Prototypes of up and come Kickstarter projects
Shards of the Jaguar (2020) first impressions
What’s it about?
Kahanur, your tribe's founding father, long ago defended your people by transforming into a spiritual Jaguar. But the enemy eventually learnt how to curse this spirit and break it into crystal shards. As an Initiate of your tribe, you have vowed to find these crystal shards from a sacred temple. Doing so will grant you the great honor of becoming the heir of Kahanur...But others at the table will be doing the same thing for the same reasons. To be successful over your adversaries, you will need to be devious and lay traps to slow them down.
Remember that these are first impressions of a prototype. Rules, mechanics and components may be different from the final version of this product.
How do we play?
After players have chosen their characters and decided player order, they will collect their starting amulet and another from their chosen entry into the temple. They now have 8 rounds to enter this sacred place, find treasure, amulets, perform rituals, and find map pieces that will lead to the Shards of the Jaguar. 6 of these rounds will allow the players to explore 3 out of the 4 board areas of the temple, while the last 2 rounds open up this final quarter. This area is where you’ll use any map pieces you have, to pinpoint the Shards of the Jaguar. Followed by a bonus round where they need to escape with the movement points allocated by their remaining health points.
Each round is constructed of 4 phases.
Points can be earned, not only by trapping other players but also by your collection of gems, performing rituals and your remaining health points. Points can also be lost from the amount of curses you have received or if you take damage and have no health.
Respect for the theme?
Traps and treasure go hand in hand, just like Indiana Jones and artifacts. The fact that you are all from the same tribe, maybe even related and are deliberately trying to hamper the other players feels a little wrong. You feel obliged to be the nasty player, even if you just want a fair and friendly competition. Poisoning others or having them pricked by a handful of arrows is essential to scoring points but not amusing if you are a passive player who just wants to use skill to go in, collect stuff and get out. Luckily, you don’t always have to set off traps that damage other players (and possibly yourself). There are two “so called” traps that do no damage. One is a secret passage that you and only you can use to jump around the board. The other is a flood of water that will displace all played 2 spaces in any of the 4 directions (north, east, south, west) but with a small benefit for you, as you were prepared for it.
The collection of amulets and crystals fits right into the universe, as they are things we have seen in games like this many times. It’s nice to see that they have more than one reason to be there apart from earning point. Amulets give you powers when used. Allowing you to heal or traverse walls, but most importantly, granting an all important extra action. And using crystals to pray at altars, leading more points your way if you are the first to do so. The only thematic thing that seems out of place is this forcefield that prevents players entering the last quarter of the board until round 7. It would fit perfectly into a sci-fi universe, where robots are decrypting codes and laying traps, just until the shields are removed, allowing them to get the hidden rebel plans and jettison in an escape pod. But apart from those things, the theme works.
This game screams interaction. You are snatching up things before others get to them. Deliberately trying to damage them, just to gain points. And constantly trying to out think them and predict where they will go. You will be forever in each other's face, laughing as they fall in your trap, growling at you as you pick up that map piece they were going to grab. The game is constant backstabbing and playful unfriendliness.
Dive into the mechanisms?
The 4 phases are simple to slip into. From determining player order, which is logic, to the movement and trap setting. Having a restricted number of actions keeps the game very tight and slick. Movement is orthogonal, an action point is required to pick up things, use things and move. This leads to lots of calculating on what you want to do on your turn and where you think you will finish your movement. Very important this, as you do not wish to set a trap beforehand, only to be sat in it. And this calculation is very important if you play the more experienced level, where after round 8, you NEED to escape the temple but can only move as many spaces as your life point tracker indicates.
This restricted action point mechanism didn’t work too well in the 2 player version, as there are slightly different rules. With 2 players, there are 2 extra phases. You’ll set a trap, use 2 action points, set a second trap and use your remaining points. This stop and start is a little frustrating, as you may have something planned for the round, but because you are only doing half of it before the other player activates, they can screw you over. Running to the location you hoped to get to, making you have to change your plans halfway through a round. Remember, action points are very tight in this game. You won’t be able to do everything that you plan.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the game. So much going on. You move here, pick that up, this lets you get points, using this means you discard it. The game is simple in principle, but there are many things to remember. You may get bogged down and forget to level up when your score tracker passes a certain point. Or you may be so concerned with your gem collection that you forget to heal yourself, then you fall into not one, but two traps. Taking your health below zero and removing points from your score track. This has the look and feel of a family game, but there is a thin layer added to make it a little more intricate.
Remember, this is a prototype that I am talking about so not everything has been made correctly at this time. For one, the colours on the board and tokens are very dark and sometimes a little difficult to see. This made the setup a little longer than it should have been, added to that is there is a lot to setup. More differentiation between the types of tiles would smooth it out, also larger icons. The icons get a bit lost in the artwork themselves, although they are relatively simple to learn.
The artwork is nice and fits the feel of the theme of a temple. It was relatively simple to distinguish which traps were where. The main board we had was a set layout, whether the final version will be modular or have more types of map is unseen as I write this. I presume that later the wooden components will be replaced with more elaborate looking bits. Even if they aren't, you quickly become accustomed to what they represent.
With two versions of the game (an introductive and normal level) the rules themselves are relatively simple to pick up. There are a lot of little things to remember, so during a first playthrough you’ll probably have to go back through the book to check a few things. A second or even third play and you will have mastered it. You will probably always need a reference card though, to remind you of what each amulet's power is and each gem's value at the end of the game, as some have standard points while others are cumulative. And the added exception of checking on each character's special powers.
Yes, each character can level up and collect amulets as they go and when fully maxed out, they have their own unique power that bends the rules. From defending against traps to transforming amulets. And there is so much choice in what you can do. Do you go for the gems for their end game value? Or collect them to make tributes to score bonus points and level up? Do you grab all the map pieces that let you claim the high scoring Shards of the Jaguar? Do you grab the amulets and abuse their powers to your own evil needs? Finding a good strategy in amongst all that is a challenge as you weave in amongst each other, trying not to get hurt or cursed by the traps that appear in all the chaos.
I feel that the introductive version of the game is best suited to families who like games like Survive: Escape From Atlantis. As it removes the character powers and makes amulets a little more available. It also removes that bonus round after round 8 of getting out of the temple on the life points you have remaining.
Aside from the two player version which felt too “stop & start”, having more players became more intricate. Planning your moves, based on what you thought the other players would do or where they would set off traps adds a nice bit of cat and mouse to the game. Sometimes this would backfire and you may find yourself falling in everybody else's traps and no one falls in yours, giving those an instant boost on their score, leaving you trailing behind. As long as this doesn't happen every round, you should be ok. But there are points aplenty and there is always a possibility of catching up with the other players by doing other things. But is it balanced? I can not tell at this time.
One thing that didn’t feel balanced is the characters final and permanent powers. Having two scoring markers that both move when someone falls in your trap is quite powerful. The scoring track itself is not 1 point by 1 point. It jumps in increments of 3 and if you manage to get to the end of it, it goes up in increments of 5! Compared to the power to try and guess which trap will hit you on a round. Guess correctly and you take no damage from that trap. They seem balanced in a two player game, but with more players and more traps, more traps means a more likely chance of someone falling into one. Enhancing one of these powers while diminishing the other. Or the ability to use a blue amulet to move 2 spaces. I suppose that it gives an objective for that player to collect blue amulets when they unleash that power. And getting to that level can be easy or difficult depending on where the gems and tribute posts are. Plus whoever is unlucky enough to fall into your traps.
There are a lot of moving parts in this family style game. Maybe too many if you play the full version. Even the introductory level, I feel could be lightened to make it more accessible to a younger audience. With a lot of moving of components from one space to another, things may get forgotten in all this shifting of tracks and items collected. A little heavier than your average family style game, but no less fun. With the push your luck element of “what should I take” and “how far should I advance” that you will find in games like Clank. Infact, playing this will probably appeal to that audience more than a kid friendly one. But all of this ties up nicely into an exciting race to get the most points. While stepping on the other players toes, hoping they fall into your devious traps. Tense and exciting, if you don’t mind the luck factor.
Me, of course!