Crisis: A four-sided game review

Crisis* is a worker placement, engine building and resource management euro game. It has great artwork which does a good job of bringing this dark, dystopian sci-fi world to life.

The box says 1-5 players, but it is certainly at its best with four (more on this later). With four, you can expect a game to last a couple of hours.

Age is listed at 14+, but I’ve seen similarly weighted euro games listed as 12+ or even 10+. You’ll know your own kids, but this game is no more complex than the likes of Tzolk’in or Terra Mystica – in fact a little less so.

That said, it takes up a good amount of table space – especially at higher player counts. But part of this is thanks to the fantastic quality of the components: oversized cards, custom resources and the like abound. In the box you’ll find 165 wooden tokens, 128 cards, 137 cardboard tiles, a double-sided board and a cloth bag. Art is lovely throughout and the graphic design works well, although some criticise the overly dark and graphically busy game board (the less pretty mono side is easier to play on).

Teaching

While there’s a lot in the box, and a few clever mechanisms, at its heart Crisis is a relatively simply engine-building worker placement game.

The board has 14 clearly marked areas to place your workers, each of which is carried out in order once everyone has finished placement (think Caylus). This gives you a simple way to walk through how the game plays, as it will be the same process in each of the game’s seven (potential) rounds.

In the main, earlier worker spaces give you money, resources, employees and companies; while the latter ones let you exchange/sell those money and resources, as well as operating your companies with your employees (you don’t choose a manager to do this action, it just happens; but it’s handy to have it as a set place on the board). Workers you place on the game board are called ‘managers’, differentiating them from employees.

The real driving force of the game are the companies. Resources go in one end and better ones, or money/victory points, come out of the other. The more, and better, your employees the more efficiently this process will run – and the better you can make your companies work together, the richer you’ll become.

But it’s not quite that simple. Like all good sci-fi, Crisis is based on real events – this one being the financial crisis that so devastatingly hit Greece. Many of the issues therein were blamed on greed, especially around a lack of ‘desire’ of companies to pay their taxes – and its that which Crisis successfully emulates.

Getting money is pretty easy – and money buys you companies, resources and foreign employees. But you get the big money by ignoring victory points: sell abroad for cash, or support your country by taking a split of points and cash. Especially early on the money is so tempting. You can just get points later, right?

Not necessarily. Every turn, players are tasked with getting a certain amount of victory points (you can set the difficulty level). If overall you fail to, the economy will start to tank – and if things get too bad, the game ends prematurely. If it does, any loans you had and cash in hand are worthless; while if you all survive the full seven turns you’ll get victory points for remaining money – but you’ll also have to pay off any loans you’ve taken. And a player can only win the game (no matter what turn it ends on) if they were ahead of the required victory point target.

Players should find everything runs really smoothly, while the time-consuming engine-running can be done simultaneously to avoid downtime. Everything is face-up and in view except for some very simple hand cards, so it’s also easy to help talk through any issues that may crop up.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: In theory, Crisis seems to offer you the delicious conundrum of greed versus good – but in reality, it doesn’t play out that way. To win by taking early debt you’re relying on two things: the other players playing ball and keeping the economy afloat, and your cash-grabbing giving you a palpable advantage long term. Unfortunately, in the early game, this is unlikely to make a big difference – the big points come later and your greed won’t guarantee you the platform you need. However, it’s still a really fun engine-building economic game.
  • The thinker: I’m really torn on this one. The worker placement and engine building elements are smooth and well realised, but a little simplistic and random. The economic sides are more interesting, but the selling of goods can also falter on unlucky random draws; while the semi-cooperative element of keeping the economy afloat rarely adds tension – after the first couple of turns, it either floats like a duck or sinks like a truck. Despite the fun to be had, after multiple plays there doesn’t seem enough strategic variety to keep me coming back – it’s more of a tactician’s game.
  • The trasher: Crisis is a game where the player count really makes a difference. With four or five, especially in early rounds, the worker placement is brutal in a really good way. Getting available companies and employees to match up can be a real challenge, making blocking genuinely painful – whether deliberate or not! And throughout there can be some real tension in the market, with a limited amount of places to sell those goods you’ve made – made worse by having limited warehouse space to store them. But with less than four, the tension fades.
  • The dabbler: I like the theme, love the art, and the big cards and custom wooden resources bring the game to life. While the game looks daunting it is pretty easy to follow, and its fun to get your engine up and running. However, after about half way, I found it getting a little repetitive. We seemed to be doing very similar things, just with more companies and employees – and it became hard to parse the information and stopped being as much fun. And, if you get your engine wrong, you can be dead in the water quite early on in a long game.

Key observations

The real elephant in the room, for me, is player numbers. Unlike most worker placement games the board is not affected by player count. So, each round, you’ll have six companies and seven workers to choose from – whether or not you’re playing solo of with five players. You’ll also have the same eight slots of export opportunities available.

This means that with two and three players, you largely get to do what you want. While it isn’t quite as bad with three players, you then face the issue of there essentially being two ways to go with companies – either export, or ones that simply produce victory points on their own. If one of you does one thing, and two the other – well we know how that goes. With four and five it sings, but play time (and table space) rise accordingly.

On which point – bigger is not always better. Playing with four of five players, especially late on, you’ll need a big table – a problem created purely by the oversized cards. They’re lovely to look at and high quality, but I’d take smaller ones any day of the week. But if this isn’t an issue for you, you can revel in a very well produced game.

The game’s unique selling point is the economy track, but it rarely feels as if it adds much to the experience (unless you’re rubbish, or play on hard!). The event cards are an annoyance and add little; and while the game tanking may be interesting politically, it doesn’t really make for a fun game experience if it happens. I feel these more gimmicky aspects take away, rather than add, to a pretty elegant central structure.

Finally, luck of the draw can be a big factor; especially with available employees and the companies that come up. Early you’re buying blind, while there’s no skill in beating a player who can’t operate his companies as well as you because your perfect employees came out of the bag. Export goods are random, but at least you see what’s coming – although this can still really screw you in the last round, if the thing you want to sell is in the ‘future’ economy column, meaning you’re unlikely to be able to sell it.

What these issues point at is a fragility that can be hard for some people to accept in what can be a pretty long game.

Conclusion

I hope this review of Crisis hasn’t come across as negative: it’s a game I’ve enjoyed playing and that will be staying in my collection despite its foibles. However, there’s no avoiding it has a limited audience and issues at certain player counts – as well as falling down a little on its USPs.

As a fun engine-building worker placement game, it has a lot going for it. The game plays smoothly with a good level of interaction, both in worker spaces and in the exporting of goods. But you’ll need to come in knowing that luck of the draw can be a factor, while poor play early on can really leave you floundering and struggling to catch up (although it’s certainly not impossible).

Yes, it can be a little fragile at times – but the other option would have been to take the route Scythe took and put the game much more on rails by smoothing out any and all rough edges. I’d like to think a good player could overcome some poor luck here, and have more fun doing it. Overall, an interesting and ambitious addition to the worker placement genre.

* I would like to thank LudiCreations for providing a copy of the game for review.

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