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Aleph Null - Review

Designer: Tony Boydell
Artist: Alex Lee
Music: Nicholas O’Neill
Publisher: Capstone Games
Player Count: 1 Player
Play Time: 15 to 30 Minutes

Wax Candles, a dusty Besom, a Sacrificial Lamb—these are just some of the components required by a proficient sorcerer to summon Baphomet, the prince of Hell. So let's do it! In this review of Aleph Null I delve into the gameplay mechanics and discuss the alluring complexity of this pure 1 player title.

Aleph Null board game box cover featuring artwork of Alex Lee, tanists around a table
Aleph Null box cover

The first time playing Aleph Null, a player may suspect that they are misunderstanding some critical mechanism of how the game is played; not because the rules are onerous or difficult to comprehend, but because of how decisively they lost. The second time playing Aleph Null, the player is convinced they must be doing something wrong. Winning a game of Aleph Null takes practice and patience … but inviting a deity of Hell and his calamitous host to visit destruction upon Earth is well worth the arduous practice it takes to get the infernal ceremony just right.

Aleph Null is a game about summoning the demon prince Baphomet. Taking on the role of a dark sorcerer, the player performs an intricate ritual involving magical components and an arcane tome represented on cards. The goal is to assemble the three keys—Wand of Power, Grand Circle, and Book of Pacts, the final pieces of the ritual—in order to summon Baphomet to wreak havoc upon Earth before the clock runs out.

Designer Tony Boydell cites author James Blish’s After Such Knowledge collection as a major influence of the sinister themes in the game. In particular, Blish’s Black Easter novel serves as the narrative source for the game’s subject matter. Although Aleph Null is not a direct sequel to Boydell’s earlier game Lux Aeterna, the two share some fundamental principles and gameplay structures.


At its core, Aleph Null is a card management and deck-building game that tasks the player to strategically manipulate cards between five zones—the deck, the player’s hand, in play, the discard pile, and the sacrifice pile. The player begins by preparing the deck of artifacts, sacrificial offerings, and other components that are to be consumed during the ritual. Each turn the player draws five cards, plays them, and discards the rest. Unique static and active abilities affect how cards can be played and maneuvered between zones and how they interact with other cards, providing benefits and drawbacks. Some cards produce a virtual resource known as magical power, which is needed to summon higher cost cards and activate card abilities.

Over several turns, the player needs to accelerate the amount of magical power they can generate by playing optimal sequences of card abilities and identifying clever combinations between the different ritual components, all while moving as many non-key cards to the sacrifice pile as they can—representing the exhausted remains of the used ritual components.

The game is cleverly paced by an intensifying clock mechanism. Whenever the deck runs out, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck, the hour is advanced, and play continues. There are six hours, each thematically attuned to the escalating tension of the grim ceremony. Later hours provide the player with some free magical power, but also introduce new cards to the deck. Interference cards represent interventions from the Church, elements attempting to halt the sorcerer’s rite, and require significant magical power and card resources to overcome. If the player has not successfully summoned Baphomet into play when the Cock doth crow (the sixth hour), the game ends in a loss.

Even if Baphomet is successfully summoned, he expects a clear board; no cards may remain in the player’s hand, in the deck, or in the discard pile; the sacrifice pile should be full. Any cards remaining in play will be devoured by Baphomet and count against the player’s score. Essentially, the player is trying to assemble the three keys with no card resources remaining in any zone. If the player cannot clear these zones before Baphomet is summoned, the demon is displeased and the game ends in a loss.

Other conditions throughout the game can also trigger a loss. Certain card effects and unspent magical power leftover at the end of a turn deal damage to the player; if three damage is ever accumulated, the sorcerer has perished. If one of the keys to summon Baphomet, or Baphomet himself, is sacrificed for any reason, the ritual cannot be completed and the game ends in a loss. What I’m saying is: there are a lot of ways to lose this game, making victory a more sweet reward after a well-played game.

After a successful ritual, a point scoring system determines the degree of victory the player has achieved. Points are awarded or deducted based on the hour in which the player won, how much damage they have taken, and how many cards remained in play when Baphomet was summoned. The sorcerer consults The Grand Hierarchy to see whether they are a Prince or a lowly Adept.

Aleph Null game component cards from the book of rituals. Cards say IV the first sigil and the exorcism of the Water
Hour IV of the Book of Rituals


Achieving a victory in Aleph Null is no easy feat, even on the easiest of the game’s challenge ratings. I failed some 15 or so times in myriad ways before I was able to perform a successful ritual and even then only scored a single point (but hey, a win is a win). A couple more games under my belt and I was able to just barely win again on a more challenging difficulty rating. There are only a few dozen different cards in the game and with such a small card pool, the player can quickly begin to recognize how cards interact together in different ways. In this way, Aleph Null is a game that a player can get progressively better at in just a few sittings.

A magician never reveals their secrets; and in Aleph Null, the player must diligently uncover the secretive optimal card combinations to perform the ritual successfully. A great deal of knowledge can be gleaned from an unsuccessful playthrough; learning what card sequences will not work is just as important as understanding propitious combos. Canonically, the player is destroyed by Baphomet after a failed summoning. Fortunately, the player is free to reshuffle and try again, aiming to avoid the strategies that resulted in their demise in a previous hand. The ritual in Aleph Null is like an evolving puzzle: the pieces will shift and change but they must always fit just right in the end. Gamers who enjoy problem-solving through repetition and difficult resource optimization challenges will enjoy this game.

Many games however will end before the player reaches the late hours. Sometimes the outcome of the game isn’t as much about the skill of the player, as much as it is about the misfortune of drawing certain cards together that will result in an unavoidable loss. For example, the Vitriol card can easily create scenarios in which the player is forced to sacrifice one of the three keys or Baphomet. I failed the ritual this way three times before I decided that trying to activate Vitriol's ability is too much of a gamble. In subsequent playthroughs, I found it far more effective to move Vitriol into the sacrifice pile without ever triggering the ability.

aleph null game component card featuring woman in white dress. Card reads Succubus interference + tanist. You must summon this card. At the end of the turn, before discarding, sacrifice succubus and all cards in hand.
Succubus interference card

These abrupt game-ending situations can be fairly common in Aleph Null, especially in the first few playthroughs as the player is experimenting with card sequences. Another one I ran into is drawing the Succubus interference card with Baphomet or one of the three keys and no way to play them. This forced me to sacrifice Baphomet to the Succubus’s ability resulting in an immediate loss. These game states in which the player lacks agency to have played better to win can be frustrating ends to a game, but I suppose brutal failure is just one of the many perils when summoning a demon lord.

The wicked themes of the game are accentuated by well crafted components and overall coherent aesthetic design. I frequently find myself pausing gameplay to admire the eerie stillness and uncanny horror in artist Alex Lee’s interpretations of the macabre ritual components. An accompanying soundtrack by Nicholas O’Neill includes short scores to play during the different hours of gameplay with each track’s growing energy mirroring the intensification of play in the later hours. The artwork, the coherent theme, and these added production elements make for an enjoyable gameplay experience, although I acknowledge the subject matter may not be for everyone (just check out this succinct review on Board Game Geek).

Aleph Null board game component baphomet alternate textless art card
Textless Baphomet card

Most playthroughs take about 20 minutes to complete, making Aleph Null a great option if you just have a few moments to get a quick game in (for a while, I was playing a game almost everyday before work). On the other hand, such convincing grim themes and all-around compelling production value may prompt you to set an evening aside, light a candle, que the game’s custom playlist, and settle in for a long night of sorcery.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aleph Null, and appreciate how higher-level Interference cards add radical new challenges and obstacles to the game at greater difficulty ratings. With some room in the box, I am glad to see there are mini expansions in the works to expand and change up gameplay.

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