I’ve always had a soft spot for animals. Like many people, I grew up with a pet dog and most of my adult life has been spent in servitude to at least one cat. Generally speaking, if it’s furry or woolly it’s alright by me.
So, it disturbs me a little to admit that there are times when sight of an injured squirrel fills me with utter loathing. That, during those times, I can think of nothing but employing a hedgehog as a shield against the horrors that that poor hobbled rodent brings with it.
Worse still, that I want the animals that turn and run dragged back and used as some kind of furry shield. It disturbs me to think this way yet that is exactly what Sylvion, the sixth step on my board game journey, does to me.
In Sylvion, an enchanted forest is threatened by a relentless tide of fire spirits led by a creature known as the Ravage. The Ravage wants the forest and everything in it turned to ash and will stop at nothing until it has achieved this desire. The animals of the forest have turned to you to marshal their defences, hold back the fire and save the forest.
To do this, you need to turn the terrified mass of hedgehogs, pigeons, owls, elephants and whales (yes, whales) into an army of firefighters. Choose carefully for each of those animals has its own unique fire-fighting ability. Don’t forget, the forest needs to be regrown and damage free for the fire to be truly put out.
This is no ordinary forest fire. It is a swirling, dancing, living being. The smallest spark can erupt into a raging inferno, while hot winds sweep the fire forward destroying all before it. This fire will cause even your bravest animal helper to turn and run.
Sometimes this will be temporary. Your furry friends simply hiding until they recover the will to fight. At other times it will be too much and the animals will run for good (thanks to that squirrel!). The Ravage itself protects the fire from dousing, piggy backing the fire spirits until it can reach the forest and burn all.
Sylvion is card game of two halves. The first half is about building your army. You lay cards down one at a time in four piles. One pile is kept, one is discarded. Then you place another four cards, keep one pile discard another and so on. This gradually builds the card deck used to fight the fire during the game.
Once you have sorted the cards in this fashion, the second half of the game begins. This is the battle itself. The fire comes at you in four nice orderly rows, down a channel created by cards that represent the forest.
You defend against the fire by discarding cards from your hand to pay the cost value of other cards. Depending on the card, these allow you to place defences, remove revealed fire spirit cards, remove unrevealed cards and so on.
Should any of the fire spirits breach your defences, the forest cards that frame the battle area are flipped from the green forest side to the blackened burnt side.
If, at any time, all forest cards are burned then the Ravage wins. Should the Ravage itself ever reach the forest the game is instantly lost regardless of how green the forest is at the time.
That’s not all. If, at the end of the game, there is even one forest card remaining on its burnt side then the game is also lost.
The presents some interesting choices, the cards used to defend are different from those used to regrow the forest. You place one type by discarding cards of the other type. The focus of which to discard and which to place slowly shifts over the course of the game. If the army you built during the first half is unbalanced towards one type of card or the other it will quickly become apparent during the second half.
Meanwhile, the fire marches relentlessly onward. Deciding when shift from a defence to a rebuilding focus is tricky to time. Too soon and the fire will overwhelm, too late and forest will not regrow quickly enough.
Decisions made right at the beginning of the game have lasting impact. Say you decide to choose a pile with four fountain (good defence) cards rather than the pile with the hedgehog (remove a fire card at reveal, thereby negating its effects), two trees (regrow cards) and an owl (draw extra cards).
Second turn in, the fire flares up and you are forced to discard two of your cards (thanks to that injured squirrel). However, if you took the other pile, you can defend brilliantly against the squirrel but can’t defend against the rest of the fire.
Sylvion is a good game. The components are high quality, the art is quirky and the theme is involving (damn that squirrel, damn it damn it damn it!).
Luck of the draw largely dictates how tough an opponent the fire is. However, most games play to the last few rounds before it becomes clear whether you have won or lost. The rules are perhaps not the most straightforward I’ve seen. To help with this there are two levels of difficultly that introduce you to the various concepts slowly.
Once you have played a few games there are additional ‘expansions’ included which add in extra cards with new abilities. This keeps the game fresh for longer than it might otherwise have been.
The expansions can be added in together or separately as you see fit. The Ravage is itself a feature that you can add or remove. The ‘traitor’ element of the first expansion is truly excellent and adds a superb new dimension to the game.
The whole thing is a great package. Quite literally as this game has easily the most interesting box of any game I own. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it.
However, as much as I enjoy playing Sylvion, I find it difficult to call it a ‘great’ game. It’s a bit fiddly to set up. The first phase of the game, the card draft, takes a while to complete. This, I think, is my main bug bear. While I do, genuinely, love much of this game – the theme, the art, the Ravage, that injured squirrel – it’s just a bit too long.
This is true of the base game and it’s noticeably worse with the expansions. The expansions themselves, while I applaud their inclusion, are of variable interest. As good as the ‘traitor’ cards are, the other part of the first expansion I dislike. It is, to all intents and purposes, a selection of Deus Ex Machina cards for use in specific circumstances. The second expansion, environmental hazards – acid rain, geysers and the like – is better balanced but still merely o.k.
This game is also surprisingly large. When set up it requires a fair amount of space worth noting if you are playing on a small table. This is a particular problem if you plan to play while travelling.
The down points though, frustrating as they can be, are fairly minor in the overall context of the game. Sylvion was bought specifically as solo playable game to while away dull hours stuck in hotels. I have played this game a lot for that reason.
I have also played Sylvion many times at home. That is purely because it is a fun game with an involving, exciting theme. It is challenging without ever feeling unwinnable. It’s well made, quirky and different. All these things make it hard not to recommend.
Plus, I’ll never look at squirrels in the same way again.