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Heroes of Thargos card game: does it set a path to glory?

Two competing parties of adventurers take on a series of challenges to prove their might. There will be contests that beat them, but they will stand tall, fight through, and move on to face their next test in the eternal quest for glory.


Yes, the reboot of Gladiators on the BBC seems to be a ratings hit, thanks for asking. But instead of watching that, I've been playing Heroes of Thargos.


The Heroes of Thargos tableau laid out on the official playmat (provided to us with our review copy, but not included with retail copies)

Players: 1+ Ages: 14+ Game Time: 45-90 minutes


Designed by Chris Loizou and based on the Cursed Empire role playing game, Heroes of Thargos is a card drafting game for two or more players. Each player has a party of four adventurers, who go up against the other players' adventurers to complete missions of varying difficulties, with harder missions being worth more victory points. The player who hits the required number of victory points first - which depends on the number of players, the adventurers you choose, and the difficulty you want to set - wins the game.


Each adventurer has three stats: Might, Magic & Mysticism. Some adventurers are more powerful than others, which is why their cards have a level in the top right. Adventurers can become injured, so that their special effects are altered or removed, or their Might, Magic, or Mysticism is lowered, until they're healed.


The rest of your deck is built up of mission cards, action cards, and lasting cards. (The default is 20 of each, but we'll talk more about that later.)


  • Mission cards allow players to fill mission slots once the previous mission that was there has been fulfilled.

  • Action cards give players special actions that they can enact on their turn (everything from making opponents discard cards to preventing mission tracks from being fulfilled until the next turn).

  • Lasting cards allow players to add permanent modifiers to their characters, like a powerful minion or a special weapon, boosting some of their stats or adding special extra effects.


These are all shuffled together, so there's a lot of luck in what you draw. By default, you draw back up to a hand of six cards at the start of your turn.


If you choose to complete a mission on your turn, you can use the cards in your hand as modifiers. They'll have their 'PAM' (played as modifier) number in the top right, which you choose to add to your Might, Magic, or Mysticism score as you see fit. The aim is to score higher in all three stats than your opponent's character, plus any modifiers added by the mission.


Two character cards from Heroes of Thargos, Adrianna the Imperial Mentor and Krisoss. Each has had their core stats boosted by having a blue lasting card played underneath them.
Two character cards from Heroes of Thargos, Adrianna the Imperial Mentor and Krisoss. Each has had their core stats boosted by having a blue lasting card played underneath them.

Be cautious, though, because your opponent will have the opportunity to counter, using their own cards to add modifiers to their character. If they end up with a higher number, they've successfully defended against your attempt to complete the mission, and your attacking character ends up injured.


This is where the strategy of the game comes in. Remember, you don't draw cards until the start of your turn (excepting any special actions or character effects). If you go in for a big attack, you'll be left with fewer cards to use as modifiers to defend against attacks before you get to draw again. But if you don't attack with enough strength, your character ends up injured and will be weaker when your opponent attacks. There's even more risk if you're playing with 3 or more players, when there's longer between your turns and you're potentially defending yourself on multiple fronts (one for each of your opponents) which the game asks you to set up.


Seems simple, right? Do an action, attempt a mission, opponent defends (if they choose to), use completed missions to build your victory point total.


Page 15 of the Heroes of Thargos rulebook, which is split into just two paragraphs.
I had to re-read this monster paragraph so many times, all the words started to blur.

Well, not if you take a look at the rulebook. The 'quickstart' rules are a whopping 11 A5-sized pages long, and they only appear after four pages of lore, introducing players to the world of Thargos. They also include some of the densest rule paragraphs I've ever seen, including one which begins with "let's give an example of a game turn" and ends 23 lines later, having only just set up the attack to complete a mission.


A bad rulebook doesn't make a bad game, but it does leave a poor first impression. There was lots of head scratching and passing the rulebook around to get a second opinion during setup, let alone trying to get through our first playthrough. Our review copy also came with a custom playmat to help us along, although this doesn't come with standard retail copies of the game.


Given that Heroes of Thargos isn't introducing any particularly groundbreaking mechanics, and lots of the rules that make up the game come from special effects written on the cards, this game is crying out for a simple player aid, but it doesn't have one.


Its actual simplicity, when boiled down, is what made the game seem very dry. You are playing as adventurers fighting for glory, but in practice you are drawing cards, doing basic maths, seeing if your luck holds out, then repeating the process.


At no point does it feel like you are actually playing as characters, nor are you encouraged to do so. It doesn't matter how fearsome their illustration might be, or how incredible their special effect is; you are mostly hoping that cards you could have used as more interesting things hold out as immediately discardable modifiers. The setting of Thargos could be any fantasy land as long as the numbers add up.


The art (mostly by Ryan Verhagen, with supplementary illustrations by Martin Paz Romero) doesn't drag me into the world very strongly either. All the illustrations for characters, places, monsters etcetera are perfectly fine, but there're all the tropes you'd expect (a gladiatorial warrior whose face is obscured by shadow, a necromancer style character who looks mostly dead themselves, a place illustrated by a map that looks heavily inspired by Tolkien), and nothing visually distinctive enough to make you think "yeah, we're playing in Thargos".


Maybe my lack of attachment is down to not being familiar with the Cursed Empire RPG this is based on, but it's fair to say that the average new player won't be familiar with it either, and this shouldn't be something that holds someone back from enjoying a game. If there's anything DOALG's many May 4th events have shown me, it's that you don't have to be familiar with the world of Star Wars to enjoy a game set on its many planets.


You can play Heroes of Thargos in a story mode, which helps resolve this issue a little. Story mode sees you set out missions in a sequential order to be completed, with players being able to take their band of rogues on different path branches to an ultimate end mission. In a nod to its RPG roots, this feels a lot more like a campaign adventure - but it also involves a more considered RPG-style of setup.


Heroes of Thargos wants you to do a lot of stuff yourself, before the game has even started. You can use some resources for campaigns on the Cursed Empire website (www.cursedempire.com/resources), but that's limited, and you have to know the deck well to create your own story. The rulebook also admits that, regarding which characters make up a good adventuring party: "you will get a better feel for it the more games you play".


This is the same sort of logic as people who tell me "you have to keep watching Game of Thrones, it gets good next season". It had its chance to grab me by being good from the outset. They're highlighting the imbalance in characters as a feature, not a bug.


But even if I were to lovingly craft a narrative, to delicately choose my player characters, to carefully cut a prime deck - it would all be wasted on big-number-beats-small-number gameplay. If detailed story and character optimisation are what you're into, it would surely be preferable to play an RPG like the Cursed Empire from which Thargos is born, using pre-constructed characters and stories if you're short on time or resources.


Two imps on a die face, representing a 2 out of 6 rating

2/6 It's a perfectly theoretically playable game, but it's unclear who Heroes of Thargos would be fun for. Themed board game fans would be better off with a game where the theme is core to the gameplay, RPG & narrative fans would be better off playing a game where they can get into their roles, and fans of more abstract, crunchier games would be better served by game mechanics that are more complex and less transactional.

There are few questions to which Heroes of Thargos is the best answer.

GrGr

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