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Fear. Paranoia. Hysteria. These were commonplace in Salem Massachusetts during the year 1692. To be sure, white magic had been practiced in this sleepy community before now - charms to help the crops grow, potions to heal the ailing. But when some young girls became mysteriously ill and began ranting about witches, the village became alarmed. Was the Devil in Salem?
Anathema (which means 'curse' or 'cursed one') is a card game based on the fast-paced classic card game Casino. Players capture face-up cards on the table with cards from their hands by matching point values. While the rules are simple, your subtle strategies can make the difference between winning and becoming Anathema.
While some might object that this game is not "novel" enough (whatever that means in a business where the mechanics of one game often inspire those of several others), and is merely a pricey version of Cassino, there's more going in here than that. The addition of special abilities on some cards, and point values on some others, changes both the dynamic of the game and the style of play considerably. This is a thoughtful adaptation of a traditional game that could not be played with a standard deck of cards without considerable note taking. True, it is nothing more than that; but it doesn't need to be.
As a game, I'd give Anathema 3.5 stars. But this is a rare case where the art makes a huge difference and goes well beyond what is typically available (until more people like Mike Doyle get the attention they deserve). Drew Tucker's illustrations are some of the best available for any game, and are fully integrated into the feel of the game and the text on the cards. So much so that the claim that the mechanics and theme don't mesh just doesn't hold water: the strong art and disturbing text (actual quotes from the records of the Salem witch trials) spill over into the experience of playing what is — yes — essentially Cassino, giving it a whole new flavor that somehow feels creepy and threatening.
When I was younger, I read up a bit on the Salem witch trials, and was profoundly affected by the stories. I had a hard time believing that such events actually happened, as they seemed too fantastic. And this fascination has carried through, and I find a certain amount of interest in this theme. I never really thought that it would make a good game theme, except maybe a role-playing type horror game, so I was rather interested when I heard of Anathema (Advance Primate Entertainment, 2003 Kevin Brusky with Ray Mulford), a card game featuring the trials in Salem. Anathema is often a word I hurl at opponents in various games, but is it itself a good game?
Anathema is a strange bird, indeed. The mechanics of the card game are pretty good, and I can see them appealing very much to those who like traditional card games. And despite a few component irritants, I think APE games has succeeded on this level, except one major flaw and that is the theme, and more specifically the artwork. The theme has nothing to do with the game, nothing new to card games of this sort as they rarely lend themselves to themes. Yet very few people who are attracted by the theme and the artwork will like the game play, and most people who are big fans of traditional card games will be daunted or repulsed by the same. I liked the game, but really dont know how often Ill pull it out, as there will usually be somebody in the group who will either not like the theme, or not like the mechanics. Its an unhappy union.
Anathema has a basic and advanced game, and Ill start by explaining some of the mechanics of the former. A deck of fifty-two cards, consisting of four suits (spell, witch, village, and familiar) each numbered 1 through 13, is shuffled. Five of the cards (the 1 spell, 1 witch, 1 village, 1 familiar, and the 2 village) have point values of 1, while the thirteen of witches has a point value of 2. One player is chosen as the dealer (last person to curse) and deals four cards to each player and four face-up in the middle of the table, two at a time. The player to the left of the dealer goes first, and then play continues clockwise around the table.
On a turn, a player has three different options. First of all, they can capture one or more of the face-up cards. They do this by playing a card from their hand that equals the value of a card on the table, or sum of cards. For example, an 8 can be played to capture a face-up 8, or a 6 and a 2, or (if possible), all three! If the cards captured are the last cards currently face-up on the table, the capturing is considered a sweep. All cards captured and played are placed in a face-down capture pile in front of the player. If a sweep occurred, the player places one card face-up to denote this fact.
A player can also make a build. They can do this by putting a card from their hand face-up with another card(s) on the table, adding to the total worth of the cards. A player can only do this, however, if they have another card in their hand that can capture the build. If a player cant build or capture (or doesnt want to), their third option is to trail a card. This means basically putting another card in play face-up on the table. One cannot trail a card if a build they formed on a previous turn is still on the table they must add to it or capture it.
When the players have played all their cards, four more cards are dealt to each player, and play continues until all the cards in the deck have been played. At this point, players total their scores. Every card they have captured with a point value is added up, along with one point for every sweep they took. The player with the most cards gets three points, and the player with the most cards from the Familiar suit gets one point. The points are added up, and if any player has twenty-one or more points (and the most), they win the game. Otherwise, the cards are shuffled, and another round occurs.
The advanced rules add some changes to the game. They included multiple builds (which are a little more complicated), and capture rewards. Several cards have another number and suit on them with a reward listed. If that card captures the specific card listed on it, the player can follow through with the award, which is either a steal (taking a card at random from another players capture pile), a swap (switching a card from his hand with one on the table), or a peek (looking at another players hand). The advanced rules also provide for partner play.
Some comments on the game
1.) Components: First of all, I want to say that the card quality is exceptional especially considering how small of a company APE Games is. The cards are easy to distinguish, and the different abilities and text on the cards are not hard to read. My minor quibbles are these: the familiar suit, which is more important than the others, really isnt distinguishable, and it takes several games to remember which it is. Secondly, and much more annoying to me is the box. The box is a flat box, which allows for bigger artwork, I guess, but requires cutting the deck in half, and sliding each half in the box with the rulebook on top. This is a real pain and I wish that they had followed the design of the much nicer box for Big Top (their other card game).
2.) Artwork: I wasnt sure how the mechanics would fit the theme (and they dont), but how the artwork fits in with the theme is anyones guess. Some may find the artwork fascinating; I find it rather disturbing. All the people look quite grotesque, there are strangely weird symbols, blood, nudity, werewolves, etc. I dont quite remember the Salem witch trials being quite like that, even in the wilder incarnations. The artwork is most certainly not for children, and will probably offend many adults. Now, I know that this artwork is quite common in horror RPGs and like games, but for a family card game, this seems quite unusual. None of those to whom I showed the game showed any great affinity to the game, and one player refused to ever play it again based on artwork alone.
3.) Rules: The rules are written quite well. There are many, many examples and thanks to these examples, I was easily able to learn the game. Because the game uses four new suits, and has a lot of unnecessary text on the cards, it does take a little to learn. The rules recommend playing one basic game before trying the advanced, and I agree whole-heartedly. The game isnt that hard, but its not quite intuitive.
4.) Casino: Apparently the game is a reworking of a public-domain game Casino, one of which Ive never played. Because of this, however, I feel quite confident that those who enjoy traditional card games will like this one a lot as it is fairly good, unless they dont like the theme/artwork.
5.) Strategy: I was very impressed by the decisions I had each turn. Should I add to a build, making it rather profitable for me, but taking the chance that another player might scoop it up? Should I capture a card, knowing that it only leaves one card on the table, making a sweep easier for the next player? Which cards should I capture when? People who can count cards will do much better, as they will know which cards have been played, etc. Because its not your traditional deck, however, it does take a little longer to get into the swing of things.
6.) Fun Factor: The theme really didnt make the game fun, but the mechanics were quite interesting and I enjoyed them a lot! In fact, if the theme was different (or at least the artwork), I think that this would become one of my favorite games.
So as to whether or not I recommend the game that would depend on you. If you dont like horror or dark, foreboding artwork, then this game is certainly not for you. If you dont like traditional card games, then again, this is not the romp into Gothic horror that you may be seeking. If, however, you are a cross between the two, and like both horror and traditional card games, then this may be a great game for you. The game is very, very fun, and re-themed, would be a fantastic family game. As it stands now, however, it will just be an interesting game that I pull out only on rare occasions with certain people.
The cards in this overpriced game are pretty nice, but as another reviewer pointed out, much of what is on them has no relevance to gameplay. The style is a 10, the substance is a 2. Ultimately the game has weak mechanics that are nowhere near as innovative and creative as the art. It just isn't fun to play.
Check out Alien Menace's 'Witch Hunt' for a witch trial game that is actually fun to play. Doesn't hurt that it is half the price.
The one star is for Drew Tucker's artwork on the cards. After that this is nothing more then a 52 deck of cards with diffrent suits that they tell you to play Casino with.
Whitchcraft, Salem trials have NOTHING to do with this game. They don't make an attempt to even make an abstract attempt to bring it in.
I knew I just waisted 10$+ change when the first page on the rules say, (I kid you not)
'Each card has a name, picture and flavor text that lend to the games 'atmosphere', but have no direct influence on the game'
Why don't they tell you this on the back of the box!
If you like Tucker's art, save some money and go to the, 10 cent used magic card box.
IMHO game stores and this site should not even talk or carry this 'game' becasue it is not a game, it is a deck of cards.