- For ages 13 and up
- For 2 players
- Approximately 30 minutes to complete
- Active Listening & Communication
- Counting & Math
- Logical & Critical Decision Making
- Reading & Writing
- Strategy & Tactics
- Risk vs. Reward
- Hand/Resource Management
- Bluffing and Misdirection
- Child – Moderate
- Adult – Easy
Theme & Narrative:
- Battle to the death
- Gamer Geek approved!
- Parent Geek approved!
- Child Geek approved!
Japanese martial artist and founder of the martial art of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, said, “When life is victorious, there is birth; when it is thwarted, there is death. A warrior is always engaged in a life-and-death struggle for Peace.” In this game, peace is only granted to the dead. Players will take on the role of a mighty warrior who is highly skilled in their specific field of combat. Battles are head-to-head and toe-to-toe. The only weapons they have are the few items they bring with them and their wits to outmaneuver their foe.
Varia, by Guildhouse Games, is comprised of multiple Class decks. Each Class deck contains 36 cards. As of this review’s publication date, the classes include “Blade,” “Monk,” “Cosmic Mage,” “Divine Paladin,” “Death Pirate,” “Volcanic Warrior,” and “Shadow Assasin.” For this review, we were provided the “Volcanic Warrior” and “Shadow Assasin.” You will need two Class decks to play the game, but they need not be different Class decks.
The cards are as thick and as durable as your standard playing card. As an old-school Magic the Gathering player, I appreciate the card layout that is easy to read and focus a good deal on the illustration on the card with just the right amount of text and icons. Not included in the game, but necessary to play, is a method to keep track of various values. A pen or pencil and some paper will work just fine. Players will also need at least one standard six-sided die and at least one standard four-sided die. The Class decks have a die-card you can cut to create paper dice, but come on… What gamer worth their salt doesn’t have at least 20 or so dice around the house? Hell, I even have a few in my car, because you never know…
A Quick Word on Our Warriors
Varia describes itself as a first-person card game. Meaning? The cards in each Class deck, which are complete (no need to buy extras or search for rares in booster packs), represent actions taken by the character represented by the deck. In this case, a beefy tattooed warrior and a hooded assassin that likes to stay in the shadows. Each deck is ready to play the moment you open it up. All you need is an opponent…and another Class deck.
Each of the cards uses the same standard layout.
Preparing for Battle
To set up the game, each player will need their own Class deck. Varia does have rules that allow players to construct their own decks, but for this review, we are sticking to the preconstructed decks.
Second, each player takes their Class deck and finds the Item cards. Item cards have a gold coin symbol at their bottom, making them easy to spot. These Item cards are collected and placed face-up in front of the player. In the standard game, players can have a total of 30 gold worth of items in play. Any cards that are used for stacks or tokens are set aside. These cards will be used, but are only brought into the game when another card calls for them. All other cards are shuffled and placed face-down to create the player’s draw deck.
Third, have each player record their starting Action and Health points. Each player starts the game with 10 Action points and a maximum of 30 Health points. Again, use whatever method is most natural to keep track of these values.
That’s it for the game set up. Determine who will be the first “active player” and being.
The Art of Combat
Varia is played turns with players participating in each step. A turn is summarized here.
Step One: Start
At the start of the turn, each player draws two cards from their draw deck, adding them to their hand. Each player also gains up to 10 Action points. On the very first turn of the game, players draw six cards instead of two. There is no maximum hand size in Varia, meaning players should never feel forced to play a card.
When a player is unable to draw a card, they shuffle their discard pile and forgotten pile into a single deck. This is shuffled and placed face-down to create their new draw deck. The player may now draw the number of cards needed. However, since they refreshed their draw deck, they gain one Fatigue.
Step Two: Move
The “active player” must now decide if they want to engage, disengage, or not move at all with their opponent.
If a player engages, the chances of missing an attack are reduced since – thematically speaking – the “active players” is within melee range of their opponent. Disengaging is just the opposite. If an attack is not explicitly noted as “Ranged,” it will not hit the opponent.
It should be noted that this step requires the player to make an initial move. As the turn continues, players can engage and disengage through additional cards. The concept remains the same; however, with engaging and disengaging suggesting proximity to the target and the effectiveness of melee and ranged attacks.
Distance is a very real thing in the game. During each turn, players “program” their warriors. Once cards a played, they can be shifted, but subtly on a card by card basis. You can, therefore, be skunked by an opponent who nimbly jumps away, leaving you with a bunch of cards in play that are capable of doing nothing this turn because your target is out of range. Similarly, you can move in and out of range several times if it makes sense to do so.
Step Three: Take Action
The “active player” selects a card from their hand and places it in front of them. Cards placed in front of the owning player are referred to as the “Timeline.” Each card played represents a specific moment in the timeline.
Moments are played and planned in sequential order form left to right. Moment one is planned before moment two and so on. Players can certainly – and should – plan for future moments, but they cannot play future cards to their Timeline. This means, at minimum, each turn will have one moment on the Timeline if there is an engagement. For every card played past the first, it’s placed to the right of the last card played to the Timeline. Thus creating additional moments in the order in which they occur.
Several cards can be played to the Timeline. These include Physical Attacks and Physical Blocks, Magical Attacks and Magical Blocks, as well as Weapons, Armor, and Items. Physical and magical attacks and blocks will be discarded after the turn is over, but items, weapons, and armor are returned, always being available for use unless removed from the game (by becoming ruined).
Good news! You can repair ruined items.
There is no limit to the number of cards that can be played to the Timeline, but the “active player” is the only one who decides the total number of moments in the turn. After the “active player” has played all the cards they want to their Timeline, the total number of moments on each of the player’s Timelines is locked. For example, if the “active player” played five cards to their Timeline, there are now five moments for this turn.
Step Four: React
The “active player’s” opponent selects a card from their hand and places it in front of them, reacting to the cards played by the “active player.” The opponent has an advantage here as they can see all the cards placed by the “active player.” However, as noted, the opponent cannot add any additional moments to the Timeline. If the “active player” created three moments (played three cards), the opponent can only react to those three. They cannot add an additional fourth moment as a “gotcha”.
Step Five: Fast Action
The “active player” may play any fast actions they have as combinations to previously played cards or as a replacement to an already played card. The critical point to make here is that no new moments can be created or removed, but cards can stack on top of each other in a single moment.
Some cards have the keyword “Fast” used in their description. These can be played as the player’s initial action and reaction to the Timeline or used to change the cards played during specific moments. That is to say, these cards can either replace the moment entirely (with a 1:1 swap) or augment the moment which creates a combo. In all cases, the total number of moments in the Timeline does not increase or decrease.
Cards that are replaced in the Timelines go to the forgotten pile. This is a unique discard pile where the cards are placed face-down. A player cannot look at any card in the forgotten pile unless another card specifically allows it.
Step Six: Fast React
Likewise, the “active player’s” opponent can now do the same.
This continues with both players playing fast actions and reactions for as long as they like and does not stop until both players pass.
Step Seven: Resolve
After each player has passed, the cards played are resolved in the Timeline in the order in which they were played. Damage to the player’s characters is taken and blocked on a moment-by-moment basis, with all cards in a single moment being resolved before continuing.
Cards in the Timeline must be paid for using action points. Combos cost more, obviously, because you are paying for multiple cards, but all the cards at that moment must be paid for as a whole. Players spend their Action points starting with the first moment and so on. If the player can pay for the cards, those cards can be resolved for that moment. If they cannot, the player simply takes no action during that moment.
After both players reduce their total number of action points to pay for the cards at the moment, any cards with the keyphrase “start of moment” are resolved.
Attacks are not a sure thing. Remember, melee attacks will not work if the player isn’t engaged. Even if the attack hits, the damage it deals is variable. Players roll the six and four-sided die to determine power and focus. Both players roll their dice to determine damage dealt and damage blocked, resulting in the total damage inflicted on the target.
- Power is represented by a roll of the six-sided die, plus the number in the Power symbol.
- Focus is represented by a roll of the four-sided die, plus the number of the Focus symbol.
Finally, any cards with the keyphrase “end of moment” is resolved.
Any cards in a moment that do not have anything blocking them are considered unopposed and are automatically successful.
This completes the moment. The next moment is now resolved using the same approach: pay > roll > resolve
Step Eight: Finishing the Turn
The turn is now over. If both players have characters with one or more Health points, they take the cards played to their Timeline and place them in a discard pile. Remember, Weapons, Armor, and Items are never discarded.
The “active player” title is now given to the opponent, and the game continues.
A Quick Word on Stacks
Varia uses the concept of “stacking” values to represent buffs and banes. Depending on the stack (which is unique to each class), they will either represent a permanent impact on the game or are depleted over time as the game progresses. Like Health and Action points, it’s up to the player to determine how best to record these values.
Winning the Game
The game continues as noted above until one player reduces their opponent’s character’s Health points to zero. That character is considered defeated, making the other player the winner.
Roll Your Own Class
Varia comes with seven prebuilt classes ready to play right out of the box. Players also have the option to create their own unique class by combining cards from other decks. As we were only given two decks, we could not try this exciting game variant. There are two ways to build a deck.
- Basic – Attribute Build: This a quick way to build a new deck and is especially useful for those who have zero to little experience doing so in other games. Picking one attribute, the player can combine any 30 cards from the game that share the same attribute or are considered generic (no attribute). For example, the Volcanic Warrior uses the primary attribute “Aggression” and the Shadow Assasin uses “Subtlety.” It is assumed that each of the classes uses one primary attribute.
- Advanced – Level Build: This is a much more difficult and time-consuming method to build a deck, but it allows the player to truly create something unique. Any card can be used as long as the total level value does not exceed seven. To determine the decks shared level, you count the highest requirement per attributes on the cards.
To learn more about Varia, visit the game’s webpage.
The Child Geeks had difficulty at first learning and understanding the game. The most confusing aspect was the fast-acting and fast-reacting steps where each player can subtly adjust the cards in play. More than once, Child Geeks found that they overspent or underprepared. The lesson was learned, and the Child Geeks became noticeably better at combat. According to one Child Geek, “I like the game because it always keeps you looking for different ways to attack and dodge. I think it is a bit heavy on the math, but the math is pretty easy once you figure out how the game works.” Another Child Geek said, “I don’t know why my brother didn’t understand how the cards worked. I thought it was pretty easy. I do think that the game would be hard for younger players who are still counting on their fingers.” In all cases, the Child Geeks frequently had a piece of paper to keep track of actions, health, and stacks, as well as a piece of scratch paper to do quick math. When the last numbers were calculated, the result was a big win for Varia.
The Parent Geeks found Varia to be a pretty exciting game, full of thoughtful gameplay and a high level of engagement. According to one Parent Geek, “I liked the game a lot. It felt like a real battle, with our characters dodging and weaving, making last-minute choices, and wincing at the results. Each of the turns felt exciting, and I always had a card to play. Fun stuff.” Another Parent Geek said, “Lots of fun with my husband. I kicked his butt several times, but it also comes down to the cards. He felt it was necessary to make lots of small moves, but I always put a lot of actions on my Timeline. Fun with the kids, too, but nothing is better than beating my husband at a game!” When the last fighter fell, Varia arose as the victor.
The Gamer Geeks found Varia to be casual but with a lot of depth and strategy. According to one Gamer Geek, “Easy game to grasp and a fun game to start your day of gaming. Games don’t feel long, and the cards are played pretty fast. The game’s overall speed decreases during the resolution, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing when you consider how carefully my opponent and I are trying to find weak spots in each other’s defenses. Good stuff. I liked it and would play it again.” Another Gamer Geek said, “Engaging, tactical, and strategic. Don’t care for the prebuilt decks and would prefer to build my own, but I did enjoy it all the same.” All the Gamer Geeks gave Varia their approval.
Varia is a lot of fun, where each game is a battle that felt tense and surprising. Just when you think you have your opponent cornered, they could jump out of the way or move in closer than you anticipated and stick a blade in your ribs. We were only given two decks, but that was enough to get us hooked. We enjoyed the game and traded decks back and forth with ease.
Of particular note is the difficulty noted on the decks. The rules do not go into great detail, but we determined that “difficulty” is describing the level of thought you can put into your moves. The Volcanic Warrior, for example, is considered the “Beginner” level, and it shows. This brute does one thing and one thing only: smash things. You play it by being aggressive and swinging your sword a lot. The same cannot be said about the Shadow Assasin, who has the level of “Intermediate.” The Shadow Assasin’s cards force the player to think more about the timing and their use. In both cases, none of the decks felt overpowered or off-balance, but they both played a good deal differently. I liken it to video games where certain classes have very different ways they go about entering combat and leveling up.
The only aspects of the game I am not a fan of are the stacks and the rules that feel incomplete.
Stacks are not well defined in the game rules. Once you play the game, you understand how they are used, but not before. I’m the kind of person who wants to know how to play the game just by reading its instructions. You cannot with Varia. At least not entirely. Stacks come into play during certain conditions and not before. This makes them a wild card and unique to each deck. I understand this is hard to document, but a few examples of how they are to be used would have made our first couple of games run smoother.
As for the rules, they are fine and easy to follow but tend to leave important details out. They are also not included in the game. You have to use a QR code that will direct you to a web site that summarizes the game. You then have to hunt for the link for the rule book which appears to be a work in progress. Not great. I am of the opinion that a game should have everything it needs to play. This includes the rules. I don’t want to have to go online to play a game offline. Makes little sense. I also don’t want to be tethered to technology to play a game that doesn’t need any to begin with. Yes, I could print the rulebook, but it won’t fit in the decks. I found this to be a total design failure.
How would I do it? I’m glad you asked (even if you didn’t). Why not create a “starter box” with four classes or at minimum two. Then put the rules in that bigger box. All the other classes can later be purchased and placed with the starter box: easy fix and a vastly superior storage solution to boot.
My grumbling aside, Varia was worth our time and made us all happy. Yes, I have a chip on my shoulder regarding the rules, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the game. Great stuff here that resulted in a casual card game with intense battles. Do give it a try with a friend when time allows to determine if Varia wins your favor.
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.