black sands cover

Review – Black Sands

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Black Sands Review

First-time publisher Scry Games brings us a 20-40 minute hex grid brawler for 2-4 players in Black Sands.  Players maneuver their heroes across a treacherous landscape and use their unique weapons, techniques, and abilities to ensure that they are the last one standing.

Games that revolve around combat—especially in 1v1—have proven tricky to execute in the past.  Mechanical intuition and thematic tension are often at odds when it comes to determining who wins a fight on the tabletop.  I can think of very few games off the top of my head that I’ve felt accurately captured “the fray” in their procedural flavor.

Scry takes on a big challenge in convincing me that their game can do it the right way.  Black Sands is scheduled to hit Kickstarter on April 25th of 2016.  Is it worth your pledge?

Let’s find out together, shall we?

For the basic game, each player selects a hero and collects that hero’s components.  The core release includes four heroes—the paladin, the duelist, the hunter, and the mage.  Each hero has different strengths and a completely unique set of cards, but they all have the same amount of total health and the same amount of energy to spend each turn.

Black Sands hero

The game includes cardboard stand-ins for the heroes, but if you wish to play with miniatures, the 25mm bases are designed to accommodate your favorite minis at home.

During setup, players build a modular game board of large hex tiles that scales in size to the number of heroes on the board.  Each of these large hex tiles is patterned with a smaller hex grid, which combine to form a multi-faceted terrain of chasms, walls, and flat open ground.

Black Sands gameplay

At the start of your turn, you restore your energy track to six, which essentially serve as your action point allotment until your next turn.  Energy is spent to do just about everything—moving, using one of your weapon’s limited standard attacks, playing a technique card from your hand, and even activating your secret defensive techniques that you’ve prepared to protect your hex figure’s front edges.  Your turn is over when you are out of energy, or when you’ve chosen not to take another action.  Your opponent then does the same, rinse and repeat until one hero or team is left standing.

Within this framework, players employ a surprisingly wide variety of tricks and effects through their technique cards to help them get the upper hand—but we’ll let those be a surprise.

Black Sands seems to function fairly well.  As I’m finishing this article, I have played the game seven times through—four times with two players only—and I have yet to see anything that stands out as broken.  The Paladin may be overpowered, but I’d want to test more extensively to say for sure.  Regardless, Black Sands is not without its issues.

You can use cards to declare attacks from one side of your character, and your opponent can react by playing a "prepared" card

You can use cards to declare attacks from one side of your character (front, left, or right), and your opponent can react if they’ve preemptively placed a “prepared” card that corresponds to the side that’s being attacked.

At the start of the game, players draw a hand of six cards, plus they have their four standard cards—initiative, weapon, hero ability, and movement.  If you’re the Mage, your cards have an average of 27.76 words apiece.  That means that, before you have taken your first turn, you will have right around 280 words of reading to catch up on.  Scry has been kind enough to include a bit of iconography, but these composite hieroglyphics—which often even have text or abbreviations on them—don’t offer much help.  While Black Sands is worth the reading, and the procedures on the cards do a fine job of reinforcing the narrative, the game may just be too wide.  It would likely benefit from simplification.

black sands card mat

The prepared card mat

Additionally, Black Sands is a deceptively unforgiving game.  It quickly becomes evident that leaving yourself exposed to a full round of attacks can be absolutely crippling.  In such an occasion, it isn’t uncommon to lose over half of your life total all at once.  In fact, each class has a very possible combination of cards it can put together to entirely kill a hero in a single turn without knocking the target into a chasm (which also causes instant death).  Stakes this high can create tension, but more often frighten players into adopting slower, more conservative strategies—especially in two-player games.

The game works, but there’s room for improvement.

Straight from the Black Sands manual:

“Two great kingdoms wage war.  The dire conflict in the south pushes your countrymen out of their homeland and against a vast expanse of obsidian peaks and scorched sands.  A peaceful land lies beyond.  You are sent ahead to find a way through the unnatural Black Sands.  Should you encounter enemy scouts, they must not return.  Their people will harbor no exiles[;] instead they will have conquer[o]rs.”

The procedures and mechanisms in Black Sands are laudably designed with the narrative in mind.  From taking cover behind a wall, to falling to your death in a bottomless chasm, to the Mage’s power to rend the earth and actually physically rotate a map hex, everything you do feels right.

black sands duelist

The Duelist

The game’s aesthetic feels appropriately unified, placing the players in a surreal, though lamentably drab battlefield.  While the advance copy I received still had some placeholder artwork, the graphics and art that were present were all cohesive and attractive.

Unfortunately, as thematic as Black Sands is, the game really fails to bring its narrative to life.  The manual’s blurb suggests that the heroes have a mission, but then it gives no further information.  What kingdoms are at war, and which do I fight for?  I might know that my hero is a Paladin, but I don’t know who my hero is or even his name.

black sands paladin

 

Furthermore, if I hadn’t read about that mission in the manual, I never would have known about it.  Black Sands is, essentially, a death match in a pit with black sand.  The manual even states that the edge of the game board should be treated as though they were impassable walls.  This just doesn’t sync with the “scouting expedition in the wasteland” bit.

While Black Sand has thematic legs, I could have done without the aggressively generic fantasy narrative—or at least I’d have preferred enough of it that it told a story.

Black Sands gets full marks here.

The core set is fairly light on components—nine hexes, four standees, 100 cards, a half a handful of cubes and tiles, and a few player mats—and offers a much bigger experience than you might expect from a game of its footprint.  Even if this game could only be played in one way, it would still likely be an attractive buy.

black sands components

Though it may not look like a lot, Black Sands packs quite a punch in terms of replay value

Black Sands, however, can definitely be played in more than one way.  Each game can be dramatically different—from the arrangement of the map tiles, to the heroes on the battlefield, and even to the technique cards you see and tactics you adopt.  While the game almost entirely forgoes randomness in its mechanisms, there is still somehow plenty to keep you on your toes.

If you still manage to get tired of all this, the rulebook includes a guide on how to draft and even build custom hero decks.  If free-for-all gets old, try playing on teams.

The best part is that Black Sands’ model is easily expandable.  Even just one new hero—easily designed and produced—could breathe a whole new life into the game if it ever does start to dry up.  Regular releases could keep the game forever young.

Conclusion

Black Sands brings a new and exciting axis to brawler board games with its modular hex grid and its cleverly-designed technique cards.  Lovers of fighting games will be interested to see Black Sands’ impressive scope and potential.

The game is not without its issues.  The game’s narrative falls flat—a sad oversight in Black Sands’ development.  Furthermore, some players may be turned off by the game’s width and unforgiving nature.  Black Sands may have trouble crossing demographic lines on account of its intensity.  If this game doesn’t sound like your kind of game, chances are that it’s not your kind of game.

However, for those with the constitution to handle the buffet of text-heavy cards and a punishingly tactical experience, Black Sands has a lot to offer at the table.

Best of all, Black Sands’ modular nature promises that this is just the beginning.  The game may need to evolve to stay ahead of the pack, but its structure and model are full of just the right kind of potential.  Scry Games has proven to me that they can be innovative in their approach to game mechanisms, and I’m eager to see what else they have in store for Black Sands.

Check out the Kickstarter Campaign for Black Sands

Verdict

YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…

  • A death match of might and magic sounds interesting to you
  • You’d enjoy a tactical, high-stakes battle of wits
  • You’re looking to take the BattleCon experience to the 2D arena
  • You’ve always wanted to cast a Shift Earth spell and actually get to shift the earth
  • You like the idea of beating your opponent by kicking him into a chasm

YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…

  • You don’t have the patience to read a substantial amount of text on many game elements
  • You’re more interested in smashing face than exercising due caution
  • You’ve tried brawler and fighting board games before and you hated them
  • You prefer your fantasy-themed games to have a story arc of some kind
  • You really don’t like the idea of losing all of a sudden because your opponent just kicked you into a chasm
About the Author

Mike Mihealsick

Mike is the founder and a senior analyst at his web service, Coalition Game Studios. The Coalition works to provide tabletop designers and small studios with professional playtesting and quality assurance. Apart from that, he is a paramedic and pro-circuit gamer, has an 8-pound dog named Ser Gregor Clegane, and he has been to all six continents that aren't covered with ice all year.

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