MOBAs have been a staple of the online gaming community for well over a decade now. More recently, board game designers have been striving to capture that same feeling of tense competition, deep strategy, and exciting character leveling. So far there have been two major releases that have paved the way for more to follow: Chip Theory Game’s neoprene monster Cloudspire and underdog Wolff Designa‘s Guards of Atlantis.
Both are great representations of the MOBA genre for very different reasons. Cloudspire puts a greater focus on varied factions like the burrowing insectoid Griege that evolve into larger units or the Groot-like Grovetenders that spawn additional units to the board even after deployment. Each player controls a faction and all their units. To level up, players add or improve skills from a fixed set of faction set of faction abilities. The entire collection has seven factions to pick from, giving players plenty they can explore within Cloudspire‘s system.
This is where Guards of Atlantis’ sequel, Guards of Atlantis II, absolutely excels. The base game contains seven heroes and the complete all-in set that includes the Renowned, Defiant, and Devoted Hero Packs expands the number of available characters to twenty-two. Much like Gloomhaven or Spirit Island, a big draw to Guards of Atlantis II‘s are the high number of character combinations to explore. If players are ever able to experience all two hundred thirty one combinations for two player teams, Guards of Atlantis II is also designed to be played with three, four, and five player teams for an even deeper exploration of character synergies.
Two teams face off head-to-head in a tactical no-luck competition and strive to either force the opposing team to run out of champion respawns, kill minions to push the battle zone into the opponent’s throne room, or be the team to exhaust the final push token. The number of times any of these condition need to be met to win depends on the number of players at the table and whether or not they’ve chosen to play a full or a quick game. In either case, having three possible win conditions leaves fair paths to victory for any team, regardless of what their skill strengths and weaknesses are.
Despite how deeply tactical Guards of Atlantis II is, the game’s structure is quite simple. A round is compromised of four turns of pre-programmed actions. Each turn begins with players placing a chosen card from their hand facedown onto their player mat in the spot indicating the current turn. Cards are revealed simultaneously, and then resolved in sequence based in order of initiative printed on the card (from highest to lowest). Each player then resolves their hero’s ability in order until all heroes have acted, completing the turn. The next turn begins again with the simultaneous card selection, repeating these steps until four turns have been completed, ending the player phase of the round.
The next step is the Minion Battle when players remove minions from the board equal to the difference of minions between factions. For example if Blue team has two more minions on the board at this time, two of Red team’s minions are removed from the board. If this removes the last of Red’s minions, it immediately triggers a push, moving the Battle Zone one zone closer to Red’s throne room, respawning minions in the new area.
The next and last step is leveling up any characters who can afford it. Heroes receive coins for killing minions and other heroes throughout the player phase and at this point, must level up as many times as they have the money to afford.
For each level gained, players remove the red, green, or blue card from their deck and replace it with the next level of that color, indicated by Roman numerals in the upper right hand of the card. Each time players upgrade, they’ll choose between one of two new cards to add to the hero’s deck. The unchosen card is tucked underneath the hero’s character board and acts as an item, granting a permanent bonus to a given stat. Once each player completes this step, the game proceeds to the next round, each player starting the round with a full hand of five cards.
While the flow of GoAII is simple, there’s a ton of depth to be discovered, most of which is centered around three key areas: Win Conditions, Hero Synergies, and Combat Decisions:
Guards of Atlantis II has three possible win conditions:
Pushing the Battle Zone into the opposing team’s Throne.
Exhaust the final wave token by winning the Last Push.
Force the opposing team to spend their final respawn token.
I find that in some games multiple win conditions can be a detriment to the overall experience, making it too challenging to keep track of all the relevant elements at one. However, Guards of Atlantis II avoids this problem with the simplicity of each of the win conditions. Ultimately all three of the objectives are equally achievable.
Blue minions: Heavy, melee, and ranged.
Red minions: Heavy, melee, and ranged.
What makes GOAII’s win conditions so effective are how frequently quickly a team catch up with the right strategy. The higher the level of a champion, the more respawn tokens are spent when they die. A team that’s fallen behind could easily close the gap by taking a level seven hero, costing their opponent a hefty three respawn tokens.
Red’s respawn tokens.
Similarly, if a team’s heroes are on their last respawn tokens, they can refocus their efforts on eliminating minions to trigger a push, potentially end the last wave or pushing into the other team’s throne. Regardless, players are never locked into a specific path to victory and have the freedom to pivot their focus at anytime, creating a dynamic play space. The end result is a battlefield that always feels on the cusp of reaching a dramatic conclusion.
You can’t talk about a game of this size without talking about the wide range of characters and their abilities. Currently there’s a total of twenty-two characters available with another ten on the way. All those characters were designed to have variable powers and unique mechanics specific to each of them. It took us a few games to start to understand how allied characters could play off each others’ abilities, and we continue to discover more with each new play. So far, there are two combinations that I’ve found to be particularly fun.
On the lower end of character complexity was the combination of Wasp and Dodger. Wasp is a support character recommended for starting players. She’s fantastic at blocking opponent abilities or movement. I enjoy team her with Dodger, a necromancer with high defense. Together, they have one specific combination that I would hate to be on the receiving end of.
Wasp has a card called Static Barrier that prevents opponents from moving into an area in range of two or out of that area if they’re already in it. Combined with Dodger’s Necromancy ability that allows her to respawn minions, Wasp and Dodger can alter the course of the Minion Battle, awhile keeping themselves at a safe distance from opponents. It’s also a great way to maintain distance from enemies as a way to setup a ranged attack from Dodger at the top of the next turn.
Cutter and Wuk.
Far more complex is the combination of Wuk and Cutter, my personal favorite pairing so far. Wuk is a heavy-hitting, forest guarding gorilla with the unique ability to place forests on the map. As a guardian, Wuk can typically only attack opponents in range of his forests. Without anything to defend, he’s quite useless. In addition to the targeting the forests grant Wuk, the forests act as obstacles, blocking movement through them, potentially preventing opponents from getting in range of Wuk.
His counterpart in our example, Cutter the Sky Pirate, is a ranged damager dealer with incredibly high mobility. She has a higher movement value on her ability cards than most other heroes, but the heart of her playstyle is her trusty grappling hook. Using the grappling hook, Cutter can travel any distance cross the board, so long as she is targeting an obstacle and her path is unobstructed.
Together, Wuk and Cutters’ core abilities play off one another very nicely. By placing forests on the map, Wuk creates more grappling targets on the board to increase the options available to her grappling. Once in position at each other’s side, Cutter’s long range attacks excellently make up for Wuk’s limited range and gives them control over a large area.
These are just two possible uses of two possible combinations found in GoAII’s roster. I wish I could tell you I’ve found the best combinations available, but there are just too many more for me explore before I can confidently say either of the two examples are comparably good. This also makes GoAII that much more replayable. In order to fairly say which character I enjoy playing the most, I would have to play twenty-two different matches just to have experienced them all, nevermind how many more times I’d have to play to experience every combination.
The first round of every match I’ve played has been a throwaway so far. Each hero spends their first for turns moving into position near the central Battle Zone, becoming familiar with their abilities, and maybe taking out a minion to get a head start. After that, all bets are off and every decision carries weight. As character abilities improve with each new level, it’s hard to know for sure whether you’re out of harm’s way or moving into range of an opponent. Even a single step forward could mean defeat.
Arguably the most important decision player’s can make during a round is when to discard to defend, and when to take the loss and respawn their hero. Players start each round with five cards in their hand and only plays one card for each of the four turns in a round, leaving players one free card to discard in response to an ability or to defend themselves. If a hero defends themselves twice in a round, it means they’ll only be have enough cards to take actions during three of the four turns in the round. On that final turn, players without a card to play are unable to act or defend, leaving them an easily defeated target.
Never in a match is the success of an action guaranteed and the tension of tight tactical decisions really shines through.
What doesn’t shrine quite as much is the artwork. The vibrantly colored maps are fantastic. The miniatures are wonderfully detailed and if I could convince myself to stop playing GoAII for a minute, I would surely convince myself that I’ll eventually paint them. Even the iconography is great with intuitive symbols and easy to read symbols.
Where Guards of Atlantis II stumbles a bit aesthetically is the varied character illustrations and inconsistent color palette. Many of the heroes were inspired by deities and folklore heroes from cultures around the world and their designs reflect that. As a fan of all folklore and mythologies, I love the decision to preserve some of the originating culture within the artwork. However, as a reviewer, I have to comment on how strange it is to see heroes like Hanu inspired by the Hindu god, Hanuman, Arien the ocean warrior inspired by Poseidon and a very poor name choice, and Trinket, the desperado kobold engineer with an automated machine gun turret side by side on the same team. It’s quirky, it’s weird, and I love everything except for that name, but tonally, they all feel visually out of place with one another.
I absolutely loveGuards of Atlantis II, but it’s not without its drawbacks. As a team game, I don’t get to play nearly as often as I would like. My most consistent gaming group is typically only three players meaning that someone would have to control two characters. I’ve done that many a time for Gloomhaven, so it’s not something that I’m uncomfortable with. But there’s so little room for error in GoAII that it becomes challenging to multi-hand characters. Without at least four players, it’s just not worth pulling Guards of Atlantis II off the shelf. That is of course, if you even have a copy on your shelf.
The original Guards of Atlantis was a small cult hit that enjoyed critical acclaim, but missed the mark on popularity. The second game was reworked to streamline to improve the artwork, keywords, and card design. The updates were so effective that this series went from hidden gem to mainstream almost overnight. After the first play it was in my personal top five and landed in the WTMG Collection after the second.
With such an incredible design, it’s no wonder GoAII has been in such high demand. In fact, it’s been so sought after that they’ve been selling on the secondhand market for $300 to $500 depending on the set. It’s been nearly impossible to find and costs both arms and a leg to buy.
Blue team making the final push.
So why would we take so much time to write about a game that’s completely out of stock and incredibly marked up on the second hand market? I’d like to say we don’t have a habit of that, but we do, which is an unfortunate accident. However, this time it’s because Guards of Atlantis II is getting another printing and is currently crowdfunding on Gamefound. For new players, this is their chance to dive in at any level, without needing to deal with the high price of scalpers. With this new campaign, Wolff Designa is introducing ten new characters in the optional Wayward and Arcane hero packs, ensuring there’s something new for even returning backers.
If you’re a fan of MOBAs, competitive games, or even just good character development, Guards of Atlantis II is a must for anyone who regularly has four players. If that’s not you, find three more players because you do not want to miss out on this one.
Number of Times Played:
Reviewed Player Counts:
Two, three, four, and six.
Supported Player Count:
4 – 10
90 – 120 minutes
Simultaneous Action Selection
Variable Player Powers
Despite the high skill level typically required to be at a competitive level for MOBA games, Guards of Atlantis has a very simple card based system that players of any experience level can dive into.
Attractive, but inconsistent artwork. However, this holds little bearing on the experience.
To be fair, I’m only six games into my time with GoAII so it’s hard to judge this truly objectively. However, I’ve had a phenomenal time each time. With such a larger roster of characters and optional modules, I imagine I’ll be rediscovering this game for years to come.