Of all the videogames tapping into the appeal of cards (Pathfinder: Adventures, Hearthstone, Hand of Fate, Monster Slayers), Age of Rivals is among the best (Pathfinder: Adventures, Hearthstone, Hand of Fate, Monster Slayers).
It’s a very two-player game and a very very interactive two-player game. Each player drafts cards, passing unpicked cards across the table, often picking based on what the other player has picked. Or might pick. Because the turns are simultaneous, there’s a lot of guessing and counter-guessing once you learn the system. Playing against someone who knows Age of Rivals (or the AI) is very different from playing against someone who’s learning Age of Rivals.
Over three rounds, both players build up a collection of cards, scoring them and carrying some of them forward. On the fourth round, each player has a deck with which to play the final round. This meticulously built deck, one drafted card at a time, represents your civilization for the final showdown. As is the case in any card game, the luck of the draw is an important factor. But as is the case in the best deck-builders, stacking the deck is the most important factor.
Part of what makes the pacing so good is that you’re only ever choosing among four cards. That’s all it takes to play Age of Rivals. Here, look at these four cards. Which one do you want? Boom, you’re done.
That’s all you ever do (combat is an important and complicated exception, but you can just fumble your way through a few games before trying to wrap your head around combat). Sometimes you choose from only three cards, which is even easier. But a staggering amount of replayability comes from the combinatorials that inform every decision. It starts with you considering the cards your opponent can choose. Eventually, you also consider the cards you have in play. Eventually eventually, you also consider the cards you had in play in earlier rounds. Age of Rivals consists of the simple act of choosing a card, but each decision slowly builds a tapestry of patterns, consequences, interactions, synergies.
One of the smartest things about Age of Rivals is how it strikes a balance among separate but interrelated systems for armies, economies, art, religion, espionage. I especially like how it handles military strategies. Armies are important, but they’re not dominant. Your opponent can go all-out aggressive on your ass, but you can still win a cultural victory. Try that in a 4X.
It also isn’t afraid to do things that you can only do in a videogame. Cards can change values. Those changed values can persist through shuffling. Randomness can be random within a certain threshold. There could never be a physical version of Age of Rivals, but that doesn’t make the design any less elegant.
You even get distinctive artwork, easy to read iconography, and a touch of meta progression. As you unlock character cards alongside the regular game cards (the more you play, the more different cards will appear), you also collect character cards. As you accumulate cards for each character, you unlock options to guarantee up to three cards mixed in among the random draws. It’s not really deck-building; it’s more like deck tweaking. It’s just enough between games to keep everything from resetting to zero. You also get great online support, solid AI, and the smooth and all-on-one-screen presentation of information any good videogame boardgame needs.