Monday, October 9, 2017

Dave Reviews: Ancient Capitalism In A Box

Century: Spice Road

A lightly-known fact, though one of which gamers are well aware: ancient civilizations mostly worked on cube-based economies. Where do you think the idea for the pyramids came from?

Century: Spice Road is a game about trading. Not with the other players; fuck those guys. Your trading materials are cubes, your trading abilities are on cards, and your trading partner is the great, ephemeral 'them' that exists in all cultures across time and space.

Cubes come in four varieties: yellow, red, green, and brown, in ascending value. Everyone starts with some number of cubes, based on the number of players and where in the turn order they are. You begin with cards that let you pluck two yellow cubes from the bank, or make two upgrades (which can be two cubes, one level each, or one cube twice). To that you can add cards taken from a row of six. You can take any of the six cards, but only the one on the far end from the deck is free; if you want a card further in, you have to leave a cube on every card you skip. Generally these are yellow, because yellows are worth the least, but you can leave cubes of any type if the card you want is worth it.

Another option for your turn is to play a card from your hand. A card without arrows means you take whatever cubes are listed from the bank; an arrow pointing up means you get that many cube upgrades; and an arrow pointing down means you trade the cubes above the arrow for the ones below it. If possible—and this is more plausible for some trade cards than others—you can do multiple trades with one card if you have enough of the appropriate cube(s) to trade away. Notably, you don't just trade lesser cubes for greater ones; several cards also let you trade small numbers of valuable cubes for larger numbers of less valuable ones.

The last action is to buy a point card. This is where your scoring comes from at the end of the game. Dump the requisite cubes back in the bank, take the card, and if your card is one of the two at the end of the line, take a bonus one or three point coin as well. Watching your opponents build up their caravans will give you an idea what they're going for, but the bonus coins add a level beyond just making sure you get a card before anyone else; you also are somewhat incentivized to wait if possible so your target card moves into a bonus slot before you take it. Add up the point cards and bonus coins at the end; high score wins.

A relatively common topic about games is their interactivity. Generally, more interaction with other players is lauded as a good thing. If you agree with that assessment, this game might lose a little value. Everything involves reading your opponents and working around them, with no way to directly affect their caravans or cards.

On the other hand, does a game lack interaction when you have to constantly be aware of what everyone else has and is likely to do? Is interactivity defined only by being able to make people lose cubes or throw away cards or directly affecting them in some other way? Is swiping someone's clear best option before they can take it less interactive than taking it away from them after they already have it?

Of course, this isn't a polarized question. Interactivity is a spectrum. But sometimes there's a more of a sense of solitary play when each person has their own little card setup rather than when everyone is on a board, even when the latter game doesn't allow you to directly screw with anyone. In Terra Mystica, for example, once a building goes up, no one can do anything about it; moving up the cult tracks is mainly done in relation to the other players, which is similar to buying point cards; and terraforming spaces is mostly for your own gain, rather to block someone else. The only real point of interaction in Terra Mystica that has no good analogue in Century: Spice Road is how building near someone makes certain things cheaper.

Yet TM feels like the far more interactive game. It's like going to the common area in the library to read: you've got your own plans, no one else is directly affecting what you're doing, but being in a room with other people gives a greater sense of shared space and community than if you duck off into an isolated corner where you can barely tell anyone else is around.

C:SR is relatively short, finely honed game. There's a lot to like. How much you're going to like it, though, may be a matter of perspective. If you like having your own area, and you only have to acknowledge the existence of others when you look up, this might appeal more than if you prefer having people around in a more constant way.

Score: Fourteen horses pulling spice carts out of the sixteen we started the trip with.

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