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.

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