Spring break has come for you and your middle school friends, and with it there will be games, relaxation, and a hoard of fantastical horrors come to destroy everything you know and love. Good times. The Guardians: Explore tasks you with arraying yourself with weaponry to defend your home town of Arthursburg against the legions of doom. While there are other warriors fighting alongside you, only the one who claims the most kills will be the true Guardian. You will begin by drafting cards to form a deck that you will use to defeat monsters. Each monster grants victory points upon defeat but you will also have one of several secret missions to gain points from.

Before you read the rules or even open the box you know everything you need to about the setting: a modern suburb has been invaded by fantasy villains and only the children can stop them, scrounging together whatever they can. Each card resonates this theme and fills your mind with a sense of adventure. Seeing an orc chieftain stands high in a schoolyard decked out in weaponry she has fashioned from discarded items instantly tells you everything you need to know about the setting. Each card in a set of monsters can be placed together to make a single flowing tableau.

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Unfortunately, the prevalence of the art harms some of the cards. The size of text on the cards is based on the amount of space taken up by the art as well as how much is written on it. Some cards are a pain to read because their text is squeezed into the bottom few millimeters of the card while others, sometimes with more text, are perfectly legible. To Guardians’ credit, every card is spelled out in the back of the book along with examples and clarifications, but having to flip pages to check this reference is an unpleasant use of time at the table. This problem is compounded with individual player boards, which are crammed with text on both sides that varies in size and color.

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These cards have about the same amount of text but only one of them is easily readable.

The quality of the art is almost a shame considering the quality of the cards themselves. They are a light-feeling cardboard that do not seem well-protected or particularly sturdy. Before ever playing the game I was looking through the cards to get a sense of the game and one became creased. This was just from examining the deck. Keeping in mind that this is a deck-builder which requires routine shuffling of the cards, this raises concerns about the game’s longevity. You could always sleeve the main cards, but not the player boards, and you would need a specialized size of sleeve for the much smaller monster and mission cards.

In terms of presenting the rules, Guardians does take some very nice steps. There is a shortened version of the rules on the back of the rulebook that should be enough to remind anyone who has gone through the rules what their next steps are. The game also breaks itself up into Apprentice and Guardian rules for beginner or advanced players. The difference is mainly that it cuts the length of the game in half and removes secret missions as a factor, making for simplified rules and a shorter playtime. The game also provides five preconstructed decks for those looking to get right into the action. This is a great way to show you some of the game’s key strategies and drastically reduces setup time.

Guardians: Explore takes place over two phases, known as Warm Up and Battle. In Warm Up, you prepare yourself for the road ahead. You get your characters ready by drafting combat cards to fight monsters and secret mission cards that will grant you points later on. During Battle, you venture forth into the town and claim monsters as your trophies.

While setting up, you place down all 10 locations from the town as well as player aids and bosses. These bosses are chosen randomly and placed face down on their respective round markers. The second boss will be from a more difficult pool of bosses. You then invade the town, placing monsters from the first wave deck down on empty spaces. You will end up seeing the same monsters routinely, since there are 12 spaces for them to invade and 12 monsters in the first wave of six different types. Later waves have greater numbers and types of monsters, but there is still a fair bit of repetition.

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Everyone begins with five basic attack cards each and one energy generation card, and they get the rest by drafting. Each player receives 13 cards and drafts one at a time until there are none remaining. Player boards provide examples of cards to search for to fulfill specific missions, but there are a number of hidden combos outside of these suggestions to grant the game some variety. Despite this, Guardians suffers as a deck-builder due to lack of variety.

Cards generate energy as you play them and some have energy requirements. Thus, the power of your cards is partially determined by the order in which you play your deck. Many also have a damage amount they deal when they enter play. Items remain for the rest of the game and give you a permanent boost while Familiars synergize with one another to gain extra abilities when a multiple of them are out. Attack skills also reinforce one another if you can get several of them off at the same time or put yourself in specific situations. Unfortunately, your starting hand size is four. Even with the opportunity to draw more cards through area or card abilities, the chance that you will see enough of your deck to get these combos off is limited.

During the Battle phase you must choose carefully where to go. Monster families each have different downsides if left undefeated and may harm you if you choose to battle them. Each monster has hit points as well as the trophy points obtained for being the last person to defeat it. The various locations have benefits they grant if they are clear of monsters which could be crucial to giving yourself an edge.
You start by moving to safe locations, which in the first round are only a few, and using their abilities. Monsters with overrun abilities then trigger if applicable (mostly if they are left alone to a space). This is really the only threat that monsters pose to players. Players have no hit points or ways to lose victory points, so monsters can only harm you by making you discard cards or giving you worse cards, which reduce your options moving forward. At times you will appreciate the puzzle this presents you with, but constantly having your options limited quickly becomes frustrating. They can’t hurt you or destroy areas so the only threat of monsters is to harm your chances of victory against other players. This would all be fine if the narrative was a commentary on the nature of heroes trying to best one another, but that is not what Guardians promises. The art and theme are about teaming up against an invading horde, but mechanically speaking, teaming up is completely unnecessary if not actively detrimental to your goals.

To actually fight the monsters, you generate damage tokens separately from placing them. Essentially you don’t attack monsters; instead, you gain damage as a resource to lay down later. This makes damage seem like a resource in any other game and hurts the theme of traveling out to do battle. Really all you are doing is putting some combos together to generate tokens you place down on cards. It can also get fiddly, especially with the bosses. You have to physically place down each token on the small monster cards while also keeping track of who placed them and when. Players play cards simultaneously and then take turns going around battling as they so choose. This places the player in last place at a distinct disadvantage, especially if he or she has to hunt specific types of monsters. Each round you reinvade the town, so the last player eventually has a means of catching up.

Once you have cleared an area of monsters you can place a Blanket Fort to make it permanently safe. This is an interesting point of strategy, as you can preserve the area’s ability for yourself but also the other players. Between rounds you can also trash any number of cards from your deck, refining your options as you move forward.

After two waves of monsters are depleted, the bosses come out and…don’t do much of anything. They each have distinct art but apart from life totals and a single special ability are otherwise identical. Bosses also grant secret mission cards to the players who strike the final blow or a special penalty if they are not beaten. They have different hit point totals which are unintuitive in that they change based off of a multiple of the number of players. One boss has 17xPlayers HP, and though there was room on the cards for more numbers to precalculate these totals you will have to do it yourselves. Just as with the other monsters the bosses pose no threat to the players, however imposing they appear. Their special abilities offer very minor inconveniences to the players and nothing else. Unlike in other rounds players fight the boss together and each claim the reward for defeating it. If anyone is unable to add any damage they gain the Coward token which prevents them from visiting another player’s blanket fort. Effectively this only reduces their options by a few abilities for what might have come down to the luck of the draw.

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After the first boss, there is a third wave of monsters followed by a second boss. All of this plays out the same as the first two rounds, with the difference that failure to defeat the second and final boss results in all players losing the game. This is oddly the only lose condition for the game. Once this boss is defeated players count their monster trophies and secret objectives and the one with the most points wins.

Guardians: Explore paints itself as a cooperative adventure game in both its theme and self-description. It fails at this task, devolving quickly into a competitive puzzle with no direct player interaction. The mechanics lead to a dry system of calculating resources and delivering them to monsters. The feeling of heroism never comes through. Swarms of monsters are coming to your town to tear it down, but there is nothing to protect. There is nothing  at stake. You aren’t a hero, you are an opportunist seeking your own self-aggrandizement, all of which would be great were it the intended purpose of the game.

As a strategic experience Guardians has more to offer. The mixture of secret objectives and drafting makes for numerous opportunities for creativity, and the puzzle aspect of the game becomes more satisfying the more you play it. At around an hour, it is easy to play this multiple times to refine your expertise with the game. Despite a lack of variety in monsters or boss encounters there are still a number of ways to enjoy the deck-building aspect of the game.

The Guardians: Explore
Designed by: Jonathon Ruland
Published by: Reihon Games
Players: 2-5
Age Rating: 13+
Time: 45-90 Minutes
Mechanics: Drafting, Deck Building, Worker Placement, Semi-Cooperative
Weight: Medium
MSRP: $39.99