Achroma is a breathtakingly beautiful, compellingly addictive and refreshingly original game, with thoughtfully designed mechanics and incredible presentation.
There’s a magical moment that happens with just about every tabletop game, when mechanics, component imagery and iconography come together and just click in your mind; the satisfying clarity of being able to read a board state, then formulate plans from all of your available options.
That feeling happens early and often in Achroma: The Evolving Card Game.
Released a few years ago by small, British, independent designers and publishers Realm Runner Studios, Achroma is a card game with lots of charm and an impressive depth not just to its gameplay, but also to the lore and overall design of the game – and its brilliantly realised universe – too.
Considering the fact that it has been produced by a small indie studio, Achroma’s production values are genuinely impressive too.
In fact, let’s drop that qualifier about it emerging from an indie studio; even if this were to be produced by a massive multinational company, Achroma’s production values would still be impressive.
I think I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here. Sure, this card game looks and plays great – but what’s it all about?
What Is The Story Of Achroma?
Achroma’s story sees The Five Realms under threat from a dark substance called Achrom, which is threatening to consume all of the Chroma – essentially the colour that provides each realm with its power.
The fact that distinct realms – the Five Realms essentially being Achroma’s multiverse – are affected allows the designers to bring a different flavour to each set.
The beautiful, Studio Ghibli inspired art has so far been utilised to cover a sort of Steampunk/Lovecraftian setting in the realm of Salum Planum, fantastical dragons and monks in Draco Planum, fairy warriors, students, teachers (and their pixie enemies) in Spirata Planum and a subterranean world of Norse mythology inspired troll tribes in Norso Planum.
In case you’re wondering, my favourite faction is the Draco Defenders from the Chronicle (Achroma’s name for each new set) ‘The Siege of Draco Temple’. The Draco Defenders Faction is full of beautifully designed dragons, with lots of bonuses for having a large number of Dragons on your Canvas (your play area) at once.
Each of the realm settings and their factions has different, highly thematic keywords; the mining trolls being able to DIG and FIND cards in their Palette and Dregs, for example – or the fairy painters being able to SPLAT and add Achroma bonuses for use during the Resolve phase.
Given that we’ve already started talking about turn phases, let’s take a quick look at the gameplay of Achroma.
How Do You Play Achroma?
In Achroma, players each have a deck of 30 cards, known in-game as a Palette. They each take turns playing cards from their hand – paying for them using Shards, which act as both currency and life points – onto the playfield, known in Achroma as the ‘Canvas’.
Each player starts with 10 Shards in their Shard Bank, which is tracked using the free Achroma app (though if you don’t have access to a device for this – or wi-fi – then you can just as easily use pen and paper or tokens to track Shards).
Cards can be traded for their Shard value instead of being played, with two opportunities to trade during a normal turn – both before and after the main phase in which you play cards; instead of Trading, players can instead choose to draw a card from their Palette.
Cards can be Locations, Characters, Objects (all played to the Canvas, with Objects needing to be attached to Characters) or Actions, which are typically strong, one use cards that go straight to the Dregs (your discard pile) once carried out.
Characters can choose to attack other Characters, with their Strength value noted in the middle of their Shard cost hex; the Shard cost doubling as their health.
If their Shards are reduced to zero in a single turn, the Character is sent to the Dregs. Objects soak up damage before a Character is hit, but excess points of attack do carry through to the defending Character.
Once the main phase – where Attacks are carried out and up to three cards are deployed to the Canvas from the player’s hand – is complete, players resolve their cards.
Locations, Characters and Objects in play can Gain (add), Drain (subtract from their opponent) or Steal (subtract from the opponent and add to your own) Shards, which happens during the Resolve phase.
Lastly, there’s the aforementioned Draw or Trade phase, before play passes to the opponent.
It’s worth mentioning that the Shard Bank starts players off on an even footing, but also enables players to get their most powerful cards in play right from the very first turn if they have them in their hand.
With Shard costs being in a hex, the maximum cost of any card is 6 Shards; as players start with 10, no card in the game is off limits on the very first turn.
How long is a game of Achroma?
A game of Achroma typically takes between 20 – 30 minutes.
How Does it Compare To Other Card Games?
In truth, Achroma has a unique feel all of its own; partly due to the Shard Bank mechanic – and the way it’s cleverly integrated into the gameplay as health, currency and victory points.
The Shard-based system is incredibly elegant and impressively smart; no longer are you forced to wait turn after turn, only being able to place one Mana or Energy, for your cards to be played or to become usable.
As mentioned – but it bears repeating, as this concept may feel entirely alien to many CCG/TCG players: if you have your most powerful, most expensive card in your opening hand, it can be played on your first turn.
Whether or not you should do that is another matter – but it’s great to finally have a system that doesn’t restrict or slow down players, allowing the game to immediately get off to a running start.
It’s definitely worth noting that there’s not much of a learning curve to Achroma either; especially compared to, for example, the combat system alone in Magic: The Gathering, which isn’t something that many players pick up immediately.
Achroma is an incredibly easy game to learn, teach and play; even if you don’t use the excellent tutorial that guides you through the game in the app or on YouTube, it’s not difficult to simply hand someone a deck and teach them the basics within a few minutes.
As with any card game – such as the Pokemon TCG, Magic: The Gathering or other CCGs – with a wide card pool and the possibility of deckbuilding, the basic rules are generally easy to learn, with the main complexities of play (and more advanced strategies) often becoming apparent through the use of keywords on cards.
These keywords do differ depending on which faction and set the deck you’re playing with belongs to; there’s a real diversity in the different factions and settings on offer, which means a good variety of different keywords that offer an ever-widening range of mechanics.
While we’re on the subject of keywords, it can sometimes be difficult to find an explanation of certain ones, depending on the set you have and the summary cards it does (or doesn’t) come with.
It does seem as if there needs to be an easily accessible list of those currently available included with new decks; though this can be found on the Achroma website as part of the game’s rules and is planned to be integrated more clearly into the app, at present this can slow down the usage of some cards.
That said, with only a few keywords present per deck, it doesn’t take long to get the hang of them once you’ve familiarised yourself with each one.
It also helps that the card design overall is clean and clear, with beautiful art and a pleasingly minimalist feel to the card backs.
However, the fact that the lovely illustrations are always full art can, in a few cases, cause issues with the Shard colours in the hex.
I should point out that I do have a form of colour blindness myself, which likely exacerbates the issue – and it may not be a problem at all for most players.
However, the Achroma website’s card database – which is planned to be part of the app at some point – does helpfully list the Shard cost of cards, so if you really need clarity it’s not difficult to find the information you need.
How Do You Win A Game Of Achroma?
Another unique aspect of Achroma is that there are two entirely different, opposing win conditions: victory is secured when players reach a total of 30 Shards in their Shard Bank (known as a Chroma victory) or when they drain their opponent to 0 Shards (an Achrom victory).
Typically, the more heroic factions will be looking to create engines of Achroma production through their cards in order to reach 30 Shards, whereas the villainous factions tend to be more geared towards draining Shards from the opponent.
It creates a neat tug of war; the timing of trading cards and knowing when to use Shards for the higher value, more powerful cards is extremely important – this gives Achroma a unique feel in relation to other collectable card games.
Except, despite looking and playing like a collectable card game – having deckbuilding and an ever growing pool of cards to get hold of and use – Achroma isn’t actually a CCG at all.
How To Get Started With Achroma
Achroma’s collecting model instead has more in common with Living Card Games (see our article on What Are Living Card Games for more on that), in that there are no booster packs and very little randomness, if any, in the cards you can expect to receive when you buy an Achroma set.
The best way to get started with Achroma is by getting hold of a Chronicle’s First Edition box set; this will give you a random pair of Palettes from the Chronicle’s selection of six, with the Palettes included being guaranteed to be from different factions.
This gives you an immediate set of opposing decks to play a two player game with; not only that, but in a First Edition set all of the Legendary and Rare cards have a gorgeous raised ‘ink’ treatment, in keeping with the colour/darkness theme of the game.
It’s a bit disappointing that no rules are included with these – or any other – Achroma sets, forcing you to learn online either via the app or the Achroma site. Though this is easy enough to do, there’s nothing quite like being able to flick through a rulebook at the table when needed.
Each set does have a turn summary card and a breakdown of the Chronicle’s keywords, however – which is definitely useful.
You can check out more in our What is Achroma article!
What About The Achroma Mobile App?
So onto the aforementioned app itself: it’s absolutely brilliant to use as a Shard Bank, allowing you to customise your avatar in game and give you the power to Gain, Drain and Steal intuitively, as well as randomly choosing a starting player and ending the game for you when either of the win conditions is reached.
If you do use the app to play, it’ll also track your wins and add them to the game’s Global Achrometer – which becomes particularly addictive to keep an eye on.
You see, part of the reason that Achroma is known as the Evolving Card Game is because the Global Achrometer will be used to determine the outcome of stories in the game – whether or not the Achrom or Chroma sides have the most number of wins at the end of a set season will shape the future direction of the story and therefore, the next sets in the game too!
With this in place, every game you play during a season feels more involving and meaningful; you’re truly making a difference to the narrative just by virtue of playing the game.
This is just one aspect that gives Achroma a unique, community based feel – along with the fact that the team make themselves very accessible via Discord and their weekly, live Achroma updates on YouTube.
Thanks to this and the Achroma website, it’s easy to pick up on the lore, the current season’s standings and even to connect with other, like minded players too.
The app also features a sort of choose-your-own-adventure narrative game (Achroma Adventure), which handily gives you a deeper understanding of the game’s settings and characters; the cards themselves, as beautiful as they are, can only impart so much lore in a limited space.
Along with this, the app also offers the option to play the Heroes variant of the game – which, like the standard game (which is known as Canvas), can be played by two or more players, but with less restrictions on deck building.
The app has a section for the upcoming Achroma tabletop RPG too.
It tracks your own personal wins and losses as well, with your player profile holding a surprisingly decent variety of stats – including how balanced you are between Achrom and Chroma!
Each Achroma card also has a unique code, which you can enter in the app to add to your card collection.
The app even features an achievement system; you can unlock these through playing games, collecting cards and progressing through the narrative Adventure as well!
Though a little rough around the edges – adding cards to your collection isn’t flawless and it would be nice to have the Achrometer and rules/keyword database on the app, rather than the website, we’ve been told by Realm Runner Studios that the app is being updated to add many community requested features and to iron out some of the quirks with the current functionality.
Still, there are no issues when using the app to simply play your games of Achroma with – which is the main thing.
What Else Is There To Achroma?
We’ve not even scratched the surface of deckbuilding, the special Realm Runner expansion palettes or even the number of different sets on offer – with some beautiful Collector’s Edition sets for specific factions that contain lots of background info (in the form of letters, scrolls and other items), posters and other collectables, for example.
There’s also story content included in these sets and on the Achroma website too.
With several sets – or Chronicles, in Achroma parlance, as we’ve previously noted – already released, it has quickly expanded, with factions and play styles to cover a range of preferences and play styles for the game’s fans.
Yet it’s only going to get bigger and wider in scope; there’s certainly a very bright and colourful future ahead for Achroma, which has proven itself to be the equal of – even superior, in a number of ways – to card games with mega budgets, legions of designers and huge licenses with immediate brand recognition to rely on.
Our Final Verdict
In short, Achroma is a breathtakingly beautiful, compellingly addictive and refreshingly original game, with thoughtfully designed mechanics and incredible presentation.
Realm Runner Studios deserve massive praise for ambitiously utilising mobile app and web-based technology in very smart ways, to enhance Achroma’s gameplay and give control of the game’s future direction to the game’s thriving, involved and very active community.
In our opinion, Achroma is an unmissable game that deserves to reach a wide audience.
Though Achroma has already grown impressively – thanks to its eye-catching design and word of mouth, from players who’ve already caught the bug – hopefully, the sky’s the limit for Realm Runner Studios and their stunning Evolving Card Game.
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