This article originally appeared in Pyramid #15
Published by Atlas Games
ON THE EDGE
Designed by Jonathan Tweet and John Nephew
Starter Deck $7.95; Booster Packs $1.95
Last GenCon, John Nephew and his crew were gleefully handing out sample packs of their newest project, On the Edge, one of the first in the flood of new trading-card games. It looked neat enough, and the backs were exceptionally cool, but I never got around to playing it. It looked like the background was a little complicated, and with production ramping up on our game, I felt there was only room in my head for one complicated trading-card game. On the Edge was released, Atlas Games had the highest sales of any other game company that month, and it developed a strong fan following, especially with its strength as a multi-player game.
Fall turns into winter, winter turns into spring and although I'm a few steps removed from the local band of OtE followers, I'm starting to hear strange conspiracy stories about this island called Al Amarja, the exotic island setting of both the card game and it's predecessor, the RPG Over the Edge. Hearing conspiracy stories at Steve Jackson Games is nothing unusual, but the particular deviancy that emerged from this card game made me listen - Kafkaesque bureaucracy, incomprehensible slapstick street performers, Patrol Baboons? Clearly, they were putting something strange in the water up there in Atlas-land.
As of this writing, two expansion sets have been released for On the Edge. The first one, Cut-Ups, focused on the dadaist rebels who scamper about the playground that is Al Amarja wrecking the plans of control freaks (basically, everyone on the island). The second one, Shadows, focuses on the seedy underbelly of the island, its criminal elements and its nastier inhabitants. Each of the expansions is only sold in boosters, though the basic card set (which is now on its Standard Edition) comes in both single decks and boosters. The cards are printed by Carta Mundi, so the quality is impeccable.
As mentioned before, the game has a fairly complicated background, the kind of thing '90s gamers like to sink their teeth into. But the really strange thing about On the Edge is that they don't bother explaining it to you. Like a real conspiracy, you have to figure out who all the different factions are, who the characters are, what different attributes mean ("Dog-face? Huh?") and how everyone relates to everyone else. John Nephew, co-designer of the game, describes it as lacking an omniscient narrative, which is about the most succinct way to put it. So when you first sit down to play the game, fresh to the island of Al Amarja, you'll spent a lot of your time just trying to make sense of the cards - not their layout or their use in the game, which is quite clear, but rather their overall meaning in the "story" that develops during play. The rules have no glossary of terms, no outline of "the plot" - all that exists is the well-written flavor text on each card and the vaguely unsettling feeling that either everyone knows way more than you do, or you're just not faking it as well as they are. (For people who want to cheat themselves out of a learning experience, Atlas is releasing Surviving On the Edge, a player's guide to the small Mediterranean island that should be out by the time you read this.)
The single strangest thing about this game is how it's evolving so rapidly. The Limited Edition of the basic cards came out last autumn, Cut-Ups came out this spring, Shadows started shipping at the beginning of the summer and Arcana, their magical/celestial supplement, will be out in August. That's the basic set and three expansions - 658 cards in under a year - and as the new cards have appeared, some old ones have been revised in strange ways.
Take, for example, the Throckmorton menace. The Throckmorton Device is a reality-altering machine that will be constructed almost ten years in the future - but when it was (is) created, it sent (will send) ripples back through time to insure its creation, slowly turning other characters into Throckmorton-controlled slaves. When the first set of cards came out, only a few had the note "Throckmorton" on them. As supplements have been released, some cards from the original set have been rereleased as newly Throckmorton-controlled pawns, shaving their eyebrows and indulging in other strange practices, setting the stage for the eventual construction of the Throckmorton Device. Mr. Throckmorton shows up in the first set of cards as a bug exterminator; he's popped up since, climbing the social ladder in Cut-Ups, as an award-winning bug exterminator. How far will Mr. Throckmorton climb before his machine is built (which is rapidly working to guarantee its eventual existence)? Well, Atlas has nine more years to answer that question.
All in all, the On the Edge product line is one of the most varied and well-supported trading card games out there. It takes a little investment in time but, since the game is both available and popular, not hardly so much in money as most other games - and there is no lack of adversaries to fight with over control of Al Amarja.
- Derek Pearcy
Article publication date: October 1, 1995
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