Radio Review #63 – Helios

 

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(2014 – Z-Man Games, Hans im Gluck)

 

“Here comes the sun, and I say….it’s alright….”

 

There has always been a distinction between the different varieties of board gamers within the community. Games such as Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Dominion have successfully been able to construct designs that both strategically adhere to the more die-hard tacticians amongst us, while also providing a simple, easy to understand ruleset for the more casual set of gamers. It’s a difficult balance for designers to gauge and to create something that works for both ends of the spectrum. The first 2014 release I’ve come across that immediately reminded me of that die-hard/casual merger is Helios, designed by Martin Kallenborn and Matthias Prinz.

In Helios, players are spiritual guardians, tasked with forging and evolving the cultures assigned to them by Ahau, the Sun God. Players will forge lands, extract resources, construct temples and other various buildings, as well as recruit the realms most power and inventive peoples to help assist with their civilization’s progression. As the sun revolves around the player’s board, various bonuses are awarded based on how the player has constructed his lands. Players can gain Victory Points in numerous ways based on the constructed buildings, their active recruits, their collected energy (or mana), and bonuses awarded as the sun revolves around the various civilization’s lands. After four complete rounds (or three in a 3-player game), the guardian that has successfully furthered his culture the most (the play that has collected the highest number of Victory Points) receives full blessing from Ahau, and has won the game.

 

 

 

Components:

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– Player’s Game board

 

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– Player’s City board

 

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– Land tiles (bamboo, granite, redwood, spring, and obsidian)

 

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– Resource tokens (bamboo, granite, redwood, spring, and obsidian)

 

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– Character Recruits

 

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– Action tiles (consisting of blue, red, yellow, and gray)

 

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– Bonus tiles

 

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– Building tokens

 

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– Mana tokens

 

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– Victory Point tokens

 

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– Start Player marker

 

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– Sun maker and token

 

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– Cloth bags

 

 

 

Setup:

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As opposed to a single main game board, in Helios each player in the game on their own personal game board, since players are controlling their own individual culture. At the beginning of the game, each player receives a game board that represents the area Ahau has granted them dominance in which to watch over and evolve their culture. Players will place their Sun marker on the first space of the Sun Track, found at the upper portion of their board. This track will reference how many spaces a player can move their Sun token on the board during their turn. As the marker increases on the track, the amount of spaces that the player can move their Sun token around the board will increase. To begin the game, players will place this Sun token on the space on the board will the sun icon.

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Players will receive a single Mana token, which are collected throughout the game and can be used to recruit new characters to help assist with progressing your culture. Each player also receives a cloth bag with their spiritual guardian nicely imprinted on the front of the bag. The bags are used for collecting Victory Point tokens. As player’s collect Victory Points throughout the game, they are kept secretly stored in the player’s bag, so that opposing players are not able to get a specific grasp on how many points that player has at any given time.

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Throughout the game, players will choose actions to take based on the available Action tiles that are left in the central play area. There are three different actions (create land, construct a building, or move the sun), and these action’s icons are distributed amongst blue, red, yellow, and gray tiles. On the back of these tiles are the icons for each type of action. At the beginning of the game, these Action tiles are separated face down into three different piles, depending on the three types of actions so that each action has its own draw pile. Next, six tiles are drawn from each draw pile and placed in a column beneath their pile. These will represent that various actions that are available to players in a particular Round.

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There are also five different types of land tiles, and these are separated into draw piles as well, corresponding to the type of resource that land produces. Before doing this however, each player will choose either a bamboo tile (green), a granite tile (gray), or a redwood tile (brown), and place it on their player board directly underneath their Sun token. They will then place a resource token on top of this tile that corresponds to its type. The players going 3rd and 4th in the turn order will be allowed to place an additional resource of their choice on this space to go along with the one they just placed. This chosen resource does not have to match the type that is already there.

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After each player has chosen their starting land tiles, five separate facedown draw piles will be made amongst the five different land tile types. Each stack will include four tiles of that particular type of land, therefore there will be a draw pile of four bamboo (green) tiles, a draw pile of four granite (gray) tiles, a draw pile of four redwood (brown) tiles, a draw pile of four obsidian (black) tiles, and a draw pile of four spring (blue) tiles. All remaining land tiles are shuffled together and will construct another facedown stack. After this is done, the top tile of each of the five stacks is revealed to show which tiles are available at the beginning of the game.

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Throughout the game, players will be able to recruit Characters to their lands. These Characters can provide bonuses when activated as well as end game Victory Point bonuses. At the beginning of the game, all of the Character tiles are placed face down, referencing their “deactivated” side. When players recruit these Characters, they will need to pay resources in order to activate them, and thus are awarded their bonuses.

Finally, each player will receive their own personal City board that includes various buildings that they will be allowed to construct during the game. All remaining components including the Resource tokens, Building tokens, Mana tokens, and Victory Point tokens are also placed in the central play area. They player that has been chosen to go first will receive the Start Player marker, and the game is ready to begin. At the end of setup, the gameplay area should look something like this:

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Gameplay:

Helios is played out through a number of Rounds depending on the number of players in the game. Two and four-player games are comprised of a total of four Rounds, while a three-player game, three total Rounds. Each Round is made up of a series of phases; the Action Phase, the Recruit Phase, and the Cleanup Phase, and in each phase players will take turns moving clockwise, beginning with the Start Player. Lets take a look at each of these phases and how they work.

 

 

The Action Phase – During the first phase of each Round, players will take turns choosing Action tiles amongst those available in the central play area, and then resolving those actions. There are three different actions to choose from, and each action is represented by a different column. Players must choose one of the three action tiles at the bottom of each column and then will place these tiles below the sections at the bottom of their player board according to the tile’s color (gray colored tiles can be placed in any of the colored sections).

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While the icon on the tile represents the type of action that the player will resolve, the color is important as well in that if a player ever places a 4th tile of the same color beneath his player board, he will immediately be allowed to take an additional tile (thus an additional action). This creates an interesting strategy in deciding which action/color combinations to choose from during a turn. Actions are comprised of creating new lands, constructing a building, or moving the sun.

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1.) Creating Land

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When a player chooses an Action tile with the land icon, he is allowed to choose a Land tile amongst those face up on the draw piles and place it on his personal game board. When placing the tile, it must be placed directly adjacent to another Land tile already on the board. Since (as we’ll learn in a bit) the Sun token must travel along the outside boarders of the Land tiles when revolving around the board, the Land tiles can never be placed on a way in which the Sun token would be completely enclosed. Players can also use this action to place a Bonus tile onto their board as opposed to a Land tile. Bonus tiles will reward players additional Victory Points at the end of the game depending on where they are positioned on the board.

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After taking an action tile from the central play area, we can see that Player B has chosen to create land. He places this land tile below his personal game board and then chooses amongst the available land tiles on top of the various draw piles. He decides to take the Spring (blue) tiles and places it on his player board next to his Redwood (brown) tile. This completes his first action of the Round.

 

 

2.) Build Structures

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When a player chooses an Action tile with the building icon, he is allowed to either place a building token on one of his Land tiles in the form of a Temple, or he can place a building token on one of the available spaces on his City board in the form of a City Building. Building a Temple onto a Land tile will immediately reward the player a number of Mana tokens depending how many Temple have previously been built by that player. Mana tokens can be used to recruit new Characters to your lands.

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– If this is the 1st Temple built by the player, he will receive 1 Mana token.
– If this is the 2nd Temple built by the player, he will receive 2 Mana tokens.
– If this is the 3rd Temple built by the player, he will receive 3 Mana tokens.
– And so on and so on….

 

Though Mana tokens are the immediate reward, Temples can also provide bonuses when moving the Sun around the board, which we’ll take a look at in just a bit. When building Temples, players must pay a number or resources equal to the number of built Temples by that player (similar to how many Mana tokens are earned). For instance, if a player is building his 2nd Temple, he would be required to pay 2 resources. The type of resources paid for this action can be chosen by the player, and does not need to be a specific type. Once the resource tokens have been paid, the player can place a building token (Temple) on any of his available Land tiles.

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If the player chooses use this action to build a City Building however, the player must choose a City Building amongst the ones available on his City Board, and must pay the exact resource cost as stated. The player does have the option of always trading in two of the same colored resource for any one different resource when attempting to pay for a new City Building. Depending on the type of building, the player will immediately earn a certain number of Mana tokens as well as must immediately move the Sun marker along the Sun track, according the what is listed on the building space. Increasing this marker on the Sun track will increase the number of spaces the Sun token can move around the board, when taking that specific action (which we‘ll look at next). City Buildings can provide in-game and post-game special bonuses and Victory Points. Let’s take a look at a couple of them and see what they might provide:

 

 

The Observatory

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As seen in the bottom left corner, the Observatory costs 1 Obsidian resource to build. Immediately after construction, the player will be allowed to move his Sun marker 3 spaces along the Sun track. He will also receive 3 Victory Points at the end of the game.

 

 

The Bazaar

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The Bazaar will cost any 2 resources to build. Immediately after construction, the player can choose to trade in 1 Mana token for 4 Victory Points. This can be done up to 3 total times. A player with a constructed Bazaar will also receive 1 Victory Point at the end of the game.

 

 

The Palace

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The Palace will cost a Bamboo, a Granite, and any other resource to build. Immediately after construction, the player will be allowed to move his Sun marker 1 space along the Sun track. He will also immediately be able to take another action (either creating land, building a structure, or moving the sun). A player with a constructed Palace will also receive 2 Victory Points at the end of the game.

 

 

 

3.) Moving the Sun

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When a player chooses an Action tile with the sun icon, he is allowed to move his Sun token a certain number of spaces on his game board (up to the maximum referenced by the position of the Sun marker on his Sun track). The Sun token will always move to the next adjacent available space in a clockwise fashion, around his connected Land and Bonus tiles. Once the Sun ends its movement, the player can collect bonuses according to the Sun’s position to his tiles and built Temples.

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If the Sun is directly adjacent to a Land tile that neither contains a resource or a Temple, the player can place a resource token matching that land type on the tile. This is how a player will produce resources throughout the game. Taking a look above, we can see that Player A has ended his movement, with his Sun connected to four Land tiles. One of these Land tiles (granite) already has a resource on it, while another tile houses a built Temple. This means that Player A (as seen below), can place resources on the other two empty Land tiles, one on the Spring tile and another on the Bamboo tile.

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If the Sun is directly adjacent to a tile housing a Temple, the Temple will receive 1 Victory Point, plus an additional Victory Point for every Land or Bonus tile directly adjacent to the tile with the Temple. Taking a look at the below example, since the Sun is adjacent to the tile with the Temple, and the Temple is surrounded by 2 other adjacent tiles, this bonus would provide 3 Victory Points to Player A this turn.

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While it may be beneficial to slowly revolve the Sun around your various Land tiles to help produce resources and gather Victory Points from built Temples, it is also beneficial to complete revolutions around the game board. Whenever the Sun token reaches the beginning space at which it began on at the beginning of the game, this constitutes as a complete revolution. When this happens, the player will immediately score 5 Victory Points, and this bonus is awarded each time a player can achieve this during the game (though it is limited to once per turn).

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Taking a look at the example above, the next time Player A moves his Sun, he will have passed the space in which his Sun token started at the beginning of the game. Because he has made a complete revolution, he will immediately score 5 Victory Points.

 

 

The Recruit Phase – After each player has taken four complete turns, the Action Phase ends. Now players can recruit and activate Characters during the Recruit Phase. While constructed buildings provide players immediate and ongoing abilities during the game, Characters will provide players bonus Victory Points at the end of the game. Characters however, must be active in order for a player to receive these end-game bonuses, so simply recruiting a Character will do a player no good if he is not able to activate him by the end of the game.

There are only 8 Characters available to recruit during the game. On a player’s turn, he can choose to recruit a single Character and/or activate a single Character. Each Character has a recruit cost, referenced by a number of Mana tokens in the top portion of the Character’s tile. When choosing a Character to recruit, the player will pay the corresponding number of Mana tokens and place the recruit into his play area, with the deactivated (dark) side face up.

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Player C decides to recruit a Character during his Recruit phase and chooses the Priestess by paying 2 Mana tokens. The Priestess is placed into his play area, but his kept face down on her deactivated side. She provides no benefit to the player while deactivated, therefore Player C must activate her before the end of the game, in order to receive her bonuses.

 

At the bottom of each Character’s tile is a number of resources. This is the Character’s activation cost. Much like constructing buildings, players must pay these listed resources to activate the Character, but they can choose to spend two resources in exchange for any one listed resource that they do not have. When the Character is activated, its tile is turned to it’s active side and immediately receives an activation bonus if available (addition to the sun track, additional Mana and Resource tokens). As mentioned above, an active Character will also provide endgame bonuses. Let’s take a look at a few of the bonuses provided by some of the Characters:

 

 

Cartographer

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The Cartographer costs 2 Mana tokens to recruit, and a granite, a redwood, and a bamboo resource to activate. As an activation bonus, the player receives a bonus resource of his choice to place on a Land or Bonus tile. At the end of the game, an activated Cartographer provides 3 Victory Points for every different Land type represented on the player’s game board.

 

 

Treasurer

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The Treasurer costs 4 Mana tokens to recruit, and an Obsidian, a Bamboo, and any other resource token to activate. Though the Treasurer does not provide any activation bonuses, it does provide an endgame bonus in which the player will receive 3 Victory Points for each remaining Mana token (as well see in a bit, the normal awarded endgame bonus for this is 1 Victory Point for each Mana), as well as 2 Victory Points for each remaining Resource token on the player’s game board.

 

 

Inventor

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The Inventor costs 2 Mana tokens to recruit, and an Obsidian, a Granite, and any other resource token to activate. As an activation bonus, the player will be allowed to increase his Sun marker 2 spaces on the Sun track, as well as provides him with 1 Mana. At the end of the game, an activated Inventor will provide the player 5 Victory Points for every Bonus tile on his game board.

 

 

The Cleanup Phase – After all players have been given the chance to recruit and/or activate a Character, the central play area must be set up for a new Round of play. Any Land tiles that are still face up on their respective draw piles are discarded, thus all draw pile will now show only face down tiles. Then the topmost tile is flipped over to its revealed side. New Action tiles are also drawn and placed amongst the three columns so that each column provides six tiles to players for the upcoming Round. Once these two steps are complete, the Start player marker is passed to the next player (moving clockwise), and a new Round begins. After four complete Rounds have been completed, the game comes to an end.

 

 

 

End-Game Scoring:

At the end of the game, Victory Points will totaled up in the following ways:

 

– Victory Point tokens accumulated in the player’s bag during the game.

– Each remaining Mana token is worth 1 Victory Point.

– Any Victory Points awarded by activated Characters

– Any Victory Points awarded from constructed buildings

 

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– If a player has any Bonus tiles on his game board, these will score Victory Points depending on how they were placed. Some will Victory Points according to how many empty spaces surround it, while others will provide Victory Points depending on adjacent Temples, Land tiles, or Resources.

 

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– Each game board contains six spaces along the outside of the board, known as “corner spaces”, and each space lists a particular Victory Point number. If a Land or Bonus tile has been placed in the space directly adjacent to these corner spaces by the end of the game, the player will receive the number of bonus Victory Points as listed on the space.

 

The player with the highest total of Victory Points after these have been calculated, is declared the winner.

 

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Thoughts:

Helios exists comfortably within that unique space of games that can combine a full dose of strategy, with quick, simple gameplay. Players are asked to manage resources, strategically pre-plan moves, and make decisions on the layout of their land area. Creating land that stretches wide to reach the corner spaces can provide a good amount of Victory Points at the end of the game, but may make for a longer revolution for your Sun to move around the board. Building a tighter, more compact area of lands will allow for a faster revolution, but may keep the player from reaching those bonus Victory Point spots. It’s finding the balance in between that can be key.

The theme provides a unique approach to gameplay. Temples are activated and lands produce resources when the Sun shines upon them, therefore building your land and Temples in a way that takes advantage of when and where the Sun will be at different points of its revolution is a neat way of presenting the game. Its also refreshing to see a design that allows players to choose amongst a group of actions from a large pool, and as these actions are chosen over the course of a Round, the choices become more and more limited. It forces players to think ahead, and adds a good amount of decision-making with what players are attempting to accomplish in any given Round.

The production and component quality in Helios is top of the line, and probably a major factor in its higher price point. Cardboard tiles are thick, artwork and printing quality on the player and city boards are stellar, and even the Mana tokens are custom designed in a way that they have flat surfaces so they won’t roll around the play area. And though a minor touch, I delighted in the fact that each individual cloth bag had its own player design. Though it won’t make or break a game, it’s the small efforts here and there in component design that can elevate the enjoyment of a good game. Helios is a game full of various strategies and when combined with its simple rule set, quick gameplay, and high-end production quality, makes for a title that should perform well with all types of gamers.

 

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