Designer: Daniel Aronson
Publisher: El Dorado Games
2-4 players, 45-60mins
Price: £45-50 approx.
In my May Update (Jeez, This Year Is Flying By…), I mentioned that I was none too happy with this game (another KS doo-hickey), and having tried it again, I’m afraid that opinion hasn’t changed at all. And that’s a damn shame, because this is a beautiful production, in a gorgeous box with a foldaway lid (gorgeous art on the inside, too, btw), and also has cool-looking resin shrines, pretty wooden pieces, and custom drawstring bags, etc. That all said, a game has to be judged on its merits, and with that in mind, this one fails on so many levels…
Ostensibly an explore and gather game, with a bit of building stuff thrown in (and a hint of conflict if you choose to play it that way), the object of the game is to find the four shrines and make offerings to each. There’s a twist, however, in that one of the shrines (the infamous Cave Shrine Tile which I’ll get to soon) doesn’t require an offering, but just has to be found in order to ‘own’ it, but alas, this particular shrine can also be taken off you once you have it. And this is pretty much where the game falls down almost before it starts, but not in the way you might expect. And it does fall down, btw. Every. Single. Time.
Each turn you’ll roll two dice and choose one for resource-gathering and one for movement, and randomness aside, in the early stages you need to explore the island to find certain tiles in order to gather resources (Gold from gold tiles, Food from food tiles, and Wood from forest tiles), so it makes good sense at the start to use your higher die for movement and go wandering off on a tangent, revealing new tiles and building farmhouses and villagers on them: you need these to gather stuff. Given there is a limit of 9 resources per player, this is no real limit at all (at most you need 6), so once your resource-gathering is in place, you’d probably switch to using your higher die for resource-gathering and lower one for movement and exploration: this is just basic common sense for most players. We didn’t like the overall randomness of this dice-rolling aspect and used the suggested variant (in the back of the rulebook) that gives each player 6 pts per turn to distribute between movement and resource-gathering instead, but the basic principle is the same: focus on exploring first, then focus on gathering resources. Regardless, using this 6-point rule instantly levels the playing field, which is fine by us. To be fair, the individual Explorers (your in-game character, so to speak) each have their own special abilities which makes for an asymmetric start, and although these could arguably be better balanced, it’s a moot point because the basic gameplay remains the same: Explore and Build.
One of the first problems is that once you discover a Shrine and build an offering on that tile, nobody else can destroy it or take it away (and it’s a waste of resources trying to stop other players from doing the same — you can try and block them or slow them down, of course, but it’s often not worth the risk or effort), so you effectively ‘own’ that shrine for the rest of the game. Get four of them, and the game ends instantly.
As I said, the idea is to explore and lay down new tiles, and to try and find these shrines and build offerings to them, but the aforementioned Cave Shrine Tile is in a separate playing area called The Cave, and you can only explore this area when you find the Cave Entrance Tile. Also in this cave, however, are a couple of Cave Dweller Tiles that will attack you when you reveal them, so again, it’s common sense not to venture into this area until you have the necessary resources and villagers at the ready so you can muster them for these conflicts. And this is where this game completely falls apart, because every time we’ve played, it has literally turned into a case of “Draw a Cave Tile and hope it’s the Cave Shrine Tile. Game End.” Even when we resolved to try and go for the Cave Shrine Tile when the Cave Entrance is discovered just to see if the game played out differently, it made no actual sense to do that, so we just didn’t.
You see, nobody wants to explore The Cave for the Cave Shrine Tile before building offerings to the other shrines because if you somehow manage to do that, it just puts a huge target on your head, and usually by the time you get this far into the game, the rest of the shrines have already been revealed, so there’s no point wasting resources doing anything other than building offerings to those shrines first. Ditto, there’s no point wasting resources trying to fight or block other players from building on the shrines (because this could easily harm you instead), so other than the odd blocking and combat attempt, there’s no major advantage to be gained by doing that, either. And that’s why this just didn’t work for us.
Any game needs to have some kind of resilience to player behaviours to ensure every play is fun, interesting, and ideally different, too, and that’s why I believe this game is fundamentally ‘broken’ — every game we played finished with a “Draw and hope” crapshoot to see who reveals the Cave Shrine Tile, and that’s just not fun in anyone’s book. An idea might have been to introduce potential Monster-type conflict tiles similar to the Cave Dweller tiles for the main playing area, and this could have helped salvage some of the gameplay (albeit subject to the whims of random tile-revealing), but I suspect most players are going to do exactly what we did: build offerings to all the main playing area shrines and then look for the Cave one. Any other strategy is too risky and expensive on resources.
There’s a lot of love for this on BGG, but I’m not sure why, and much as I really wanted to like this —and it is a gorgeous production— the fundamental truth is that it just doesn’t work properly if you’re playing with anyone likely to make sensible, obvious strategy decisions.