Ion: A Compound Building Game is a 2-7 player card drafting game where players use cards corresponding to elemental ions to form ionic compounds. The game debuted on Kickstarter last year (which is how we got it), and is now available for purchase. It was created by Genius Games in a series of science-themed educational games which includes Linkage (themed around DNA), Peptide (proteins), and the upcoming Covalence (molecules).
The gameplay of Ion is similar to that of other light card drafting games. It is played over a series of three rounds, with players scoring points in each round, and then comparing scores at the end of the game. The player with the highest score wins!
In each round, every player begins with 8 drafting cards in their hand, each one depicting a chemical ion.
In addition, four cards get placed face up in the middle of the table, along with two compound goal cards (three if you’re playing with five or more players).
Finally, each player has a set of three bonus tiles which give them the ability to do extra things each round. The bonus tiles are all the same on the front but have different values on the back ranging from -1 to -4, representing the point penalty a player receives for using one during the game.
As mentioned, each round every player begins with 8 cards in their hand. Each player selects a card to play, places it face down in front of them, and passes their hand to the player on their left. Once everyone has selected a card, they are revealed and placed in each player’s play area. Ions can either be played by themselves to start a new compound, or added to an existing ion that the player previously laid down to form the ionic compound. When adding to a previously played card, the ion must have an opposite sign (i.e. you must add a positive ion to a negative one and vice versa). For ions with a charge greater than 1 (such as Mg 2+), you can add multiple of the same ion to it (e.g. two F- ions to create MgF2). In addition, there are noble gasses (He, Ar, and Ne) which are played by themselves and score points based on the number of different noble gasses played.
Finally, the players have their three bonus tiles which can be used to add some more versatility to their turns. “Take from center” allows players to play one of the cards from the center of the table in addition to the card they selected for the drafting round. “Select two” lets the player play an additional card from their hand — an additional card is then drawn from the deck before the hand is passed to the next player so that the hands still have the same amount of cards. Finally, “RXN” allows players to rearrange the cards they have in play and/or take cards that aren’t currently scoring from the other players.
So how do cards score? Besides the noble gases which ere mentioned earlier, cards score when they are part of neutral compounds — those that have a balance of positive and negative charges. In addition, the compound goal cards provide bonus points if players can create one or both of the compounds on them. Scores are tallied up after each of the three rounds, and then at the end of the game players lose points for any bonus tiles they’ve used.
I have to admit, every time we sit down to play a card drafting game, and Ethan tells me it’s a card drafting game, I totally forget what that mechanic means. So I totally and completely flubbed the first round of this game. However, this game was really easy to pick up, it played pretty similarly to Sushi Go with a science theme. I really enjoyed that the theme was relevant to the game in the way of the goal cards; there was a reason to add certain elements together to make a new molecule. This game was fairly light and played pretty quickly, so this a nice filler to add to a collection. Genius Games has other games with similar science themes, it’ll be interesting to try out their other selections!
Ion is, at its face, an interesting game. It seeks to take an educational concept (creating ionic compounds) and using it as the theme for a game that gamers can enjoy. In that regard, I’d say it was successful. It’s fairly light for a drafting game, about on the level of Sushi Go! However, there are a couple of mechanics which set it apart from other similar games. The first is the goal cards for each round, providing players an additional way to score some points. This is a neat idea, but based on the cards that come up in each round, it may be impossible to form any of the compounds on the goal cards, so they are a bit swing and miss. The second unique mechanic, and the one I think is really cool, is the bonus tiles. I especially like how while each player has the same set of three tiles, the penalty for each one differs from player to player, and you don’t know how many points taking a card from the center is going to cost you until you do it.
Overall, I found Ion to be a fun, light game that could be enjoyed by gamers looking for something as a warmup or between heavier games. In addition, players who enjoy the science/chemistry theme would especially like this one.