I marvel at the conflict that gamers constantly face, wanting to play something new, while at the same time wanting to playing something familiar. If a particular game is giving you thrills, you want to get it to the table more often, whether to share it with others, try out new approaches, or just top a previous high score — yet we also want to explore new designs, to see what else a favorite designer has done or to wander into lands unknown.
AEOLOS from designers Guido Eckhof and Arve D. Fühler and publisher SPIEL DAS! Verlag gave me the new and old combined, with the game featuring the old-school German design style of Fühler — who has designed Pagoda, Monasterium, and El Gaucho, among other titles — and a simple game mechanism that felt novel in how it bound the players together. (At SPIEL ’22, Fühler told me that Eckhof had come up with the central game element, then they worked together after that.)
The gist of the game is that you’re sailing around islands to collect gems and establish yourself at temples to gain blessings from the gods. Each turn, you play a card from your hand onto the discard pile of the matching color — gray or purple — then take an action in the harbor associated with the sum of the topmost two cards.
The cards range from 0 to 5, so you’re somewhat limited in what you can make that sum. The total drifts from low to medium to low and so forth, with the players collectively shifting the environment of the game. Two caveats: (1) If your played card has the same symbol — cloud, water, sun — as the other top card, you collect a wind token, and (2) you can spend as many wind tokens as you like, with each spent token adjusting the sum up or down by 1.
Two complete sets of gems = 50 endgame points
In the harbors numbered 3-9, you can collect gems of four colors, gain new ships, build settlements on islands, gain “Favor of the Gods” cards, collect wind or points, and advance a prophet up a tiered stairway to gain points based on what else you’ve done in the game.
If you spend enough wind or use the power of the #3 harbor, you can move ships onto or down the five rivers towards temple spaces that offer a huge number of points or a combination of points and other stuff: wind, gems, Favor cards, and a special purple gem not available elsewhere. Reaching the end of the river gives you a huge reward, but your ship must remain there — sayeth the gods, “No backsies” — so you need to bring new ships into play in order to keep doing things.
You play through the card deck one, one-and-a-half, or two times based on the number of players, then you score a smattering of points for unspent wind and Favor cards and usually far more points for collected gems. As is typical for such games, as with Fühler’s own Glory Islands, the more different colors you collect, the better — and you can score for multiple sets of gems should the other players let you get away with hoarding them.
Gameplay in AEOLOS, which I’ve played five times on a purchased copy, three times with three players and once each with two and four, is straightforward in that you have clear goals — get gems and reach temples — with limited play options available to you. You start with a hand size of three, so each turn you have only three choices of what to play…except that you can tweak your card play with wind to adjust the total and you can play one or more Favor cards for bonus actions and you can place settlements to increase your hand size to give you more choices. You’re limited, but not to an extreme.
Hmm, which gray card should I play?
Placing settlements also allows you to gain points with your prophet or take a harbor action without having a ship present, but I’ve yet to see them used effectively in five games — or rather I’ve won three of those five games without placing a settlement on the board, while other players seem to placing them to no real long-term benefit. I don’t know whether my experience with the game is giving me an edge or we just haven’t figured out how to best use them or whether they’re not useful at all, which would be a shame since they are not a peripheral element.
AEOLOS includes a few expansions that I’ve yet to explore, such as each double-sided player board having an asymmetric power. You can shuffle harbor tiles and place them out randomly to mix up the actions available, or you can add a Poseidon expansion that adds additional actions to harbors once all the settlement spaces on them have been filled. Not sure whether I’ll ever explore those or not, but they’re on hand to make the familiar new and satisfy that gamerly desire.
In the video below, I go into the game actions in more detail, show off all the “Favor of the Gods” cards, and talk more about the playing experience: