I was able to play this game recently and thoroughly enjoyed myself while I was doing so, and therefore figured I would do a quick writeup of my experience. I don't own this game so I don't feel like I can write a full review of it just yet, but I plan on picking it up at some point if possible! This piece will feature the aspects of the game that drew me in when I played it, but beware, I don't have extensive playtesting to reveal hidden flaws.
Turns go around with each player choosing one action to perform per turn:
- Hire a new catalyst
- Collect contributions
- Activate a catalyst
Hiring catalysts is where you'll start, and there are a variety to choose from. As in other drafting games, you see a limited selection of Catalysts on the board, with a new character sliding in to replace any that were picked up, with price modifiers that affect each position. The price impacts vary from +1 gold for the newest revealed character, to -1 for the oldest two. A balancing system of starting gold allows the first mover advantage of the first turn to be mitigated. Some horrible and expensive catalysts cross your plate, but you’re going to want to wait until they reach the -1 cost spots later on the board before you think about grabbing them. I learned this the hard way, in my first round, when I grabbed the most expensive catalyst thinking he would be the best one later on... A small cluster of high-cost cards can end up blocking up the board a bit, which can provide a good opportunity to perform the 'collect contributions' action. This allows you to take gold equal to the cost of the most expensive Catalyst, valuable in the early game before you have alternative methods of generating income.
Activating a catalyst nets you the resources it creates, before discarding that catalyst to your scoring pile. Some give you gold, military tokens (aka victory points), combo tokens (more on those soon), the ability to hire another character, or the ability to buy a building, or some combination or choice of these options.
Buildings are the most interesting aspect of this mechanic. While each catalyst is single use only, you can buy 1 of each building type (with the price going up for everyone any time a player purchases a building, a delightful twist that keeps everyone eyeing the characters and buildings and itching to buy both). Each building can host a single catalyst, and a catalyst must reside inside a building if hired and one is available.
The buildings also provide additional effects when the catalyst inside them is activated. There are 4 distinct buildings, each can give you gold, military tokens for victory points, a combo token (still incoming), or let you hire a catalyst. A building only provides a benefit when the Catalyst inside of it is activated. This mechanic feels like it will have a ton of depth as you figure out which building you want to pick up first and which Catalysts you want in each building. In addition, the buildings each unlock a specific rule for end-of-game bonus victory points. One victory point card is randomly selected at the start of the game, and lists the way that each building gives you bonus points based on the properties or effects of the catalysts you've activated throughout the game. Examples include: 1 bonus point for every 3 Catalysts in your scoring pile, or 1 bonus point for every blue Catalyst, etc. This is all visible from the start of the game, which allows players to tailor their choices to maximize these benefits. It sounds a bit complicated but it ends up just being a quick count-the-color/symbol at the end of the game, and then get more points!
Now, the combo tokens... this is where the game starts to get interesting. Everything I've described so far is fun, but unremarkable. The combo tokens are these tiny green lanterns (why? I don't know... did the Green Lantern do sick combos?). Spending one of these tokens lets you activate a second Catalyst. Catalysts can generate these tokens when activated, and so can the Green building (it probably has a name, I didn't bother to find it out). If you've built up a couple of characters, you can activate a Catalyst that gives you a combo token to activate another catalyst that's on the green building which gives you another combo token which lets you... you get the idea. A well setup combo can have you unleashing in one turn to get a bunch of gold, buying another building and recruiting 2 or more characters.
I like that you can get a general feel for how successful any one player is doing, but not a precise count of where everyone stands in final victory points. You can see a lot of military tokens in front of a character, but you can't necessarily gauge the strengths of everyone's face-down scoring piles. You don't feel that last-player fatigue of "Why am I still playing this" as it's still an enjoyable process to snag and activate the various catalysts.
There's definite satisfaction, as with most open drafting games, to snagging a character only for the player going after you to groan as they really wanted that character too. The turns generally go quickly as planning your moves ahead of time is relatively easy. However, when an opponent suddenly unleashes the 5 catalysts they have together to chain together so many actions it also doesn't necessarily feel bad, you just stare in wonder as they keep doing things!
It also doesn't hurt that the game is pretty! The nice tarot-size cards have interestingly rendered depictions of the various catalysts, and feel good in your hands. If I owned a copy this would feature quite a few more pictures. The art doesn't blow you away, and quickly fades into the background as just 'red card, blue card, green card' as you focus on the costs and benefits of the various characters, but it's definitely not a detraction.
Keep an eye out for Catalyst
This is just my first experience with playing Catalyst, but I look forward to playing it again. I hope this gives you an idea of whether or not this is a game you want to look into more!