It’s a Wonderful World board game: A four-sided review

The It’s a Wonderful World board game is a fast-playing card drafting game for the euro crowd.

It’ll take 1-5 players 30-60 minutes to play (the box tells the truth). But I disagree with the 14+ for age. The mechanics are simple, so I’d say 8-10+ – but to play it well, it may skew a little older.

The game’s cards largely depict futuristic buildings. Once built (or discarded) they earn you cubes and/or victory points – so alongside drafting you’ll be fulfilling orders and managing resources. Theme? Nope. It is pretty, though. And the iconography couldn’t be clearer.

In the box you’ll find a small game board, 160 cards, 170 plastic cubes (with five small plastic bowls to put them in), 80 cardboard chits, a round tracker and a score pad. The components are good quality and the art above average for a game with so many individual cards. It’s less quirky than Terraforming Mars, and probably around the level of Race for the Galaxy – and feels more consistent throughout.

NOTE: I’m reviewing a standard retail copy. There’s also a Kickstarter version with extra bits and bobs, including scenarios, which I know nothing about. As for my images, I was given a French copy by mistake – but as the game is completely language independent, it makes no difference to game play. In fact, having the building names in French probably makes us look way classier when we play…

Teaching the It’s a Wonderful World board game

Experienced gamers will take to the concepts in It’s a Wonderful World very quickly. But as with so many recent releases, it’s the subtle twists on the norm that make it shine (or not) – and that will catch players out. It’s the kind of game you need a full play of to see the way things slot together. But when it’s this short, that’s acceptable – but it’s worth saying to players upfront.

A game lasts four rounds, each exactly the same (except the draft direction alternates). With 3-5 players, you’re dealt seven cards at the start of each round. Each player chooses a card to keep, passing the rest to the next player. The twist is cards kept are immediately placed face-up in your ‘draft area’, giving players more immediate information than usual. You do this until each player has seven cards. (With two players, you’re dealt 10 cards each, then both discard your final three cards. Solo rules below.).

The cards are straightforward. Alongside the art and card name, they’re split into three main areas. Top left is the cost to build and bottom right is recycle value. (The rest of the lower area is what you get if you build the build card – more on this later).

So, you have seven cards in your draft area. Players now simultaneously decide what to do with them. The simplest thing is to recycle (read: discard) a card. This gives you the resource depicted as its recycle value, which must be put onto a building under construction. (Any that can’t go into a pool that, when reaching five, magically become a wild resource). This is also the same for all resources earned later, during production.

Instead, you can move cards to your construction area. Each then requires (2-8) cubes of specific colours. Once you’ve placed those on the card they’re discarded, and the building added to your empire. It may earn you an immediate bonus, and from now on will earn you an income and/or end game victory points.

The production phase

Once players only have cards left in their empire and construction areas, it’s time for production. This happens in five identical phases. Starting with the most basic resource, players announce how many they produce. Then everyone takes/uses that many cubes, with the person making the most taking a bonus. Any buildings completed are immediately added to your empire. So, if they produce cubes higher up the resources chain (likely), you’ll get to use them this round.

The production bonus mentioned will either be a ‘general’ or ‘financier’. (Read: yellow or blue cardboard chit worth one victory point.) These are also often given as a bonus for completing a building and are sometimes required to complete a building.

After four rounds, you simply add up your points. Each of those chits is worth a point – but some buildings will multiply that. Other buildings will be worth a simple victory point value, while others will reward you per building you have of a certain type (which follow the five basic resource types/colours). And that is basically that.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I love a game that answers questions before you ask them. It’s a Wonderful World does that. When you wonder about something, try a bit of logical thought – and that simple answer is usually the one in the rulebook. But while the game feels incredibly stripped down, I found myself enjoying it. Which is odd, as a comparison can be made to Century: Spice Road – which I thought was awful. While both games are incredibly simple, this one is also clever. They stripped out the complexity but left some clever and original – not just bland and generic – ideas behind. And that really isn’t easy to accomplish.
  • The thinker:  The cascading effect production makes what is a very short game in rounds feel much more multi-dimensional. you feel pressure from the first card draw, looking for ways to get your engine going immediately. And finding the right balance between recycling and building is a fun challenge. However, the over production and large box size hints at something more than a filler – but you won’t find that here. That puts unnecessary pressure on the game to be more. And as it stands, I don’t see it can live up to that. Played occasionally as a filler, this comes highly rated. But I don’t see it has millage as more in its current state.
  • The trasher: Drafting is a good mechanism for interaction and is well implemented here. Having cards played face-up (and keeping them simple) helps you assess the playing field. While knowing you’ll get a useful resource for hate drafting also ups the ante. But on the flip side, gaining resources in this way also makes it much simpler to complete tough buildings you do go for – negating the hate a bit! Due to the speed of play I thought the game was OK, but it’s still more solitaire euro than anything else – so it’s not a choice for me. But if they add an expansion that lets you mess with other players’ empires, let me know…
  • The dabbler: While nicely produced, and simple to learn, there were a few big missteps for me. First, the game play. While deceptively simple it’s actually really difficult to play the game well. The game teacher needs to really emphasise the importance of getting your production going early. Otherwise you can be out of it, and getting bored, before halfway. Secondly, the theme. What were they thinking? The name, the art – I just don’t get it. The cover has guns and tanks and swarthy businessmen – none of which have any bearing on the game. When this is incredibly abstract, they had every option available – and chose poorly.

Solo play

It’s a Wonderful World is a quick and simple solo experience. The rules remain largely the same, minus the drafting. Instead, at the start of the game, you draw eight piles of five cards each. At the start of turn one, draw a random pile and recycle/begin to construction as normal, with one added option.

You may discard any two cards from the game to draw five from the remaining stack and keep one of them. Once done, you do the same with a second stack – then produce/construct as normal. So, once you’ve gone through your eight piles of cards, you’ve had the normal four rounds.

The ‘discard two to look at five and keep one’ nicely sidesteps the draft. Sure, you’re down a card – but it is very often worth it for the good chance you’ll get the recycle resource you want. Or perhaps a great card to construct. What it also highlights, though, is how much a solitaire experience the game is. I’m not sure I lost too much losing the draft – which feels like it should be the heart of the game. But hey – that isn’t going to be a negative for solo players!

Key observations

As a drafting game, there are inevitable comparisons to the big-seller in the gaming genre – 7 Wonders. Criticisms describe this as a fiddlier version, while others describe it as being better for essentially the same reason (more optimisation and planning, more puzzly etc). You know yourself and your group, so you’ll know which camp you’re more likely to sit in! This is a without doubt a good game – but it won’t suit everyone.

You may also want to ask yourself, does a drafting game require interaction to be relevant? Because I’ve generally found it less important here than in other drafters. In It’s a Wonderful World, poor drafting can essentially king-make. This is especially true at lower player counts if one player gets a colour to themselves. But beyond that, drafting is more generally used to engine build. It’s not like a game such as Sushi Go, where your drafting picks probably involve considering other players from the start.

Then there’s the Kickstarter dilemma. While I (really really) don’t care what extra bling was in that ridiculously large box, I am already thinking about what I’m missing in the KS-only campaign mode. Because while I understand backers want extra stuff, I don’t think leaving key game elements out for all purchasers is OK. With a simple abstract game, with little interaction, replayability is obviously a concern – so leaving the campaign mode out of the basic box feels like a misstep.

And finally, price versus packaging may put some people off. While it has lovely components, this is a medium-sized game in a large box with a £40 price tag. I’ve really enjoyed my plays, but with a worry over longevity and short, simple game play it does feel a little overpriced.

Conclusion: It’s a Wonderful World board game

It’s a Wonderful World was at the top of my wish list for Essen Spiel 2019. It looked to have elements I love from both Race for the Galaxy and Terraforming Mars. Two of my favourite games. While potentially coming in as an even simpler and faster alternative. And in many ways, those hopes were born out.

The purity and simplicity of the engine building works. But only because of the clever cascading element of production. My fear is that this simplicity will grow old once mastered. At which point the drafting – or, more pointedly, the denial/hate drafting – will need to take centre stage. And I don’t see it being up to the challenge. If that’s the case, it will rely on the publisher releasing the campaign content into the wider world. Hopefully free, or at least very low cost on top of an already steep price tag.

For the positive reasons, the game will be staying in my collection. Right now, I really enjoy the challenges the tight rounds and cascading production bring. But it won’t become the heavy rotation game Race and Terraforming Mars did. For that to happen, something needs to be added for that next level of replayability.

* I would like to thank La Boîte de Jeu for providing a copy of the game for review.

* Follow this link for 150+ more of my board game reviews.

Kingdomino Duel board game: A four-sided review

The Kingdomino Duel board game is the third in the Kingdomino series. It takes the dice/terrain matching mechanism from the award-winning original, cleverly applying it to the roll-and-write format. But did we need a dice – and specifically two-player – version of this already hugely popular game?

You’ll need a single pal to play with, with the box suggesting they be aged eight-plus (which feels about right). The box also suggests a game takes about 20 minutes, which again is pretty accurate.

The original ‘theme’ is largely retained, but you’re now wizards vying for territory (via spells you fight over). But it’s still very much an abstract. In the nicely compact box, you’ll find four over-sized dice, two pencils, and a score pad. Yup, that’s it. The artwork and iconography are largely intact from earlier versions, but with coats of arms replacing terrain colours and crosses replacing crowns. Both clearly in the name of making it easier to draw things onto pads with pencils. At around £10, it feels solid value for money.

Teaching

The score sheet design makes Kingdomino players feel right at home. You’ll see a washed-out image of a completed kingdom, split neatly into a 7×5 grid of squares. And with the familiar (wild) castle space at its centre. The right of the sheet has eight blank spaces (immediately familiar to roll-and-write players) for scoring. The back of the sheet is where the unfamiliar stuff lives – but more on that later. 

On a turn, the start player (which alternates) rolls the dice. They pick one, their opponent picks two, then the start player takes the final one. Your two dice are now pushed together, essentially making a domino. You then draw the two dice coats-of-arms onto two adjoining spaces on your sheet, following the original game’s rules. Basically, one half of the domino must match an adjoining space. (The central castle space acts as a wild throughout, so your kingdom slowly spreads out from the middle.) 

The dice have symbol probabilities that roughly mirror the original game. Some terrain types are more common than others – but the more common faces have less crosses on them. For example, only two of the 24 die faces have the most uncommon symbol – but one of those has two crosses (read crowns: or score multipliers). While five of the 24 have the most common symbol – but just one of those has a single cross.

For the uninitiated, Kingdomino games revolve around scoring areas of matching symbols (here, coats of arms). So large areas carrying the same coat of arms are desirable – but scores by their area size multiplied by crosses in the area. So, an area of five identical coats of arms which includes two crosses equates to 10 points. But if the same area had no crosses, it would be worth nothing.

The duel

So far, so Kingdomino. Which is where the wizardy bit steps in. The back of each score sheet is split into two sides, one for each duellist (including a name box if you want to get creative). Down the middle are six special powers (each connected to one of the game’s coats of arms). While on each side of them there are 3-5 tick boxes, depending on the frequency the coat appears on the dice.

Once you have your two dice for the round, you cross off one matching box on the duel sheet for each coat of arms that doesn’t have a cross. The first player to cross out all the boxes next to a power gets it – with the other player missing out. All the powers are worth having, if sometimes situational. Examples including adding a free cross to a coat of arms, placing a domino out of position, or even splitting your domino.

I should also note two of the die faces have question marks. These act as wilds, so you can pick any coat of arms. This can be strong, but on the negative side you get no cross – and you also can’t mark off one of the spell boxes on the duel sheet.

The game continues until the turn in which at least one player completes their 7×5 grid, or when neither player can use the dice they drafted. Players now add up the points for each of their areas – and (you guessed it) highest score wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I’m extremely sceptical about roll-and-writes – and ‘duel’ games. Most seem to be immediately forgettable, or weak versions of their more illustrious namesakes. What Kingdomino Duel manages to do is keep a very strong essence from the original, but actually add an element – rather than taking some away to make it simpler/quicker/lighter. Games such as That’s Pretty Clever and Welcome to… have paved the way for a smarter level of the genre, genuinely aimed at gamers. And while the market is still being flooded with way too many, at least a few are leaving an impression now.
  • The thinker: I liked the original game as a filler, as long as you added in the bells and whistles such as differing scoring tiles. In Kingdomino Duel, the choice of potentially taking a die face to grab a special ability adds a little extra interest. But the luck spoils this for me. You knew what tiles were in the box with Kingdomino – where here you may not get what you want, ever, by pure chance. And no, the two ‘?’ sides do not equate to an adequate level of mitigation. I’ll stick to the original.
  • The trasher: I’m on the fence about this one. I miss the decision in the base game of taking a crap tile this turn to be in a better place for next time. But the competition for spells kind of makes up for it. So, I’ll happily play this or the original when put in front of me. But don’t feel the need to own either.
  • The dabbler: Loved it! While it is a shame it doesn’t end up looking as pretty as the original, all the fun game play of the original is essentially there. Plus a few special powers! It’s a little disappointing they went with drawing coats of arms, as it doesn’t leave space for imagination in the drawing that some roll-and-writes offer. I’d rather me and my family had been drawing dragons and sea monsters, rather than straight lines. But overall, having a practically pocket-sized version of one of my favourites makes up for any artistic shortcomings. A hit!

Key observations

Strategists will immediately point to the luck here versus the stability of drawing all the tiles of the original. In comparison, games of Kingdomino Duel can certainly be swingy and potentially luck dependent. And no, there really isn’t much dice mitigation available. So, if you like your games deterministic, you should probably avoid this one.

The term ‘duel’ suggested this version should be cutthroat. And hate-drafting can certainly be part of the game. But unfortunately, the aesthetic chosen doesn’t lend well to reading your opponent’s sheet. It can be quite hard to parse what’s going on across the table, even in good light. As for being cutthroat, that’s going to depend on your opponent. This game can be played pretty friendly, or quite the opposite…

Finally, there’s no getting away from the fact the original Kingdomino was good with two players – and wasn’t exactly a monster to transport. Plus it was more tactile and strategic, especially with the extra scoring tiles from the Age of Giants expansion. But if you do love a bit of Kingdomino, I think there is enough new here to at least give it a try. And at such a great price point, it’s hard to argue against giving it a try for series fans. However, I can’t see this version converting those who don’t like the original.

Conclusion: Kingdomino Duel board game

I wasn’t impressed by my first play of Kingdomino Duel. I like the aesthetic of the original, which this only takes away from. While I was quite happy with the two-player version of the base game, thank you very much. The ‘duel’ didn’t seem to add much, while drawing was a faff where the final outcome looked a mess. And boy, can luck screw you over. If your opponent keeps rolling one dice with a cross, and you keep rolling two (so you get one each), good luck with that. But we stuck at it…

And I’ve really warmed to it now. As you start to understand the special powers, you get favourites – which make going for them an interesting extra decision (rather than something that might just happen). And the small box and low price point are definite feathers in its cap. Simply as a travel game, it holds its own. But more than that, if feels like a genuinely worthwhile standalone addition to an already strong franchise. Which is a lot more than can be said for many ‘the dice game’ versions I could mention.

Essen 2019 game reviews – live and incoming

And so the madness is over for another year. More than 200,000 game fans, checking out more than 1,500 new game from 1,200 exhibitors. So it;s time for some Essen 2019 game reviews.

I always do a post highlighting the reviews I’ll be doing in the coming months – and here it is. I picked up a few less than usual, avoiding heavier games, but hopefully there will plenty to pique your interest. And yes, I’m sure this initial list will grow in the coming months.

I’ll move them from ‘hopeful’ to ‘pending’ to ‘published’ as I get them up on the blog. So you can simply bookmark this post for regular updates on what’s done, and what’s on the way. Hopefully it will be useful – both for you and for me!

Published reviews of Essen 2019 titles

  • The Artemis Project (1-5 players, 1-2 hours, Grand Gamers Guild). A cut-throat worker placement game with some familiar yet fresh mechanisms.
  • Dawn of Mankind (2-5 players, 45-60 mins, TMG). A worker placement euro continuing the ‘lots of game in a small box’ trend.
  • It’s a Wonderful World (1-5 players, 30-60 mins, Boite de Jeu). A fast card drafting game with a cascading engine building/set collection system.
  • Kingdomino Duel (2 players, 20 mins, Blue Orange): A roll-and-write version of the SdJ-winning domino game, with added spell powers.

Essen 2019 game reviews – Already on my shelves, reviews pending

  • 1987 Channel Tunnel (2 players, 45 mins, Looping Games). A tight two-player worker placement game with a unique theme and in a small box.
  • ArtSee (2-4 players, 30 mins, Renegade). A clever take on set collection and tableau building, where you have to keep a close eye on your opponents.
  • A Fistful of Meeples (2-4 players, 30 mins, Final Frontier). A fast-playing and interactive worker placement game, set into a mancala-style board.
  • The Isle of Pan (2-4 players, 30-45 mins, Lumberjacks Studio). Tile-placement game with all the usual meanness hidden in a very pretty package.
  • La Cour des Miracles (2-5 players, 40-60 mins, Lumberjacks Studio). A lively, interactive twist on worker placement, area majorities and secret worker strength.
  • No Return (2-4 players, 30 mins, Moses). Abstract numbers game with solid Bakelite tiles, with an intriguing player-driven tipping point mechanism.
  • Outback Crossing (2-6 players, 30-40 mins, Mucke Spiel). Tile placement abstract game, where you choose when to claim evolving scoring lines.
  • Pharaon (1-5 players, 30-75 mins, Catch Up). Worker placement and resource management combine on an action wheel, with forward planning essential.
  • Robin of Locksley (2 players, 30-45 mins, Wyrmgold). Racing game where two players make (chess) knight-style moves to claim what’s required to progress.
  • Sierra West (1-4 players, 60 mins, Board&Dice): Part deck-builder, part resource management, part action selection, all modular euro.

The ‘hopefully’ list

I’ve also got my eye on: Black Angel, Bus (reissue), Conspiracy, Cooper Island, Crystal Palace, Die Macher (reissue), Fast Sloths, Ishtar, Maracaibo, Miyabi, Paris: City of Lights, Paris: New Eden. Plus expansions for Terraforming Mars (Turmoil) and Welcome To… (neighbourhoods).

Please post in the comments if there are games you want to see reviewed and think I’d like. With more than 1,000 games coming out it is easy to miss some real gems! (Although, as always, a shout-out needs to go to the fabulous Tabletop together Tool).

The Artemis Project board game: A four-sided review

The Artemis Project board game is a sci-fi themed dice placement euro for one to five players, lasting one to two hours (once you’re familiar with the rules).

Well, I say ‘theme’. In truth, it’s very much pasted on in typical euro game style and could’ve been anything. That said, the artwork is nicely done and the component quality and graphic design is great throughout.

In the box you’ll find the player board and five layer mats, 52 cardboard tiles, 36 cards, 25 dice, around 200 wooden bits and 50+ cardboard chits. Oh, and a draw bag for your meeples – unless you want to make up the pointless cardboard ‘shakeship’. At £50, the game feels a little pricey – but OK.

The game has plenty of interconnecting parts, so the age range of 13+ is probably about right. It can also be pretty mean. Like all good worker (dice) placement games, there can be some healthy competition for resources. And some clever mechanisms ramp that up a little more than usual.

Teaching the Artemis Project board game

Most of the mechanisms in The Artemis Project board game will be familiar to euro game players – with a few nice twists. But it’s probably a little step above a gateway game.

Each player has five dice, which they roll at the start of each of the game’s six rounds. You then take it in turns placing a dice with the aim of gathering resources, claiming buildings/meeples or scoring victory points. So far, so euro. But it’s how the various action spaces work that make this particular game stand out. As you read on, remember this: you don’t take anything from these worker/dice areas until all dice have been placed.

Buildings revealed in the first three rounds help you build a little engine, while those from the latter ones mostly earn you victory points. You claim them by placing a dice on the building you want – but anyone can gazump you by playing a higher dice. So, go straight in with a six and the building is yours. However, you have to pay one resource per dice pip – so that certainty is going to cost you.

Once claimed, most of these buildings need to be fully staffed (by meeples) to operate. Two placement areas let you hire/alter meeples (different colours do different jobs). One is very limited, and needs a specific number to get the right upgrade. The other uses the displacement mechanism (see below), so is far from secure. And new meeples are again going to cost you resources.

Most resources come from the quarry (minerals for buildings) and the vents (energy for meeples). These ‘dis’placement areas have limited stock each round, and getting it isn’t as easy as you’d hope. Only dice of the same value respect the order in which they were placed: lower numbers always join the front of the queue. So in theory a six gains six resources. But earns nothing if lower value dice have already emptied the pot. This is a really nice mechanism and well implemented here.

There are also missions to accomplish. A few of these come out each round, and are completed if enough dice pips are placed by them to complete their requirement (usually around 8-12). Rewards come to those who participate the most in each, ranging from expedition badges to resources, victory points or even buildings. And before you think you can just skip them, anyone without at least two badges from missions by game end faces a victory point penalty.

In this way, and a few others, the game has quite a Rosenberg euro feel. Timing is key, you’re competing for very similar things, but the scoring system wants you to do a bit of everything. There’s even feeding of a kind: you need to hold back energy to keep any unplaced meeples you have warm (you may want to do this as they can help you claim missions – or because you don’t have buildings for them yet).

There is one slightly generous mechanic. Gazumped dice (outbid, displaced etc) earn you small rewards (usually resources) so aren’t totally wasted. But only the first six. After that, tough luck. At the end of the game, the points are very much of the salad variety. Resources, buildings, missions, sets of meeples – even your tool kits (used to alter dice roles) – can earn you points. And the winner, of course, will have the most.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Dice placement games such as The Artemis Project need a good mix of good/bad spaces for low/high dice roles and a solid mitigation mechanism. All those boxes are checked here. There’s good cut and thrust during placement, with most turns leading to interesting decisions. My one complaint was you only get three rounds to build some kind of engine – simply not enough. I feel it needed a bigger steer early on to differentiate the players: individual player powers, or some random starting buildings/meeples/abilities to get that engine running. And give a reason, from the off, to deny others what they really need.
  • The thinker: Start player is important. But it’s chosen each round by the player with the least resources; an arbitrary design misstep. Certain scoring cards encourage you to hoard resources. So if you go for those, you’re never going to make that key decision. But more importantly, at the end of the game, the scoring mechanisms mean everything everyone has done is going to get them a few points. In theory, this makes it all terribly close and exciting. But in fact it leaves you thinking: did the winner really play any better? They got five more points than the person in last place? Sadly, rather unsatisfying after showing a lot of promise.
  • The trasher: The Artemis Project’s dice displacement idea is solid and makes for a lot of potential interaction. And the fact gazumped dice still give a reward should placate the care bears. But by the end of every game we were all within a few points. You never really feel rewarded for good play, or punished for risky play so for me the cut and thrust fails to deliver. Everyone ended up with something. We all trotted along in a similar way (encouraged by Agricola-esque scoring) to similar scores. If you’re going to put in a mean mechanism, give it the teeth it deserves. Otherwise, it ends up like this: a rather damp squib.
  • The dabbler: While they’ve made a token effort at theme, the combination of pretty yet small main board, ugly (if functional) player boards and bland (if good quality) components doesn’t get the heart racing. And using about a four-point font for the flavour text only shows it was an afterthought! That said, the events (you get one per round) work very well. They put a little wrinkle into each turn – some good, some bad. Without them turns would quickly become a little too samey. Overall I quite enjoyed the game and found the rules easy to follow. There’s quite a bit going on, but it all seems to make sense.

Solo play

I’m not the biggest solo gamer, but I really enjoyed the one-player version of The Artemis Project. Many recent euro games have gone for complex AIs that need as much time to play as your own turn. Here, it’s way simpler – which works for me, but certainly won’t work for everyone.

You start each turn by rolling four dice in any colour (not your own), plus one other dice. The odd dice tells you which of the main action spaces to start at – then you place the other dice (one in each area) clockwise from there in ascending order. so if you start in area A, you’d place in areas A,B,C and D. You then take your turn, placing all your dice. Before rolling another set of AI dice and doing the same (this time anti clockwise).

Luck can really screw you over. This isn’t rocket science – it can be super swingy. For example, you could be blocked out of upgrading meeples for the whole game (the setup is for two players, so it only has one space). But for me it adds a great extra element to your tactics, including push your luck, which makes for a really fun puzzle that really changes game to game. Not for everyone – but for me this now sits alongside Terraforming Mars (which is very different) as my favourite solo game.

Key observations

The Artemis Project board game does a nice job of finding mechanisms that both promote interaction and fit comfortably into a worker placement game. Every decision needs thought as you always have options. With the right crowd, it creates a nicely tense atmosphere during placement that the designers should be proud of.

But whether the rest of the game lives up to this is debatable and will be very group dependent. There a few ‘take that’ buildings that feel out of place, which will further put off players who shun interaction. But there won’t be enough for the in-ya-face crowd either, as taking out an opponent’s dice doesn’t feel that satisfying. Engine-builders will be unsatisfied, while the game is almost completely tactical – leaving out the strategists.

Another real problem was player count. I thoroughly enjoyed the game solo and with three. But with four and five it dragged. While with two there were way too many times when dice were just useless. with two there’s only one mission, two buildings and a handful of resources. So some of the best ways to score points (lots of missions, buildings etc) simply disappear. Worse, this means high/low suddenly matters a lot. It points at a fragility common in Kickstarter games that simply aren’t developed enough.

On the development, the fact scoring is hyper balanced and always close points to a fear of upsetting people. A fact exemplified by the ‘your dice got screwed over, have some free stuff’ track. If you’re going to run with a main mechanism that screams “get in there and kick ass”, you need to reward people that do what you wanted them to do – and punish those who take unnecessary risks. Not placate everyone. The rough edges have been overly smoothed over, meaning you can sometimes end up with more from a failed dice than you would’ve got for using it properly.

Conclusion: Artemis Project board game

I realise this has been a strangely schizophrenic review, but with good reason. Overall I think The Artemis Project may struggle to find its audience, because it’s audience is going to be a rather narrow cross section of euro gamers at quite specific player counts. If you like a bit of interaction, but without big consequences, take a look. Especially if a small serving of engine building (with a bit of point salad on the side) floats your boat.

Personally, as a super swingy solo puzzle game and fast playing three-player euro, I’ll be keeping it. I’m not worried about a potential lack of replayability, as the placement battle is what it’s all about. And maybe I’ll try it with the stabilisers off and ignore the ‘failure track’ next time, to see if that sharpens those sadly blunted teeth a little…

* Thanks to Repos Production (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy for review.

* Follow this link for 150+ more of my board game reviews.

Dawn of Mankind board game: A four-sided review

The Dawn of Mankind board game is a 45-60 minute euro style game for two to five players. While the box says for ages 14+, I’m sure younger gamers (say 12-ish) will easily get the hang of it.

As the name and art suggest, it has a prehistoric theme. But nothing like the box suggests, this is very much a thinky, puzzley euro – not a rip-roaring action adventure. Instead you’ll bravely lead your hardy clan of Neanderthals through an exciting flowchart of actions (in a good way…).

In the nice small box (about 9x6x2-inch) you’ll find a rules sheet, game board, five player mats, 64 wooden pieces, 100+ cardboard tiles/chits and 57 cards. The wooden pieces are a little fiddly and ornate for their size, but nicely made. And the rest of the components are of the kind of high quality we’ve come to expect from TMG.

The graphic design is clear throughout. While what art there is doesn’t get in the way of the game play, despite the game’s small footprint. Overall, it’s a really solid package and at less than $40 seems reasonable value for money. While the box is small, it really is packed full of components. But is it also packed full of game?

(NOTE: To get this live before Essen Spiel, I only had the chance to play with 2-3 players. If I have further thoughts playing with 4-5, I’ll amend post-Spiel)

Teaching the Dawn of Mankind board game

This is a straight points race. Once a player hits 60, the game ends immediately and a few end game points are added (high score wins). Turns are taken in clockwise order, with a player either using a meeple to do an action; or resting them all.

The game board really is a flow chart. After initial setup, your clan meeples start on the left (as a child) and move to a teenage, then adult, then elder space. Before shuffling off this mortal coil to return to your stock (to begin the circle of life once more). You can choose one of three ‘child’ spaces to start in, each of which leads to three of the five teenager spaces. Those point to two of the six adult spaces, and those to 2-3 of five elder spaces.

To move a meeple to an action space, it must be in a ‘ready’ area – a paddock just past each action space (or at the start of the board) – and one of your meeples can’t already be there. Moving into an action space occupied by someone else’s meeple shunts them forward into the next ready area; giving them the chance to move again. But if all your meeples are either in limbo (not yet on the board) or on an action space, you must use the rest action to move all those on action spaces to their next ready area. You can use the rest action at any time though (it may be strategically sound to end your turn while still having actions available).

Most action spaces either grant you resources, spend them (to get other ones, or babies, and/or victory points), or educate you. Education rewards you with ‘progress cards’, which give you abilities to differentiate you from the other players. Many paths moving from ‘teen’ to ‘adult’ pass a baby icon, allowing you to add another meeple to the start of the board from your stock. While all ‘adult’ to ‘elder’ paths pass an art icon that again allows you to trade in some resources for victory points.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: It’s quite hard to do Dawn of Mankind justice here, due to the nature of its spreadsheetiness. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. It probably sounds as if everyone is just doing the same thing over and over. But somehow, it doesn’t feel like that to play. Resources are always tight, someone is normally in the way, and there’s a common threat of being beaten to the things you want. Also, each of the 19 action spaces is reversible; having an alternative action on each side. This adds a solid level of replayability – but it’s a shame the actions can’t be fully randomised to create a completely different board each time.
  • The thinker: For a game of its length, I enjoyed the blend of tactics and strategy. Once you see the layout, education options (only five of eleven are available each game) and art cards you can start planning. While there’s not a huge variation in what tiles do, the scarcity of an action can be hugely important. So part of planning is deciding ‘essential’, ‘like’, ‘back-up plan’, as you won’t get it all your own way. Setup sees you place a meeple in each of the first three columns, so you’re straight into the action. You can add a child, get educated or take an adult action in turn one. This is the kind of thinking gamer’s filler we need more of.
  • The trasher: While getting the jump on your opponents and manoeuvring for free action bumps offers a little, this is largely a spreadsheet euro. The race to points endgame mechanism also works nicely, with a few spaces offering juicy bonuses for those wanting to rush the game rather than build an engine. But its still a flowchart. There’s nothing wrong here, but you’d think The Dawn of Mankind would hold a little more jeopardy. Fine, but not for me.
  • The dabbler: While it initially looks like there’s loads going on, Dawn of Mankind is very easy to pick up. And while all the actions are simple, you see people play so differently. I swear one person never rested – they just kept breeding and having their meeples knocked out of action spaces lol. And while there are only two available option for each space, it can make a big difference. You may only have one ‘study’ space – making it hugely desirable. While another play may see three ways to study, but no ways to trade resources. I wasn’t optimistic going in, but ended up enjoying it a lot and will request it in the future.

Key observations

I usually respond to low scoring critics from BGG here, but I got a very early copy – so at time of writing there aren’t any. I’ll come back later and look at any criticisms. For now I’ll just air a few component gripes. Don’t get me wrong: generally, I think it’s beautifully put together. But I guess that makes the little niggles stand out.

The game has a rules sheet, rather than a rulebook. It amounts to a roughly A2-sized sheet folded by nine. One side has all the rules, the other all the reference sheet stuff for the action spaces and cards. I presume this was done to save money, but the result is annoying and unwieldy. Even two/three sheets (one reference, one rules, maybe another for setup) would’ve made a big positive difference.

The wooden components have been divisive. While everyone likes shaped meeples and resources in practice, there comes a size when practical outweighs picture perfect for many. Here, at the 1cm range, my larger-fingered and clumsier friends start to struggle. And often the meeples simply don’t stand up properly. They’ll be fine for some, and you can always swap them out – but we’re getting to the point where publishers will have to start putting tweezers in the box.

Meet ‘drunk’, ‘lazy’, ‘acrobatic’ and ‘probably the right way up’ meeple

Conclusion

Alongside games such as 1906 San Francisco, it has been pleasing to see some genuinely interesting and well-designed euro games coming along in properly small, portable boxes. And by genuinely interesting, I mean they stand up against bigger box rivals – they’re not just punching at their own weight.

I’ve really enjoyed my first few plays of Dawn of Mankind. It sets up fast, makes you think, genuinely plays in an hour (tested at two and three-player) and you get straight into the action. It’s a definite keeper for me and I’d advise anyone who likes light euro games to give it try.

* I would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

* Follow this link for 150+ more of my board game reviews.