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At the start, King Arthur's realm still lies enshrouded by the fog. Nobody knows how valuable the individual areas are. When the first knights move into the mysterious countryside, the haze gradually lifts. Valuable cities, militarily useful castles, and mysterious stone circles become visible -- thus the famous Avalon emerges. However, not only the knights, but also the priests of the old religion with their sorcery have a crucial influence on what's happening. Who will be able to grab power for themselves?
I always play a game 3 times before I pass final judgement. The first play is for sifting through the rules. You kind of have to play it and read the rule book at the same time. The second play is checking yourself to make sure you really know how to play. It's often necessary to refer to the rule book to clarify the rules when things don't feel right. The 3rd play is the real game. You can viciously attack your opponent. If he hasn't learned the rules yet on this 3rd play, too bad. Pummel him mercifuly.
Avalon has a steep learning curve. A seasoned player would have to work gently with a new player to get him up to speed, to make him a worthy opponent. With two knowledgeable players the game can be a real treat. Yes, there is back-and-forth battles for some sites. But a player has to decide when to attempt to win a site back. Does he have enough power to make a reasonable return attack? Does he posses the sorceress's special ability? His resources may be enough to guarantee a win at a lesser site. Should he try for that instead?
It's not an easy win. It's one of those games where you manage to win by a nose through careful hand management. Like most of Colovini's games (Clans comes to mind), it takes a few careful plays to master.
Avalon is the heavier of the two newest Kosmos two-player games, the other being Balloon Cup. Leo Colovini, who has quickly established himself as an excellent abstract thinker, has created a game where Pyrrhic victories are available at every play since the costs of winning individual contests can be punitive.
The players are fighting to win control of a foggy landscape, denoted with 11 region cards laid out initially face-down between the two players. Cards showing Knights and Sorceresses are laid on each side of the landscape cards and a see-saw battle for control of each is underway. Each region card has victory point crowns marked on it, from one to three. The current controller of the region turns the card so that the victory point crowns face their side. The first player to control 15 of the 22 total victory points wins.
The card deck consists of 40 sorceresses and 40 knights, eight each in five colors. Players begin with five cards and on a turn can play as many as they wish. There are three basic options. First is to simply reinforce your side of a region card with knights or sorceresses. As will soon be seen, more cards means more defense. The second option is to use a sorceress to enchant, meaning to take your opponent's card and move it to your side. Doing this requires playing a sorceress whose color matches the desired card. If successful, you take the card (either knight or sorceress, both can be enchanted) and add it to your side. But, if your opponent can counter with a similarly-colored sorceress then they not only keep their card but take the one you played into their hand for future use. Ouch!
The final option is the one that earns victory points, and this is the attack. To attack, a player simply plays a knight card of any color on any region where he has at least as many cards as his opponent. If the opponent can play a similarly-colored knight, both take their position on their own sides and the attack is repulsed. If not repulsed, the attacking player wins the battle and now controls the region, meaning the card is rotated so that the victory point crowns face him. Now, the first major strategic piece of the game comes into play, which is the battle losses. There is no free lunch in Avalon.
The losing player in a conquest removes all of their cards from the region and discards them. The winner must then first discard an equal number of cards from the same region. So, successfully attack with a four to three card lead and end up with a one card to none advantage. But that is not all, because after this the winning player must discard cards equal to the total number of cards in play at that region during the battle, including the attacking knight. These cards can come from anywhere on your side of the board or your hand, but all must come from somewhere. So, using the 'four card to three' victory above, another seven cards must be discarded. This has huge implications and can be cleverly used to make future attacks less expensive. For example, if I've built up five cards on one side against only one for my opponent, an attack there will cause a bigger loss than if I can 'reduce down' before the attack. This of course can be risky in that it will take some time to build up the defense again, but lowering the shields to get a better view can be helpful.
This card loss brings up the second big strategic aspect of the game, which is the card draw. This is not a simple 'refill your hand to x' kind of game. Instead, the game includes nine supply tiles which are laid out beside the region card display. At the end of a player's turn, they choose one of the nine tiles. There are both light-colored and dark-colored tiles, with a meaningful difference. The light-colored tiles generally get you fewer cards but you fill your hand immediately with them. For example, some light tiles say 'draw two cards'. The dark-colored tiles usually offer more cards, such as 'draw four cards', but these are not taken until the beginning of your next turn. Thus, they will not be available to you for defense on your opponent's next turn. This makes for an excellent and often difficult choice.
The final major strategic positioning in the game relates to the regions themselves. The eleven regions not only are worth one to three victory points each, but they also have other features. There are three each of forest, hills, and plains, plus one swamp and one 'Avalon' region. Three of the cards have castles on them (one for each of the three land types), and these regions function as one additional card for the controller. Thus, in order to attack a controlled region with a castle I must have at least one more card than my opponent, since the region counts for my opponent. Additionally, this must be treated as a card when calculating the losses, making castles fundamentally more expensive to attack. One of the forests contains the 'magic stone circle'. Whoever controls this region can attack using their sorceresses as well as their knights, making every card in your hand an attack threat. The controller of the Avalon region is allowed to discard one fewer card than normally required after a victory, and this advantage can be very useful. Avalon is only worth one victory point as a region, but this power makes it highly attractive. The swamp is worth one victory point but brings nothing special, but rather breaks up otherwise useful connections of regions.
This is because the regions you control are nicely tied to the supply tiles. As mentioned, some of the tiles say simply 'draw two' or 'draw four' cards. Four of the nine supply tiles have a variable card draw based on the regions controlled when you take the tile. For example, one light-colored tile allows you to 'take one card for each landscape of the type you most possess'. So, if I control three hills I could take three cards. But, if I control one each of forest, hill, and plains, it is worth only one card. The supply tiles thus make owning certain sets of regions more valuable than others, and also play into the supply tile selection. Since each of the supply tiles must be used once before again being taken (they are turned over after use), it can be better for me to take a supply tile that is worth more to my opponent than me in order to deny them the ability to get the card advantage.
Avalon is a rich game with a lot of straightforward and subtle strategy. The card play can be excruciating and a costly battle can take multiple turns to offset. Keeping a set of cards that are useful for both offense and defense is a huge challenge, and you always feel that you simply don't have enough cards. Making the right attacks at the right time, and balancing your hand properly, is the key to the game although sometimes you just need to draw the right card too.
Avalon is not published in an English-language edition, but this affects only the supply tiles. It is best to use paste-ups on these at least until the conditional cards are clearly understood. Several cheat-sheets have shown up on boardgamegeek and these too can be helpful. This is at the deepest end of the Kosmos two-player line, and it is a great addition for those looking for a tight and tense contest.