Full disclosure: A preview copy of Life Siphon was provided by Lay Waste Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. Also, while I don’t charge for Kickstarter previews, the publisher was charged a rush fee due to the tight timeline they needed the review completed in.
Yeah, so, it’s Tuesday. Which is weird! I never post on Tuesdays. Except for now. There was an embargo; it’s gone, now. Yes, I posted four reviews yesterday; they’re all still there. This is a bonus fifth review. What will it contain? Well, no better way to find out than to get right to it. Life Siphon is the latest from Lay Waste Games, publisher of Dragoon, Human Era, Heads Will Roll, and all sorts of “board games are better with metal components” stuff. It’s a good aesthetic.
In Life Siphon, well, you kind of let dragons destroy your world in Dragoon, and you were driven underground. You managed to find a mysterious box and your friends opened it with you (or pressured you to open it; what great friends). So, good news and bad news. The good news is that you now have unspeakable power. The bad news is that you can’t move. The worse news is that you can only escape if you use your power (at the cost of your own life force) to kill your now-opponents. Should teach you a lesson about opening strange cursed boxes, right?
Not a ton. Put out the board:
Set the familiars nearby. There are three types. Imps:
and Dread Knights:
They’re all metal; it’s rad (though hard to photograph). Set out the Aspects, as well:
More on those later, but they’re abilities that you can take during the game. Have each player put a skull on 20, their starting life:
If you think those are familiar, you’d be incorrect; the other things are familiars. Heh. Anyways, once you’ve done that, give each player one card:
Flip three face-up next to the deck; these will be the River Cards. You should be ready to start! Choose a starting player.
So a game of Life Siphon is played until someone dies. A character in the game, of course, but someone. When that happens, the player who killed them wins! Until then, you have to balance two competing forces: the player on your right wants to kill you, and the player on your left has to die for you to escape. It’s a tough call, but, after much deliberation you’re going to go with the player on the left. But how will you bring about their demise?
Well, on your turn, you’ve got a few phases. I’ll go through each in turn.
During the Regenerate Phase, you may gain Life (up to your maximum of 20). You always gain one Life, and then you gain Life equal to the number of Familiars you have in the River Row of your board’s quadrant (the one before the Battleground). If you have no Familiars in the Battleground (the area closest to the center), you may also draw one of the River cards.
During the Attack Phase, you may attack with each of your Familiars, one at a time. You are not obligated to attack; you only have to fight if you want to.
If you choose to attack, your opponent may block or not, depending on some rules:
- You may only attack the player to your left. To be fair.
- If they don’t block, you hit them directly. The Familiar’s attack is subtracted from your opponent’s life total.
- If they do block, they choose at least one Familiar and you attack each other. Their Familiars’ combined damage is dealt to your Familiar and your Familiar hits each of their Familiars with its full attack. If a Familiar is hit by an attack greater than or equal to their defense, they are destroyed. Now, this isn’t Yu-Gi-Oh (sadly); you don’t take the difference as damage. They’re just destroyed. Similar to Judge Dredd: Block War, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to end up destroying each other pretty frequently.
- A Lich can only be blocked by another Lich. If you don’t have any Liches that you can use to block, you just have to take the damage.
- Each Familiar may only block once per turn. If it is not killed, it is fully healed at the end of your turn.
During the Main Phase, you can do all kinds of things. Summon Familiars, Move Familiars, and Cast your Slow Spells (the darker cards).
Summon / Move Familiars
You may Summon Familiars on your turn to bolster your ranks and eventually attack your opponent. There’s a limit, though; you may only summon 3 per turn, and there must be room in the Summoning Area (the zone closest to the corner) to place one when you summon it. There are three types of Familiars:
- Dread Knight: 2 Life to Summon, 5 Attack, 3 Defense. Very strong, but they cost 1 Life to move. As you might guess, you cannot move a Dread Knight if you only have 1 Life left.
- Imp: 3 Life to Summon, 2 Attack, 2 Defense. Kind of squishy, but whenever one of your Imps is killed you gain 1 Life. That can be useful.
- Lich: 4 Life to Summon, 2 Attack, 2 Defense. Handily, they can only be blocked by other Liches (but they can block other Familiars). They’re kind of weak, but that’s useful.
You can move a Familiar once per turn from any zone to the next zone closer to the center. The space they’re on doesn’t determine what space they move to; it’s just designed to limit how many can be in that zone at once.
So Fast Cast spells can be played whenever, but slow cast spells need to be played during your Main Phase. Once such spell, Draw Aspect, introduces the Aspects, which are abilites that you can possess during the game. When you play it, draft the Aspects (starting with you). Some have passive abilities; some have active ones. An active ability (one with a Slow Cast) can only be used once per turn, even if you were to play Draw Aspect again.
Once you’ve done all that, draw a card from the deck to end your turn. Play continues with the player on your left.
End of Game
Play continues until any one player has reduced their opponent’s health to 0. When that happens, that player wins and all other players lose. They’re free!
Player Count Differences
The major difference is the balancing act, so it only really sets a difference between 2 players and more than 2 players. At two, the player you’re attacking is also the player attacking you, so there’s no real balancing mechanic. You can kind of rush them and put it all on the line, if you want. Worst case, you die, and then you just pick up and play again. It’s not a difficult game to reset.
At higher player counts the balancing act is much, much more pronounced. You need to keep an eye on when another player might die because if they die, you lose! It’s not that the next player now needs to take you out; they just win. So you’ll see a lot more random defensive moves being made. At three I don’t mind it that much, but at four I worry that you need to both figure out which player will intervene and when so that both players don’t overcompensate or something, but that requires coordination, which also isn’t great. It’s not clear how best to make that work, but I know some players will love that sort of back-and-forth, so who am I to stop them?
My personal preference on player count is 3 players, but I would more generally just say I didn’t particularly enjoy it at two.
- Usually want to have at least one Lich. Liches are not just a useful attack vector; they’re the only way to block your opponent’s Lich, should they get one to the front. If they can do that, they can boost their attack enough to wipe you out, so, don’t let them take a free shot at you.
- Cards that can raise your Attack / Defense are pretty excellent. In my opinion, the better cards are ones that can surprise others by raising your defense. Suddenly, they didn’t kill all of your units, so you can still attack next turn, which is very helpful. If you can surprise someone and raise your Attack, though, you might be able to take out your opponent in one or two shots. Remember, you kill them; you win.
- Leaving the Battleground undefended can be costly. As you remember from the Gameplay section, if you can’t defend with a Familiar, you just take that damage directly. And like I just said, if they boost their Attack with a spell of some kind, you run the risk of them being able to utterly devastate you with a Familiar. Always keep people there to defend.
- Feed is a good emergency card to have around. It’ll basically stop you from dying, which is nice. A lot of players only have enough strategic planning to reduce you to 0, not knock you completely down. If you manage to squirrel away an emergency heal, you might be able to keep yourself in the game (and force other players to heal you).
- Keep an eye on the other players, not just the one you want to kill. Remember that as soon as another player dies, you lose, unless you killed that player. This might require you to heal other players even if you don’t want to; you can’t let them die. Obviously, that’s not the funnest, but it is what it is. You may even need to boost defense for other players or give them more cards, sometimes. Just make sure you stay invested.
- Don’t be afraid to go for broke. Sometimes you just gotta get three Dread Knights up front and just hack everything in your way. It’s hellishly aggressive, but, if you can get a free Battleground you can deal 15 damage in one turn, which is likely enough to kill anyone. Just, when you do, don’t hesitate; shoot to get them to -5 or -10 health, not just 0.
- Leverage the Aspects. Some of them let you turn Familiars into Imps (a great way to reclaim some health), others let you draw extra cards or get extra life back. Figure out where these fit into your lifestyle and capitalize on those opportunities. They can be huge.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s Lay Waste. I love the components. They’re so cool! I think my favorite is the Lich; it’s smooth and kinda spooky in all the best ways. It’s not like anything I’ve seen in a game and I love it for that.
- The theme is really fun. Who doesn’t want to be cursed with terrible power? That’s like, the dream. Plus, being a wizard is awesome. This is an objective review fact. Though I think it’s more of a warlock, maybe? I’m not familiar with the nuances of magic.
- The art style is fantastic. It’s very dark and foreboding, which really works well with the theme. The cards look great and the exact right kind of spooky; they did an excellent job here.
- Doesn’t take that long to play. I mean, I think I burned through a two-player game in 20 minutes. It doesn’t take a very long time, though, regardless of player count, which I appreciate.
- Forcing players to keep track of other players’ life reduces the feeling of downtime. It’s nice because I need to make sure nobody dies except the person I want to kill, so, I can’t just focus on my turn (and I need to defend against another player. There’s always something to do or think about or plan around, so there’s no real downtime.
- I do hope they keep the box design consistent for the final game. I love it; again, super neat.
- I’m just underwhelmed by the two-player game. It’s kind of a bum rush; I think the places where the game is most exciting are managing the attack vs. defense components. Do you want to invest in attacking your opponent with your best cards? Well, what if you need those cards to defend? Is it worth the risk of potentially taking too much damage?
- I’m hoping the board will be a bit bigger. It’s a bit small right now (might just be prototype components), but I’m hoping the full version will be a smidge larger; might feel more exciting.
- More Familiar types would add some interesting twists. I think one thing that I find a bit underwhelming is that I generally always start playing the same way, and given the implications of Aspects (some of the rules suggest that there may be more use cases for Aspects) I’m hoping that there are more Familiars to go with them. Could make for a fun stretch goal.
- I generally hate reaction mechanics (if players can react to other players’ reactions). It ends up adding a lot of complexity around when certain effects fire. There are a lot of things that can be cleared up. Define an Attack and a Block. You must declare your full Attack (with modifiers) before your opponent declares if they’re Blocking (with modifiers), or something. Otherwise, I’ll hold my Attack-boosting cards until I know if you’re defending. If you’re not, well, now I’m going to pump up my attacker. Well, now that you know that, you should be able to change your mind about defending, right? Not everyone agrees. Does Feed have to be played when you hit 0 Life? Can it be used when you hit 0 to go back to 1, thereby negating damage taken over 0? I know how I solve this when I play, but capturing these edge cases in the rules takes time and is why I generally don’t love reaction mechanics.
- I find the turn order to be unintuitive for new players. New players are very confused why they attack second, and it takes a fair bit of time for them to get comfortable with that. They understand that they can’t move and attack, but they’d really like to
- That delicate balancing act in games is a common mechanic, but not one I’m particularly into. I worry it incentivizes all of the things I don’t particularly like in games: players openly coordinating and scheming, ganging up on players, and ultimately if any one player fails to uphold their end of the balancing social contract, the whole game ends and the blame falls squarely on them.
Overall: 6.5 / 10
Overall, Life Siphon is interesting! I think, being honest, it’s a bit too combat-focused for me. That’s pretty common, though; I’m not a huge fan of combat in games in general, and this is pretty heavily tilted towards it. What I do like about the game is everything about the theme and presentation. I love silly magic stuff in games, and this manages to filter it through a nice (and dark) lens that’s interesting, novel, and kind of sad (I mean, dragons took over the whole world). My complaint about the spell system is the same complaint I bring up for any games with a “reaction”-style mechanic; I think it’s still kind of ill-defined and I hope that it’s cleaned up a bit before the final release. What I will say, is, having played Dragoon, I think this is an improvement, personally (at least at higher player counts). It trades the dice luck for more card luck, which may not appeal to everyone, sure, but it is nice in that it lets players choose between the two as to what appeals to them most. Similar to the Dragoon series, it seems like expansions are highly likely in the future (more Familiars and Aspects, mostly), and I’m certainly interested in those. Lay Waste tends to be innovative, and I respect that, even if the combat heavy games aren’t my absolute favorites of theirs. If you’re into that sort of thing, though, and you’re ready to bring the fight to your cursed friends to try and escape your dark fate, you might get a kick out of Life Siphon!