Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Wednesday 13 January 2021

The Game Shelf Reviews:- 1565, St. Elmo's Pay

Game: 1565, St. Elmo's Pay

Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions

Designer:  Tristan Hall

Year: 2020

Tristan Hall and his company, Hall or Nothing Productions make great historical games. 1066, Tears of Many Mothers was the first in a series of card driven games that provide a very accessible entry point into wargames. I'm not really sure what categorises something as a war game, although these two-player experiences certainly are themed on specific battles and wars. 

1565, St. Elmo's Pay is the second game in this series and plays out in a very similar way, and with 1815, Scum of the Earth coming soon to Kickstarter, Hall or Nothing Games really have you covered if you're a history buff looking to get your feet wet with a tabletop wargame-like experience.


1565 St Elmo's Pay
pits you as one of two forces, the Ottoman Turks or the Knights of St John, either of which is represented by a pre-made deck of cards. Each player will start the game by placing their leader in one of the front three locations of their 3x3 grid. Each column of this grid is associated with one of the three main battlegrounds that you'll fight over and your leader is a powerful warrior in their own right when it comes to these battles. You also have an objective deck which takes you through a variety of events leading up to the climactic battle.
Each turn you will draw two cards and then have the chance to play cards. Cards are played by paying a cost on the top left of the card, for every resource needed, a card must be discarded from your hand. Alternatively, there are a few resource generating cards which can be exhausted instead of discarding a card. There are several different card types, varying from one-off events, upgrades for units, upgrades for battlefields and, of course units themselves. Most cards are units which must be played at the front-most free space in one of the three battlefield locations. Units have three main stats: Might, Zeal and Health and may have a special ability that they can use either when played, or by exhausting them each round. Exhausting a unit means turn it sideways 90 degrees to activate an effect, often moving the unit, generating a resource, or dealing damage to an opponent's unit/battlefield.
Once you are done playing cards, combat begins. For the first half of the game you'll be fighting your own personal deck of objectives which have a defense value in either might or zeal. The sum of all your non-exhausted units in the relevant stat is combined and then that much damage is done to the objective. Once an objective is completed it is discarded, perhaps giving a small reward, and next turn you can start on the next objective in in the deck. Once you reach the final objective you can then directly fight your opponent. This works much the same way but separated by the battlefield frontiers. You fight with both might and zeal separately, with the player winning that combat type getting to place damage equal to the difference on the frontier. Once a frontier takes enough damage from one player to match its health, that location is won by the player. The first player to win two frontiers wins the game. Though do note that the game can also be lost by either player's deck running out or a leader being killed.

Amy’s Final Thoughts
War, it never changes, but it does get boiled down into a surprisingly tight ruleset for a pick up and play card game. The core rules for St Elmo's Pay are surprisingly tight for a card game of this ilk. With no need to worry about deck-building, you know the two factions are balanced from the get-go, yet they also play significantly differently. The knights are far more able to build up resource generation, letting them be more card efficient at the cost of exhausting their knights doing administrative task rather than fight, do this too much and you might not get through objectives fast enough. The Turks by comparison do not have anywhere near the resource generation, but instead have many cheap units that can do damage to the battlegrounds before reaching the final objective, giving them a much needed head start.
Despite the rules being relatively light for a competitive card game, that doesn't mean the decisions are. St Elmo's Pay can often lead you to making painful mistakes if you aren't prepared or if you overextend yourself. Many cards cost 3-4 resources, which means 2 turns worth of cards just to play them, it's perfectly common to spend a turn doing nothing but passing to build your hand back up after playing a good card. Of course with any luck that good card is helping you smash through your objectives, but a prepared opponent might be holding onto a card that can kill a unit for just such a threat. Deciding which cards to hold on to and which cards to spend is vital, you'll never shuffle your deck in this game, so a card discarded is gone for good, which makes sense as most of the cards are named historical characters. This level of counter-play can start to feel a bit cruel, when one player manages to get in the lead they can often stay there unless the other player manages to draw the right counter card, but in our experiences most games have been pretty tight in the end, even if one player had a clear advantage at one point.

There is a whole lot of love for the theme in this game, not only are most cards unique and inspired by characters/events from history, but they also come with great card art and some text explaining who they are and why they were important. But if you aren't a huge history buff then you might be interested to know that this game is fully compatible with 1066, Tears to many Mothers. For some people this might be sacrilege, but I'm totally picturing Harold II taking a cannonball to the eye rather than an arrow! Of course the main drawback to this is that 1565 is entirely the same game as 1066 - sure the decks are different, but there are no real mechanical changes. Of course, 1066 was a great game so that is a compliment as much as a problem, but I was hoping for some fresh new mechanics to make the sequel stand out.

Fi’s Final Thoughts

I've never heard of the Great Siege of Malta. History is really not my thing, but since theme in board game isn't really my thing either, being clueless about the theme is no reason to avoid a game. What it does mean is that a game of 1565, St. Elmo's Pay is all about the mechanisms for me, and thankfully they're really rather clever. Since cards are currency, as well as the troops you'll play out into your play area, every turn has a tough choice of which cards you will sacrifice in order to pay to play another. More often than not, it feels like I might be making the wrong choice, but it's really hard to know what to hang onto dearly, especially in your early games. With my typical 'play whatever you can' approach, I often drive myself into a situation of not being able to play anything for multiple turns, which can be rather frustrating. This isn't really a game you can play casually, even though the rules are very simple, you've got to be very careful and calculating to do well.

Whilst I can definitely find a tight game of 1565, St. Elmo's Pay to be a fun and intricate tug of war, it's too easy to have a game where your opponent walks all over you. I've found myself completely powerless against a strategy that can take down my leader, simply through not having the right cards at the right time, or not being aware of the importance of holding onto them earlier in the game. Once things start to go downhill, you might as well throw in the towel, which I never find to be a fun way to end a gaming experience.

It has to be said that direct conflict in two players games can often be a turn-off for us because it's too in your face and personal. If that's the style of two-player game you enjoy, then you should have no problems here and be able to discover lots of interesting mechanisms in this game. When it works, and both players are on top of their game, then the battle over the three frontiers is a really fun puzzle to compete over and often ends in a satisfyingly close game with many difficult choices along the way. Plus, if the theme is in your wheelhouse, I can't imagine you'll be disappointed in what you find here, given the designer's passion for the subject matter.

You Might Like...
  • 1565, St Elmo's Pay takes on a heavy theme with a light ruleset.
  • The game can be a really tight two-player experience and is a real head-to-head.
You Might Not Like...
  • It can take a while to get to know the game and know what you need to guard against to avoid being hosed!
  • It's possible to get bored and demoralised when you're stuck in a cycle of being able to do nothing at all on your turn when you draw expensive cards into your empty hand.
  • Unless you're very interested in the history, 1565, St Elmo's Pay does seem like a straight reskin of  1066, Tears to Many Mothers.

The Verdict
6/10 For us, 1565, St. Elmo's Pay feels almost identical to its predecessor and I imagine that for most people who are not familiar with the history of this battle, their feelings might be similar. It is clear that this is a well researched, historical game, but that doesn't matter a whole lot to us. Instead, it's a game with very strong and interesting mechanisms, but one that is cut-throat at times. If you're looking for a unique 2-player card game that is the very light end of war-gaming, then both 1066 or 1565 could be a perfect fit with lots of depth to explore.

1565, St. Elmo's Pay was a review copy kindly provided to us by Hall or Nothing Productions.

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