Ender Wiggins
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Introduction

Tower Siege is marketed as a non-collectible customizable card game. What's the game about? Let's go with the official word from the publisher, Arcane Games:

"Tower Siege is a non-collectible customizable card game of strategy, luck and ruthlessness. Players control a powerful Mage and soon find themselves immersed in a struggle for survival. The Mages battle against one another with the aid of Minions, Items, Scrolls and Relics. These cards offer the player many strategic options as well as the use of dice to determine the outcome of combat. Players try to keep their Tower intact and their Mage alive. The last Mage standing wins the game."



To people who like the gameplay of games like Magic the Gathering but don't like the collectible or costs parts, this sounds good. The publisher has the mantra "It’s not about collecting, it’s about the game!" So how does it work in practice? Is the game any good? Let's find out!

The Box

Let's begin with the box.



Great artwork isn't it? The back of the box gives us some indication of what the game is about.



So what's inside? It's a two-player unit, which means that inside the box you get enough cards for two players, in the form of two 86 card decks.



The packaging is not that great, you'll find yourself wanting to throw out the flimsy cardboard in no time. But then how do you store the cards? I guess that's what you get with a budget priced product. But we can live with that if the game play is good. Well, let's check out the components and find out!

Components: Market Deck

Each player has a Market Deck consisting of Minions, Items, Scrolls, Relics, and Market Place Mines, and this is the heart of the game. The base game comes with two 86 card decks, and the first thing we notice is that the cards themselves look magnificent:



And check out those colours!



The colour scheme works well: green for Minions, yellow for Items, etc.

We need a break down of the cards you'll actually use, because not all 86 cards stay in the deck. You'll keep the minions, items, scrolls, relics and market place mines and powerstones in your deck, but the other cards you'll take out and will be used to setup the game or for reference purposes.

Starting and Reference Cards (26 cards)
1x Quick Reference
1x Caravan
1x Spent Gold
1x Spent Power
7x Base Mines
7x Base Powerstones
2x Action Status Card (Attack/Defend)
3x Mages
3x Mage's Towers


The remaining cards form your Market Deck, which is the heart of the game, and from which you draw seven cards as your starting hand after the game is set up.

Market Deck (60 cards)
10x Mines
10x Powerstones

12x Minions (Skeleton, War Wolf, Alchemist, Carrion Crow, Zombie, Ghoul, Bowman, Hero, Dungeon Dweller, Stone Mason, Siege Turtle, Dragon)
12x Items (Light Helm, Small Shield, Metal Bracers, Chainmail Armor, Gate, Staff, Sword, Short Bow, Wand of Fire, Battle Steed, Ring of Strength, Ring of Spell Casting)
12x Scrolls (Fury, Mage Armor, Battle Truce, Bind, Bazaar, Life Surge, Black Plague, Fortify, Sand Storm, Power Blast, Ruin, Waste)
4x Relics (Dremour's Cauldron, Shadow Gate, Tower Shield, Obelisk)

This Market Deck can be customized but you need more cards to do it. So if you just have the base game, you'll both be playing with identical decks. This isn't a problem, and the game is enjoyable that way. But do realize that for customization, you'll need another base game or more cards.

Components: Mages

The Mages are the most important card in the game.



Each player has six to choose from (there are three cards, with mages on each side).



They each have different unique abilities like Alchemy, and different strengths in casting spells like Powerbolt, Shield, and Shatter. The aim of the game is to take out your opponents Mage - do that, and you win!

Components: Towers

But a Mage isn't going to be that easy to take out, because he can hide in the safety of his Tower!



Once again there are six Towers to choose from, but they all have identical strengths and abilities.



The basic idea is that before you can attack your opponent's Mage, you need to get rid of his Tower. It's just like attacking your opponent in Magic the Gathering (MtG), but in a two stage process.

Components: Minions

So how do you attack your opponent's Mage and Tower? For this you use Minions. They are just like creatures in MtG. As you'll see, I'll be comparing Tower Siege with MtG more often!



These are like pawns in chess: you use them to attack your opponent, defend against attacks from his Minions. They can either perform Melee Attacks, Targetted Attacks, or Directed Attacks (to be explained later). You can also equip them with Items or have them carry Relics. Some Minions also have an Innate skill, like Flight, Tunneling, Shadowalk, or Regeneration - ideas that will be familiar to MtG players. There are also special types of Minions (Mounts and Undead) which have special powers. Some examples:



Components: Items

Items can be purchased to help your Minions or your Mage, and give special benefits and powers.



Unfortunately this isn't quite as simple as it sounds. The game uses something called "Usable Items" and "Item Class" which are denoted on the cards with abbreviations like "IC: AM", which would mean a Minion can only carry Items from the Item Class of Armor or Oddity. The Item Classes used in the game include Weapons (W), Armor (A), Miscellaneous (M), Oddity (O), or Structures (S). Some examples:



An example: A Skeleton (SL25) equipped with a Sword (+10AL and +5DL) and Shield (+15PL and +5DL) would now have an Attack Level of 35 (AL35), a Defense Level of 35 (DL35) and a Protection Level 15 (PL15).

Components: Relics

Relics are objects with abilities that are superior to standard Items.



They require both gold and power to be played. Some examples.



Components: Scrolls

Scrolls are special spells that can be cast to wreak havoc on your opponent or his minions.



These can be played Any Turn or On Turn, which is denoted on the cards as (AT) or (OT). Some examples of Scrolls:



Components: Spells

These are another form of magical ability, but are permanent, and remain with the Mage until the end of the game, rather than being for a single time use like Scrolls.



Spell cards are not in the base game, but only in the expansions. An example:



Components: Resources - Mines

So how do you pay for all these things or get them into play? Well the game has two kinds of resources: gold, and power. Gold is produced by Mines, and Power is produced by Powerstones. This is actually a neat concept. To those familiar with MtG, it's like having two different types of mana available.



Mines produce one gold piece (GP) at a rate of one per round. Or to put it in more complicated language, as we find in the rules: (1gp/R). Why use something simple when there's a more complicated way of saying it?



Gold pieces are used to pay for cards from your Market. In other words, if you want to play a card from your hand, you use mines to pay for it - if you have five mines, you can buy something worth five gold pieces. As gold pieces are spent, they are placed on the Spent Gold card. Really, the game includes more cards than necessary. This is the kind of chrome that just starts complicating this unnecessarily. But the concept itself is a good one: Gold is used to pay for Minions and Items.

Components: Resources - Powerstones

Powerstones produce Power Points (PP), which is just another resource like Gold, except that it is used to pay for Spells, Scrolls, and innate magical abilities. Relics require payment of both Gold and Power.



As you spend power, you keep track of how much you've spent in a turn by placing these on the Spent Power card. Again, somewhat needless chrome, but it works.



Components: Caravan

The game also includes a Caravan card.



The basic idea behind this is that when you play a card from your hand, you can't use it right away. So instead you place it on your Caravan, and then you get to use it next turn. Sound familiar? It's the same idea as "summoning sickness" from MtG. Once again, some extra chrome that is probably unnecessary, although thematically it perhaps is an improvement on the idea of "summoning sickness", because the suggestion is that when you buy something, it is transported to you via a Caravan, so while this is happening you can't yet use it. Nice! And unlike in MtG, you won't forget which recently purchased cards have "summoning sickness" because they'll be on your Caravan.

Components: Action Status Card

The game also comes with a lovely looking Action Status Card.



But what does it do? Well you use it to indicate whether your Minions are attacking, blocking or available for blocking. There are three positions: Attack, On Guard, Defend, shown as follows:



If a creature is in the Attack position, it can't Defend on the opponent's turn. Sound like MtG? It's basically the same idea as "tapping" a creature, to indicate that it is attacking. It's a nice idea, and the theme works. But it's needless complexity and needless chrome. It's much easier just to tap, and untap cards. Probably the game designer was just being careful not to make his game a clone of MtG, which I can appreciate. But for simpler play, you can just play without this card.

Components: Dice

So far it all sounds rather good perhaps. The concepts seem quite sound. The cards look fantastic - and they are. Aside, perhaps, from some over-use of abbreviations on the cards. There's a little too much chrome, but most of it we can eliminate or ignore in order to simplify things.

But things start going downhill from here. Because there are more components we need to play. Dice. Combat is resolved with percentile dice (D10s). Here's how the rules explain it:
Quote:
The Skill Level (Attack, Defense and Resistance), Spell Skill and Innate Skills are considered successful if your roll is equal to or less than the ability level indicated on the card(s). In Tower Siege, there are Critical Hits, Exceptional Defense and Fumbles. A roll of 01-02 on the dice indicates a Critical Hit or Exceptional Defense, depending on the ability roll. A roll of 99-100 on the dice indicates a Fumble. In the event of a Critical Hit, an Exceptional Defense or a successful Protection Level roll is the only thing that can only negate it. An Exceptional Defense gives your Creature a counter attack (Riposte). A Fumble causes your Creature to go into a defend position and in some cases to be attacked again.


Confused yet? That's not the worst of it. Because you need at least four dice (two D10s each). Problem is, the game doesn't include them.

Components: Markers

Markers are needed to keep track of many things in the game, like Life Points, Integrity Points, Scroll duration and Innate Skills. They're also not included. This isn't as big a problem as not having percentile dice, because it's easy enough to find coins or other small objects to use. Still, it doesn't help make us love the game does it?



The Rulebook

Here's where things really start to derail. The rulebook is just a sheet of double-sided paper. With tiny print. And it's completely inadequate. Really. If you don't believe me, just look at some of the personal comments here on BGG.

So the first thing you need to do is download the Advanced Rulebook, which you can do here. It's 24 pages long. See, didn't we tell you that the double sided sheet you get with the game is not enough? There's just no way you can cram 24 pages of content onto one sheet of paper!

As it turns out, however, even 24 pages isn't really enough. Our eyes quickly begin to glaze, when on the Table of Contents page we find a "Notable Reference" chart, which includes a long list of Abbreviations that will be used throughout the rule book, and the same information on a Reference Card:



They aren't really going to make us know all these are they? Oh yes they are! Starting on page 2 in fact! And the cards say things like "1pp = 1 SS20, 2pp = 1 SS25" And yessir, we have to know what that means.

Now all this wouldn't be too bad if everything made sense and worked smoothly. The problem is that it doesn't. You'll have lots of unanswered questions. In fact, it took several reads of the rulebook to try to figure out how the game worked, and after playing it twice I ended up with a list of about 20 questions that I sent to the designer for clarification. Now he's a nice enough guy, and his website (towersiege.com) includes a forum where he'll answer questions about rules fairly quickly. I compiled a list of these into an FAQ which you can find here, but let me warn you: it's a mile long. And even then it won't answer all your questions.

To be fair, the rulebook is quite impressive, and it includes copies of key cards and custom tokens that you can print out on a printer. But having to print out a decent set of rules already puts a bad taste in your mouth. And then when you find out that even these rules leave many things unexplained, and are confusing at best ... well, one is quickly inclined to give up. We didn't. Perhaps we should have.

Gameplay: Setup

Here's how the set-up of the game looks at the start of a game:



You set up your Mage and your Tower. Add your Base Mines and Base Powerstones (unlike MtG, you do get to start with some resources). You also lay out the Spent Gold and Spent Power cards to help you keep track of your spending, and your Caravan card to help you keep track of recent purchases. You also need the Action Status Card. The remaining cards form your Market Deck, from which you draw 7 cards. Then you're set to go!

In Tower Siege, your hand is called your Market Place. Perhaps it would have made the game less complicated if we just called it a "hand", instead of using new terms for everything, but I guess it is thematic. Unlike MtG, you don't draw just one card each turn, but you get to fill your hand (= Market Place) up to seven cards each turn. So there's less chance you'll be screwed by a bad draw - in fact, this mechanic works quite well.

Gameplay: Flow of Play

There is a reference card that comes with the game to explain the basic flow of the game.



After setup (steps 1-4), you just repeat steps 5-11. In fact, the basic idea of the gameplay is quite sound, and it owes a lot to Magic the Gathering. The turn order is much like MtG: You place your creatures On Guard (MtG: Untap), pay upkeep costs, draw cards, play resources (MtG: play lands) and purchase Minions (MtG: play creature spells), equip them with Items (MtG: artifacts), purchase Relics (MtG: enchantments or artifacts), or cast Spells and Scrolls (MtG: sorceries, instants, enchantments). Then there's combat, which - just like MtG - is mostly about using your Minions to attack your opponent or using your Minions to defend against your opponent's attack. And then it's your opponent's turn. Here's how the game looks in play:



Admittedly, it's not just a rip-off from Magic the Gathering, because there's much here that is new, or worked out in a unique manner. Many of these new elements are even attractive, particularly the dice based combat.

Gameplay: Combat

But here's where the game starts to really bog down. I'm not even going to try to explain all the nuances of combat. I'm not even sure I totally understand them myself. And I have a Masters degree! And I've studied this section over and over, asked lots of questions from the designer. But there's just so much to remember. And there are so many possibilities, rules and exceptions. And coupled with the abbreviations... well, it just creates a big headache. Let me just mention some of the concepts: there are Attack, Defense and Riposte actions. There are Melee Attacks, Directed Attacks, and Targetted Attacks. There are Critical Hits, Exceptional Defense and Fumbles. There are Attacks against Creatures and Attacks against Structures. And there are charts, like this one:



It just gets painful. I'm sorry, I really did try hard! Someone has attempted to write a simplified guide to combat here and maybe you'll find that helpful. I had a long list of questions after my first play. And I did get answers, but after my next play I just had even a longer list of questions. In the end, I found it was more trouble than it was worth. It's probably fine if this is the only game you ever play. But if you're like me, and enjoy playing a wide range of games, then Tower Siege will only be the cause of frustration.

Strategy

Now if you do persevere, you'll find a Strategy Guide here:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/file/info/36497

Expansions

And if it turns out that you really do like the game, there are three expansions available.



Tower Siege Expansion: Elemental Adversaries
Tower Siege Expansion: Fiendish Foes
Tower Siege Expansion: Thaylen's Rogues

I'll give a very brief introduction to each, because they only contain 15 extra cards each.



Expansion: Fiendish Foes



All the expansions include extra cards for the market deck. The expansions also include Spell cards, which aren't in the base card. Some examples of the cards from the Fiendish Foes expansion.



Expansion: Elemental Adversaries



The most important addition in this expansion are Elemental cards:



Expansion: Thaylen's Rogues



The most important addition provided by this expansion are Rogue cards.



Suggestions for Improvement

The main issue with the game is that it is overly complex, from the convoluted text on the cards to the confusing elements about combat. The rules and gameplay could greatly benefit from being streamlined and less complex. For example, combat would be simpler and easier to understand if Targeted attacks were more clearly distinguished from Melee and Directed attacks. Tower Siege would be much easier to learn and much confusion can be avoided by making Targeted attacks something completely separate from combat, and my suggestion would be to simplify combat by having two phases:
1. Combat Attack (defender goes in "defend" position, and rolls Defense Level)
a) Melee Attack: substitute blocker can be anything (except previous defender)
b) Ranged Attack: substitute blocker needs same ability as attacker (tunneling, flying, shadowalk)
2. Magic Attack (defender does not go in "defend" position, and rolls Resistance Level)
This would include things like most innate abilities like Powerbolt and magical Scrolls like Sand Storm etc.
If you've not played the game, this may seem complicated, but actually this distinction between "Combat" and "Magic" is much more logical and easier to grasp than the existing rules, which are far more confusing! Another advantage of this suggestion is that it uses terms (Melee, Ranged, Magic) that are familiar from many other games like Runebound and World of Warcraft.

Final Assessment

In the final analysis, there are many things great about this game.
Pros. It has excellent quality cards and artwork. It has a CCG type card game somewhat reminiscent in mechanics of MtG but without being collectible, but with the addition of a dice-driven combat system that uses percentile dice. Because of the dice rolling, it's more like Runebound than a strategic game like MtG, and this actually can be quite fun once you grow into it. The game designer has come up with some great ideas here, and in some ways it feels like an interesting blend between Magic the Gathering and Runebound. Perhaps it is even more a fantasy style game like Runebound, in view of the the dice based combat, but without a map or board, and adding some of the cards, mechanics and mana of MtG. A great concept!

But then comes the downside.
Cons. There's a big learning curve with the rules, because they are not clear or consistent. The multitude of abbreviations can be frustrating. While Tower Siege has many good things going for it, it feels like a work in progress that didn't have all the wrinkles ironed out. It's a shame, because there are some great ideas here, but they are just burdened with complexity and lack of clarity. And for those who are struggling with the rules, perhaps this review has served a positive purpose by simplifying or explaining how the game works.

With some solid revision, this is a game that has good potential, and some real positives include the combat mechanism with percentile dice; the resource base of gold and powerstones; the fantastic artwork and card quality; and the names of characters and cards. But prospective purchasers might do well to wait, in the event that a revised edition is forthcoming. I have personally sent the designer some suggestions for streamlining the game, simplifying the combat, and suggestions for improvement. As it is, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, given how much work it takes to learn the rules and the frustration that playing can involve. But I do hope that this will not be the last we see of Tower Siege.



Interested in buying the game? It is available from the designer's website, where the two player unit is currently selling for US$14.95 with free shipping and handling. See: www.towersiege.com

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The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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yegods
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this is a really well crafted, detailed, and cogent review. thank you!
 
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Rod Batten
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Death and the dice level all distinctions.
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And so it goes...
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Overall a good review of a game I've never heard tell of before. But...

I've read the review but I fail to understand the comparison to adventure games like Runebound (Second Edition). Some mechanics and features are common to both games, to be sure, but the audiences and appreciation of these games are likely very different and those same mechanics are used in a huge range of games without a fantasy theme.

I'm probably being naive, been accused of it before (without dampening my naivete in the least ), but I think that your title is a little misleading. You might as well compare it to Return of the Heroes, Prophecy or Talisman (Revised 4th Edition).
 
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Scott Everts
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"Nobody gets me. I'm the wind, baby!" - Tom Servo
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"Push the button, Frank!"
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Wow, impressive review! That must of taken a very long time to write! I've got the game myself including all the expansions but have never actually played it. I agree, it seems daunting with all the letter codes for everything. But looks like there's a fun game underneath it all.
 
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Ender Wiggins
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gmonk wrote:
I've read the review but I fail to understand the comparison to adventure games like Runebound (Second Edition). Some mechanics and features are common to both games, to be sure, but the audiences and appreciation of these games are likely very different and those same mechanics are used in a huge range of games without a fantasy theme.

The dice based combat system and the possibilities for melee, ranged, and magic attacks is what reminds me most of Runebound. But certainly there are many differences, notably that Tower Siege has no map/board, and it adds many concepts, mechanics and mana of Magic the Gathering. You're probably correct that comparisons could equally be made to other fantasy adventure games that employ similar mechanics. I suspect that those in the Magic the Gathering camp might find Tower Siege more appealing than those in the fantasy adventure camp, although the unique blend of elements really makes Tower Siege stand apart as a game in its own right.
 
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Armando Gurrola
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Hmm this game was nowhere on my radar before, but now it looks ok to buy. Unlike you though I find the art pretty dang ugly, esp compared to MTG and even Runebound. Cool review and nice use of pictures like always.
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Get Funkadelic
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Honestly one of the best game reviews I've ever seen. Kudos!
 
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Anne Odom
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A +1 for this great review. A friend left us his copy when he moved, and when we pulled out the instructions this weekend, we were like WTF? We're a little too lazy to adjust and sort out the rules to something simpler and sensible, but we have friends who are definitely into that. So we'll be passing this on to them.
 
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Doug Andrews
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I was in the garage and took a look at my small box of games to get rid of and was hit with noctalgic memories when I saw Tower Siege and the expansions sitting there.

I remember how good it seemed that it would be and how much I really wanted to like it.

I was thinking about pulling it out but I also remembered that I had given up on it and that something about it just didn't work.

But I thought I would check here on BGG and got to this review and was really excited as I started reading through the top section and remembering it all.

But then I got to the Rulebook section and then it all came flooding back like a tidal wave.

Darn I wanted to like this game!

SoCal Doug
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Linda Baldwin
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Well done and thorough, but based on these photos, I'm among those who dislike the art. It's garish, distracting, and just plain too much. I can see that the artwork is painstaking detailed, and skillfully done, but it just strikes me as ugly. Certainly nothing I'd want to look at while trying to decipher gameplay.

(Nothing against the artist, just not to my taste at all.)
 
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