In my first foray into trying to create a design orientated “functional” boardgame review, I look at a game I have distinctly mixed feelings about: Century: Golem Edition
Why this approach and a crucial caveat
As I explored in my previous post on the topic, what I want to create is the kind of review I want to read more than any other. A review that really gets under the skin of how a game operates, for the benefit of an audience of designers. Not a description of the mechanics, but the bit where the real magic happens: how the mechanics create experience.
It seems from the success and interest in my previous post that this is something other people want too. Once my Magnate prep was out of the way for my very first Essen as a an exhibitor, I thought now was the time to give it a go. I count myself very fortunate that I also received lots of excellent comments, feedback, and suggestions to help me try to fulfil this vision in response to the original piece. Hopefully I am well prepared to give it a go.
It’s probably worth re-iterating that this is the first one. It will likely leave a lot to be desired, so I apologise now if it disappoints after my fine words and the laying out of lofty goals. But you have to start somewhere, and it makes sense to start with an exploratory stance; there’s nothing to perfect yet. I’d implore all readers not to be bashful in telling me what they’d like me to have focused on more or what aspects of it I could improve for the second once; assuming it’s worth doing a second!
Why this game?
Century Golem Edition is not a game I love. It’s a game I have distinctly mixed feelings about.
While the term “soulless” never occurred to me while I was playing it, I found Matt Thrower’s review of the game absolutely on point. It’s a pretty game. One which is easy for newbies to pick-up and something I have enjoyed playing each time. But I would never, ever pick this given a choice. It has some clear pleasures, but zero magnetic effect on me personally.
If I were to pick one of my favourite designs as the guinea pig – something like Brass – there would be a real risk of starstruck gurning for a first outing rather than tough analysis. Because I had such a mixture of responses to Century, I figured that made it a better first test subject.
The Review: Century Golem edition
If you haven’t played this game, please read the BGG link for a description. If you’ve already played Spice Road, however, the game will be very familiar to you. The golem edition is a pure re-themeing of the original in which players build golems rather than trade spices. Nearly all of this review applies to both versions, but it will be indicated where a divergence matters.
Player activity & game arc
This is a card-based engine building game. As with every engine building game I’ve encountered so far there two broad phases of player activity: first the creation of an engine, and then later its exploitation at the expense of a better engine.
The reason for this structure is probably a logical necessity in most such games. If the game forces the player to pick between improving an engine or using it, this pattern will always follow. After all, you need to build your engine before you can use it, and if it doesn’t move you to victory in itself, you’ll need to use it to get you there at some point. What does change in engine buildings games substantially is the nature of the switching point between these two. It may be more or less shared between players, it may be more or less total, and the two phases may overlap more or less completely.
Certainly Century is no exception to this rule. Specifically, at first the player will need to create an efficient hand of resource conversion cards, picked from a common card pool, that allows them to better acquire more, or more valuable, crystals more easily (cubes thinly themed as spices in spice road). Then second, the player will make carefully timed acquisitions of victory-point valued ‘golem’ cards, which are ‘constructed’ from those crystals, at the expense of further investment in the engine. Game end is achieved when any player acquires an arbitrary 5 golems, and the player with most victory points is the winner.
The game’s development arc, the way the game shifts and changes over the course of the play time, is completely defined by this dynamic. There are no other mechanics to shape it. This gives the game a very basic three-act structure which is also common to most games with some engine-building element:
- The players’ initial acquisition, exploration, and experimentation
- The beginning of engine maturity
- The final race to acquisition of points over engine improvements
Century’s central pleasure: Engine building and its consequences
Century offers a few distinct kinds of pleasure, but by far the most central is the act of engine-building itself; whether or not players realise that this the main activity they are engaging in or language that they would even use.
It is difficult to pin down the deep psychological roots of why engine building in games is pleasurable, and it is not wise for me to try without a lot more research. But I can speak descriptively. There is something inherently pleasurable in constructing a machine that operates somewhat autonomously; a machine which, when it is given a certain input, produces the output its creator intended over and over again. It seems to be pretty much the same pleasure as making software that actually works as you’d hope, fixing a car successfully, or building a functional toy in Lego Technic. It would also explain why there is such an overlap with people that work in engineering (all disciplines) and an interest in these kinds of games. In the context of games, watching something you made give you the output you want (resources, victory points, etc.) is also accompanied by another feeling. Specifically when you are constantly getting better positioned against your opponents by your own earlier efforts. This taps into the inherently pleasing feeling of progression.
In Century, the engine-building itself is slightly more haphazard than any physical or digital engineering examples. It is not an overly scientific exercise. There are a relatively limited range of practical engine-assembly options in any given turn as they are restricted by what cards are in cost-effective reach of players. These cards can also be quickly taken by an opponent long before a player has had a chance to take the card themselves. As a result, the engine assembly tends to be more tactical than strategic in scope.
But decisions are far from equal; they remain meaningful. Poor card selection can sink your game, but almost no player will get the optimal card selection for the theoretical engine they are working on. In a worst case, each player has the fallback option of refreshing their cards back to their hand if all of the cards are unsatisfactory; something which will have to be done at some point in the game. Although, in someone’s first game it will probably dawn on them that if they have to do this a lot, they are probably going to lose.
Overall, the limits on long-term planning seem to be about right for what is positioned as a relatively light game with a broad audience that includes many less experienced gamers who may not be used to such thinking in a Tabletop game. It also likely levels the playing field for new players. Even Dominion suffers from the problem that if you do not know the cards and the way they tend to combine well, you are at a huge disadvantage compared to more experienced players. So it’s certainly welcome here that assembling the perfect engine is not so easy.
It also sidesteps much potential for analysis paralysis. If there was a significant possibility for perfect choices, then the risk of mental dissonance for AP-prone players, forced into probably sub-optimal plays for the sake of their friends boredom, would be higher. But at the same time this could present frustration for some of the very same kind of players as far as replayability goes. Those with a preference for carefully constructing “the big project” have no practical alternative route to take to fulfil more strategic plans if they choose to do so; for example, to acquire the precise cards they need for a particular engine at a higher resource cost. The truly exorbitant price of items at one end of the trade row is not really a way to provide that option because it’s so impractically expensive. But, being ruthless, this game does not seem like it is made for the exploration of long term strategy, so it’s questionable how important that really is.
Potential for any substantive “take that” action from other players – and the bad feelings it brings in anything but the shortest of games – is also relatively low. While experienced players might deliberately steal away cards useful for other’s engines, just to get the engine going sufficiently requires so much work that this isn’t generally worth doing unless the card also complements your own goals. This is probably just as well in a game positioned as a gateway title and firmly within a classic eurogame design philosophy.
Perhaps this game’s most interesting feature is that the engine itself is not solely about the interplay of card functions, but also the resources the player already has at the time; largely because relatively few cards create crystals out of thin air. What the engine actually is here is a little more subtle and less clear edged than, for example, what it usually is in a deckbuilding game. The engine is not a combination of the cards themselves, but really a long sequence of all the cards and the crystals they create / exchange in between each card; including the limit of 10 crystals that the player can have at any time. This can even extend to the crystals placed on particular cards when players are acquiring resource conversion cards further up the track. Indeed, it’s possible to construct an engine that relies on others doing that.
But while interesting – and probably itself a major contributor to the welcome tactical focus for new players – it also introduces a new problem. Visualising your engine (especially on your first play) is not an easy exercise. It’s long, consists of many different types of game elements, and is spread between many circuits of the table. In a game like Dominion, you have a tree or set of action cards in which you can actually see the engine (or most of it) in front of you. But here you need to hold a sometimes complex sequence of inputs and outputs in your head for optimal play. Even worse, the cards themselves are only descriptions of operations which can, themselves, be used in varying multiples – meaning another factor that can only be held in memory. This requires something of the same skill as memory puzzles.
For me personally that is a huge turn-off; not least because I have little interest in memory games and find memorising arbitrary sequences hard. In any game, I don’t want to have to remember game state information to play it. As much as is practical, I want to have the whole game all in front of me. The pleasure comes in seeing insight in the game state; not recalling game-state sufficiently to be within a chance of insight. Even for others who do not have such memory challenges, I suspect the insight is still the superior pleasure; it’s what actually gets them to the table as soon as they’ve grown out of pelmanism. The necessity of memory gets in the way of getting to that and will surely have the effect of reducing the title’s accessibility overall.
Century’s heights: Making the switch
As with any engine builder, the timing of the switch from construction to exploitation is the next key decision players must make, or rather make continuously. Unlike Dominion, there is no “so we’re all buying provinces now” moment; the shift point from building to exploitation is not as pronounced. Throughout Century, an early card buy with a reasonable face value will – from what I have so far observed – prove to be a good decision as long as it is not too expensive in terms of actions. Until close to the end of the game, players usually have a free hand in deciding when to try to buy one of these cards, making this a pleasureable, meaningful decision to take rather than a land grab players are forced into.
In this situation, you are genuinely weighing up the pros and cons and reviewing the other player’s scores carefully. It is a moment filled with tension. You know that buying a scoring card too early could cost the acquisition of a crucial resource conversion card and trigger a race to the end if others decide they need to pile-in to keep-up. You don’t know yet if your engine is consistently strong enough to keep doing this if a race is triggered. You can see which other players are close to claiming the same points scoring card and thereby see how quickly you also need to act. You have to decide between playing it safe with an easier-to-get card or taking a risk on a bigger score, knowing that there will likely be a small variance in number of victory cards held by each player at the end. It’s also rare that you can acquire the card instantly. Even if you are close to getting a card you’ve had your eye on for a while – you have nearly all the crystals required – it could still be a few turns before you have exactly what it takes to get it. So these tensions tend to run across a few turns; before ebbing again when you are furthest from the next victory point card you acquire.
The ebbing and flowing of these moments of tension as players take their final strides towards acquiring a victory point card are, far and away, the emotional highpoint of this game. The wide range of considerations they involve, while simultaneously controlling (but not constricting) the possible choices a player can make, demonstrates very intelligent and deft architecture of the game experience. They are tense and exciting but not overwhelming; they are exactly what players want.
Beyond the engine: The simple and the vague only
At this point I begin to be somewhat short of things to say about the other pleasures which Century Golem offers.
The only moment that seems worthy of particular comment is the way a player can opportunistically take cards with crystals from the track left by other players who wanted other cards which were further-up. Internally, it seems like a great balancing mechanic to make the game operate fairly; a good way to compensate players taking the least in demand cards. But it is also fruitful in terms of player experience. The mounting crystals at one end becoming increasingly tempting, and temptation itself is a positive form of tension. Finally grabbing those crystals elicits a wonderful feeling of being enriched, of acquiring something, of being canny. The joy is not too dissimilar to a child rushing to open presents on Christmas morning. I am yet to see anyone who doesn’t experience a slight smile creeping across their face when they take a card loaded with gems.
But beyond this experience, we are mostly in the realm of hygiene factors than pleasurable moments; the things you notice if they are wrong rather than right. The possible actions a player can take each turn are suitably limited for the game’s weight. Downtime is low, reinforced by those limited choices and because the game moves quickly from player to player. There is very little maths people have to do. Upkeep is very limited.
Is this game actually an abstract?
But there is also a lack of any discernible personality.
This is not for want of attractive components. The golems themselves are cute and many will find their art style very appealing, just as the paintings on the Spice Road score cards are nice enough. The highly tactile crystals in the golem edition feel valuable, which is exactly right for a game which is – ostensibly – about trading commodities. All the resource card art is done to a high standard, and the premium playmats that are available for both games are lushly illustrated and produced.
But at best these are, on their own, just commercial art pieces. They give distinct visual pleasures when you begin playing in the same way that when you start watching a movie in 3D you are initially moved and fascinated by the 3D effect. The problem is, however, just like a 3D film. After a while, as you drift into the film’s world, your eyes adjust and you stop noticing those visual differences altogether. Here, the same thing happens. As soon as you have noticed how pretty everything is, you have largely consumed the art in it. I think the reason for this is the lack of theme.
To call Century Golem a re-themeing is I think to be generous. It is a re-arting.
The Spice Road theme was thin as rice paper to begin with. No one I played it with can even remember what the four spices represented in the game are supposed to be. At no point in Spice Road do I, as a player, ever feel like a trader selling stock up and down the old silk route. Nothing about what you do in the game is like that.
The theory, no doubt, is that exchanging one spice for some of another is like what those traders did. But with only coloured cubes indicated on the cards, with spices being swapped in different multiples for no clear reason and nothing beyond card art to tell us what the situations involved are, any hope that that was going to be sufficient to engage me in the world of the game went out the window.
And what exactly are we swapping them for? Such people plied their trade to make a livelihood or a fortune. They never ever traded different kinds of spices to swap them for… points? It’s not even clear what the scoring cards are supposed to be beyond the most nebulous notion of market demand. In the Golem edition we are at least making golems. But then what we are doing swapping crystals all over the place? Are we swapping them with other wizards? There is no internal logic to any of this.
When I play this game, I don’t feel like a Wizard or a Trader. I feel resolutely and completely like a man who is upgrading and downgrading cubes in optimal configurations. I am transported absolutely nowhere.
As time goes by, I am increasingly convinced that board game theme is very similar to the reverie one enters during a film. As long as the film’s world convinces us, on a simplistic subconscious level, that it is believable, we allow ourselves to be transported into it. At no point do we rationally believe we are in a fantasy land; our reality testing remains in tact. Break us from the spell and we know we are just watching a film. But when we are in its grip we are emotionally in another place. That’s why when a really great film stops, it feels like a return to a different life.
This is almost never because the film is actually realistic. A surreal fantasy can just as easily transport us into its world as a gritty drama. Supposedly gritty dramas can sometimes have the more unlikely portrayals of human nature and even more improbable plotlines. What really matters is suspension of disbelief: As long as the world presented is internally consistent and presents something we feel to be true about people, we can suspend our disbelief enough to travel there.
I believe that when we play a well-themed game, we experience something of that transport. It’s challenging for a tabletop game to ever be as immersive as a film or a video game because the tools for doing so – any kind of sound or visual imaginable and a consistently driving narrative – are not as wide ranging and powerful. But I know that every time I play Rails of the Eastern US, a bit of me is actually in 19th century America, building lines across the prairie in a race for Chicago. Indeed, if this didn’t happen, I don’t think RPGs could actually work. A certain degree of collective illusion is critical to make them work.
But because there is no internal logic to either Golem or Spice Road and the attempt to world build is so limited, I would argue that these games may as well not be themed at all. They are essentially abstracts.
That isn’t necessarily a problem. Abstract games can be great. But to excel they must prioritise elegance and gameplay over everything. If they don’t, then they are just leaving potential theme on the table. And if these two titles are to compete against abstracts, for their elegant brilliance, they may not come-off too well.
The final word…
A very well engineered game that reliably produces some emotional highs and worthy of study in detail for its unusual engine building mechanics. But it’s hard to carry-in-your-head engines and total personality vacuum means it (and its predecessor) will probably never become true classics.