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Writer, EFL teacher, web developer, amateur chef, and gamer. When out of the classroom and offline, Jay is eating homemade tacos on his balcony while reading a rulebook. He enjoys his expat life in Taipei. 

#017 Realm of Sand (2018)

Designer: Ji Hua Wei
Artist: Maisherly Chan
Publisher: EmperorS4
Published: 2018
Player Count: 1-4
Time:  20-45 minutes

Return to the magical land of Ragusa (Mystery of the Temples, 2017) and journey to the Realm of Sand, birthplace of magic! The curse breakers have saved the land, but at a terrible cost. Magic has begun to dissipate. Time and reality can shift, collapse, and unfold in an instant. The Queen now travels the vast dunes of the Realm of Sand awaking the power of the ancient runes to save the land. You, curse breaker, are charged with aiding the Queen. Manipulate the power of the runes, awaken ancient elemental spirits, unleash the power of your crystal, and rebuild Ragusa!

EmperorS4 is doing some interesting world building with their games. The geishas from Hanamikoji (2013) later became spies in Shadows of Kyoto (2017). The city of Burano (2015) is now having major renovations done to its streets in Walking in Burano (2018). And now the curse breakers of Mystery of the Temples (2017) have now become civil engineers ??? in Realm of Sand (2018).

Realm of Sand is a lightning fast colorblind friendly tile-laying puzzle game. Will your sand castle rise above the dunes and flourish throughout time, or will you castles made of sand melt into the sea eventually?


Put Your Hand in the Box

 The third of EmperorS4’s mid-sized boxes. Realm of Sand easily fits in any backpack.

The third of EmperorS4’s mid-sized boxes. Realm of Sand easily fits in any backpack.

 Level Up Markers, The Queen, 1st Player Token, and the six Crystal Markers

Level Up Markers, The Queen, 1st Player Token, and the six Crystal Markers

 The 5 Elemental Spirits: Wood, Crimson Sand, Obsidian, Sapphire, & Golden Moon

The 5 Elemental Spirits: Wood, Crimson Sand, Obsidian, Sapphire, & Golden Moon

 6 unique player boards with 6 unique player powers with 6 unique shaped deserts areas.

6 unique player boards with 6 unique player powers with 6 unique shaped deserts areas.

 28 colorblind friendly Rune Tiles

28 colorblind friendly Rune Tiles

 84 colorblind friendly Rune Pieces

84 colorblind friendly Rune Pieces

 Harness the power of Runes and Elemental Spirits to rebuild Ragusa!

Harness the power of Runes and Elemental Spirits to rebuild Ragusa!

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The Spice Must Flow

One of the biggest strengths or Realm of Sand is the ease of play and how quickly the game smoothly flows from player to player. EmperorS4 is known for making easy-to-learn games with strategic depth of play—Realm of Sand is no exception. The rule book had a few grammar mistakes (Stannis Baratheon knows what I’m talking about it) but it was extremely clear and concise. Half of the rule book was pictures and examples, eliminating most of the guess work in learning a new game. I dare say that there are fewer words in the rule book than there are in this review.

 26 Star Points. 7 Hourglasses.

26 Star Points. 7 Hourglasses.

On your turn, you must take one of two mandatory actions: harness the power of runes (place squares) or summon Elemental Spirits (place discs). Before or after you take your mandatory action, you make take one or two optional actions: you may choose to buy a building card from the center of the table (how you win the game) or you may choose to use your unique player power (if and only if your Crystal is charged).

Play continues clockwise around the table until one player has reached 10 hourglasses. When this happens, play continues to the end of that round giving all players an equal number of turns. The player with the highest Star Points wins. Tie breaker sequence: number of rune pieces and elemental spirits on player’s desert board, then later in turn order.


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On your turn you must place one Rune Tile on your board (three Rune Pieces) or manipulate up to three Elemental Spirits. You may place up to three Elemental Spirits on your board, or if the Elemental Spirit is already on the board, you may move it to any empty space.

Rune Tiles and Elemental Spirits may only be placed in the light sanded spaces of your desert. The dark sands are unusable at the start of the game but can be unlocked later.

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1. Place a Rune Tile!

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2. Replace it with Rune Pieces!

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3. Eventually, your Rune Pieces will align with one of the Building Cards. Place the Building Card in your area, and draw a new card from the corresponding deck to take its place.

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4. Remove the squares or discs used to make the Building Card from your sands. Rune Pieces go back to the general supply, Elemental Spirits go back to your supply.

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5. Here we have three Building Cards: Level One (see bottom right corner), Level Two, and Level Three. They each give Star Points: 2, 6, 12 respectively. They each give hourglasses: 0, 2, 4 respectively. They each give building rewards upon completion: Obsidian & Crimson Elemental Spirits (black & red discs), Golden Moon Elemental Spirit (yellow disc) & Level Up maker, and nothing (respectively).

A few patterns to notice: Level 1 cards tend to give green, black, and red discs. Level 2 cards tend to give blue or yellow discs and Level Up markers. Level 3 cards require two blue or two yellow discs to build. Therefore, you’ll need to build at least two Level 2’s before you’ll be able to build a Level 3. Building Card foundations get bigger and bigger, so you’ll need more space in order to build them. Leveling Up allows you to place Rune Tiles and Elemental Spirits on the dark sanded spaces in your desert. Unlocking one more space could help unlock one more Building Card and win you the game!

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6. You got a Level Up marker, so it’s time to level up! Each time you level up, you’ll be able to use that many dark sanded spaces in your desert area!

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7. Back in Step 4, you built a Building Card over Crystal! This charges your Crystal (flip it over to the colored side) and allows you to use your special ability!


The Sleeper Has Awaken

 3 Levels of Building Cards for 3 Acts of play.

3 Levels of Building Cards for 3 Acts of play.

Realm of Sand is a game told in three acts. Act One, players slowly and simultaneously build up their initial Building Cards and their starting Elemental Spirits. After only a few rounds of play, Act Two bursts out of the gate. Players’ gaming engines continuously gain momentum and begin scoring Level 2 and Level 3 cards at an alarming pace. By Act Three, the game slams on its brakes as players begin to calculate two to three to four turns ahead. Everyone’s eyes are darting around each other’s boards and are furiously calculating when and how to end the game in their favor. Just as soon as it starts, Act Three ends abruptly bringing the game to an end. One player’s sigh unravels the tension grappling the atmosphere around the table.

 You may want to grab a bowl for your Rune Pieces for ease of play. Black Bear optional.

You may want to grab a bowl for your Rune Pieces for ease of play. Black Bear optional.

Realm of Sand is lightning fast and does not outstay its welcome in the slightest. The accelerating nature of the gameplay as each engine gains momentum is tons of fun. Triggering crystals and special powers to build Building Cards turn after turn is addicting. Realm of Sand does something very interesting as it takes a simple puzzle game and layers an engine builder underneath it. Realm of Sand can be downright vicious at times as players can swoop up Building Cards out from under opponents, but a strong gaming engine can turn the tide just as quickly. This design choice of accelerating gameplay momentum allows players to trigger more powers more often, score more often, and most importantly have more fun.

“Let’s play again!” is something I heard after most of my games of Realm of Sand. Not many games enjoy that privilege. Having six unique special powers to choose from makes this game a joy to explore. Each one plays quite differently and forces you to explore and develop a unique winning strategy. So far, they seem to be fairly well balanced. I’ve seen ones I thought were too powerful lose, and I’ve seen ones I thought were too weak win. And after almost every game I even find myself saying, “Let’s play again!”

 37 Points on my first solo game! Scoring Rank: Premier!

37 Points on my first solo game!
Scoring Rank: Premier!

But, Azul? Realm of Sand is nothing like Azul, but after the later won the Spiel des Jahres in 2018, every puzzle game, whether they like it or not, will be compared to it. I really like Azul, but I love Realm of Sand. There is significantly more going on in Realm of Sand. You have more options, more strategies, more variable player powers, more depth of play, more weight, more player counts, and more replay value. I love that Realm of Sand forces players to struggle with the dangerous balance of building one’s engine with Level 1 cards or building up to score massive points with the Level 3 cards. I’m still keeping my copy of Azul, but I definitely see myself playing Realm of Sand far more often in the future.

Solo Play. The solo game feels less like a puzzle game and more like an extended programming game. Being restricted to only 14 rounds is incredibly tight. It’s enjoyable and challenging, but you end up planning out your last 5-6 turns at once to hopefully score one last Level 3 card. I was shocked when my first solo game took only 15 minutes. This can be divisive as some gamers might welcome this short solo game length while other may not find it fulfilling enough to warrant the set up.

EmperorS4 is known for designing easy-to-learn games with satisfying strategic depth. They have released many great games over the years, but Realm of Sand is their best. It’s a decent solo game. It’s solid with four players. It’s brilliant at 2 and 3. Easy to learn. Simple mechanics. Great artwork. Multiple strategies. Variable player powers. Tons of re-play value. Short consistent game length. I appreciated the questions the game asked of its players and found the design unique and worth exploring. Realm of Sand is not only an excellent game that everyone can and should play, it’s one of the BEST Asian board games I have ever played. Cardboard East strongly recommends Realm of Sand!

 Long Live The Queen!

Long Live The Queen!


TL; DR

Gamer: Cardboard East strongly recommends Realm of Sand for fans of engine building and puzzle games. Realm of Sand is one of the BEST games Asian board games I’ve played this year.
Family: Cardboard East strongly recommends Realm of Sand for non-gamers. Easy to learn. Simple mechanics. Multiple strategies. Variable player powers. Tons of re-play value. Short consistent game length. An excellent game that everyone can and should play.
Party: Cardboard East does not recommend this game for the party environment; however, the game is simple enough to enjoy with a glass of your favorite booze.

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