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Path of Light and Shadow is an area control game, set within a fantasy land divided into realms and provinces. As the leader of one of the 4 houses, you have to take the land back from the Tyrant Queen. To be honest I didn’t even realise there was a Tyrant Queen until I started writing this review, as she does not make a appearance in gameplay. What does come through is, you are a warrior trying to take over the world, or in this case small provinces belonging to the realms.
The game plays out as a pseudo deck builder, area control and civilisation builder game. In which, your central actions are determined by your hand and deck of cards. Each turn you play cards from your hand, typically for either the 'strength' or 'Labour' value of that card. Predictably the attack action allows you to attack the province that you are in, which may be controlled by an opponent or a neutral realm. When attacking a neutral realm you need to beat the defence value, which is visually represented by the number of defence towers. To determine your attack value, you use the largest strength value to determine the number of dice you roll and then add up the strength number the other card/s played to the roll outcome. This doesn’t slow down combat much and interestingly brings in an element of luck, as you can underplay cards in the hope of a good roll. plus certain die faces cause 'ruin' which destroy defence towers equal to the ruin value rolled. Meaning that, if you inflict ruin, even if you failed the conquest it makes it easier to be successful on a future turn and reduces the number of points that your opponent gains in scoring if they control the province.
The Strength value of cards can also be used to cull cards from your hand or discard pile, removing them from the game completely with the number of cards you can remove being equal to the strength value of the card you played.
Alternatively, during your turn you can build structures on your player board by playing cards for their labour values. The structures are divided into the different factions and each one you build (there are 20 in total) provide a passive ability with the last level of each faction building giving you game end scoring bonuses.
Lastly, cards can be used to promote another card from either your hand or discard pile. Every card has its own upgrade path and cost which is usually an strength or labour value. Upgraded cards have higher strength and labour values but also the special abilities usually change, so upgrading a card is also about choosing when you can part with the ability of the current card. The special abilities on cards can apply depending on what actions you used them for, or you can use a card for its specific 'action' ability instead of using the cards attack or build value.
Each turn you can move your character on the board into an adjacent province and provinces with ports are deemed to be adjacent. The position of your character is crucial as you can only use an attack action in your current province, in addition, at the end of your turn you draw 1 or 2 cards from the realm deck that corresponds to the realm you are in. The realms contain 3 different classes of card, 2 of these are factions differ per realm and the last is the wandering Numarai, which is the only card which has a random upgrade path, i.e. you draw from a face down deck when promoting a Numarai card.
There is an additional track that any of your actions can and usually will impact. The 'morality track' with Cruelty and Mercy going from 1 to 12. Your morality level can impact your card abilities and grant you additional points for every mercy or cruelty earned past 12.
The game is played through 3 years with each year being made up of 4 phases. At the end of the fourth phase of each year, the end of year scoring phases is based on the defence value of provinces occupied and realms controlled. After year 3 scoring there is the end of game scoring in which you add the point value of your promoted cards and any end game scoring from level 4 structures that you have built.
I’ve not really touched on the components because there isn’t much to talk about. The board is clear and the art looks good with the provinces being big enough to accommodate the tower pieces. A big bonus is that there is a 2 player specific map, which keeps the game tight. The player boards are one of the best components, as they are dual layered which keeps the cubes in place. The dice are the other impressive component, they are big, chunky and very satisfying to roll. Your character is represented by a mini, which is slightly fragile but they are functional. I maybe would have preferred them to be a little sturdier with more detail, as they are the only miniatures in the game. Finally, I mentioned that the artwork initially appears to be generic high fantasy based on the box art and the starter cards. However the card art is great, especially for the Numerai, which is a nice bonus when you start playing but, in my opinion, it would have been great if the box art could have accentuated this more to make it stand out to new players.
Now it sounds like there is a lot happening in this game with all the different systems and multiple uses for cards. However each element is distilled down, making it easier to learn and apply in game, while also adding strategic complexity. For instance, at the start of the game you draw an additional unique starter card. You draw a card which benefits your attacking strength so decide to follow a conquest heavy strategy for the game. Then in deciding which cards you should look to obtain in your deck you could focus on 'Hordes of Zurd' which are an strength heavy faction and 'Hallax Guildlords' which provide utility in your deck, usually for the cost of victory points. You could combine different combinations of cards as they all work to some degree and so far we have found all the factions to be extremely well balanced.
The random elements of the game include; the dice rolling during conquests and deckbuilding, both of which I love. You can mitigate your luck during conquests by playing more cards, however that reduces the number of actions you can take in the turn, so there is a brilliant mix of risk versus reward. For the deckbuilding you are drawing random cards from realm decks, which could be annoying, but actually can encourage you to try different strategies from game to game. Plus you know the upgrade path for each card so you can generally turn a card into something that will be useful to you.
If it wasn’t obvious, I really enjoy this game; I love the combination of mechanics used in interesting ways and like the deckbuilding where you aren’t buying specific cards to add to your hand. The game has similarities to a larger epic game but actually takes place on a small map, with not much plastic and takes about 1 hour with 2 players. Its rare to play a game that feels this sprawling, but actually fits on your table and the best thing about it is that from the 2nd play onwards it is so quick to set up & put away back into the box once you have finished. There are multiple routes to winning which don’t all necessarily focus on the confrontational aspect of area control, although a little confrontation is unavoidable if you want to win, and every action you take is rewarding. It will remain a permanent part of my collection, although I will caveat my opinion with the fact that I have only played at 2 player count and there is the possibility that with 4 players there may be some long downtime between turns.
I felt this was a good time to share my thoughts on the game as there is currently an expansion on Kickstarter called Path of Light & Shadow Solstice, which I will be backing, with a reprint of the original game. The expansion adds more cards for existing factions as well as a new faction and some new mechanics with a board extension. Basically it seems to add more of what I love about the game, but will share my thoughts of it when I receive it and get a chance to play it.