Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga – A solo review

Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga is a small box card game for 1-2 players, lasting 10-30 minutes. While there are rules for the co-op version in the box, I will only be reviewing the solo experience here. As for age, the box says 12+. On rules, I’d say it’s more 8+. But due to some dark artwork and a slightly disturbing theme, you may feel differently.

Talking of theme, the general presentation does a good job of setting the mood. You play a Viking trying desperately to escape a dark tomb by digging your way out. But this is really an abstract hand management experience. I’d put the game very close to Onirim, and to a lesser extent Friday, in feel. Each turn you will play cards from your hand in an attempt to move towards your goal – while also staying alive. One card each turn is played for a positive effect. But the second will often hinder you, rather than help.

In the box you’ll find a small game board, 54 cards, 13 wooden pieces and seven cardboard chits. Everything is nice quality and it feels good value at around £25 (available from multiple retailers, at time of writing, via Board Game Prices).

Playing Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga

Start the game by shuffling the main deck of 36 cards and dealing yourself five. You put four health markers and one food marker on the main board, plus 3-7 passage tokens. You need to clear all the passage tokens to win, so the more you add the harder the game will be. There are also 18 expansion cards, in six sets of three. You can add as many as you like, but each set essentially has one ‘good’ card and two bad – so while making the game more varied, they can make it a little trickier too.

Each card has two spaces for effects on it. The first section is usually (but not always) positive. You may dig, get some life back, or find some food. But the second effect is either blank or bad (lose health, lose cards etc. On a turn, you must play one card to your card row (for the top effect), then discard one to the discard pile for its bottom effect. At th end of the turn, you draw back up to five cards. What you’re trying to do is place four ‘dig’ cards in a row. These dig cards make up just under half of the deck, so in theory this should be pretty easy. But things don’t always go to plan…

He’s m-m-mad sir

Each card also has a rune on it, which will either be red or blue. There are more blue cards than red, but both colours have a mix of the good and not so good cards. If you manage to play four dig cards of the same colour in a row, you remove two passage tokens. While if the dig card colours are mixed, you just remove one. The twist is that you need to keep a balance of red and blue cars in your hand. Because if you draw up to five cards and have all five of the same rune colour, you go a bit mad.

Madness means you permanently lose one health. While you also shuffle your hand and discard pile into your draw deck. This is unlikely to be good news. You won’t discard dig cards if you can help it, so you’re really just watering down the deck. If at any point you run out of health – or cards – it’s game over. No Valhalla for you. But if you can take out all those passageway tokens, you’ve managed to scramble out of the tomb with your sanity intact.

The four criteria

In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.

  • Elegance: I found playing Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga to be an elegant experience. There are only eight different card types in the core set, so you soon get to know the icons. While the rules themselves take up just one side of A5 paper in the rulebook. When you want to add more complexity, the expansion cards are there for you – and with just two different cards in each set, these too soon become familiar.
  • Meaningful decisions: Every decision feels meaningful. Ideally you want to hold a couple of dig cards in hand before you start laying hem – but that probably means discarding harmful cards. So might it be better to hope luck is on your side and start laying them quicker? The simple addition of needing he two colours at the end of each turn really helps make this a tricky decision too – a small thing that adds a lot of value.
  • Replayability: Thanks to the expansion card sets, and the difficulty scaling, there’s a decent amount of replayability in the box. Certainly as much as I’d expect from a game at this price point and with so few components.
  • Theme, narrative & the ending: The theme works to help the game. I liked the artwork, the slightly off kilter historical feel and the rising tension. When it happens. Like many games in this genre, both good and bad luck of the draw can be equally galling. too much good luck and its an easy, unsatisfying victory. Which falls just as flat as a game you had no chance of winning. But that’s the nature of you-vs-the-game games. More importantly, when the game plays ‘right’ – which feels like most of the time – you can have a great tense ending as you start to run out of cards.

Key observations

Comparisons of Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga with Onirim and Friday are inevitable. It has a little less substance than Friday, but plays faster. I found it a very similar experience to Onirim, which I enjoy greatly. It’s maybe a littler simpler, so may not stand up quite as well to repeat plays. Bu I think fans of either of those games will get a kick out of it.

The artwork won’t be for everyone. Especially the card picturing a duck having its throat slit. But overall it does add to the mood. You’re meant to be a Viking stuck in a tomb going mad, after all. Beyond that, luck of the draw is going to be the main concern. And a valid one. But as the game is short, I think it’s perfectly proportionate. Having a bad game? It’s 10 minutes of your life gone. Just shuffle and go again. Or avoid if that’s going to irk you.

Conclusion – Maeshowe: An Orkney Saga

I’ve really enjoyed my plays of Maeshowe and am happy to pop it alongside Onirim, Friday and the rest on my solo games shelf. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new game in the solo hand management card game genre. Especially if the dark theme appeals.

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