Designer: Edmund McMillen
Artist: Krystal Fleming
Publisher: Maestro Media, Studio71
Year Published: 2018
As you may have gathered by now, I have rather rich history associated with video games that extends nearly 40 years into the past. In the past few years, we have been graced with a sizable number of products that have even turned classic video games into board games, which is sometimes quite the treat for those of us who enjoy getting to experience something thematically familiar yet new.
However good the video games themselves may be, however, this does not necessarily mean that they will get proper treatment when adapted into the board game medium. Indeed, sometimes, these games can be rather bad! So my “mission” today is to make a determination as to whether one particular game that has received such a conversion is good enough to share, or belongs in the dumps for its gameplay.
The Binding of Isaac : 4 Souls is a card game based off the original video game “The Binding of Isaac”. I will state right out front that the original video game was and is no stranger to controversy. On a more basic level, the original game itself was designed as a sort of derision or mockery of certain Biblical events and beliefs , and I say this as fair warning to those who take their faith seriously, as I do feel obliged to mention this at the get-go. The art style, even though cute at times can be also be quite grotesque and at stark odds with scriptural quote directly on cards, making for a bit of an odd pairing.
Be that as it may, I am here to assess the gameplay, and will treat this as its own element in pursuit of fairness. And I will say that the gameplay itself is actually quite good—better than many of the card games I have recently reviewed, to be honest.
This is perhaps in theory one of the simplest but most effective rule sets I have seen in a while, and for those of you who fear obtuse instruction manuals have no need to fear here. The game is incredibly easy to learn and can have you playing in mere minutes. But the gameplay is actually quite deeper than you might initially think.
While the original video game was more of an action game akin to Zelda, 4 Souls seems to have eschewed this exploration and map-based style of play in favor of doing things strictly with cards. So in this sense, it isn’t the “purest” transition, with gameplay that is directly comparable.
The setup of the game starts with the all-too-familiar separation of cards into various decks. You have a monster deck and two monsters flipped over in a center row at the commence of the game, along with a treasure pile and 2 of these revealed in the usual sort of “marketplace”. There is also a large stack of Loot cards that players will draw from regularly to ensure that they have an ample supply of cards to play.
In addition, there is a nice set of plastic coins that are quite exemplary in terms of their tactile feel, a very nice change from the usual cardboard tokens. They even come with their own bag!
Players will also get one of 11 unique characters to use, each with their own distinct starting item. They also start the game with 3 coins, which can be used to buy Treasures, which although expensive at 10 coins each, make the daunting task of winning the game much more feasible.
Because players will ultimately need to slay enough demons and foul beasts to acquire the souls of 4 of such beings. Whoever gains 4 of these first, wins the game!
On each players turn they immediately reset any used abilities from previous turns and then draw 1 loot card. Ordinarily, players may only play one Loot card per turn, but there are exceptions to this, such as each players unique character card which can also allow the usage of one additional Loot card on ANY players turn once activated. Players may also buy 1 treasure and confront one of the monsters in the central row ; some of these yield treasures , loot or coins when defeated, and others will give you the more valuable souls for winning the game. However, these baddies will also have all sorts of nasty side effects trigger when fighting , too, some of which are more detrimental to your rivals, so it helps to have a keen eye as to when you can turn one of these flights into a big pain for others.
Fighting a monster is done with a D6 die roll. For the most part, you roll to hit the monster, each of which has a different value for each monster—if your die roll is equal to or greater than the requirement each baddie has, the damage done is equal to the face value of the “To Hit” roll, pure and simple.
Once a player has done all they can, it is the next players turn.
Sounds like a breeze, right? Almost like it is too easy to learn?
Well…yes, and no. The mechanics of the game are indeed very simple to learn. The “difficulty”, if you can call it that, becomes in determining the flow of the game, and how to essentially “stick it” to your opponents, as there are a good number of ways to “interrupt” the cause and effects of just about everything in this game—if you happen to have the right cards that is. Many of your abilities granted via your cards will allow you to modify hit rolls , damage, and hit points of other monsters or players to tip the flow of a battle one way or the other. That is one dimension to the game that can require a bit of playing to get the hang of for sure.
The other element that sets this game aside is the human interaction involved—as a good chunk of the game can involve bartering and “making a deal with the Devil”, ie , other players. Say you can’t defeat a monster with your initial roll of 3. Well another player may offer you a card in the middle of your turn that allows you to enhance your damage and die roll—at a price, of course. You can opt to bargain anything in your possession, be it coins , items or even future promises (that can , of course, be broken). In a nutshell, it sort of feels like Twilight Imperium minus the expansive board and playtimes involved, as strange as that may sound.
So as you may gather, this game essentially becomes an exercise in learning how to use the majority of the games’ cards and monsters to ruin other players’ chances of winning. And things can get brutal. Quite a few cards force you to instantly slay another player (Player death means some penalties of lost cards, coins and items in this game), so it really isn’t for the faint of heart on many levels.
While the game itself can play with 2 players, I would say that it works best with at least one more, for the same reason I wouldn’t easily envision a 2-player variant of Twilight Imperium. It sounds great in theory, but the reality is that it is difficult to convince your only competition to agree to terms that are more likely to have a negative impact on them in the long run. Conversely, add another player and it becomes all the easier to convince another player to take a deal if it means they suffer no consequence and the cards in play make it possible to pass the short end of the stick to the 3rd player who is removed from the negotiations.
The game length can be very quick (15 minutes in some cases) but it can also take longer than 45 minutes, so there is some degree of variability here. It all depends on where the Souls are located within the monster deck, as not every monster has them, so it may take a while to vanquish enough to acquire the essential 4 souls for victory.
Is this a game I can recommend?
Yes and no.
On the one level, the gameplay is actually surprisingly good—for such a simple rule set, there is quite a lot of strategy involved, owing to the unique effects and consequences most of the cards have. Most of the fun of the game in fact derives from the cards in play rather than the foundational rule set itself, if that makes sense. So on this level, the game succeeds quite well.
I do feel that the mature theme and content of the game inevitably leads me to believe this should be an adults only game. Moreover, even though the “main” story and premise of Isaac for the video game is omitted from this board game (it was originally rather disturbing), there is still very much a sense that the game is a derogatory affront to Christianity / Judaism. I realize there are already a lot of articles and debates about what the true intention of the games’ creator was when he made it, but even though some would defend the “artistic” choices made as a sort anecdotal reflection of his own troubled past, The Binding of Isaac : Four Souls ultimate comes across to me as a sharp and pointed denouncing. I would encourage anyone considering purchasing this game from a Judeo-Christian background to first do some “soul searching” and research on the content of both the video and board games to determine if it is a good fit for them or not prior to purchasing, as I would imagine many could potentially feel they are compromising their own belief system.
Ultimately, though, the gameplay works. So from that perch, we enjoyed it very much. We do wish that the theme had been tailored to a more generic audience, but it is what it is.
If anyone has any questions about the game itself, feel free to look me up on the Everything Board Games forum, and I will be more than glad to talk about my experience.
Jazz Paladin- Reviewer