A nefarious Black Dragon has imprisoned six innocent magical creatures deep in its cavernous lair, trapping them with its crystal magic. You are their only hope: you must explore the caverns, find the creatures, and free them by using the Dragon’s own crystal magic against it. Along the way you might find treasure to aid you in your efforts, but beware. Even if you free all of the creatures, you’ll still have to deal with the Black Dragon itself, and it won’t go down without a fight. Brought to us by Light Heart Games and Zafty Games, this is the single player puzzle and card game of fantastical creatures and crystal magic, Crystallo!
I almost literally stumbled upon Crystallo at PAX East 2020 while wandering through the tabletop area: a small, single-table booth tucked in a corner. It was a vote in favor of making sure your product is eye-catching: colorful gem tokens, equally colorful and high-quality cards, and creatures depicted with an interesting 3-D effect. I watched some gameplay, listened to the spiel, and grabbed a copy for myself, relatively certain that I’d found something worthwhile.
So what does playing Crystallo look like?
After shuffling the deck of cavern cards, deal out 9 of them and set them aside, along with the two cards representing the Black Dragon. Place the remaining deck of cavern cards on the table, and set up each of the six creature cards, placing their respective colored gems on their cards. You’re going to need a fair amount of space, as the cards will spread out a fair bit, so make sure to clear the table/floor/etc. Keep your key card handy to help you keep track of treasure and crystal combinations and that’s it, you’re ready to play!
Play starts by drawing a card from the deck and placing it face-up. On each card are crystals and orbs, usually two of each but not always. Crystals come in three colors – orange, red, and purple – and three shapes, with 1-3 points to them. Orbs come in six colors, one color for each of the creatures you’re trying to free. Play proceeds by continuing to draw cards and placing them on the table; you always have to place them so that a crystal on the new card is adjacent to a crystal on an existing card, but other than that you have a lot of flexibility: cards can be placed horizontally and vertically in a number of ways, partially covering existing cards, and even partially slid underneath an existing card.
What you’re trying to do is create a square of 3 crystals and 1 orb. The crystals need to be a set that follows one of four rules: all the same color and all the same shape, all the same color and all different shapes, all the same shape and all different colors, and all different shapes and all different colors. Once you form a square with an orb and one of those arrays of crystals, you claim that orb – you remove a crystal of the same color as the orb from its creature and place it on the claimed orb. Once all three crystals have been removed from a creature, that creature is freed!
Scattered throughout the deck are nine treasure cards, broken out into three groups of three treasures each: Riches, Magic, and Battle. If you manage to claim both orbs on a card with treasure, then in addition to having removed two crystals from the creatures you also get to claim the treasure. Get all three of a set and you gain a bonus of some kind. During Phase 1, Magic can be used to remove a single gem from a creature of your choice, which could really save the day, particularly if you find yourself cut off from the orb(s) you need to free a specific creature.
This phase proceeds until one of two things happen: either the player runs out of cards, ending the game entirely, or all the creatures are freed, leading into Phase 2.
You’ve always got a chance to succeed in Phase 2, but if you only survived Phase 1 by the skin of your teeth, it’s going to be a long shot.
The table is pretty much wiped clean. Any treasure cards you managed to claim are set aside, face-up, and all the other cards you used get shuffled and placed into their own deck. Remember those 9 cards you set aside at the beginning of the game? You add any cards left over after you finished Phase 1, and spread the 9+ cards out in front of you, face up. The two Black Dragon cards are placed face up on the table, and between the two of them there’s one orb of each color. If your face-up cards don’t include at least one of every color themselves, you can discard and draw from the deck you made of the old cards until you do.
From there, you play like you normally would, with two huge exceptions. First of all, obviously, you can see all your cards at once, so you can try and plan things out before you start placing cards. Second, when you complete a square and place a gem on an orb you also place a gem of the same color on the dragon. If you run out of cards, the game ends. If you place all six colors of gem on the dragon, though, the game ends and you’ve successfully trapped the dragon in its own den using its own crystal magic!
The more cards you have, the easier it will be to trap the dragon, so a good performance in Phase 1 can make a huge difference. Like I said, winning with just 9 cards isn’t impossible, but it’s a very long shot. Treasure can also play a huge part here. The Magic treasure doesn’t remove a gem when used against the Black Dragon, adding one instead, which may very well see a player trapping the dragon at the last second. Meanwhile, the Battle set lets you draw an additional card during this Phase, which will be welcome whether you have only the basic nine cards or leftovers from Phase 1.
Once the game ends by whatever means, you figure out your title and your score! If you’ve failed to liberate all the animals, you’re a Commoner. Rescue them all but let the dragon go free, and you’re a Liberator. Seal the dragon away, you’re a Vanquisher. Proceeding titles are based on how many cards you have left over after the dragon is sealed away, eventually earning you the title of Champion if you hung on to 3 or more. Then the treasures kick in as a final modifier: 0-3 means you’re Impoverished, 4-6 means Prosperous, and 7-9 means Wealthy. Consequently, this is where the third and final treasure set kicks in; if you collect all three cards of the Riches set, you count as having one additional treasure (which, if you manage nothing else, at least means you’ll be Prosperous). The titles determine your points (an Impoverished Liberator earns 150, for example), and there are pages in the back of the booklet to track how well you’ve been doing.
Crystallo falls firmly into the ‘easy to learn. hard to master’ class of games. After watching the game, listening to the spiel, and reading the rulebook a combined very short amount of time I felt very comfortable just diving right in. The rules weren’t hard to remember, and the most likely spots of confusion (which crystal combinations work, what pieces of treasure form a set) are taken care of the key card. I’ve only gotten to Impoverished Liberator myself, but I’ve had fun getting that far, and I’m getting a better eye for how to claim orbs.
After some further research, it looks like creator Liberty Kifer (a.k.a. Light Heart Games) ran a very successful Kickstarter last year, and teamed up with Zafty Games for publishing. Certain viral goings-ons apparently put a kink in the distribution pipeline, so some backers are still receiving their copies and there aren’t many available if you find LHG at a convention like I did – but you can pre-order the game from Zafty.
Crystallo is fun, challenging, well-made, extremely portable (although like I said, you’ll need your table/floor space), and overall an excellent way to get some solo gaming. I also think there is some potential for multiple players; like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, more eyes on the thing might prove helpful.
I was relatively certain that I’d found something worthwhile, leaving PAX East 2020 with Crystallo in hand. I was right.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can tell your friends about us! You could travel through one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to DriveThruRPG which, thanks to our Affiliate partnership with them, gets us funds to get more games to review! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!