The Rifts of Storm Hollow are pieces of various worlds, torn up by the roots and brought together by the power of an enormous magical sotrm. As a Riftwalker, it is your job to gain complete mastery over these plains, and score them for points.
Riftwalkers: A Storm Hollow Card Game pits 2-4 players against each other using resource cards (elements) to play cards from their hands (Rifts), upgrading them for points (shifting) and aligning resources in a three in a row formation to move a card with that type of element into your score pile (bursting). It encourages players to work together while simultaneously screwing them over. Designed by Julian Leiberan-Titus and Angela Hickman Newnham and published by Game Salute It is now available for retail purchase at $20 MSRP.
First and foremost, this is a combo game. Fans of Magic: The Gathering, Castles of Burgundy, and other "I have one action to do as many things as possible" games will be walking on familiar ground. If that isn't your bag, continue reading anyway. There is some cool stuff here.
Before we go into the game and phases we have to break down the Rift cards and Element grid.
The Element Grid
Do not take the quality of these photos as a representation of the art. One is incredible, the other was done with a potato.
In order to play cards from your hand you must first activate an element card. To do so, simply select the element you would like to use, and flip it over. For example, in order to use the purple wind element (top right), simply flip it over so its yellow storm element is face up. The element cards have an indicator on the top left and bottom right corners to indicate what element is on the other side. This way, players don't have to play a game of memory on top of the crazy interactions to follow.
Players may also swap a card from the grid with a card from the element deck in the facing of their choice. If players match 3 elements in a row in any orientation, they may burst a shifted rift, or place it into their score pile. This is the primary way players will score points. Keep in mind burst Rifts cannot be activated or shifted.
The main way you are going to score points is via Rifts. Rift cards are broken into five parts. The top left is the element of the rift. The top right is the name of the rift along with the optional ability that triggers when a rift is activated. The bottom left and right indicates how many points a rift is worth when it is scored.
To play a rift from your hand or activate a rift (called shifting) you have to activate the appropriate element from the center grid of nine. Most Rifts only have one element associated with them, but 3 Rifts have dual colors. These Rifts can be activated by either color on the card, and have a reduced point value.
A turn in Riftwalker is split into four phases. From left to right...
That’s it. That’s the game. Seriously.
While the rules and phases are rather simple, the real intricacies and interactions come from the cards. There is a careful balancing act of setting up combos, and executing the combos themselves. Finding this balance is key.
While you will be playing a bit of your own little instance of multiplayer solitaire, building up your tableau before scoring is important because it incentivizes other players to give you some sort of a benefit. For example, if you have a Rift of every color, a player is more likely to give you a benefit that targets a single color simply because you are the only one that has that color. There are also cards that allow you to burst other rifts simply by having X amount of them on the board.
This solitaire is fine, yet somewhat restrictive. Most likely you will be limited to one additional rift activation if you are lucky. Often there are times where the need to do another small action is imperitive, but because youlack the required cards, the turn is essentially forfeit. This happens regularly because each Rift is the linchpin in its own engine. When you burst a rift you remove that pin. Setting up another feels like taking two steps back, creating a hesitancy to score your cards. Which sucks because it makes you feel as if you aren't really doing anything with your turns.
You can work around this however. By reading the table and other players, you can put off on scoring the Rifts until someone else starts to do so. If you have ever played Dominion before, you know this as "Going Green". Attempting to play this way effectively splits the game into two parts. The "Vomit my cards onto the board" part, and the "No one better mess up my 3-in-a-row or I'll cut someone" part.
Player Count and Bursting
The main source of player interaction is the element grid and the players attempt to match elements of their choice. Since it is open knowledge, everyone can see what everyone else is trying to score. And since everyone can see what everyone else is trying to score, the "take that" element is strong here. You will be setting up a chance to burst for a few turns, reacting to other players, and when you make the move that will finally allow you to do so, you have to pray that the other players don't screw you over. This scenario is directly related to player count. In a two player game you can set up a backup plan to ensure you burst. With four players, all bets are off and you are reduced to stumbling on a scoring opportunity. With three and four players, there is simply too much agency and chaos to build a reliable game plan.
Now it is time for the really picky bits.
Firstly, the game does not quite interact with the theme as much as I would like. The elements do not seem to have consistent identities. For example, the green Life element does occasionally seem to interact with life and living things, but everything else can do that too. I feel the problem is that in order for each color to be viable, the mechanics has to cross over somewhat. Sure, the Fire Rifts have their cool thematic quirks, but it is just as well going to do the same things as Life Rifts.
As an experiment, we played a special game. We removed all special abilities from the Rifts, and played a game using just the colors and elements. Gameplay was almost identical to if we were using the special abilities. Often during the full game, the abilities on Rifts we activated couldn't be used. Removing these abilities didn't feel like much of a change. I don't know if this is a bad thing, because it means the game is consistent. The theme is simply thin and somewhat pasted on. It also doesn't interact with the grander world of Storm Hollow.
The coolest part of the game
I am being very hard on this game for a few reasons. For starts, I like this game quite a bit, but it has its problems. I think the element grid is a fantastic idea that with the right amount of players has an incredible amount of strategy to it. It allows for easy set up for scoring while also telegraphing your moves for your opponent to react to. The grid is by far my favorite part of the game hands down.
The abilities that the Rifts allow you do are also satisfying. Setting up those combos and being able to do more in a turn is exciting.
I also think that the world that world of Storm Hollow that Julian Leiberan-Titus and Angela Hickman Newnham is cool as shit. The problem here is that Riftwalkers is a spin off game based on Storm Hollow: A Story Board Game which was funded successfully on Kickstarter back in 2012. That game has just now gotten a production prototype on November 18th, 2016. This begs the question “Should you support a company that has yet to deliver on its original game?" I am not trying to sway your decision one way or another because I do not have all the details, but I encourage you to do your research. Storm Hollow was launched back when Game Salute was utter toss at getting things done properly, so it may not be a result of the designers whatsoever.
Currently, the only details of the world are only available in a small .pdf called "Poppins Guide to Storm Hollow" located on the Game Salute website. I would love to read more about the world, but I simply can't.
All of the theme come through on the art on the cards, and boy oh boy is the art fantastic. It is striking and vibrant and gives a sense of what the different areas are like to explore. My only gripe here is that I wish each of the unique Rifts had equally unique art. This could be a way to interject the theme a bit, and lord knows it needs it. Of course this would be exceptionally expensive to do so I understand why it wasn't done. From a design perspective, a card that does one thing should not have the same art as another card that does a different thing as it creates confusion as to what is on the board.