UnPub Mini, Part Three - Æther
Of the other designers' games at the May 19th UnPub mini, the first I got to play was named "Æther."
Æther was an attempt to "fix" Magic: the Gathering, in one respect. A common gripe among Magic players is mana. You either get too little, or too much. For the uninitiated, mana is what powers your spells in M:tG. If you don't have enough of it, the game won't be much fun for you because you can't do anything. If you draw nothing but mana, on the other hand... the game won't be much fun for you because you can't do anything! Seasoned players might instead argue that, "If you're havin' mana problems, I feel bad for ya, son. I got 99 cards, and EDH is fun!"
So Æther's solution was to create a game that had the juicy tidbits of Magic: the Gathering, but without the mana problems. I thougt that game had already been made, and that it was called Duel Masters. But my cynicism was short-lived because Æther was more than just a Magic ripoff without mana, it was also a ripoff of Uno! You may be thinking, well isn't Pilatch just a ripoff of Poker, and Rock Paper Scissors? Totally. As it turns out, stealing ideas and making them into your own is the epitome of creativity. T. S. Eliot would back me up on this. There's also research suggesting William Shakespeare was so productive because of the loose intellectual property laws/enforcement in his creative environment, and his numerous high quality peers/competitors for him to siphon ideas from.
Therefore, Æther promised to be a bundle of awesome because it smooshed together two staples of the card game industry. Like Uno, the goal was to get rid of all the cards in your hand. Or, that was one of the goals. Because Æther was also like Magic, players had life totals too. You could win by killing someone, and slurp up that player's tangy nectar of vitality, thus ascending to the level of god-buster supreme, or whatever the lore called it.
What actually happened? We took turns putting creature cards onto the table, based on the previous card's number or color, like Uno. Why were there so many creatures? Because Wizards of the Coast's vast marketing and development data proved that monsters were the best part of Magic. As a result the Æther game designers built the central deck that we players shared with tons of creature cards.
In the early portion of our four-player game of Æther, there were not as many creatures, so those of us who were fortunate to play big creatures early put the beatdown on lightly defended opponents. The table soon evened out, and there were few profitable attacks, so the game devolved into a slightly advanced version of Uno, with skip-a-player cards, reverses, draw-two cards, etc. Occasionally a card would have an effect that would return a card to a player's hand, which had the double benefit of removing a defender, and slowing that player from emptying her hand. You might also steal a creature from somebody. However, attacking was still not viable in the middle-to-late game, even with these effects because there were so many creatures. If you attacked with your army, it left you open to counter attack from the other players. It seemed equally fruitless to attack with only a couple dudes, because of the defender's advantage — deciding which monsters block which, and who gangs up on whom.
The stagnation might have been less restrictive, were there were more combat tricks. If I could play a card from my hand, at any time (provided it met the Uno restriction), to affect creatures, then I may have considered sending a lone creature to infiltrate an opponent. At least I could bluff.
At the end of the game, our strategy was to look at the player's hand with the fewest cards in it. Remember which were played, and convince the rest of the table not to play cards of a certain quality, so that player could not empty her hand. This situation is ironic because the Æther designers wanted to eliminate a part of Magic that prevented players from playing cards, but they found a new way to foster inactivity.
My criticism is admittedly harsh, but Æther has potential to develop in a number of different directions, given its resources. The state of the game was very young when I played. The game designers only had one piece of original artwork, (I thought it looked pretty good), and had cut each card from stock, by hand. Along with the unique card templates, that's a lot of hard work. I know this from experience. The best thing for the Æther designers to do now is to continue development at events like these.
Recap of the UnPub Mini event in West Chester, PA, from May 19, 2012.