If you’ve happened upon one of my articles on SwitchRPG, you might have picked up on the subtle indicators of my love for tabletop game mechanics. I love dice and card decks as much as any RPG fan loves boss battles and character progression. I’ve played plenty of roguelikes with tabletop mechanics, mostly because dice and deck mechanics lend an air of luck to gameplay, making victory an uncertain goal. With that being said, it’s rare to find a game that utilizes similar mechanics with a structured story, though I find this surprising. Most RPG enthusiasts prefer to play with percentages, resource management, and statistic certainty, which are inherent in the dice and deck format, albeit differing in presentation. Fortunately, there are some brave developers who dare to craft titles that appeal to my highly specific interests, and Cardboard Utopia is comprised of such madmen. Though their blend of strategy and tabletop mechanics check all of my boxes, is there enough here to entice the cautious buyer?
Children of Zodiarcs is a turn- and grid-based strategy title, using card deck-based combat mechanics with dice rolls to add further complication to the mix. Essentially, movement is what you’d expect from a grid-based affair- the only difference being the fact that much of the terrain is navigable, thanks to a fully-operable camera. Walls and terrain mean nothing to the environmental design of this game, as everything- even the character models- are rendered in 3D. We’ll touch on that more in the presentation section.
A turn is comprised of a few sub-turns, where players first move and then select either an in-hand attack card, a draw card, or guard option. Attack cards may not necessarily be attacks, and can often be curse, status, or buff inflictions, but all of these cards do require an exhaustion and a calculation of effects. Even a buff requires a dice roll, simply because of the benefits that each roll can potentially grant. Every time you roll a set of dice, the resulting symbols gift specific values: daggers are attack boosts, shields are counter attack reductions, stars are a special effect indicator, and thunder bolts are actually an extra action. There are more symbols atop this, but these four are the most crucial to obtain, as each can mean the difference between survival and death, or more importantly, a special effect or an extra action. The latter two choices are hugely important, as they often grant very beneficial effects to specific cards, or give you the opportunity to either draw, guard, or play another card, which can result in one of the same effects for another card. In this way, you can stack multiple attacks on one another, although this sort of strategy is most reliable with the main character, Nahmi, a ferocious thief with many attacks that can strike down opponents if you have access to multiple actions per turn.
With all of this being said, you won’t be successful unless your dice are properly equipped and your hand is fully stacked. Your counter attack value is determined by the size of your hand, and the larger said hand is, the more possibilities are open to you during combat. This is why you want to prioritize cards or dice that keep your draw rate high. Certain cards have specific number limitations per deck, but many cards will gain bonuses as you level up. Likewise, you can gain new dice from defeating enemies in skirmishes, and depending on the amount of symbols on your collective, unequipped dice, you’ll be able to transfer specific symbols onto your preferred dice. All of these options mean that Children of Zodiarcs does have a great deal of chance involved, but if you play the card and dice mechanics strategically, you can find the upper hand in combat.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Something I’ve commented on recently in regards to tactics titles is the need for a unique and engaging narrative. Fortunately, Children of Zodiarcs uses some familiar concepts in a very unfamiliar setting in order to tell an isolated, yet very grand tale. Lumus is a world divided in two, where the affluent cling to their riches and leave the impoverished to rot in the streets. Inbetween, the place where nothing is certain and survival is an everyday struggle, we discover the gang of child thieves run by Zirchoff, a bombastic and charismatic individual of questionable motive. One promising member, the Ebony Flame Nahmi, is sent on a mission to steal a relic of immeasurable power- a Zodiarc, the ancient relics gifted to the world by the mysterious Heralds. Though Zodiarcs are indeed powerful, they often come at a cost- those that can be used as weapons often bind themselves to the user in a parasitic fashion. Nahmi’s score is meant to be one of unfathomable wealth, and over the course of the scenario, you’ll discover why exactly this is the case.
This world-building and lore, which are distributed throughout cutscenes and character dialogue accessible between skirmishes, is extremely compelling, though sometimes a bit cliched in execution. Characters sometimes lack some nuance, and aren’t given much of a chance to grow throughout the breakneck, swashbuckling nature of the overarching narrative. What helps further diversify Children of Zodiarcs are its presentation values: an excellently orchestrated score that has some truly stellar standout tracks, and an aesthetic that is both functional and stylistic. The wealthy are represented in clean whites and aggressive reds, while those of the Inbetween are draped in earthy colors mixed with splashes of blue. Though you’ll find that there are some skirmishes where you’ll be taking on enemies that don’t fit these descriptions, your playable team of characters never really becomes lost in the shuffle.
These characters also benefit from some gorgeously rendered character portraits, with a surprising number of unique designs found throughout the journey. You’ll note the distinct aesthetic from the moment you boot up the game, as the clothing and art style are truly unique in a landscape of tactical RPGs that often play a bit too close to the “generic European-inspired anime armor” wheelhouse.
Impressions and Conclusion
Though some of its more unique mechanics, such as dice shard manipulation and symbol interpretation, might be a bit difficult to grasp at first, Children of Zodiarcs gives players plenty of opportunity to pick up on the basics, offering non-narrative related skirmishes in between chapters in order to grind or familiarize oneself with the mechanics of particular cards. Similarly, the game also offers a number of opportunities to utilize the hilariously overpowered Zirchoff, a character with a fabulous deck of heavy-hitting cards that will help teach the ropes and assist the more frail units at your disposal. The playable cast is not so diverse that it ever induces an overwhelming amount of choice, and the game benefits from its level up system, which slowly trickles new cards and modifiers for already accessible cards throughout.
My experience with Children of Zodiarcs has been one of surprise and delight, partially because of the extremely high production values that truly help a turn-based tactics game like this stand out, even in relation to the juggernaut titles on the system. Once I had grasped the fundamentals of its combat, I was hooked and could not put the title down. Though its twenty-chapter structure might feel a bit slight, I feel it’s a sizable amount of content for the games size and price point, especially considering it has multiple features that indicate replay value. You can dig into the difficulty options and level scaling aspects of the game in order to tailor the experience to your liking, or modify them in order to give yourself more of a challenge. Though I did not always feel that my deck of cards was properly stacked for new scenarios, I also felt that I possessed complete control over the outcome of a battle once having modified my deck. The number of different skirmish objectives was also a nice touch, allowing for a bit of variety in tactics utilized.
Though I’m no fan of the strategy subgenre, Children of Zodiarcs has managed to make me a convert. The only aspect of the game I regret is its length, as I would gladly play more if given the opportunity. If you are a fan of either tabletop mechanics or strategy fundamentals, I strongly feel that this title offers the best of both worlds, as well as a new world for narrative enthusiasts to explore. There is great untapped potential in Children of Zodiarcs, and I give it my most earnest recommendation.