It’s been quite some time since I’ve covered a John Clowdus game. For those uninformed, Mr. Clowdus runs a small, DIY-level company called Small Box Games. His best known, most widely played and critically successful game was Omen: A Reign of War. It’s an exceptional Schotten-Totten/Battline descended two player card game with a sort of classical fantasy setting. Testament to that game’s ongoing popularity, there’s a new “Omega” edition of it, coming along after a few expansions and enhanced editions but this is a smaller box, somewhat scaled back release- which kind of gets the game back to its roots with just a couple of optional additions. But there’s also a new Small Box Game out and if you’re a fan of Mr. Clowdus’ past work then Soulfall is going to be one you’ll want to check out.
There’s no doubt who made this game as soon as you see it. The marks of authorship are all over the art, production and rules. Playing it I had that same “WTF is this” feeling that his games often give me, which then gave way to compelling but simple gameplay with some unusual mechanics. It’s familiar territory for fans, but it’s also quite a strange little card game.
The artwork reminds me of the PS2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with giant god-like entities, cloaked nomads and dusty, forlorn landscapes. It’s all very evocative without being specific. There is a vague story regarding these nomads, who venerate those gods, and their struggle to survive and settle in the aforementioned landscapes. And there are moments where threads of narrative emerge. Devotees of a destruction god pilfer another player’s tribe at the cost of some of their own population to gain a Shard. Worshippers of an wind-being travel quickly across the land to settle in remote corners.
Soulfall is primarily a card game but there is a plain, small board where you’ll place nomad tokens and eventually flip them over to indicate where your tribe has settled. It’s almost irrelevant in terms of actually representing any kind of geography, but there are opportunities for some blocking placements as the limited spaces fill up. On your turn, you get three action cards that plainly spell out what your choices are from a larger-than-usual menu. You can only do an action one time per turn, so plan accordingly. Once you’ve used all three action cards, you pass them on to the next player. You also have a hand of cards that each depict the various gods of this particular world.
The Draw action is a “draw two, keep one” scheme. Populate means you take a nomad token of your color and place it next to another one of yours, expanding your territory. If you choose to Prosper, you take a crystal shard that abstractly represents the wealth of your people. Destroying means exactly that- you wipe out another player’s nomad token. But you can also build, which means that you flip over a nomad token provided that you have more nomads than settlements, indicating that your tribe is settling down. This locks them in and keeps them from getting destroyed.
That’s all standard stuff, but once the strange, alien gods come into play it starts to get more compelling. There are six cards off to the side, and each enhances one of the core actions corresponding to their ethereal domains if you are devoted to them. Devotion is another available action, whereby you discard a card from hand and take the corresponding god card either from the display or another player. But wait, there’s more. You can also play a card from your hand, which has an “always on” effect that duplicates one of the main actions and a conditional one usually keyed to whether you or other players are or are not currently devoted to a god. Or they may have a special effect only if the current dominant deity (the card on top of the discard pile) matches the played card.
That last bit, along with the conditional card actions, creates some very interesting opportunities for combinations within those three actions. You’ve got these guaranteed, stock actions but then that “play a card” one lets you double up on one (or more, if it allows it). But you’ve also got to take into consideration which players a knock-on effect will impact based on the current devotions. And then there is the possibility to manipulate the current god through discards gained by the draw action. It’s a subtle point that opens up some compelling cardplay opportunities.
So the goal of all of this is four-fold. You need to get your nomads on the board, they’re worth a point a piece and so are any gods that you are devoted to when the end game is triggered by a player building a fourth settlement, earning an eighth shard or having all but two nomads on the board. The kicker is that the sum of your nomads and gods is multiplied by the sum of your shards and settlements, so they are effectively score multipliers. It feels a little complicated and calculatory, but also satisfying because it encourages development along each metric.
This is a pretty quick game, too. Ten minutes per player seems reasonable, and the scaling works to ensure a quality game for two to four players. And it is definitely one that you will play and immediately want to try again, if only because you didn’t understand it until the last round of the previous game.
It’s a strange one – not immediately accessible, not immediately apparent. It’s tough to compare it to other games, but maybe there’s a hint of Puerto Rico in there with the devotions reflecting the role selection of that seminal design. There’s maybe some simpler tile-laying DNA in there somewhere. But the whole thing is definitely a John Clowdus game, and if you’ve played some of his other work you’ll know exactly what to expect.
But if you haven’t, what you can expect is a singular experience. This is a very unique game. It’s artful and unexpected in ways that most card games never even attempt to approach. The rules are easy enough to teach the uninitiated, but the finer points of play may be elusive for the first couple of games.