If you’ll pardon the obvious pun, Splendor is a gem. Marc André’s 2014 game of trading in precious stones is one of those board games that just feels hugely satisfying to play, and even to hold in your hands. Like the sparkling opals and rubies on its cards and delightfully clacky poker-style chips, it’s an experience polished to a bright, gleaming sheen.
The rules take only a few minutes to learn. You collect gems - clack, clack, clack; it just feels so darn good - to buy cards, which provide victory points and permanent gems you can use to buy more cards, eventually gathering enough where scrapping over the limited stacks of chips becomes secondary to pinching valuable cards and impressing bonus aristocrats ahead of your rival merchants.
Despite its relatively basic rules and so-what theme, Splendor is a game I’ve returned to countless times since I first played it. The mobile app in particular has become a fixture on train journeys (remember those?) with my wife, passing a phone back and forth as we delight in stealing gems and prestige from each other. It’s a diamond of a game: the compression of simple elements into a perfectly-formed thing of beauty. (Although, ironically, its box could be sliced in half and still have room to spare.)
It’s with excitement, then, that I’ve been following André’s latest game, the upcoming Soul Raiders. It’s the designer’s first brand new design since 2017’s Majesty: For the Realm and the flagship debut of One for All, the fledgling studio he recently co-founded focused on co-op, story-driven experiences powered by the Running Quest system.
Soul Raiders marks a major departure for André, and in particular from Splendor.
Soul Raiders marks a major departure for André, and in particular from Splendor. Rather than a tight, competitive experience, it is a sprawling game built around an ambitious co-operative narrative. The box boasts over 800 cards and multiple miniatures for each of its characters, with plays spanning multiple hours rather than minutes. Each individual session is one part of a three-chapter campaign influenced by the players’ decisions; their actions and decisions can change the outcome of individual chapters, as well as the overall story and fate of a doomed fantasy world.
Having played an early prototype of Soul Raiders several years ago at Essen Spiel and been left intrigued, I was recently able to get hands-on with an updated demo of the upcoming board game ahead of its Kickstarter next month. The demo featured a prequel chapter - made up of nine possible locations, rather than a standard scenario’s 40 - and a simplified version of Soul Raiders’ full ruleset. The prototype is said to be a mechanical demo and side-story that avoids touching on the main plot of the game, so there should be no spoilers here.
In motion, Soul Raiders combines the open-ended exploration of games such as The 7th Continent with the combo-heavy cardplay of a Gloomhaven-lite. Players spend cards from their hand to perform actions - ranging from general actions such as movement and combat to unique tests such as picking a lock or pulling a lever - combining the value of the numbered cards to succeed against the given difficulty. Cards can provide additional bonuses for specific combos or actions, with some able to be permanently discarded to cast powerful spells.
Soul Raiders combines the open-ended exploration of games such as The 7th Continent with the combo-heavy cardplay of a Gloomhaven-lite.
The characters are able to move between separate location cards as they wish, with no set order to the scenario’s objectives. These cards can be turned over by specific actions and events, creating new environments - in one example, a surprise trapdoor opened under a hero’s feet, while in another a sleeping goblin awoke and attempted to attack the sneaking heroes.
Combat occurs frequently, and is straightforward to resolve. A player can use cards from their hand to surpass an enemy’s defence and deal damage, with a variety of traits adding other considerations, such as restricting heroes’ movement or dealing double damage. Any surviving enemies dish out damage at the end of a round, with the players sharing a central health track that gradually exhausts them, providing fewer cards to use each round - meaning you can’t use one character as fodder while the others search for the objective.
Locations can also trigger a variety of effects, including spawning more enemies and raising the party’s threat - which increases the number of enemies that appear and health lost to “stress” at the end of each turn. Losing all your health or hitting the top of the threat track are the only two ways to lose, with winning coming down to completing the main objective before you run out of time or are defeated.
Despite Soul Raiders’ billing as a story-focused experience, my time with the demo involved only a few snippets of narrative delivered by scripted event cards.
Despite Soul Raiders’ billing as a story-focused experience, my time with the demo involved only a few snippets of narrative delivered by scripted event cards. A handful of cards offered branching decisions, but felt largely superfluous moments rather than part of a greater whole. This may have been the result of the prologue swerving around a deeper narrative in the full game, but what was present failed to whet my appetite to venture further into its lore.
The rest of Soul Raiders’ world-building feels just as disappointingly shallow. While players’ characters are at least named, and boast unique ability cards unlocked by dispatching tougher foes or resolving bigger events to earn ‘heroism’ tokens, there’s no backstory to speak of and the main narrative lacks any particular stakes or mystery to drive the players forward.
The opening to the prologue chapter nods at some attempt to build up a world - referencing “the Soul Raider rite” and the ominous-sounding Veil - but quickly descends into fantasy tropes and vague buzzwords. Even scripted monsters - presented as the game’s rarer big bads, rather than recurring mobs drawn from a separate deck - lack names, becoming little more than forgettable cliches only given passing definition by event cards: “the warrior”, “the man in the bronze mask”, “the goblin”.
A run-of-the-mill story and fantasy world wouldn’t be such an issue if Soul Raiders’ gameplay lifted the overall experience.
Locations feel just as bland, lacking names or anything beyond a sentence or two of narration. The most narrative thrust comes from the event cards, but even those fail to give any real sense of what the world is, who your characters are or what they’re searching for, settling for tired ideas such as an alarm being set off, a supposedly deadly trap or a mysterious voice that leads… well, to nothing of note, really.
A run-of-the-mill story and fantasy world wouldn’t be such an issue if Soul Raiders’ gameplay lifted the overall experience. After all, Splendor’s Renaissance trading isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking of settings, but quickly fades into the background of its mechanical excellence.
Unfortunately, the cardplay just isn’t interesting enough to have the same tactical depth as something like Gloomhaven, or embedded in the world and narrative enough to achieve the same puzzle-like discovery as The 7th Continent or even escape room games such as Unlock! At one point during a two-player session, I spent several turns stuck in a room with monsters that stopped me from fleeing to another room, unable to defeat them quickly enough with the cards in my hand before more spawned, while my companion struggled to escape an adjoining environment. It wasn’t frustrating because of its difficulty - it was just a bit dull.
That feeling extends to my time with Soul Raiders as a whole. It’s a game that feels lost between its ambitions as an open-ended, story-driven adventure and a cooperative, tactical board game, ending up in an uncomfortable spot where it’s unlikely to satisfy fans of either genre. Its weak writing and yet-another-fantasy-setting world weren’t enough to invest me in finding out what happens next, while its functional but ultimately unengaging gameplay struggled to make the encounters between the story beats interesting enough to reward the time it asks of its players over a single full session, let alone several.
It’s especially disappointing given André’s previous work, and the promise of what Soul Raiders could be if it focused on providing either outstanding gameplay, as Splendor did, or a rich, engrossing world, as the best fantasy games do. Based on my time with it, it currently has neither - and lacks a bit of much-needed soul as a result.
Soul Raiders will launch on Kickstarter on July 7th.