used with the original decks.