Aeon’s End is another one of those games that’s been on the market for ages that I just never gave a fair shot to. Once COVID-19 hit in NYC and we were all forced to stay indoors, my picky tastes expanded and I gave the ol’ college try to every game that crossed my path. Turns out, just like Black Rose Wars, my initial impressions were entirely incorrect and I discovered a surprisingly deep deck building game that I fell in love with.
Thankfully, I discovered my enjoyment for the series with just enough time to late pledge the newest edition, Aeon’s End: Outcasts. I’ve been excited enough about trying my copy that I told myself I couldn’t play it until I had finished all of the other reviews in my queue. Turns out, that was a longer queue than I initially anticipated, so here we finally are! Aeon’s End is a cooperative deck building game where up to four players defend the city of Gravehold against giant monsters known as Nemeses. Each session of the game has players utilize the special abilities of their chosen breach mage, as well as a set of shared spells to construct powerful decks used together to battle a single Nemesis (not you).
What makes Aeon’s End so interesting is that Action Phase Games isn’t afraid to play with the deck building formula. Most deck building games instruct players to shuffle their cards either at the beginning of the game or whenever their draw deck is emptied. Aeon’s End instead takes the unique approach of omitting any shuffling from player decks, providing players the ability to manipulate the order in which cards will appear. Rather than the meta-game focusing on the odds of drawing the correct card and the correct time, Aeon’s End allows players to manipulate the order of the deck, ensuring their spells and currency generation exactly when they’re needed.
When players finish their turn, all played cards are placed into their discard pile. But before doing so, they re-order the cards they played however they like. There aren’t enough cards in player decks for this to have an impact at the start of a game, but as the session continues and players purchase new cards from the market, they’ll have the chance to re-order their deck with powerful spells and relics. This flexibility grants players the freedom to structure their card order to prioritize spell, relic, or Aether heavy turns depending on what best suits the group’s needs. More importantly, it reduce the randomness of the traditional deck draw. While players are able to optimize their own decks, there are plenty of other random elements that players will need to mitigate. The enemy deck is constructed of three levels of ability cards that are arranged in a way that will escalate over time, making the boss more challenging as the battle rages on. Unless players are repeating a battle, it’s impossible for players to plan for the enemy attacks until after they’re revealed. Even the best laid plans can be thwarted by the wrong Nemesis card and players will need to find ways to flex their deck builds accordingly.
Arguably one of the most debated aspects of the series is the Turn Order Deck. In Aeon’s End, the turn order each round is determined randomly by drawing the top card of the turn order deck. The deck consists of two Nemesis cards and a combination of player cards dependent on the total number of players. Cards are drawn one card at a time revealing which mage or Nemesis takes their turn. At that point, the randomly selected player resolves all steps of the player turn before drawing a new turn order card.
The random nature of the Turn Order deck is the greatest risk to even the strongest players. When the Turn Order deck is out of cards, the used cards are all picked up and shuffled back together. This means it’s entirely possible (although unlikely) that the Nemesis will be able to attack twice in a row, shuffle the deck together, and draw the two Nemesis cards together giving the enemy up to four turns in a row. Even the best built decks will struggle to stand against an onslaught like that.
This issue with the random turn order approach is that it has a good chance of undermining the player’s deck building efforts in a game that is largely focused on the optimization of player abilities and economy. While Aeon’s End is still an enjoyable experience, one could make the valid argument that the random turn order undermines the heart of the deck building mechanic. I personally don’t feel this takes away from the experience as a whole, but I know a number of players who strongly dislike Aeon’s End for this aspect of the game and the control it takes away from players.
The third installment of the series, Aeon’s End: The New Age introduced a new mode called Expeditions which functions as a mini campaign. Aeon’s End: Outcasts includes a new expedition for players to experience. Expeditions adds a series of sealed envelopes that guide players through a mini-narrative. There are A and B envelopes for each chapter. The A envelopes contain a new Nemesis and any additional tokens or cards needed for it. When the Nemesis is defeated, players are awarded with a new playable character contained within the B envelope and unlock the next Expedition chapter.
I have mixed feelings on the Expedition mode. On one hand, I enjoy the added world building and the fun of “unlocking” new characters and boss fights. On the other hand, neither the narrative nor writing is very engaging. I feel as if the narrative exists to be little more than justification for the experience of “unlocking” new content and the final outcome is a little underwhelming. I would have an easier time writing this off if Aeon’s End: Legacy wasn’t so much more engrossing. The legacy edition advanced the series’ overarching plot and was far more interesting than the Expedition modes. In the case of Outcasts, Expedition mode was just tacked on.
Spells from previous versions like Tethered Dart allow one player to cast the damage dealing spell and then pass the card to another player to use on their turn if the spell was cast from their third or fourth spell slot or breach. With each new iteration of Aeon’s End the number of spells that offer creative functions like this only increases. As Aeon’s End: Outcasts is the fourth box of its kind, I had high expectations, but I was a bit underwhelmed with the final result.
As I’ve gotten more into the series and played through most of the content, I’ve been able to compare Aeon’s End: Outcasts to the rest of the series and this one puts a much heavier focus on player abilities and charges than the rest of the series. In most games outside of Outcasts we would each use our player ability maybe once or twice per game. There was rarely need for it when we could use spells to support our needs. With the inclusion of Xaxos and his Outcast ability, there’s a greater focus on generating charges. Many gems and relics included in Aeon’s End: Outcasts will generate additional charges for players and Xaxos, making it far easier to activate player abilities and increasing each players’ use of them up to four or five times per game. Even the spells have a heavy focus on charges and powering up Xaxos.
Going back and forth with a team of mages, firing off one spell after another while players work together to create ability cohesion is a blast. The introduction of Xaxos’ powers feel like they are introducing an additional AI player that waters down the cooperative experience. While players still work together to allocate charges to the abilities most relevant to the circumstance, the focus on powering Xaxos’ abilities feels like players are placed into supporting role while Xaxos steals the show and does all the heavy hitting. There’s still plenty of weight for players to carry, but the Outcast Xaxos powers are so significant that it feels like players are just working to pass the ball back to their star athlete, the game itself. It leaves me feeling like Aeon’s End: Outcasts doesn’t really need me there to fight its battles.
Overall, I’m fairly disappointed in Outcasts, but it’s definitely not all bad. The Nemesis fights were a bit more unique in this edition than earlier ones. Previous editions of Aeon’s End had more traditional boss fights where unique mechanics or baddies would boost their stats or prevent mages from dealing as much damage as intended. In this release, the special abilities of the Nemeses are a touch more meta.
To avoid spoilers for those who want to experience the game as a surprise, I’ll refrain from referring to them by name. There’s a Nemesis that completely changes how the spell market works and dreams up the spells for players instead. Each time the Nemesis unleashes, one of the market cards moves forward on the track, eventually disappearing from the game. To create new experiences, it feels as if the designers directed the threat directly at the players rather than the character they play as. Normally, I would say this breaks the immersion experience, but it felt like a fair tradeoff for the new scope of challenge.
I had fun with Aeon’s End: Outcasts, but I would rank this release below the rest of the series. With each new iteration of Aeon’s End, the focus of the game shifts from one mechanic to another. I’ve always felt that player abilities and spells were the most interesting when they were varied, yet cohesive, like they were in Aeon’s End: War Eternal, but that was largely missing from Outcasts. Aeon’s End is the only series other than Arkham Horror: The Card Game that I religiously collect. I would recommend any other edition of Aeon’s End, but Outcasts falls short of its predecessors.
Number of Times Played:
Eight plays completed
Reviewed Player Counts:
Four solo plays through Expedition mode
Two plays at two players
Two plays at four players
Supported Player Count:
1 – 4 players
Variable Player Powers
Variable Phase Order
Aeon’s End: Outcasts is an easy game to learn with a fairly straightforward round structure. Anyone familiar with deck building have no problems understanding the game. Players new to deck building may struggle to understand how to optimize their decks.
I love the artwork throughout the Aeon’s End series, and Outcasts is no different. While I don’t think the artwork is all particularly that unique or inspired, the repeated inclusion of the playable mages is a nice little touch for player immersion.
Aeon’s End:Outcasts has a fair amount of replay value. However, after players “solve” for how to beat a particular Nemesis, the battle loses much of its luster and can feel repetitive. To counter that, there are randomizer cards that provide players with sub optimal market cards to increase the difficulty level.