Allegiance: A Realm Divided
Designed by Paul MacKinnon
Published by Underground Games Inc.
2-4 Players - 30-60 Minutes
Review by John L S Foster
It’s 1996. Someone is at the top of a music chart, a certain style is in fashion, someone famous probably dies, and I barely notice any of it. My attention is elsewhere. A new friend asks if I play “Magic Cards”, which I can only assume means some sort of sleight of hand. He shows me a handful of cards and explains that this type of magic doesn’t require a top hat, but it almost certainly couldn’t hurt. An 11 year old me has just taken his first steps down a long and expensive path that leads to boxes full of paper cards and a wallet devoid of paper money.
Now its 2016. I'm 31 years old and I live with my girlfriend. I have a full time job, a car payment, and a daughter; things have changed a bit since 1996. I find myself with a dwindling supply of time and an ever growing collection of games, none of which I can ever play enough to satisfy the gaming itch entirely. I still have all of the passion of a lifelong gamer, but the time I once devoted to the singular pastime that was Magic has now been spread thin and the number of gaming options I have to choose from has expanded dramatically. About 6 years ago I came to the realization I couldn't sustain a single game hobby that consumed so much of my time and money. In spite of my love for the gripping 2 player duel of cards that Magic offered, I had to let it go. Enter Allegiance: A Realm Divided.
Allegiance is a card game with a familiar premise; play some cards, summon some minions, attack. Players take on the role of fantasy trope characters and do battle using cards for a variety of effects. This is a theme that is more than a little routine in tabletop gaming by now, but Allegiances fleshes it out with vibrant and dynamic art on par with any top tier company in the industry. The art isn’t limited to the cards either. The first step for setup is for the players to choose 1 of 10 large player boards sporting gorgeous murals of the game's characters alongside a bevy of game changing powers. These characters and their powers are where the game gets its flare and the lion's share of its flavor. The rest of the game seems to exist as a framework to let these characters display their talents.
After choosing characters the rest of setup is a brief affair in which the table is set with 3 shared decks from which cards are drawn. Allegiance graciously eliminates deck construction which lets players jump directly into playing without having to invest in a large collection and devote time to preparation. Turns begin with a series of simple upkeep steps followed by an open-ended main phase. On their turn players draw a card from the deck of their choice, ready exhausted cards on the table, accrue gold to pay for cards, and increase the amount they accrue each turn by 1. Players are then free to attack with minions, use active player powers, or pay gold to unlock powers on their player board and play cards from their hand.
With that simple structure and a few basic timing rules to learn you will find yourself diving into play almost immediately. The pace has a steady build in intensity that gradually ramps up due to the ever increasing gold accrual each turn. Shared decks means a level of consistency to every game that doesn't hinder the overall variety. The streamlined rules and ease of setup are definitely features, but if that were all Allegiance had to offer it would be a forgettable experience. Its the characters themselves that take the raw stuff of this game and make magic from it.
Each of the 10 characters is wholly unique and shapes the play of the user in ways that breed a host of satisfying choices to be made each turn. The powers these characters wield require the same resource to unlock as you might use to field an army to protect yourself, but where an army can be killed and an action card is played but once, character powers operate on a cool down system and are available again and again once unlocked. This confronts you with some truly interesting choices as you consider summoning a defending minion to the table to stop the next wave of attacks or grit your teeth and take the hit so you can unlock the next power at your disposal. Choosing characters means decisions like whether to act as the Necromancer and call forth armies from the discard pile or to become the Ranger and control the battlefield by predicting the attacks of your opponents and laying traps to thwart their intentions. With over 40 possible matchups, Allegiance offers a variety without overcomplexity. You can drape yourself in skull bedecked armor of a Death Knight to decimate the Paladin's blessed armies and wonder how well you will fare when your friend chooses next game to forgo hordes of minions and takes the fight to you as a shape changing Druid.
This all sounds very colorful and make no mistake it is, but while the characters will add asymmetry and intensity to the game, they can't disguise its derivative nature. Allegiance borrows heavily from competitive card games in general and from Magic: The Gathering in particular. Nothing in the rulebooks will redefine the world of gaming in itself, but where this game shines is in the coat of polished lacquer it applies to the old machine that is the 2 player duel.
The core rules here eliminate some of the worst pitfalls the genre has to offer and leaves players with a sandbox to explore their character strategies in. Defined resource accrual means no chance at a bad hand ruining your in-game economy and preventing plays turn after turn. No deck construction means no demands that you keep up with an ever expanding pool of cards and an ever diminishing bank balance. No lexicon of overused keyword systems means only simple rules on simple cards that allow new and returning players alike to explore their character rather than muddle through a hand full of literature each turn. And all of this means no need to hunt for players invested in the same franchise when this single box holds an entire experience and welcomes all levels of familiarity to the table.
I recommend this game to any player who has ever loved like Magic or wanted to experience it, but were put off by the sheer magnitude of such an endeavor. I will remember Magic as my first love in card gaming, but I find now that the games I love best now are ones that offer depth and variety without bloat; games that can be a part of my larger hobby of tabletop gaming rather than being a hobby unto themselves. It may be that as I move gradually into the middle years of my life I have realized that quality doesn't demand excess and I have come to expect more from the games I own. I can safely say that, for me at least, Allegiance delivers on that expectation.
John L S Foster is a contributing reviewer for the Cardboard Herald