The sun is dying. A group of individuals called Architects are working to prepare for the future, but there are many entities seeking to make the most of the chaos and catastrophes, seeking to gain influence for their own benefit.
What Is Helionox: Chronicles?
Helionox: Chronicles is a cooperative, campaign-based, deck-building game for 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 30 minutes per player. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $49 for a copy of the game, or $69 for the deluxe edition that replaces the punchboard tokens with acrylic tokens and includes some alternate art cards. The game does have a lot of mechanics that aren’t found in typical deck-building games, so it may be a bit tough for kids as young as 10 even if they have some experience with that genre, though since it’s a fully cooperative game, you can also include kids and assist them on their turns. (Note that Helionox: Chronicles is a stand-alone game, and despite some similarities is not compatible with the original Helionox.)
Helionox: Chronicles was designed by Taran Kratz and published by Zeroic Games, with art by Luke Green, Taran Lewis Kratz, and Seth Rutledge.
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Helionox: Chronicles Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and does not reflect final component quality. A lot of the artwork on the cards is complete, but rules were still being tweaked and everything was hand-cut paper and cardboard rather than printed cardstock. And, of course, the finished dice won’t be regular dice with paper icons taped to them!
Since the game is intended to be played over six episodes, you won’t use all of the components at first. I’m not sure how the components will be sorted out for the different campaigns, but the prototype just had things bagged up separately.
Here’s (some of) what will be included:
- Sol hex
- 6 Location hexes
- 15 Location cards
- 4 Sets of Player components, each including:
- Command Center board
- 2 Key Terminal tokens
- 2 Fuel Terminal tokens
- 5 Player Area markers
- Devastation die
- Location die
- Defense tracker
- Cred tracker
- 20 Alpha starting cards
- Solo die
- Player Score die
- Opponent Score die
- 20 Cryo counters
- 160 Faction cards (4 factions, 40 cards each)
- 20 Architect cards
- 6 Opponent sets, each including:
- Plot card
- 4 Threshold cards
- Presence card
- Opponent ship
- 2 Archivist tiles (multiplayer and solo)
- Card organizer tiles
- 44 Building tokens
- 9 Devastation tokens
- 9 Protection tokens
- 15 Mark tokens
- Event cards
The card design and text may still get some tweaks, but the overall design looks pretty similar to the original Helionox when it comes to icons, factions, and some of the terminology. There are even some cards that I recognize because it has the same title and illustration, though the card effects may not be exactly the same. The illustrations vary a bit in style, from a comic-book, almost manga style in some places, to a more 3-dimensional modeled look for others. I think the newer artwork tends to look a bit more polished than what was in the original game, but it’s all okay and does a fine job creating the atmosphere of this far-future setting.
There are some large location hexes that get set out in the center, and various cards of different sizes: location cards and event cards to go on the hexes are large, as are the Architect cards. The faction cards, the ones that you’ll be shuffling and playing every turn, are regular sized cards. The event cards, threshold cards, and presence cards are mini cards.
There are various components that are just placeholders in the prototype, but will be cardboard tokens in the final version, or acrylic if you get the deluxe edition.
How to Play Helionox: Chronicles
The goal of the game is to score more points than the automated opponent over the course of 4 eras in each episode, and to progress through all six episodes of the campaign.
The setup will vary somewhat from episode to episode, but generally you’ll have the Sol hex in the center surrounded by some number of the location hexes. The episode’s plot card along with its threshold cards goes on Sol, and each of the other locations will have a location card as well; depending on the episode, the locations will have different effects. Each location will have a stack of four event cards, and the opponent ship will start at a location based on the plot, with the opponent presence card placed nearby.
The market is made of four different factions (though you’ll only have access to two in the first episode). Each faction’s deck is shuffled separately, with the top card of each stack turned face-up.
Players will each get a command center board that’s populated with cred and defense markers, fuel terminals and key terminals, and two dice. Each player also gets an Architect card, which shows their ship’s starting location and may provide additional starting resources.
In the first episode, everyone starts with the same 10-card deck of “Alpha” cards, but starting in the second episode you’ll have access to additional Alpha cards. You build a deck worth a maximum of 10 build points, with exactly 10 cards.
Pick a starting player, and place the flagship at the first player’s location.
Each game will take place in four eras, and each era may have multiple rounds of play. At the beginning of the era, you Draw, Thaw, Ready, and Reveal:
- Draw five cards from your own deck. (If needed, shuffle your discard pile.)
- Thaw your Architect by removing 1 cryo token if there are any.
- Ready all your buildings by turning them face-up.
- Reveal the events on each location; if the opponent presence card is face-down, flip it face-up.
You may then play any number of cards with a lightning bolt icon—these typically give you creds or defense, or have other abilities that don’t have a timing factor. You may play your other cards as free actions during your turns when the time is right.
Then, in turn order, players will take actions using their dice. When taking actions, the value of the die doesn’t matter—it’s just an action token. You have six actions available on your command center, and you may take the same action with both dice. Here’s a simplified rundown of the six actions:
- Lead: If your Architect has no cryo tokens on it, use one of its abilities by placing the specified number of cryo tokens on it.
- Protect: Spend creds or defense as needed to resolve events, protect against the enemy presence if its ship, or remove devastation tokens.
- Invest: Spend creds to buy cards from the market, fuel or keys, or build buildings at your location.
- Procure: Flip over all of your buildings at your location, and gain the resources from them.
- Burn: Spend any number of your keys and fuel. Fuel is used to move to a new location, and keys allow you to use the Key Access ability of the location. Each player may only use each location once per era.
- Reflect: Pass for the rest of this era; you will take no more actions and will not roll dice. If you place both dice here, you gain 1 mark (a discount for buying cards).
After everyone has taken two actions, then everybody who didn’t reflect must roll their dice. The devastation die shows where a devastation token will be added: either to one of the four card markets, or the opponent ship will move to its next location and place a devastation there. The flagship, which moves with the first player, prevents devastation from being placed. If a location is rolled that already has a devastation token, then instead you increase the threshold marker on the devastation track (on the Sol hex) by 2. If the marker reaches the space noted with your player count, then it triggers the effect of a threshold card, which is then shifted over into the resolution space, and the devastation tracker is reset to 0.
The other effect of devastation is that you cannot use buildings or the Key Access at locations with devastation. Using the protect action, you may remove devastation from the track, from any of the markets, or from your current location.
The other die is a location die. If you roll a location that has an active event on it, it triggers its effect. This may score points, remove cards from the market, add devastation to specific places, and more. If there’s no event at the location, or you roll a location that isn’t in play, nothing happens.
The era continues until all players have taken the reflect action, and then the era ends. At that point, the opponent will trigger any events that remain. Then, it scores points: each event has both a trigger effect and an infamy number that gives points to the opponent. If the opponent’s presence is still active, then that will trigger effects as well. Finally, for each market that has a devastation token, you remove the card and award its point value to the opponent. Pass the flagship to the next player, and start a new era.
The game ends when there are no more events to reveal—typically the episodes have 4 events per location, so the game will last 4 eras. Reveal any threshold cards in the resolution space—these will have additional scoring for the opponent. If the players scored more points than the opponent, they win and can progress to the next episode; otherwise the opponent won and you’ll need to play again.
Why You Should Play Helionox: Chronicles
Although I haven’t had much time with the prototype, I did get to try it with three different groups, playing through episodes 1 and 2 for each group. Episode 1 does feel more like a training mission, with a reduced card market, simpler Architect powers, and no pre-game deck-building. It makes sense, because I always find it tricky when a game asks me to choose a deck of cards the first time I play, when I don’t really understand the ramifications of my choices yet. Episode 2 feels more like the full game: the plot threshold cards have a bigger impact and the scoring conditions on the back are a little more varied; all four factions are available in the card market; you have some control over your starting cards. It’s also a bit more challenging—Episode 1 is fairly easy to beat, but Episode 2 has been a closer score for us. (In one game we scored quite a bit more than the opponent, but then realized I had missed the rule about not being able to use Key Access on devastated locations, so we were cheating.)
While I haven’t gotten to play the rest of the episodes yet, I’ve peeked ahead to see what sorts of things get added. Each one has its own plot and threshold cards, and the costs of defending against the opponent ship change, as well as the rewards for doing so. Each episode you will add new events to the existing deck, but then use a randomized set of them on the locations. You’ll also add new cards to the market, new Architects to choose from (though you’re allowed to use the ones from earlier episodes as well), and new Alpha cards that you can put in your starting deck. Along with the new cards come different buildings: at the beginning, you only have access to two types of buildings, which provide keys and fuel. Later, you’ll have buildings that can let you draw cards or trash them, earn points, and more.
The pace of the game is interesting for a deck-building game, and reminded me a little of Dune: Imperium, where the number of actions you take isn’t simply based on the cards you drew. Instead, you get two actions per round by placing dice, and the cards themselves are “free” actions that provide you with resources and other abilities. So you’re not playing your whole hand of cards on your turn as in typical deck-building games, but you’re also not playing one card per turn (as in Dune: Imperium). You can continue taking turns, two actions per turn, until you’ve run out of resources—however, each time you take a turn and don’t pass (by taking the reflect action), you also roll the dice to cause negative consequences.
As the era progresses, you might be able to mitigate the consequences somewhat. For instance, the location die triggers the event on that location, so the more events you resolve, the less likely anything will trigger. The devastation die is another matter: if you have managed to deal with the opponent (which can take multiple actions since you have to hit it once per player), then at least it will no longer move around and leave devastation on the locations. However, there’s no way to prevent devastation from hitting the card markets, which have a 2/3 chance of being rolled. As the game progresses and you’ve built up your engine a bit, you’ll find that you can prolong an era and get more things done, but you have to balance that against the risk of suffering more devastation and letting the enemy score points.
One other way that this differs from most deck-building games is that cards you acquire are placed on top of your deck, guaranteeing that you’ll get to use them by your next turn. If you happen to have card-draw abilities, then you may even get to use them right away. The flip side of that is that you don’t shuffle your deck as often, because if you acquire enough cards every era, you never run out your deck. I like trying to weed out the weak cards, and Episode 2 introduces the “consume” action to trash cards, but in some games I only managed to weed a single card because that weeding card never got drawn again. I’m told that starting in Episode 3 there are more card-draw abilities, which helps you get through your deck more quickly, and that things may get tweaked to add more of that in the first two episodes as well. I hope so, because when I play a deck-building game I want to be able to play the cards I buy more than once.
Helionox: Chronicles met with mixed reactions from my groups—two of the three groups I played it with enjoyed it (and I liked it enough myself to teach it three times in a week!) but the third wasn’t quite as impressed. One of the complaints was that their turns sometimes felt too restricted, like there was really only one obvious choice to make. Early on, when you have very limited resources from your basic cards, you can feel like you’re just exhausting all of your resources just to get to an event and resolve it. It is possible to build up a bit and be able to do more in an era, but with only 4 eras it can also feel like there’s not enough time for that engine to really get going. The couple who weren’t as thrilled are big fans of Pandemic (in its various forms) and they generally don’t feel that most other cooperative games match its experience.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed the world of Helionox and this take on it. The campaign allows the designer Taran Kratz to go into some more detail about the story, which was hinted at in the previous version of the game but not in detail. The villains aren’t marauding lizard-faced aliens, but rather corporations and politicians and people who just want to make sure they get their piece of the pie before everything falls apart—despite the far-future setting, that all seems pretty familiar. I also enjoyed the idea of the Architects, who go into cryo-sleep to prolong the extent of their influence, thawing out to make their moves at crucial moments and then being frozen again. (Although one player pointed out that this must be a stressful life, where every waking moment is a crisis waiting for you.)
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Helionox: Chronicles Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype of this game for review purposes.