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[Review] Anathema

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Joined: 03/23/2011

When I was younger, I read up a bit on the Salem witch trials, and was profoundly affected by the stories. I had a hard time believing that such events actually happened, as they seemed too fantastic. And this fascination has carried through, and I find a certain amount of interest in this theme. I never really thought that it would make a good game theme, except maybe a role-playing type horror game, so I was rather interested when I heard of Anathema (Advance Primate Entertainment, 2003 – Kevin Brusky with Ray Mulford), a card game featuring the trials in Salem. “Anathema” is often a word I hurl at opponents in various games, but is it itself a good game?

Anathema is a strange bird, indeed. The mechanics of the card game are pretty good, and I can see them appealing very much to those who like traditional card games. And despite a few component irritants, I think APE games has succeeded on this level, except one major flaw – and that is the theme, and more specifically – the artwork. The theme has nothing to do with the game, nothing new to card games of this sort – as they rarely lend themselves to themes. Yet very few people who are attracted by the theme and the artwork will like the game play, and most people who are big fans of traditional card games will be daunted or repulsed by the same. I liked the game, but really don’t know how often I’ll pull it out, as there will usually be somebody in the group who will either not like the theme, or not like the mechanics. It’s an unhappy union.

Anathema has a basic and advanced game, and I’ll start by explaining some of the mechanics of the former. A deck of fifty-two cards, consisting of four suits (spell, witch, village, and familiar) – each numbered 1 through 13, is shuffled. Five of the cards (the 1 spell, 1 witch, 1 village, 1 familiar, and the 2 village) have point values of “1”, while the thirteen of witches has a point value of “2”. One player is chosen as the dealer (last person to curse) and deals four cards to each player and four face-up in the middle of the table, two at a time. The player to the left of the dealer goes first, and then play continues clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player has three different options. First of all, they can “capture” one or more of the face-up cards. They do this by playing a card from their hand that equals the value of a card on the table, or sum of cards. For example, an “8” can be played to capture a face-up “8”, or a “6” and a “2”, or (if possible), all three! If the cards captured are the last cards currently face-up on the table, the capturing is considered a “sweep”. All cards captured and played are placed in a face-down “capture” pile in front of the player. If a sweep occurred, the player places one card face-up to denote this fact.

A player can also make a “build”. They can do this by putting a card from their hand face-up with another card(s) on the table, adding to the total worth of the cards. A player can only do this, however, if they have another card in their hand that can capture the build. If a player can’t build or capture (or doesn’t want to), their third option is to “trail” a card. This means basically putting another card in play face-up on the table. One cannot trail a card if a “build” they formed on a previous turn is still on the table – they must add to it or capture it.

When the players have played all their cards, four more cards are dealt to each player, and play continues until all the cards in the deck have been played. At this point, players total their scores. Every card they have captured with a point value is added up, along with one point for every sweep they took. The player with the most cards gets three points, and the player with the most cards from the Familiar suit gets one point. The points are added up, and if any player has twenty-one or more points (and the most), they win the game. Otherwise, the cards are shuffled, and another round occurs.

The advanced rules add some changes to the game. They included multiple builds (which are a little more complicated), and capture rewards. Several cards have another number and suit on them with a reward listed. If that card captures the specific card listed on it, the player can follow through with the award, which is either a steal (taking a card at random from another player’s capture pile), a swap (switching a card from his hand with one on the table), or a peek (looking at another player’s hand). The advanced rules also provide for partner play.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: First of all, I want to say that the card quality is exceptional – especially considering how small of a company APE Games is. The cards are easy to distinguish, and the different abilities and text on the cards are not hard to read. My minor quibbles are these: the familiar suit, which is more important than the others, really isn’t distinguishable, and it takes several games to remember which it is. Secondly, and much more annoying to me is the box. The box is a flat box, which allows for bigger artwork, I guess, but requires cutting the deck in half, and sliding each half in the box with the rulebook on top. This is a real pain – and I wish that they had followed the design of the much nicer box for Big Top (their other card game).

2.) Artwork: I wasn’t sure how the mechanics would fit the theme (and they don’t), but how the artwork fits in with the theme is anyone’s guess. Some may find the artwork fascinating; I find it rather disturbing. All the people look quite grotesque, there are strangely weird symbols, blood, nudity, werewolves, etc. I don’t quite remember the Salem witch trials being quite like that, even in the wilder incarnations. The artwork is most certainly not for children, and will probably offend many adults. Now, I know that this artwork is quite common in horror RPGs and like games, but for a family card game, this seems quite unusual. None of those to whom I showed the game showed any great affinity to the game, and one player refused to ever play it again – based on artwork alone.

3.) Rules: The rules are written quite well. There are many, many examples – and thanks to these examples, I was easily able to learn the game. Because the game uses four new suits, and has a lot of unnecessary text on the cards, it does take a little to learn. The rules recommend playing one basic game before trying the advanced, and I agree whole-heartedly. The game isn’t that hard, but it’s not quite intuitive.

4.) Casino: Apparently the game is a reworking of a public-domain game Casino, one of which I’ve never played. Because of this, however, I feel quite confident that those who enjoy traditional card games will like this one a lot – as it is fairly good, unless they don’t like the theme/artwork.

5.) Strategy: I was very impressed by the decisions I had each turn. Should I add to a build, making it rather profitable for me, but taking the chance that another player might scoop it up? Should I capture a card, knowing that it only leaves one card on the table, making a sweep easier for the next player? Which cards should I capture when? People who can count cards will do much better, as they will know which cards have been played, etc. Because it’s not your traditional deck, however, it does take a little longer to get into the swing of things.

6.) Fun Factor: The theme really didn’t make the game fun, but the mechanics were quite interesting – and I enjoyed them a lot! In fact, if the theme was different (or at least the artwork), I think that this would become one of my favorite games.

So as to whether or not I recommend the game that would depend on you. If you don’t like horror or dark, foreboding artwork, then this game is certainly not for you. If you don’t like traditional card games, then again, this is not the romp into Gothic horror that you may be seeking. If, however, you are a cross between the two, and like both horror and traditional card games, then this may be a great game for you. The game is very, very fun, and re-themed, would be a fantastic family game. As it stands now, however, it will just be an interesting game that I pull out only on rare occasions with certain people.

Tom Vasel

Joined: 12/31/1969
[Review] Anathema

Interesting, especially because I'm also thinking about reworking the public domain game Casino, although quite more thoroughly then Anathema seems to do.

Do you think the abilities added to the cards make it worth shelling out the dough to buy this commercial variant instead of just playing Casino with a normal deck of cards?

- René Wiersma

Joined: 03/23/2011
[Review] Anathema

A theme, and re-worked cards often will encourage me to play a card game I may not put forth the effort with a regular deck of cards.

I did find it helpful to have the text on the cards, yes.


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