Review: Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields
Designer: Sean Brown, Richard Launius
Artist: Larry Elmore
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
Category: Dice, Fantasy, Fighting, Medieval
Price: $18.50 Amazon
Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields is a two-player card game, akin to the Knizia classic, Battle Line. Battlefields exists in the same fantasy universe as the 2010 release, Defenders of the Realm, also designed by Arkham Horror and Elder Sign creator, Richard Launius. Where Defenders of the Realm focuses on cooperative play, where players must destroy imposing forces of evil, Battlefields pits players against each other in one-on-one card play.
Both published by Eagle-Gryphon Games, Battlefields not only plays host to a famed designer, but also one of fantasy art’s original trailblazers, Larry Elmore. For those unfamiliar, Elmore was one of the first full-time artists hired onto the original Dungeons and Dragons team. He has illustrated many fantasy-style universes, including artwork for Everquest and Magic: The Gathering.
Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields has an old school 80s fantasy vibe to it, thusly it includes female warriors with thin clothing that barely acts as armor. It’s nowhere near Conan level, but it’s worth noting. Players will also battle and control wizards, assassins, demons, and evil characters, though it’s all standard fantasy-fare.
Good and evil face off in a duel of the minds with Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields. One player controls a horde of minions, while the other lines up a squad of heroes, both equipped with special abilities, and powerful generals. Disguised by the fantasy theme, Battlefields is actually a tactical card game, with nearly identical player powers on both sides for balance.
Dealt a hand of seven cards, players decide to send a hero/minion or a general to one of three battlefields. Each deck consists of various fantasy heroes and minions, numbered 1-10, including a wild. Four cards of each number exist, each in a different colored suit: blue, green, red, and black. Some special cards can be played in and out of turn as well.
Depending on the decided length of the game, one player will achieve victory by assembling their forces and taking ground on a number of identically-colored battlefields, or by winning a specific number of battlefields. Each battlefield will grant a special ability to the victor, but also has requirements for being played upon.
Some battlefields require players to play their cards in descending order, allowing one “loop” where a player may loop back to a higher number, continuing their descent. Other cards require a full house of two and three identical cards. Battlefields will have other denotations, but unless stated otherwise, identical cards cannot be played on the board. Sometimes you can only play certain colored cards, and other times you must reach a total of combined power between 25-35.
Of course, playing cards has more of an effect than simply moving you closer to taking the battlefield. Each played card will allow for a specific attack on the enemy on the other side of the battlefield. This might attack the highest numbered card, or maybe heal one of your own. When attacking, players roll one or two dice. Usually this stuns an enemy card, taking them out of the running for completing a battlefield requirement. Other times, this can force your opponent to discard a card on the field. This can become horrific, as the chance of hitting is 50% with each dice, potentially letting someone run amok due to poor rolling.
Players can heal stunned cards by discarding an identical card from their hand. This allows the healed card to have a chance at attacking again, or potentially taking over the battlefield entirely. Players can also disperse their generals, which grant special powers. These can roll attacks against all enemies on a battlefield, teleport cards to other battlefields, heal stunned cards, etc.
As a good two-player game goes, Battlefields is a game of slowly chipping away at your opponent—just barely edging them out, turn by turn. Occasionally, one might find themselves rolling poor attacks three turns in a row, allowing the enemy to overrun a battlefield you thought you had some sort of advantage on. When this happens, generals arrive to help balance, since their abilities can be activated at any point during the game, even out of turn. Special cards can give you another shot at an attack, or even eliminate a general from the game.
Battlefields plays fine as a card game, but includes three options for game length. The first plays too short, the last is far too long (almost an hour), and the middle seems a good middle ground. The problem is Battlefields is subject to overstaying its welcome, and then petering out once players run out of special and generals. The randomness of card drawing and the fast nature of overtaking battlefields can leave a player out cold simply because their opponent drew the right set of cards to win quickly. This is an issue in the skirmish games, which is why I don’t recommend them.
Generals play the wonderful role of offsetting the fury of “the perfect hand,” halting the opposition from taking an early lead, potentially winning out by better dice rolls and cardplay. I like this, because without generals, Battlefields would be a sad, short, boring card game.
The rulebook is just decent. It’s not spectacular, and I should have spent a little more time sifting through it before playing. I missed a few rules and it made our first couple games a headache. I needed some clarification on looping and stunned cards, and luckily the Board Game Geek forums were excellent in getting a fast response from Richard Launius himself.
Regardless, I think some rules are sort of weird. When you heal a stunned card, you need to roll a hit in order to check if you can attack. If you succeed the first roll, you then get to roll to attack. This means you have a 25% chance of hitting your enemy after a heal. Players can choose to muster, which means discarding 1-3 cards to mill through their deck for the cards they want. Apparently you can also do this from cards you’ve played onto the board, which means you mucked up your cardplay originally.
Though the artwork is quality, the game has a weird sense for graphic design. Thick, colored strokes outline the names of cards and tiles. Everything is coated in a nasty greenish, yellowish-hued background. Cards are bordered with dense drop shadows, and everything feels old. It feels like a game published in the early 90s, not 2012. Iconography on tiles are smattered around, backed up with drop shadow, and feel generally aged. It’s a strange thing, but maybe the graphic design appeals to those from a different generation. It doesn’t work for me though.
As far as the art itself, for the most part, it’s quite good. It’s comprehensive in terms of illustrating what you expect from the fantasy theme. It also basically screen grabs from the box art for Defenders of the Realm. From my understanding, artists will be contracted for one giant illustration, and the publisher can then reuse assets from that illustration to lessen the cost for individual card art. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s pretty clear this is the case when you look it all over. Some creatures fit their portrait, and others feel ham-fisted into their oval display.
I really don’t care for the chesty women, though looking through other work from Elmore tells me these pieces are tame in comparison. It’s high fantasy, and this is the sort of thing we see when looking at old school fantasy art. It doesn’t excuse it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
The only reason Battlefields needs a tad larger box size is the length and width of the large battlefield tiles. In fact, Battlefields ships with quite the insert. It’s not to be overlooked, and Eagle-Gryphon has done a marvelous job containing all of the pieces in the appropriate areas.
Overall, Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields is a nice, little two-player card game that I anticipate keeping for awhile. It’s a smallish footprint, and will make an excellent vacationing game. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome at the small-medium length games, providing a bit more tactical play than other card games. While the game allows for up to four at the table, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it at another player count. Two-player games becoming weird, team-hybrids doesn’t sit well, so I’m unsure of how different player counts would play out.
A review copy of Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields was provided by Eagle-Gryphon Games for a fair and honest review.
The Bottom Line
Defenders of the Realm: Battlefields is a decently fast-paced, back-and-forth card game that sits comfortably with two players. Covered in old-school art and graphic design, the rules are a tad finicky, but speed up drastically after a few plays, making this a worthwhile addition to some collections.