When I was at Adepticon, I got to try out a handful of demos but perhaps the most interesting was a game called Aetherium. At the time of Adepticon and of this writing it was on Kickstarter and on its way to being funded.
Even though it was only a demo, I thought I’d do a review of my play through to give people an idea of how the game works.
Aetherium is a hybrid board game/miniatures game. More than a board game with miniatures, it is clear that the folks at Anvil 8 really want these to be miniature game quality models. The prototype models they had on display were great. They were made of resin, which is likely what the final pieces will be made of. This could be slightly prohibitive for a standard board gamer who is not familiar with models like this but should delight mini gamers.
So what’s the deal with this game? Here’s the impression that I got.
You play as opposing factions, fighting not in the real work, but on a virtual battlefield. The two factions in the starter are The Axiom, a religious/government agency seeking regulation and control in this cyberspace and The Nanomei, a rebellious, Anonymous-esque group fighting for freedom. I got to play as the Nanomei.
One potential concern initially is that it is limited to 2 factions. They have unlocked parts of a third faction and have stated that more are in to works, so hopefully the lack of diversity will not make the game feel stale before the others are released.
The virtual nature of the battlefield is where the awesome comes in. Think agents changing the world in The Matrix, think bending the streets in Inception. In Aetherium, there is a grid. On that grid, there are grided card tiles, but some of them don’t connect to each other. This is because every time you cycle through all your programs(units) you receive RAM points based on control points and keeping your master alive. These points allow you to manipulate the world. You can spend them for extra actions(boring but useful) or you can actually move the whole tile and everything on it. Spend a point to shift it or spend multiple points to rotate it. If you have a model on one corner of these rectangular tiles, by rotating it you can get them away from an enemy or to an objective very quickly. In my demo, one of the enemies used an ability to throw me into the static(the area between tiles) and then move the tile away from him, stranding him. Super cool.
Now instead of just trying to figure out how to move your models, you have to have a sense of what world shifting options you and your opponent have.
As for the gameplay, Aetherium has alternating activations. I activate a program, then you, then back to me.
There are different types of units. Some are a single model with its own activation. Some are a group, like the Riot Grlz I played, who all activate with in a single activation but all move and act in turn independently. My opponent’s Praetorians were a unit, but all activate together. They share a health pool and lose a model for every so many damage points they take. To move them, you move a single model and the others snap to them. This can lead to some crazy movements.
At the beginning of the game, you secretly set an activation order. On your turn, you flip over the top card and activate that unit. At the end of a player’s cycle, you can tell who’s coming up next. After all units have activated, you generate RAM again, set the activation order again and move your re-calibration counter up by one. The RAM and the re-calibration do some interesting things, but I’ll get back to that later.
When you activate a model, it’s got a number of action points, and has a maximum amount of RAM you can spend on him for extra action points. You can also move the tiles with RAM at any point on your turn. They can also attack during a turn. Many models have multiple attacks or special actions such as throwing down a fire wall of malatov cocktails.
For attacking, you use custom D12s that have 4 or 5 different unique symbols. Some also have a cog on them as a bonus symbol that can be used to trigger additional abilities.
Custom dice like this are an interesting trend in games, especially from Fantasy Flight Games. Descent was the first one I remember but has been included in many others including X-Wing, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Some games use them in a less interesting way in my opinion, like Dust Tactics, but I like them in Aetherium.
Each unit’s attack has a number of symbols listed(usually 3). There can be duplicates. There are also 3 numbers listed. If you match 1 symbol, you deal damage equal to the first number. 2 matches means the second number and so on. It’s really easy, just match symbols. Units also have bonus abilities that can be triggered from rolling the bonus cog symbols.
Of course, there are all sorts of triggered abilities and defensive abilities that add all sorts of interesting interactions.
The main objective I saw was the Control points on each of the tiles. Controlling a point stopped your opponent from shifting that tile and also generates more RAM for you every cycle. The combination of the need to control the objectives and being able to physically move their tiles made for some really interesting maneuvering.
Another interesting aspect are the damage cards. Under each unit you place a damage card, which describes something that occurs when a unit dies that can range from really bad to situationally helpful. I didn’t get the full explanation of these but I got the impression that they were used as a balancing mechanic. Having a more powerful unit means you must include a particularly bad damage card, which is an interesting addition.
The Meta Game
The final things I wanted to mention are perhaps the most abstract, and I think what will make the game really interesting. Aetherium has a built in catch-up mechanic as well as one to both keep the game short and wind it down quickly.
You may have gathered that as your units die, you will cycle through them faster. There are no turns, just the activations, so if you have 2 units and your opponent has 3, then you will cycle through first, reorder your units and one of yours will activate a second time when your opponent is activation their third unit. More importantly, your RAM will regenerate again. If you’re down to 1 unit, you will keep activating them with your full complement of RAM each time. This functions as a catch-up mechanic for someone who is losing units, giving them more action points.
I also mentioned the Recalibration counter before. It goes up to 5 and when both players’ counters reach 5, then the game is over. As with most good games these days, there is a built in end to the game, so you don’t have last units dancing around forever. Additionally, this works to accelerate the game as both players start to lose models. All in all it’s a nice way to keep things at a nice standard pace.
In terms of components, the models are really nice and had a ton of detail. They’re currently resin, which isn’t my favorite to work with, but is the best choice for a small company starting out with such ambitious models. One of the first stretch goals are a nice mousepad like mat for the board which I really hope they get to. The cards seem fine and the rule book was nice. All in all they seem to be on a good track.
The Kickstarter Conundrum
The last thing I wanted to mention about Atherium is the Kickstarter itself, and a trend I’ve been noticing. Atherium does really seem to be a new company, creating their first game without a lot of outside funding. They have put enough into it to have a number of nice looking demos setup with resin models and nice playmats. The reason I mention this is that I think a lot of gamers have been spoiled by big companies using Kickstarter as a pre-order system for games that essentially will be released anyway.
They don’t need the money to create the game, they are using the system to get money upfront so that they don’t have to shoulder as much of the risk. Companies used to do pre-orders , but they were usually a couple of months out at most, after much of the production was already committed to. Since Kickstarter is designed to fund something from the beginning, companies that use it in this pre-order style cash in on this expectation to get their pre-order money want ahead of when they would have otherwise been able to. This also allows them to do the same with expansions they would have done as stretch goals, again pre-funded.
This is important because at first glance, you see Aetherium and say, “12 models in the starter for $100? That’s not much.” (Anvil Eight has since added more to the set). But if you’re saying this because you’re comparing it to a Kickstarter done by a company with an established pipeline for miniatures, books, cards and distribution, it’s really not apples to apples. Cool Mini Or Not has a lot of of these such as Kaosball, Arcadia Quest, Zombicide and Rivit Wars, but they have all those channels established. They don’t need to hire a lawyer to incorporate or any of the other things a new company will have to encounter.
At the risk of disparaging a system that has done a lot for our hobby I will say this. Aetherium seems like a “real” Kickstarter. You may be getting a bunch of cool stuff, but part of what you’re paying for is to help a cool group of guys realize their dream. It’s not a glorified pre-order like a lot of things feel like these days. Just keep this in mind if you start to compare the Aetherium Kickstarter to others.