[Preview] Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga – Stone Cold Crazy

I – Introduction

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Fact sheet
Author: Lee G. Broderick
Publisher: Dragon Dawn Productions
Illustrations: Matthias CatreinLars Munck
Year published: 2021
Player count: 1-2 players
Recommended player count: 1 player
Length: 10-30 minutes
Set-up and teardown time: extremely fast, rarely more than 1 minute
Mechanisms: hand management, ressource management, set collection
Card size: 63X88mm
Copy obtained through: preview copy sent by the designer

Caught by a storm while you were breaking in the tomb of Maeshowe, you trapped yourself underground as you desperately seeked refuge, and now realize that, while you are now protected from the weather, you are to die a slow death should you not react quickly. Excavating the way will take blood, sweat and tears, but moaning about your ill fortune will do you no good. So kick yourself back up and start working. Maybe the gods will send you omens to help you in your labor, and relieve your mind, lest you go mad before you make it out or die of exhaustion.

This preview was written after 26 plays, including all expansion modules and some rules errors. It will focus entirely on the solo mode. Since the preview copy is a prototype, this preview won’t discuss rules, components or artwork quality, all subject to change.

A preview copy was sent to me by the designer in exchange for a honest preview. Please be sure that I did my best to not let it influence my judgement.


II – A quick rules summary

To play a game of Maeshowe: an Orkney Saga (Maeshowe for short), the player should select a difficulty level, and decide whether to include one or more expansion module(s) and optional rule(s).

They then put as many passage tokens on the board as dictated by their chosen difficulty level, gain four health and one food, include the three cards of each expansion module they elected to include, if any, and shuffle them with all the base game cards. They then draw a hand of five cards.

Each turn, the player must both play a card and discard a card, in the order of their choosing. To play a card, they place it in the row, and apply the “play” effect. To discard a card, they place it in the discard pile, and apply the “discard” effect. Such effects can cost the player health, give them health, give them food, let them exchange food for health, or, in the case of the Excavate Passage card (Excavate for short), remove one passage token if the card is the fourth card played in a row — two passage tokens if the four cards share the same rune.

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This is what your see as you wake up after your fall.

The player then draws back up to five cards, if able. Then, if all the cards in their hand have the same rune, they go mad: they lose one health and one maximum health, and shuffle their hand and the discard pile together into the deck, before drawing until they have five cards in hand, at which point they do not go mad even if all the cards bear the same rune.

If the player’s health reaches zero, or if they can’t play and discard a card during a turn, the player loses. If they remove all the passage tokens, they win the game.


III – A measure of Maeshowe

Pros:
– Maeshowe is quick and easy to set up! The rules take a couple of pages, setup is lightning fast, and the game plays in under 30 minutes with a small footprint, making it a great game to bring on a lunch break or to finish the day with, all without sacrificing to the difficulty or decision-space.
Maeshowe is customizable! The difficulty level can be adapted to the player’s whims, from easy to mechanically impossible without expansion modules. Said modules allow the player to give it the thematic and mechanical flavor they desire, focusing more on the discard pile, madness, food, or a combination of them all.
Maeshowe is a different take on a solo favorite! Doing away with the mass shuffling and “droning until the deck plays out although it is now impossible to win” of its predecessor, Onirim, from which it takes inspiration, at least in part, Maeshowe offers a ruthless experience that is free of the distraction of having to break down playing and shuffling the deck for the nth time this game, while constantly putting the pressure of an instant loss on the player.

Cons:
– Maeshowe is abstract! Original as the theme may be, it does not really come through the card play. The player does not feel like they have discovered an ancient artifact when they play a card that costs them two health or discard it and lose one health. The fact that wild geese are running free in a sealed tomb does not make much sense either. Some cards, like Excavate, Eat or Passage Collapse, more successfully emulate the situation they depict.
Maeshowe is random! A common point in many card games, but Maeshowe is particularly vulnerable to it. It is entirely possible to start the game with an awful hand which will lead to going mad on turn 1, severely hampering the player and giving them no benefit from this marginal but useful rule point; worse still, one can easily just die on turn one after replenishing a hand and going mad. The upside is the fact that doing so will only cost the player 1 minute of their gaming life.


IV – The wall of text (a.k.a. the Comboteur Fou’s opinion)

Introduction

Small card games are a boon. Playable in just about any situation on a table corner while children sleep, during lunch break, during commute if you’re lucky, they often take little time to learn, are played through rapidly, and involve the player without being mentally taxing, making them appropriate before nighttime as well.

Maeshowe is one such game. The rules can be learned in five minutes, the game played in fifteen, and even at the end of the game with a full row, won’t require more than a regular-sized playmat, if any, on the table. But does it give the player enough decision space, and replay-value, to warrant being brought along wherever when the competition is already quite prevalent, given the avent of wallet games, mint games, and other super small, fast card games on the market ?

Knocking on heaven’s door

Maeshowe‘s premise is incredibly alluring: as opposed to other hand management card games, the player does not have to just play cards for effect, they have to discard one each turn as well. Better still, doing so triggers an effect that is different from the effect the card has when played.
What makes the game even more interesting, though, is that playing cards from the deck is anything but beneficial for the player: most of the cards are actually damaging to the player, making them lose health, food, or undoing their hard-earned — and hard-earned it truly is — progress by putting removed passage tokens back into play, forcing excruciating choices on the player turn after turn, which could often amount to picking one’s poison.

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All the different cards in the game, each present in both colors.

Rather than trying to achieve powerful combos, the player will then be trying to minimize the damage taken from the cards they played, decide whether they should play beneficial cards — because yes, there are some — for their effect, or discard those to temporize losses, as most of the beneficial cards have no effect when discarded, knowing that doing so truly means sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term safety. Yet, playing a card to the row also means that it won’t go into the player’s hand again should they go mad, when cards from the discard pile get reshuffled into the deck and then drawn again later in the game.

And yet, things are still more complex. Because each card has a rune at the top, mainly identified by its color for heretics such as I, thereafter differentiated as the ever-so-unfathomable Red, and Blue, the player will also have to take into account the card’s color when deciding to remove it from their hand one way or another. There are two main reasons for this:
First, because should the player draw back up to their hand limit of five cards at the end of a turn and have a hand composed entirely of cards of the same color, they will immediately go mad, meaning that they must discard their hand, potentially ruining what they were trying to achieve for several turns — but, and we’ll come back to this later on, potentially getting rid of an inconveniant hand  —, and shuffled the discard pile into the deck, before losing one health and one max health.
Second, because when the player plays Excavate cards to the row, which by themselves have no effect whether played nor drawn, they will, when the fourth Excavate cards is played to the row in a row, remove one passage token from the board, getting closer to achieving their goal, which is to remove all the passage tokens. Where colors matter is that, if the four cards are of the same color, the player will remove two passage tokens instead of one.
Considering that there are only fifteen Excavate cards, removing two tokens at once becomes of the utmost importance if the player is playing on Hard difficulty and beyond, with five or more passage tokens into play, as removing five tokens will require a total of twelve cards if they’re played in sequences of four of the same color, and twenty if they’re played in sequences of 4 four of different colors. Furthermore, this also means that the player can only afford to temporize by “wasting” three Excavate cards before it becomes totally impossible for them to win, forcing them to ensure that the number of cards left in the deck allows them to complete a sequence. This is further emphasized by the fact that, of those fifteen cards, only five of them are red, making completing a red sequence a bigger risk, especially early on in the game when the player has little or no visibility on where they could be in the deck.

The downside to the system is that it is very much possible for the player to lose the game as early as turn one, which only requires them to play a card costing them two health, discard a card costing them one health, and then go mad to a hand of a single color. Doing so is not strategically unsound, and it will happen that the color of cards played is not an actual choice as the initial hand is already single-colored.
This should not be considered a problem, though, as a turn one loss will cost the player virtually zero time considering that they merely will have to reshuffle the deck and move their token back to full health before they start anew.

On the other hand, there will be occurences when the player has begun an Excavate row that they fail to complete because they cannot successfully draw the fourth card, because they cannot afford to play it or it would make them lose should they discard any other card in hand, or because they draw a unicolor hand and go mad, then fail to draw an Excavate card in their new hand. It won’t always be possible to prevent doing so if the deck puts a high pressure on the player’s health.

There again, the game won’t last long enough for that kind of demise to be an issue, it should be easy for the player to assess that they technically can no longer win the game, and this level of randomness is to be expected of a card game. Luckily, expansion modules allow the player more control over the deck and the discard pile and help remedy this potential problem.

In the land of plenty

While the emphasis on health and deck management successfully comes through, the handling of food doesn’t as efficiently as its two counterparts.

At no point during the game is it a requirement for the player to consume food. In fact, with the base game only, food needs only be used optionally to replenish health with the Eat card and technically serves no other purpose. Of course, the experienced player knows better, and generating or consuming food, while it will in no way reflect in the player’s other visible resources, will represent an important way of temporizing a bad hand, by letting the player stall for a little while, while not losing health to cards that would otherwise have needed to see play, or by keeping in hand a precious Excavate card. Simply playing a Goose card — and pray don’t ask what live geese are doing in a sealed tomb — or a Run out of Food to the row can save the player a lot of resources even though it has no immediate impact on the progress made, contributing to making the player feel that they are making interesting decisions.

The Eat card itself being the only card that lets the player actually consume food for visible benefits, but does so marginally. Rarely will it pay off more than the Sleep or the Raven card, requiring a lot of setup to give three health, never giving four health since, while the player can amass four food, they will die if they go below one health and cannot go above four health. It will fairly often not even yield that if the player has already gone mad, at which point they will only ever need to gain two health at once. Still, it represents another way of replenishing the precious heart-shaped resource and as such should not be shunned, but somehow, dumping it for a single health gain feels like a waste, which in itself, of course, is a trap, since said single health still is better than being dead.

However, because only the Goose card can add to the food’s stocks, and because losing said food to Run out of Food is such a valid option early on, Eat will often serve as a discard option, a situation during which it has the good taste, if I dare say so, of yielding no effect.

Going crazy

Going mad sounds like a terrible thing. The immediate and permanent health loss is properly daunting, and having to get rid of a lovingly crafted hand is anything but appealing. Why then would the player wish to do so and not actively prevent it?

36 cards is not much. Chances are that the player doesn’t manage to remove the five passage tokens — because really, past the initial plays, the game should not be played with less — during their first go through the deck, and had to choose to dump their Excavate cards to preserve some precious health points. Going mad will then represent their only survival option, reconstituting the deck pile with fresh ammunition before it becomes impossible — the player cannot go mad with less than five cards in hand.

Counting cards to ensure the ability to effectively do so becomes of the utmost importance as the deck gets thinner, and the option becomes brilliantly appealing. It also lets the player take more liberty in what they toss during the game, rather than having to hang on to Excavate cards at all cost. Knowing that there are more blue ones than red, for instance, will let the player feel more confident about using said red cards as discard fodder to focus on combining blue ones and be more efficient in their passage tokens removal endeavors.

As such, the Go Mad mechanism is a fantastic little addition which helps the game feel deeper than it would otherwise be, give the player more control — or is it the illusion of control? — over an overall quite random game, and give them more leeway in what they discard.

But it remains a dangerous move, as the discarded cards will often be cards that the player does not wish to see again, cards that are more dangerous when played to the row than when discarded. Cards that will be more present than the much desired Excavate cards after the reshuffle. Should then not the player make sure to play said life-threatening cards during the early turns, when they can afford the life loss, and discard some Eat/Excavate/Sleep/Raven/Goose cards for future use, rather than trying to mitigate their loss or build their strengths? Yet another instance of the depth that can lie in a deceptively simple little card game.

Silence of the grave

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Choose your own adventure.

While the base game is satisfying in itself, Maeshowe comes with a fair share of variability, in the form of three, three cards modules that can be added and/or combined, as well as optional setup rules that play on the mechanisms they bring and help them stand out even more.

These three modules each add a new dimension to the game and exploit a part of the design space in a new way.

The Hope/Horror module plays on madness, giving the player the opportunity to go mad simply by playing a card, which is not without risk as the player could potentially go mad twice in a turn if they then draw a unicolor hand, something they have no hand into, but gives them more control over when to trigger this interesting phenomenon. Of course, things are not that simple, and the Horror card also features both colors, making it that much easier to go mad since it acts as a wild in that regard, counting as both colors but triggering madness for both colors. In no way does it act as a failsafe, quite the opposite. When discarded, it also brings new sorts of pain to the player, costing them one health and one food. But more importantly, for this card in particular, the player needs to have food to be able to discard it, giving more importance to that resource and less opportunities to discard the Horror card, forcing it to remain in hand for a longer time and thus making it more threatening, as the player will need a wider variety of colors to ensure they don’t go mad before they intend to.
The Hope card, on the other hand, is colorless, and prevents the player from going mad entirely — except through the Horror card play action of course — making it a precious asset to keep in hand when aiming for a complete, single-colored excavation, even more so considering that it will act as a wild Excavate if played to the row, helping achieve the elusive two-passage-tokens-removal; and counterbalancing the Horror card. Its discard effect also helps a great deal, letting the player peek at the next two cards in the deck and discarding them if they so choose, which provide several benefits, as it can prevent early madness, but also save health points and help digging for those Excavate cards. At any rate, information is extremely valuable, especially when the player can discard their card before they play another one, making sure that the card they play will make sense in the context of the upcoming ones. The Hope card acting as a wild Excavate also means that using this module lets the player use seven passage tokens.
This expansion, giving a lot more control to the player, makes the game slightly easier despite appearances, and puts a bigger emphasis on managing colors in hand. An excellent addition.

The Garner/Gluttony modules further exploits the food mechanism and resource by offering the player a new outlet for it: card recursion from the discard pile. Rather than gaining health in exchange for food, playing the Garner card lets the player handpick cards they previously discarded and reshuffle them into the deck, giving them more time before they need to go mad but also ensuring that the Excavate cards or health beneficial cards they previously assessed as temporizing devices make a new appearance and are able to contribute to replenishing their faltering life force or progressing toward their objective. Discarding the card also contributes a food, making both options very appealing. The Gluttony card will put a dent in their plans by causing a highly damaging two life loss when played or forcing the player to lose all their food when discarded, which it cannot be should the player have none, forcing a loss of one to four units of food depending on how ill-prepared the player is.
While it is not the expansion that enforces its theme the most, the Garner/Gluttony module still forces the player to better manage their food resource and to reevaluate how they use it, as playing Gluttony for two damage and the assurance that it will not show up again after a reshuffle, then using the Eat card to minimize the loss might or might not be worth more than losing one unit of food now and losing health to the card later after going mad and being forced to play it because of a lack of food and the inability to afford discarding any other card in hand, be it because they are the only remaining Excavate cards left or because discarding any other card would make the player go mad. Not accounting for the fact, of course, that it takes a drawing slot and makes it harder to win the game just by being there and making the deck thicker.
Not as strong an addition as the Horror/Hope expansion, but one that forces more decisions on the player and brings more variety, and still very pleasant to play with.

The Conservation/Crumble expansion is focused on card manipulation and deck and discard pile management. The Conservation card allows card recursion from the row when played and from the discard pile when discarded, being the only other outlet, along with Hope, that technically lets the player win a game in which seven passage tokens must be removed, since it ups the total amount of Excavate cards from fifteen to sixteen should it send one from the row back to the player’s hand, probably the most powerful effect in the game, but also one that needs a lot of preparation to ensure that it doesn’t disrupt a suit of Excavate cards or is not wasted to madness or not drawing into the right cards.
The Crumble card is both a blessing and a curse, as it lets the player fill up their discard pile from either the deck or their hand depending on whether it is played or discarded, giving them more recursion options and more knowledge of what they are likely to draw, since the discard pile is open information, but also making madness more pressing, as doing so thins the deck. It could make excavating a passage much more difficult if the player happens to discard the cards they needed to do so, but also gives more impact to the Conservation card.
Overall, a very enjoyable expansion that gives the player more control over what is happening in the game, and more decision-space, but makes the game slightly easier if played with the regular amount of passage tokens. Possibly the most pleasant module to use.

When all three modules are combined, the chance of drawing into the right card rarifies, as the 36 cards deck turns into a more random 45 cards deck, to which six blue cards are added, also increasing the odds of going mad when not expected or desired, which heavily increases the randomness of the game despite creating more decision space. The game remains winnable but becomes much less forgiving, and the one game that I won under such circumstances was, interestingly, won without going mad, as the stars aligned and I was able to gather three sets of a single colors in a row, removing the five passage tokens and creating an occurence where I would have won the game even if I had played with six passage tokens.
While this should not be considered the default way to play as it can create frustrating situations and lessens the impact of each module’s theme, strengths and weaknesses, it still presents the player with an interesting and challenging configuration that will ask them to hone their skills if they want to make the better of it and can feel very rewarding when the player manages to beat the odds and escape from the tomb.
It remains advisable for the player to play without any expansion module at first, and then to play each of them separately, before attempting to play with all three of them at once.

Among the catacombs of Nephren-Ka

The closest game Maeshowe naturally compares to is Onirim, for two main reasons. As in Shadi Torbey‘s masterpiece, Maeshowe requires of the player to achieve a suit of a given number of cards sharing similarities in the row to unlock an objective a given number of time. When the objective is door cards in Onirim, it takes the form of passage tokens in Maeshowe, which has the benefit of not being part of the deck. Similarly to all of the games of the OniverseMaeshowe also comes with modular mini-expansions included in the core box, that can be added, removed, or combined at the start of the game to give it a different feel and supplementary actions, and which vastly improve the replayability, and come with their adjustable difficulty optional rules.

Yet this is where the similarities end, and where Maeshowe aims — unconsciously, perhaps — at correcting Onirim‘s wrongs, or at least at offering a different take on them. The biggest improvement over Onirim is of course the biggest criticism the latter receives: Maeshowe does away with the vast majority of the shuffling that Onirim constantly requires of the player, by turning the equivalent of doors into tokens that take no card slot and are not part of the deck, and by not offering direct card manipulation, at least not in the core rules. Without expansions, the game will only require a shuffling during setup and when the player goes mad, which will happen a maximum of three times before they simply lose the game. The fact that it is only comprised of under fifty cards also greatly helps making said shuffling much less tedious, even with the inclusion of expansions, some of which will force more reshuffles, although it will remain marginal and nowhere near the amount of times of its predecessor.
The inclusion of token-tracked resources gives a different feel to the game, especially the health resource, as it means the player can perfectly end up dying before they reach the end of the deck, putting more emphasis on hand management in order to carry on through the game rather than just droning through and dumping cards to the row to no effect until the last card is drawn, and crossing fingers that the needed colors and symbols still remain in the deck. The constant threat of imminent death puts more pressure on the player’s shoulders and the rarity of the Excavate cards, the only ones that can achieve objectives as opposed to all the base game’s cards doing so in Onirim, means the player cannot afford to temporize by playing them to the row outside ouf a suit, when they know there are so few of them, which in itself, combined with the small size of the deck, makes counting cards and knowing whether winning is still an option at any point, much more doable, removing the need to play the game out until the end “just in case”, while giving the player more incentive to be cautious about what they do, and this, from turn one.
This results in Maeshowe being less of a relaxing experience and more of a tense and ruthless game, giviing it a different feel from its predecessor and a strong identity of its own. Both games can thus happily coexist in a solo player’s game library with little to no overlap.

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The sweet outside air has never tasted so good!

Conclusion

The filler slot is quite busy for solitaire players, but games that can easily be carried and played under thirty minutes on a coffee table or on a very small surface at work are always welcome. By requiring a small number of components and close to no setup, while offering a large amount of decision space with long-lasting consequences and tough choices from turn one with rippling consequences going through to the endgame, Maeshowe easily earns its place in a gamer’s bag or shelf, bringing them a gritty, tense and customizable time that will lend itself well to replayability and will leave the player wanting to come back for another try after their frequent demise, or wanting to try a new configuration after their triumph.

A light and fast game of excruciating choices that does not sacrifice depth to its format.

2 comments

  1. This game also has some patience/solitaire/klondike vibes (which comes from the fact that it used to be a game you could play with a regular 52-card deck), which is not bad at all – it gives this game a ‘classic’ feel of sorts. However, your comparisons to Onirim really put this on my radar. I got rid of it because of the shuffling while I did appreciate the rest. I’m a bit cautious for the insta-loss possibility you mention here for Maeshowe, but I’m curious enough to take a closer look once the campaign launches.

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