Helios: A Shining Example of Not Standing Out

All praise Ahau, the Sun God! In Helios, you are a guardian of the faith, a spiritual guide for the teeming masses of your village. You will expand your civilization and bring it to new heights by gathering resources, erecting buildings, and recruiting the local talent through your mighty influence. Your goal is to see your civilization progress further than the rest of those inferior villages. In the end, though, we are all followers of the Sun Lord and as such we can alter the movement of the sun to ensure certain effects and bonuses are bestowed upon us, the faithful. There are multiple ways to please Ahau and players have many paths to victory (Praise the Almighty Light Bearer Ahau! OUR GOD IS A SMILING GOD). After 4 rounds of play, the guardian that has furthered their civilization through constructing buildings, recruiting personages, collecting energy or mana, and adding various awarded bonuses awarded from the sun all can result in the gain of victory points at the end of the game.

The Game:

Designers – Matthias Prinz and Martin Kallenborn
Publisher – Z-Man Games
Number of Players – 2-4
Ages – 10+
Playing Time – 60-90 minutes
Mechanics – Territory Building, Action Point Allowance, Sun Worshiping, Tan Lines

Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

The Rules:

The set-up of the game is a bit intense. The central area is accessible to all the players and is made up of Action Tiles, Character Tiles, Earth Tokens, and Bonus Tokens. Three different sets of Action tiles are placed on the table and then six from each set is placed face up below the stack. Eight Character tiles are placed with the night side of the tile showing.  Five different Earth tokens are placed on the board with the resulting resource placed on top with a sixth stack of unused tokens. Lastly, the bonus tokens are placed somewhere … anywhere really. Then each player gets two personal boards: a City board and a Village Board. On the Village Board players will manage their lands (tokens) and regulate the movement of the sun. On the City Board, players will track the buildings they construct through the game. Fine, the set-up wasn’t that bad but if you aren’t operating on the assumption that you have several games under your belt (or hat) it can be a bit off-putting to the uninitiated. The actual flow of the game is fairly straightforward but damned if it doesn’t like it from the set-up.

Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

The game operates in three phases — The Action Phase, The Character Phase, and the Restocking Phase.

During the Action Phase, players can perform four actions. The three actions players can choose from are create land, erect a building on your City Board or a temple on your Village Board, and move the sun. At the beginning of each round, these three actions are represented by three different stacks of tiles with six exposed tiles under each stack. When a player wants to take an action, they choose the lowest exposed action tile. Additionally, each action tile is one of four different colors: Red, Blue, Yellow, and Grey. After the action is taken the tiles are placed under the appropriate color on the player’s Village Board. The Grey Action Tiles are wild and can be placed under either the Red, Blue, or Yellow area. After you’ve taken your regular actions and placed the used tiles here, if there are four tiles of the same color, players immediately take an extra action. The extra actions are the same as your standard actions.

  1. Create Land – Players choose from you may choose from any of the available land or bonus tiles. The hexagonal tile is placed on the Village Board adjacent to a previously placed tile. Land tiles come with one resource cube and bonus tiles provide points at the end of the game. If you build on a bonus spot on your board you gain the displayed bonus (mana or resources).
  2. Build Building – Players can either build a temple on the their Village Board to a the cost of one resource for their first temple, two for their second, three for their third and so on. The temple then awards the player with mana equal to the number of temples on the board and scores additional points when the sun shines on it. On the City Board, the buildings cost varying amounts or resources. If you can pay this cost, then you place a white building piece on the appropriate spot to denote your ownership and the abilities and bonuses from the specific building.
  3. Move the sun – Moving the sun serves to activate the tiles on your Village Board. Players start with the sun’s moving a maximum of 2 spaces but that can be increased throughout the game. When the sun moves it moves at least one space and always moves clockwise (as they do!) around the tiles placed on the board. Whichever tiles are adjacent to the sun when it stops, get activated. However, the sun may not end on the same space it started at and it can’t end at a dead end. Additionally, when the sun makes a full revolution around the board, the player scores victory points.
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

During the Character phase. Eight character tiles are set up in a supply at the beginning of the game. The characters have a night side and a day side and all are initially flipped to their inactive night side. During the Character Phase, the player with the most mana gets to either hire one character and/or activate one character. When a player hires a character they pay the hiring cost of the character in mana. This allows the player to place the hired character next to their player board. To activate a character, players pay the activation cost in resources at the bottom of the tile and flip it over to the day side. Players instantly gain a mana and sun movement bonus and the card is then retained until the end of the game for additional VP’s at the end of the game if various conditions are met.

Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

During the Restocking Phase

  • Restock the Earth Tiles so that one tile of each kind is available for the next round.
  • Reveal new Action Tiles so that there are six for each of the three rows.
  • Starting player moves to the left.

After four rounds of play, the game ends and player count up some additional VPs:

  • Each Corner space with adjacent Earth or Bonus token = 4 VPs
  • Each Bonus token is worth VPs depending on how it is arranged.
  • Each building on a player’s City board is worth the printed amount of VPs.
  • Each activated character is worth VPs
  • Each remaining Mana is worth 1 VP

And player with the most resulting VPs is the winner. YAY!

Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

The Review:

Helios, for me, has a very much Agricola feel to it but without the mind numbing stress that accompanies nearing a feeding round. The game is smoothly designed with a wealth of options during your turn. Players have plenty of routes to victory with multiple mechanisms to watch and maintain. whenever so many mechanics are interacting with each other and game flow is maintained, I feel that the game was well designed and fleshed out. However, while this adds to the overall quality of the game, it makes the first couple of plays a real bear as new players struggle with the mechanics and then really want to get to the meat of the game — how to win. Do you stay small on your board or do you expand out. Characters? If so which and when. Buildings? Maybe…I’m not sure. But I do know if you go too far down the wrong path with the wrong character, you will be devoid of the points to win. In this way, the game is somewhat unforgiving.

The action selection aspect of Helios was very appealing. It provides some good constraint and an added element of player interaction and the collection of colored tiles to gain bonus actions amps up my enjoyment of the game. These activities temper your choices and gently nudge players to take less optimal moves in order to gain an extra action. and while this was great, I kinda wish there was a bit more here. Maybe having players gain some sort of proficiency by collecting the sets of colored tiles with some added abilities … perhaps abilities that would create more player interaction in the game.

One huge complaint about Helios (and, to be fair, many games) is that the set up time can be a bit prohibitive. And the fact that the setup is exactly (except for the order of the Action Tiles) the exact same thing every time. Despite the fact that the components and design is appealing and looks great sprawled over a table, it still doesn’t have much variability in the game. In 2 or 5 games will it basically be solved with everyone running towards the same strategy? If so, it probably will not get much play. And while that element of familiarity is wonderful in a gateway game, Helios has too many moving parts and takes too long to set up for me to introduce it to new players over other, simpler games. With so many mechanisms, players need to manage resources very carefully while attempting to plan out 2-3 moves ahead of themselves while also being ready to switch it all up when someone grabs the one Action Tile or character/building they were banking on. Basically, Helios is a well-crafted game with some strategic depth but one hell of a tactical shove to it.

Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)
Image Credit: Daniel Danzer (duchamp on BGG)

The Rub:

Helios feels as if it attempted to do many things and want to do all of them equally well. And in this sense it succeeded but without really excelling at any one thing. The tile placement aspect is fine but not particularly great. The characters are helpful but without being particularly memorable. The action allowance is probably my favorite part but still didn’t outshine much of anything else in the game. The scoring options are diverse and but still constrained. Helios is a well designed (and well executed) game that combines plenty of mechanisms to provide rich game-play but without any single element prominent enough to scratch an itch with the game.

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