Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers & Bernd Eisenstein
2-4 players, 60-90mins
Price: £30-40 (approx)
I like Pandoria. It’s one of those titles that immediately intrigued me when I read a BGG designer diary about it many months ago, and yet still appears to have arrived under the radar of many gamers (including me – I found it available via retail almost by accident). Previously described as a “gamer’s game”, in practice this just means it takes standard mechanics and flips them on their head a little bit, but it does so rather cleverly, I think.
Theme and story are both of the classic “races vying for control and glory on a newly discovered land after fleeing from their home” variety, but we’re really just here for the strategic decision-making fun, so here goes…
The basic game provides an asymmetric start-up, but there are options provided for a beginner’s variant, and even a co-operative partnership / team version, too. Players start with a number of resources (Crystals for casting spells, Gold for buying cards, and Wood for erecting buildings), and four cards in their hand. Cards are dual-purpose and can be used as buildings or spells, depending on which way you choose to utilise them, more of which much later.
Gameplay follows a set structure, and it’s this that forces players to strike a delicate balance between strategic choice and prospecting for future opportunities each turn, as well as mixing up what many gamers intuitively believe should be happening… It’s clever, so let me explain.
Each turn begins with the placement of a single or double-hex terrain tile – single tiles tend to be castles (of which each player only has two), but more likely you’ll be placing a terrain tile, and the map/board is expanded as each new tile is added. Double-hex tiles always have two different terrain types on them and icons representing the number of resources to be found there: Crystals, Gold, Wood, or Points/Glory. In addition to placing a tile, players may optionally add one of their meeples to one of the terrain spaces on the tile they just placed (or to their castle if that’s the tile they placed), or can choose to remove a meeple from elsewhere on the board and put it back into their hand.
The clever part is in how the scoring works because when a particular terrain type is completely surrounded by other terrain types, that area gets scored. Often there’s more than one area getting ‘closed-off’ each turn, and players can score multiple times quite easily. Unfortunately, if you have meeples caught (or ‘captured’) in a closed area, those meeples are returned to you without scoring anything, and it’s the meeples on hexes adjacent to the closed-off areas that get all the points… And those meeples are not removed! It should be immediately obvious that where you place your meeples has real significance in this game, and the way the closed-off areas are scored is so off-the-wall and against every intuitive play you know from other games, that it does take quite a while to wrap your head around it. The strategic decision-making behind all this makes the game a bit of a brain-burner, and don’t be surprised if other players take great delight in cutting areas off before they become too valuable for somebody else.
The scoring of Crystals, Gold or Wood is further mixed up by the number of meeples players have surrounding the closed-off areas, and thus it’s quite easy to score 20+ of these resources if you have two or three meeples on the borders of a closed area. Interestingly, your board only allows you a maximum of 10 of each resource, and any excess are converted into points, which is a nice touch I’ll get to a bit later. City tiles (crowns) are arguably a lot more valuable, because these score points directly, but that’s just another reason why you need to look at closing these areas off early (unless you’re going to benefit from them yourself, of course). There’s an added complication in that each player also has a ‘Leader’ figure which counts as two ordinary meeples instead of one (and thus doubles your score for that area), but you cannot place this piece unless you’ve already played all your other meeples (unless you play as the Humans, but we’ll get to that). This adds a lot to the decision-making process throughout: do you place your meeples down quickly and risk them getting sent back with little to show for their efforts so you can get your Leader on the board that much sooner, or do you bide your time and try to optimise every single meeple placement while other players streak ahead?
As mentioned above, player boards restrict the amount of resources you can have at any one time, so any excess will score points instead, initially at the rate of 3 resources = 1 point on a pro-rata basis (you score nothing for any leftover resources less than 3). This is clearly marked on each board, but there are buildings and spells that can switch things up considerably, allowing you to earn a better exchange rate, bonus resource points, etc.
You may only have a maximum of five buildings (or monuments) at any one time, and spells you cast have a one-time use only. Interestingly, buildings are constructed and spells cast before any closed-off regions are scored, allowing you the chance to significantly influence how many resources or points you might get if you’ve just closed off an area for scoring. Again, this is an aspect that takes a bit of getting used to if you’re familiar with other games where scoring usually occurs instantaneously, and I lost count of the number of times we jumped ahead and started scoring areas before giving the player a chance to cast a spell or construct a building that significantly changed how many points they could earn: another example of the game flipping things on their head counter to what players might be used to. It’s worth adding as well that the aesthetics of placing the building and spell cards are a really nice touch, and demonstrate the astute care and attention that’s gone into the design of the player boards.
Incidentally, you can build over an existing building just by paying the difference in Wood costs (but will lose the benefits that building bestowed on you, o’course), but Monuments are a special type of construction that cannot be built upon, and moreover, can only be built upon previous buildings. The earlier in the game you build monuments, the more points they’re worth, but of course they also take up one of your valuable building plots, thereby forcing another choice: build monuments early to get the points (but use up a building slot for the rest of the game), or hold off and enjoy the benefits of your building for a bit longer, but risk someone else earning those higher point values?
There are some areas of Pandoria that complicate matters, too: you cannot place meeples on any terrain already marked on the board, for example, or remove your meeple from a castle if you’ve placed it on there; and connecting terrain to a matching space on the side of the board means that area can never get closed off so any meeples in that terrain / area can never return unless you specifically take them back into your hand as part of a future turn. This does mean, however, that any meeple already placed on that terrain type (or on a castle) can still benefit from surrounding areas getting closed off, although in due course they’ll become redundant and need taking back into your hand anyway. Similarly, many of the spells and special abilities restrict your ability to place or move meeples into areas of terrain previously closed off, which makes for some tough choices, too.
The asymmetric start gives each race unique abilities, and the jury is still out as to how balanced some of these abilities are: Humans can place their Leader at any time, for example (which is incredibly powerful, but does force the player to take it back more often), while Dwarves will always have an extra terrain tile to choose from (useful because normally you only have one, drawn at random at the end of your turn); Mages can buy a card every turn (something you can usually only do if you’ve closed off an area during the turn), while Elves can move one of their meeples a couple of spaces at the end of their turn (also quite powerful, but restrictive too). Halflings meanwhile, may construct a building or monument and cast a spell in the same turn (again, this is powerful because you can only do one of these actions per turn usually).
Pandoria is certainly a game that likes to play with established behaviours, and although it seems counter-intuitive a lot of the time (and thereby requires a bit of time to adjust your thinking process), in the context of creating a game with plenty of scope for strategic thinking and smart decision-making, the designers really have done an excellent job. I am very impressed, and think you will be, too if you ever get the chance to play it.