Gnomopolis: A four-sided game review

Gnomopolis* is a bag-building worker placement and set collection game that plays in less than an hour (or about an hour with four). It plays one-to-four players and is good at all player counts (see the solo section below). The box says 14+, which feels high; but it is quite thinky, so 12+ would probably be about right.

As is often the case post-Essen, the game may be tricky to find – but the price tag of around £50 is reasonable for a game that’s beautifully produced. The artwork (Marcelo Bastos, Luís Brüeh and Patrick Matheus) is gorgeous throughout, while the components are of the highest quality. In the box you’ll find 32 oversized cards, four chunky player boards, four plastic cups (so more a beaker builder than a bag builder…), 82 cute wooden meeples and 44 cardboard tokens.

In terms of feel, the gnome theme is very much pasted on – this could just as easily be any kind of person/creature from any genre. However, it does have a nice feel of creating and then utilising new buildings, alongside a simple yet effective migration mechanic that helps the game whizz along and fits well with the over-arching city building theme. And again, the lovely whimsical artwork and soft palette colour choices do a lot to help reinforce the friendly fantasy setting.

Teaching Gnomopolis

Unfortunately, the rule book isn’t the best. Publisher Conclave is from Brazil, but why spend so much time making the game (and rule book) look fantastic, only to have it so poorly translated? Worse still, there are some pretty big edge cases left unexplained. On the plus side, there is something of a living rule book on the Gnomopolis website.

This is made more of a shame because this should be a straightforward teach. If your group has played a deck building game – or better still a bag-builder – they’ll immediately be in familiar territory; while the worker placement and action selection elements are also relatively straightforward.

A set number of gnomes and victory points (depending on player count) are put into an the ‘old city’ area. The game will end when one of these piles runs out – or when one player builds their sixth building. You’ll need to let people know this will happen much quicker than they might expect, much as in a game such as Race for the Galaxy.

Each player starts the game with six gnomes (meeples) – four villagers (brown) and two youngsters (green). These are placed in your cup and at the end of each turn you’ll draw three at random to use on your next turn (so you can do some forward planning). Used gnomes are either discarded (back to town) or placed in the ‘resting’ area of your player board, depending on the action – so when you have none left to draw from, all those in your resting area are placed in the cup (essentially shuffling your discard pile).

On your player board you’ll find seven standard actions that your gnomes can perform.

Two let you upgrade your gnomes (youngsters to villagers, or villagers to various types of specialist – there are four other gnome colours), two draw extra gnomes to use on your turn, while two others gather resources (robots, which act as ‘wild’ gnomes when building, and straight victory points). Finally, there’s a space that lets you use another player’s action – but more on that later.

You’ll also use gnomes to build buildings chosen from the six face-up options in the centre of the table. Once built, each will make a new action available to you (usually better versions/takes on the ones on your player board) and will attract a few new gnomes to your cause. If you’ve made the most of a particular type of building (they come in four types) you’ll also attract the guild master of that type – who will give you yet another action choice, plus end game points if you keep hold of him (they’ll move on if another player equals the amount of buildings you have of that type).

When one of the victory conditions is met, you’ll complete the round and then score. More than half your points will probably come from housing gnomes: your player board can house nine (six villagers and three youngsters), while each building you’ve made will house two more (usually the specialists). Any gnomes you can’t house will give you negative points – meaning you’ll have to be wary of numbers, and colours, for the whole game – but especially as the game nears its conclusion. This is the real heart of the game and what elevates it above family game to a slightly more advanced level.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Gnomopolis reminds me of a stripped-down version of mine and David Thompson’s game Armageddon: the buildings, the specialist workers, the housing of the gnomes. But this is a much lighter, friendlier game that plays fast and has a real race element to it. Despite the theme being pasted on it tells a nice story and the game arcs nicely, with gnomes migrating from the old city to the new as it grows (spent gnomes go to an area for the new city, not back to the old one). So, Armageddon meets Race? count me in!
  • The thinker: While not a deep or strategic game, it packs a reasonable punch for a game of its length and I found myself enjoying it. Considered abstractly it is an interesting points puzzle and while light on components it does offer several strategies – you can just pound points, try to build quickly and efficiently to rush the game, or maximise your housing for a big end game score. While it probably won’t be a game I’d choose from the shelf, its one I’d be happy to play in future – which I wouldn’t have guessed when it was being set up and taught.
  • The trasher: While a solid design, Gnomopolis couldn’t be less for me – it’s all flowers and rainbows! The only interaction is via the guild masters and while making them change hands near the end can cause a four-point swing that might win you the game, it’s not enough to save the game for me. There’s a good pile of buildings to choose from, but in truth they don’t have a massive amount of variety – so if someone takes one you had your eye on, it’s not the end of the world. So sure, it’s a nice game – but for me, too ‘nice’.
  • The dabbler: This is such a lovely game! While it looks beautiful throughout, I particularly like the armadillo – it looks sweet, but is also super useful. You send it off to the player to your left and you can then do one of their actions. But it doesn’t block it or anything – you just get to do it, and they get a coin (point) from the bank. But the game is harder on the head than it looks! You really have to plan carefully, or else you’ll lose lots of points at the end for those homeless gnomes! I thought it might be a bit too much for me, but after my first game I was hooked and look forward to playing it more.

Solo play

The solo rules in the box – essentially beat your own high score – are pretty nothingy. But if you go to co-designer Igor Knop’s website there’s a really nicely done AI (with two difficulty levels) you can play against.

It’s pretty challenging too, while its very easy to take your pretend opponent’s turns – for me it’s just a shame that there isn’t a version available that could just be a deck of cards you shuffled and turned one over each time. Maybe that will come if we get an expansion.

Key observations

The biggest problem Gnomopolis has is the poorly translated rulebook, while player aids would also have been a handy edition (if you were lucky enough to buy the game at Essen you got player aids on very cool beer mats – but I presume they won’t come in the box if you get it at retail: if they do, let me know and I’ll change this!).

My one issue with the game may end up being replayability – which I realise may sound funny coming from me after some recent posts! The (potential) problem is the almost complete lack of player interaction means each game is only differentiated by the buildings you choose, but these are not different enough to make each play staggeringly different from the last. That said, I’ve played five times now and I’m not feeling fatigued – so hopefully it will continue to be a potential issue and not a real one.

Conclusion

Gnomopolis didn’t quite make my pre-Essen Top 10 list, as it looked a little too simplistic – but one play at the show was enough to convince me otherwise.

Now it has become a definite keeper and I’m looking forward to more plays – and definitely hoping for an expansion. While it doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the hobby it instead moulds some fantastic design ideas into a really solid whole – and Conclave have made it look beautiful and run smoothly. A definite hit.

* Thanks to Conclave for providing a reduced price copy of the game for review.

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