Ji Hua Wei
Publisher: Emperor S4
Realm of Sand is a medium box production from Emperor S4, a publisher for games produced by a talented group of designers from Taiwan. Realm of Sand has a “3” labeled on the side of the box and it is probably part a larger series of medium-sized games that is reminiscent to the now defunct Alea medium-box series. As usual, the art work for S4 games is fantastic with lots of East Asian flavor. I have been intrigued at some of the more recent S4 designs as they tend to combine different Euro mechanisms under one roof. I suppose when you do that, some will be hits and some will be misses. Where does Realm of Sand fall in this spectrum? Well, long story short, I think the game is a solid Euro that unabashedly integrates several popular mechanisms found in previous releases.
In Realm of Sand, players must help the Queen rebuild a declining city using Glyph magic. As fearless Royal Magicians, we are tasked with assembling the Glyphs awakened by the Queen in order to restore the magic critical for reconstruction of the Realm of Sands. Using these Glyphs, players arrange specific patterns on individual boards which will allow them to construct different buildings. Of course, the theme itself serves as vehicle to promote the beautiful art, but in all honesty, Realm of Sand is pretty much an abstract game. The background story while colorful, really doesn’t invoke any sense of magic or even construction of buildings during game play. It think the theme may been stretched a little too thin here. Nonetheless, I think the game is quite good despite the disconnect.
Each turn, players play one of three polyomino piece in their possession on to their own board to assemble a specific pattern of glyphs. Each polyomino piece contains three glyphs and each glyph can either be green, red or black in color. Interestingly, the polyomino piece isn’t actually placed on the board, instead, individual glyph tiles are placed on the board to match the glyphs found on the polyomino piece. The game comes with six player boards and each player board has a unique grid layout where the glyphs are assembled. The grids are asymmetrical and players are allowed to place tiles only on the lightly shaded squares. To play glyphs outside the boundaries in the darker shaded areas, one has to level up. Thus, each board provides a map for players to place their glyphs to construct buildings. Coming back to the polyomino pieces, once you use one of the pieces to assemble the glyphs, the piece itself goes back to the table where it is placed behind a shaman standing in a circle of polyomino pieces. This arrangement is most reminiscent of Patchwork. For each piece of polyomino played, it is placed behind the shaman and a new piece is picked up from the front. That way, the shaman continuously move in a clockwise direction, allowing players to plan ahead.
So why assemble the glyphs? Well, if you have a precise pattern of glyphs laid out on your board which matches a building card in the middle of the table, you can then pick up the card and construct the building. There are three rows of building cards, with 4 cards on display each row. Each row has increasingly tougher buildings to construct as the layout of the glyphs become more complex. Level 1 has the easiest floor plan while level 3 buildings require lots of regular tiles and also some unique ones that can only be obtained by finishing second level buildings. However, the higher level buildings do score more points. Once you complete a building and take the card, a new one is replenished. The glyphs used to construct the building are consumed from the player board. Building cards not only score victory points, but they also have a timer. The first person to have 10 sand timers in total from all the building cards will trigger the last round of the game. This card tableau and drafting is most similar to splendor where players pick up different victory points from a row of cards. In fact, this tableau is also somewhat similar to Walking in Burano, another game from S4. However, the card drafting mechanism is quite different from both games. In Realm of the Sand, you only pick up the card if you are able to complete the building.
There is one aspect of the game that makes it easier to construct the buildings: elemental discs are essentially single glyphs that can be placed anywhere on the board to help with construction. Up to three discs can be placed on the board in lieu of a regular action of placing polyominos. Many of these discs can be picked up as a reward for completing a building, particularly a level 1 building. Completing level 2 buildings gives you a blue or yellow elemental discs that are unique glyphs required for building level 3 buildings. These discs cannot be obtained elsewhere. The elemental discs are valuable as they allow you to plug in gaps in your floor plans to complete your construction of buildings. However, there are limited number of discs for each color and when they are gone, you cannot get more.
By combining different mechanisms, Realm of Sand feels like a novel creation. What you get is a patchwork-like tile selection mechanism combined with a Splendor-like race for VP-card collection all wrapped up in a spatial puzzle. The end product feels nothing like its progenitors. To be fair, the game feels closest to Patchwork, but it is slightly more forgiving in many ways. Unlike Patchwork where tiles are laid out side by side, polyominos with glyphs can overlap between each placement and removed after building construction. This means the board is pretty fluid, tactical and even if you made a mistake, it won’t be hard to rectify. Moreover, the elemental disc makes it easy to plug in the gaps or rectify errors during placement. This makes pattern formation easier and less frustrating for folks who otherwise might dislike polyomino games. However, despite the relatively lax placement rules, the race for building construction is tense especially if you are competing for the same building. It is imperative to look at other boards to know which buildings are being targeted by other players. Some folks suggest a way to hold cards ala Splendor to reduce the frustration of missing out. I think that might work though it probably reduces tension as you can pick up the card early and progress at your own pace. It would make the game less interactive but more approachable for some. I wonder if a variant is possible, for example sacrificing a level to hold one card. Since gaining a level is not always easy, that would be a decent compromise. I suspect, though not certain, that a rich get richer situation may happen. Players who get elemental discs early enough can complete buildings faster and that can snowball. It’s possible the timer is the great equalizer and that players who choose quantity over quality (going for smaller building in Level 1 and 2 with fewer points) could also win the game. That however, remains to be seen.
Good effort by S4 overall and I really hope they keep up the good work
Initial impressions: Good