Please Take Note: This is a review of the final game, but it might change slightly based on the success of the Kickstarter campaign. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the game designer’s website. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review.
- For ages 8 and up (publisher suggests 13+)
- For 2 to 5 players
- Approximately 60 minutes to complete
- Active Listening & Communication
- Counting & Math
- Logical & Critical Decision Making
- Strategy & Tactics
- Semi-Cooperative & Team Play
- Hand/Resource Management
- Worker Placement & Area Control
- Child – Moderate
- Adult – Easy
Theme & Narrative:
- Kids have all the fun
- Gamer Geek approved!
- Parent Geek approved!
- Child Geek approved!
It’s Spring Break in a sleepy little town where nothing ever happens. A few of the children are playing in the woods when they notice something is not right. The trees seem darker and more dangerous. Suddenly, a monstrous figure jumps out from behind a large rock, roaring in a blood rage! The children are not scared! They are elated! Grabbing sticks as weapons, they charge the monster, happy to be finally doing something “cool”.
The Guardians: Explore, designed by Jonathon Ruland, will reportedly be comprised of 5 Guardian figures, 5 Blanket Fort cards, 5 Player mats, 25 Practice Swing cards, 1 Time Keeper token, 10 Secret Quest cards, 20 Damage counters, 5 Explore cards, 10 Attack Power trackers, 12 First Wave Monster cards, 25 Second Wave Monster cards, 25 Third Wave monster cards, 10 Location mats, 1 Guardian Aid mat, 1 Monster Aid mat, 72 Guardian cards, 1 Adventure mat, 12 Super cards, 13 Blue Boss mats, 3 Red Boss mats, 2 Token cards, 1 Trailblazer card, 10 Blue Boss Reward cards, and 10 Red Boss Reward cards. As this is a review of a prepublished game, I cannot comment on the game component quality. The provided artwork is excellent, depicting the young heroes of the game with moody colors and excellent details, reinforcing the game’s thematic element and narrative. Unfortunately, I do not know what artwork will make it into the game, but I personally hope it all does. It’s excellent.
Game Set Up
To set up the game, first have each player select 1 Player mat, 1 Blanket Fort card, 1 Guardian figure, and the Power Level counters of the same color. The Guardians (who are supposed to be children around the ages of 12 to possibly 16) represent certain stereotypical fantasy classes. For example, a magic user, a thief, and an archer. But these are defined by the cards, not by the art.
Second, place the Guardian Adventure mat on the table and select which side to use. One side is referred to as “Apprentice”. This side is outstanding to use when teaching the game or if you want a really fast game playing session. If you want to play the full game, use the other side.
Third, place the Time Keeper token on the “Set Up” space on the Guardian Adventure mat and then place the “Home” Location mat above the Guardian Adventure mat. The rest of the Location mats are placed to the right to form a rectangle. Each row should be a separate color. If the “Apprentice” Guardian Adventure is being used, be sure to include the “Apprentice Candy Shop” Location mat face-up.
Fourth, shuffle the First Wave Monster cards and deal 1 out to each Location mat that has a monster symbol. These monsters are “invading” the small town the players will attempt to protect.
Fifth, place the Blue Boss and Red Boss Reward cards on the Monster Aid and then randomly select a Blue Boss and a Red Boss to place under the Guardian Adventure mat. The rest of the Bosses are returned to the game box. If using the “Apprentice” level, only select a Blue Boss.
Sixth, place the Damage counter on the Guardian Adventure mat and the other tokens off to one side. Place any other cards off to one side, as well.
That’s it for game set up. Randomly determine who will go first and give them the Trailblazer token. Move the Time Keeper token to the first step and begin!
But first, let’s make sure we are ready for the battle to come…
The Guardians: Explore makes use of card drafting and deck building to challenge players to create the best Guardian possible. This begins by first giving each player 1 Explore card and 5 Practice Swing cards for a total of 6 cards, returning any cards not used back to the game box.
Then each player is dealt 2 Super cards at random. These should be kept secret and added to the other cards the player owns. The rest of the Super cards are then placed back in the game box. When reviewing the Super cards, players need to pay attention to what it provides and who it’s for. The symbols on the Super cards identify the player’s “class” of sorts (rogue, archer, mage, knight, etc.) These Super cards are the backbone of the player’s deck and will help the player draft the best cards possible. A player is not restricted by what the Super card supports, however. A player can select any card they like when building their deck.
Now grab the Secret Quest cards and deal 2 to each player, putting the rest back in the game box. Again, players should look at these, but keep them secret. These cards detail an optional objective. If the player can complete the objective by the time the game is over, they will earn bonus points.
Finally, we get to the fun part! The Guardian cards! Shuffle them all and deal 7 to each player, face-down. DO NOT mix these cards with the other cards previously given to the players. Any remaining cards are placed face-down on the Guardian Aid mat. The Guardian cards represent weapons, armor, and actions. Some of which match the symbols on the player’s Super cards. Give each player some time to look through the cards and then have each select 1 to keep, placing it face-down. When all the players have selected a card, they pass their hand of Guardian cards to the player on their left. This is repeated until all 7 cards are taken.
Then another 7 Guardian cards are dealt and the process is repeated, but this time the cards are passed to the player’s right. When all the cards are dealt, the players pick up their deck of selected Guardian cards and select 4 to send to the trash (Guardian Trash pile, not the player’s discard pile). This is an opportunity for the player to refine their deck. The player can select any cards they like except Explore and Practice Swing cards.
The players should now have a pretty good idea about what cards they have in their deck, but they are not done yet. The players must now select 1 of the 2 Super cards to trash. The players should keep the one that best benefits the cards they selected. Failure to do so will result in a less than average Guardian.
About the Cards and the Mats
There are a lot of cards and mats in the game. It can feel a bit overwhelming at first when you see all the components, but how they are used is very simple and they are not all used at once. Each of the different card types and mats are summarized here.
These cards increase the power levels and help players do damage to the nasty creatures that have invaded the town. But they are more than just that. Guardian cards also help the players work together as a team. All players will start with the same Guardian cards and a handful of drafted cards, but as the game progresses, players will have an opportunity to refine which cards they have and can use. This includes weapons and even familiars that can be combined to give players lots of bonuses.
The invading army of monsters have their own cards, as well. Monsters include everything from murderous robots to rotting zombies. Individually, a monster can be easily put down, but monsters work together, making the Guardians’ job difficult. Lucky for the players, the monsters attack the town in waves instead of one large army. Each wave is harder than the last and players will quickly find themselves overwhelmed if they don’t take out the monsters as quickly as possible.
Secret Quest Cards
Being a Guardian is more than just running around and kicking monster butt (although it’s one of the biggest perks). It’s also about going on quests for fame and glory. Each quest details what must be done and what will be given if successfully completed.
The Location mats represent key areas in town that the monsters are attacking. The Guardians will need to visit these locations and fight the monsters that are camped out there, but each Location also provides a player some sort of bonus. Players can use their Blanket Fort card to fortify the position, thus reducing the odds of it being overrun by monsters. The only Location that is always safe is “Home”. No matter what troubles and horrors the Guardians encounter in town, Home will always be safe and warm.
Boss Monster Mat
The Boss Monsters are big and bad. Guardians must team up to fight them, as they are strong enough to destroy the whole town. The goal is to defeat the Boss Monster and doing so will award the Guardians powerful treasure and trophies. But it’s not that simple. Each Boss Monster changes the rules of the game when introduced into play. Players will need to change their tactics if they hope to survive the Boss Monster’s onslaught.
Let’s Save the Town!
The Guardians: Explore is played in rounds and turns. This is a semi-cooperative game, meaning players must work together, but only 1 player is the winner at the end. Each player, after building their deck, shuffles it, sets it face-down, and draws 4 cards to create their first hand. The Time Keeper token is moved forward to the first step and the battle to save the town begins!
The game is divided into 5 phases. Each phase is summarized here and I do mean “summarized”. Since this game is card driven and each player builds their own deck, the number of possible actions and outcomes is staggering.
Phase 1: Location
The first phase allows the players to move to a safe location. A “safe location” is any place that does not have a Monster card on it. Home is always safe, and if the player’s aren’t careful, it will be the only place the Guardians can run to.
Players should pause and consider what Location mats to visit. Each provides some sort of benefit, but the provided benefit might not be what the player needs or wants. For example, the “Home” Location mat allows players to trash cards from their deck, thus providing a means to remove cards they no longer want. If a Location is occupied by a Monster card, the benefit the Location provides is unavailable.
After reviewing the available locations, the players move their pawn to it in turn order sequence starting with the first player. Players can share the same location.
Phase 2: Power Up
During this phase, all persistent effects that are currently in play impact the game, including those from monsters and the Boss Monster. Players also get to play their cards, allowing them to prepare for the fight to come. Power levels are tracked and bonuses are added.
Phase 3: Surprise!
In turn order sequence, players can now play any Surprise cards they might have. Optional, of course, but players should never miss an opportunity to get the upper hand. Most of the Surprise cards allow players to interact with their opponents.
Phase 4: Battle!
Battles are fairly involved, but are resolved quickly. There are only two resources of note in the game. These are Energy and Attack Power. Energy is used to play cards while Attack Power is used to inflict damage.
Depending on which Guardian Adventure is being used, the players will have a different number of opportunities to beat up monsters and collect trophies. They’ll also need to tackle the Boss Monster, but not right away.
In turn order sequence, players decide which Monster cards are dealt damage. Location mats with 1 or more Monster cards that have a combined Attack Power value equal to or less than a player’s Guardian can be moved to. Defeated Monster cards are collected as trophies and kept in a separate pile in front of the player. Some monster trophies provide the player with rewards.
If the player likes, they can fortify a Location without any Monster cards with their Blanket Fort card. This spot is now a “safe” Location mat and will not be invaded by Monster cards during the game for as long as the fort remains.
When the battles are over, non-persistent cards are discarded, along with any other cards in play. The player’s Guardian Attack Power is set to zero.
When all players have had a change to battle, the phase is over.
Phase 5: Clean-Up
The last action for the round is cleaning up the table. Cards are discarded and everyone can take a quick breather.
Players draw 4 new cards unless they have some sort of special ability that allows them to draw more. If the player did not collect a trophy during the battle phase, they draw 1 extra card. If the player cannot draw enough cards, their discard pile is reshuffled to form their new draw deck.
The Trailblazer token is then passed to the next player in turn order sequence, unless the Boss Monster is in play and was part of the last phase. When done, move the Time Keeper counter to the next step.
Battling the Boss
The Boss Monster will appear after a set number of rounds of game play. The players will be able to see it coming thanks to the Guardian Adventure mat, giving them time to prepare.
The Boss Monster battle round plays similar to the other rounds, but has a few small changes.
- Reveal which Boss Monster is attacking before starting the first phase of the round.
- Immediately resolve Boss Monster effects and make everyone aware of any persistent effects.
- Individual Monster cards can be fought along with the Boss Monster, but more than 1 Guardian must fight the Boss Monster during the round to make any real difference.
- Those players who do attack the Boss Monster pool their damage and resources.
- When the Boss Monster is defeated, the trophy goes to the player who did the most damage.
- Failure to defeat the Boss Monster will result in all players being negatively impacted, as well as the small town.
- Additional waves of monsters will start to appear, making it difficult to find “safe” Location mats for bonuses.
Ending the Game and Final Scoring
The game will end differently depending on which side of the Guardian Adventure mat you are using. Regardless, the Guardian Adventure mat will help the players determine what steps need to be taken next, be it battling the Boss Monster or bringing in a new wave of monsters.
The final step in the game is Scoring, which follows the last Boss Battle. Players reveal their Secret Quest cards and announce their score if they completed it. Players also count up their trophies. The player with the most points is given the title “True Guardian” and wins the game. Ties are broken by determining who hurt the Boss Monster the most.
To learn more about The Guardians: Explore, visit the game designer’s website.
Note: I suggest you always start with the “Apprentice” side of the Guardian Adventure mat if introducing the game to new players for two reasons. First, it was designed to use all aspects of the game in a condense format without reducing any of the game’s challenge. Second, if you build your deck wrong, you’ll be spending most of the game hating yourself. The “Apprentice” game is short enough to make any mistake bearable.
The Child Geeks did very well. They have played card drafting and deck building games before, which quickly allowed us to teach and play the game. The semi-cooperative game play threw them a bit, as they struggled to find a good balance between being a team member and an individual. According to one Child Geek, “It can be hard at times to remember that you can’t just worry about yourself. You have to help out, but not too much.” Another Child Geek said, “You need to tell people who play this to really watch what cards they first get. If you don’t build a good deck you can work with, it’s hard to build a deck you can use to win.” A very wise and very accurate statement. What all the Child Geeks liked the most was that the heroes of the game were kids. Not only that, kids they recognized. They all knew someone who looked like one of the characters or believed the character’s best represented themselves. Battle after battle and game after game, the Child Geeks enjoyed The Guardians: Explore, resulting in a high level of approval.
The Parent Geeks enjoyed the game’s theme and the game play. They originally believed the game would be light, but quickly learned it was anything but. As a result, casual players and veteran Parent Geek gamers had no problems playing The Guardians: Explore, but non-gamer Parent Geeks struggled. According to one casual gamer, “This is a fun game, but it plays just a bit too long at first. It’s only after you learn how everything works that the game really picks up its speed.” Another Parent Geek said, “I love the semi-cooperative aspect of the game. That’s exactly what I would expect kids to do – work as a team, but still try to one-up their fellow team members.” After the last monster was put down and the Boss Monster destroyed, the Parent Geeks all voted to approve the game.
The Gamer Geeks found many of the game’s mechanics to be solid, if not original. They also liked the game’s thematic feel. According to one Gamer Geek, “Reminds me of Monster Squad. I think the game’s theme is a lot of fun.” But how did it play? According to one Gamer Geek, “Solid game. I found the rules a bit confusing and there are several that need to be refined, but the game play is smooth once you understand how everything works. This has the makings of a really popular title.” Another Gamer Geek said, “I have always enjoyed card drafting and deck building games. This one captures what I love perfectly and then throws in a highly thematic game to boot! I’m really liking it.” The Gamer Geeks liked it so much that they all voted to approve the game.
The Guardians: Explore captures the adventurous spirit I had as a child while exploring the woods and fighting monsters that lurked around my house. I spent a great deal of time pondering if the game was depicting horrible events in a small town or just a highly imaginative game being played by some very creative children. It’s a great mix of childlike innocence (blanket forts, for example) and the horrific (murderous robots with zombie hordes).
The biggest gotcha every player needs to watch out for is their deck build. Decks must be built from the very start as intelligently as possible. The game gives you clues about what you need to do, but it’s not always obvious how some of the cards will work together. Don’t sweat it, though, because the game gives you opportunities to slightly adjust your deck. Emphasis on “slightly”. If your build is lazy or random, you are going to have a horrible game.
The Guardians: Explore still has some trouble spots. I reviewed a list of updates to the game and they were all excellent. For example, the “Surprise” phase will be removed from the game, allowing players to focus more on the monster and attempt to one-up each other through good card plays rather than underhanded dealings. There will also be a new game mode that provides players a preconstructed deck and a small change to card drafting that allows players to keep all their cards instead of trashing them upfront. Finally, a new game rule will be added that will help balance the game and keep the lowest ranking player upfront with the action. All great stuff and just a few of the positive changes to come. As far as I’m concerned, the game is still evolving and growing, but not radically so. It’s being refined, filling out in some areas and slimming down in others. It’s already a great game and now it’s becoming even greater.
If you like thematic games with heroes and monsters, where the odds of winning seem overwhelmingly poor, and the only way to be victorious is to work together – but only to a point – then do sit down and play The Guardians: Explore. I’ve really enjoyed it and I bet you will, too.
This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.