Antarctica* is an area control board game with some interesting twists, with the emphasis being on continuous accumulation rather than conflict.
Despite having an A4-sized two-inch deep box full of wood and cardboard the game will only set you back about £20, which is great value.
Inside the box you’ll find a board, rules, around 150 wooden pieces, 40 cardboard markers, plus 60 small-sized cards. The component quality is solid throughout, even if the board size leaves a little to be desired (see below).
The box lists a play time of 60-90 minutes and I’d say that’s about right, although some of our games have run a little longer. It plays well two to four players but, as in any area majority game, it can feel a little ‘zero sum’ with only two players going for each scoring opportunity.
The ‘future global warming, oh no there goes the ice cap’ theme is pretty much pasted on. However it makes for some fun looking components, the artwork/iconography is well done and the theme does hold together in terms of gameplay, even if it’s superficial. This could just have easily been orcs or spaceships, so I applaud them for trying something different.
Antarctica has an eight-page rulebook: three of sort out/setup, three rules, one scoring and one appendix. As you’ll surmise from that, this is a game that’s more fiddly than it is complex.
Once you’re set up (different for all player counts so hard to memorise, but it works) you get to the game’s key mechanism: the movement of the sun. The board is split into eight regions: in terms of the theme, the sun moves from area to area and sheds enough warmth to let one ship (read: workers) break out of the ice each time.
Said ship must move to any other area and perform one action: making a building or ship, recruiting or researching. Ships give you more turns while placing ‘buildings’ lets you place scientists (read: area majority markers) – and its these who will score most of your points. There are several research tracks (for researching) and these are also scored by majority at the end of the game – as well as giving you little bonuses when you pass certain points on them. Recruiting lets you get the scientists you need to place buildings.
It’s important to stress that if you don’t spread your ships around the eight regions, you won’t get many actions. It can be an advantage to double up in an area, especially early on, but if you do it too much you’ll spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs.
It’s the same if you keep going into busy areas – if you go in third (there is a three ship limit per area), that’s usually three times around the board (20+ actions) before that ship will act again.
This is one of those game mechanisms that can scare players off on their first plays: no one likes doing nothing in a game and Antarctica doesn’t pull any punches – you can easily go 10 actions without doing anything if you’ve planned badly, or with a particular big run of turns in mind. On the plus side you’ll probably then get a rush of actions at once, but by then your opinion of the game may already be damaged.
I’d suggest scoring should be roughly explained before you get going, then thoroughly gone over a couple of rounds in once players are familiar with the basics of play. It’s not complicated, but it seems to be a bit much for some people after you’ve gone through the rules – and it’s just different enough from most games to be easily misunderstood.
Basically, the winner of an area gets a point for everything in it (all scientists, plus all buildings). The second player gets a point per scientist the winner of the area had – that’s it. Third gets a point per scientist the second player had, and so on. This means you can score some nice free points by popping a scientist into a well contested area; while losing out on a big two-way scrap can be a real game changer. A similar system is used to score research tracks, but less so: these two things make up the majority of the scoring.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: There aren’t many cards in Antarctica and you may only get five or six per play; but using them wisely can turn the game in your favour. Each decision is interesting too, with the balance of restocking and building placement – and the choice of going for extra ships (for turns) – constantly changing. Someone else’s move can often force you into a tactical change, keeping you on your toes.
- The thinker: While it’s a solid game there were some strange decisions made in terms of luck. A scoring method not yet mentioned is building card scoring. Three decks of buildings are available and you can only build the top of a pile. 13 of the 39 cards have an asterisk and the players score these in the same way as a research track – meaning if they’re all built, the person who made most will score 13 points. But they’re random and no harder to build, so just situational. A very odd and seemingly pointless level of complication in an otherwise solid tactical game.
- The trasher: I enjoyed how the scoring worked in Antarctica. Deciding whether to really go for it, chasing someone up one of the tracks, adds a delicious tension to the game and will decide who wins and loses – a great cut-throat mechanism. But too often I found myself frustrated with the downtime between turns and a few people really suffered from analysis paralysis as it can be hard to plan your moves. That said, the nicely disguised brutality means I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt!
- The dabbler: This game looks great on the table; the sun – a simple yellow half circle – is a lovely component! I like the theme too; and the way it ties into the fact it’s an area majority game where you’re not killing each other. But ultimately I found I lost interest when it wasn’t my turn and I didn’t find myself getting engrossed at all – and it way nastier than it seems at first, just in a more subtle way! I didn’t care what other people were doing and from about half way I didn’t really care if I won or lost.
Antarctica has been accused of having some pointlessly fiddly components, such as the standees, but I can see why they’ve made this decision and am behind them on this.
The standees are for points, the wooden buildings provide access to resources (needed to build other buildings) and the flat cardboard buildings get stuff stuff (ships, scientists, research). It actually works very well once you’ve got it.
But let’s move on to the real elephant in the room: The big problem is that the board isn’t big enough for everything you need to put on it, no matter the player count.
Sure, each region has a space for each building and each ship – but there is no space to put the scientists. You can easily put them in there, but this just makes it looked cluttered and messy which is a real shame.
There’s also an area for putting available ships and research cubes – and again it’s too small. They could’ve been put to the side of the board with the pool of yet-to-be-claimed scientists. The reason for putting them on the board is they’re another scoring method: you can move one resource you don’t think you’ll need from the ‘green’ to the ‘red’ area of per round: and they’re scored in the same way as the others. I haven’t seen anyone score more than 5 points here – which makes it seem ever more like a waste of space.
Finally, the rulebook is pretty awful – the chosen layout was a terrible idea. However it’s worth fighting through as the game itself is pretty simple once you get going and as a reference sheet, the rules actually work well. It’s just the initial play that’s the problem!
In some ways Antarctica is hard to love, while in others I feel it needs to be admired. The sun movement and scoring methods won’t be to everyone’s tastes but they make this a highly original game in the genre, while the theme and presentation only add to this.
But unfortunately the game feels underdeveloped. The building card and resource scoring feel tacked on and unbalanced, adding pointless complication; the rulebook is a mess, and the board is clearly undersized. This was a real surprise, especially after last year’s Argentum Verlag release El Gaucho really hit it out of the park in all of these departments.
I really hope the game finds its audience. If you like a good, competitive area majority game with some neat new ideas you should definitely try Antarctica – because while the game has more than a few niggles, none of them really get in the way of the core of the gameplay.
Personally I don’t think it will be staying in my collection, but Antarctica will always be a game I’m happy to play. And I’ll be keeping the faith with both publisher AV and designer Charles Chevallier as they clearly both have a lot to offer the industry.
* I would like to thank Argentum Verlag for providing a copy of the game for review.