Snowdonia

Tony Boydell

Publisher: Lookout Games

That one dude is gonna get beaten up for slacking off (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Snowdonia has been in the gaming scene for a while now and with some sustained popularity. Games that still command interest after the initial publication will eventually be reprinted and in this case, a Kickstarted Deluxe edition was recently produced. I know Snowdonia by word of mouth and certainly keen to try it out. Having snagged a copy recently, I was curious to give it a run. The designer Tony Boydell also recently published Alubari, another game which apparently has some similarities to Snowdonia. I am always impressed with games that contain a theme close to the designer’s heart, which for Snowdonia is building a railroad up Snowdon, a famous mountain in Wales, UK.

Snowdonia is a worker placement game where players decide how to contribute to the clearing of rubble and building of railway tracks and stations all the way to the summit. The last station in the game is called Yr Wyddfa, but a quick check on Wikipedia reveals the name to be the Welsh equivalent of Snowdon. Not sure if that is truly the summit station. Nevertheless, this is the starting route for the game and the expansions that come after have different mountain routes (Jungrau in Switzerland and Mt. Washington in New Hamphire). Importantly, the train route are cards that are laid out in 3 of the 4 sides of the board in a semi circle, representing tracks and stations to be constructed. The origin station and terminal station flank the row of cards. The game ends when the last set of tracks leading to the summit station is completed.

As with any other worker placement game, players have 2 workers each round, possibly 3 if you manage to hire a temporary worker from the pub to join your workforce for that round. There are a total of 8 action spaces, with each action having a variable number of worker slots. As always, players take turns placing one worker and if that action space is filled up, no more workers can be placed. Actions on the board include getting and converting resources (iron ore, stone or coal), clearing rubble, laying tracks, building station, buying a train, taking a power/end game scoring card or moving the surveyor. All pretty standard actions. What’s unique and drives the game in a thematic way is how the sequence of actions occur. To build the train route, rubble must first be cleared from the track before tracks can be laid. A certain number of tracks must be built leading up to a station before resources can be used for station improvements. Whilst the station is being built, the rubble clearing and track laying zooms ahead to the next station, and so forth. This sequence of events must be adhered and it really makes the theme of route building shine. You definitely feel the theme of uphill construction of the train route during the game. It’s fantastic. The cards placed surrounding the board is also phenomenal in that it not only gives you visual progress as the rubble is cleared and tracks are built, it is also modular and allows easy integration of expansions. It’s a brilliant design choice and one which I am impressed.

The action selection is quite standard. Players clear rubble and the rubble can be converted to stone. Stone is used to build stations. Each contribution to a station yields points. Iron ore can be converted into steel bars used for laying track or for building stations. Steel bars are also required to purchase a locomotive. Locomotives purchases are optional but can be beneficial. Each train usually come with some coal and a rule breaking bonus such as better resource conversion ratios or more efficient removal of rubble, etc. It’s nothing ground breaking, but it adds to the flavor of the game. One can only build and own a single locomotive each time. Importantly, all these raw materials and resources are not worth much for scoring, but some materials like the rubble extracted may count toward end-game scoring.

Scoring itself is also quite simple and I think a positive aspect for the game. Snowdonia could have opted for point salad scoring, but resisted the temptation to do so. Scoring mainly comes from 2 major categories. The first comes from laying tracks and helping to build stations. For each track laid and each contribution to station building, players put down an ownership marker in the appropriate slot. Points go up in value for station building further up the route with the terminal station scoring more points for each contribution of resources. Track scoring however, is randomized. Once rubble is cleared, the tracks can be built by flipping cards over to place ownership markers. The second major area for scoring comes from the power cards. Each card features both a one-time use power and also an end-game scoring criteria. End game scoring normally depends on achieving a certain benchmark in route building. For example, one can get an addition 40 points by laying at least 5 tracks; or if you have 11 rubble cubes lying around after extraction, you could use that to score 15 points extra points if you happen to pick up the right card. Importantly, triggering the one time use power doesn’t nullify the end game scoring bonuses. One last area for scoring comes from moving surveyors between stations. This aspect of scoring seems rather tacked on since you don’t have to do much apart from moving the surveyor from station to station up the hill. However, it is extremely thematic in that surveyors are usually sent ahead to scout for terrain and in this case, the stations do not need to be completed for the surveyors to move from point to point. However, spending one worker to move the surveyor one spot is expensive and a trade off for other potential actions.

Snowdonia also feature a weather track that can control the number of rubble extracted and tracks laid per action selection. The idea being bad weather makes it harder to do the job. If there is a fog forecasted, then none of those activities can take place. Luckily, weather prediction is such that players can plan two steps ahead. The discs for weather patterns are predetermined two rounds earlier and so, there is some planning involved in timing actions. It’s a great system to inject some variables in route building and I like it.

Ultimately, Snowdonia can be considered a highly thematic but still a relatively standard Euro worker placement game if not for the event track. This event track though, will work for some but not for others and totally changes the tenor of the game. You see, each round, cubes of raw materials (iron ore, coal or stone) are randomly drawn to fill the depot for players to pick up. In a game for 4p for example, 12 cubes are randomly drawn and placed on the board. Hidden amongst the cubes are 5 white event cubes that if drawn, will be placed on an event track signifying government involvement in the route construction. Essentially, the event track is a way to accelerate the pace of the game because most events trigger mandatory completion of stations, tracks or excavation. Depending on the rate of excavation or track laying, a number of partially completed or yet to be completed structures or activities will be deemed completed. For example, if a track laying event is triggered, several unbuilt track cards will be flipped over and considered completed by the government. Similarly, an excavation event will clear rubble cubes from track cards without any player participation. These events quicken the pace by shortening the route which directly shortens the game. However, since the events are triggered by random cube drawing, you don’t know when it will happen and also how often. If there is a lot of cube hoarding for example, the events will trigger in rapid succession, bringing the game closer to its end. This makes the game both unique and frustrating.

I have mixed feelings about Snowdonia and all of it has to do with the event track. On the one hand, I appreciate the need to accelerate the pace. Given a predictable uphill route, it is easy to go through the motions of a regular worker placement game to get resources, convert resources, score points, etc. Nothing special here. Yes, we love the card placement around the board and the thematic integration of the action sequences in route building. Even then, the game is still pretty much a standard Euro. The event track though, makes the game quite unpredictable, and perhaps even a little “fragile” (I didn’t coin this term, a Geekbuddy used it). Without knowing when and how frequent events are triggered, the game has a more vicious push your luck feel which can really get you hosed. It can throw a loop in your planning and make some players cringe since you cannot gauge how many white cubes will be drawn from the bag. There might be only five white cubes in total, but once the cubes are drawn at placed on the board, at specific intervals in the game, the white cubes on the board are put back into the bag. This means at any one time, one can draw multiple white cubes (up to three?). In a way, I think planning for one white cube is fine, but with up to three cubes is a little frustrating (yes, we drew three white cubes to end the game even though the probability is low). Games that are at least 2-3 rounds from the ending can have an abrupt ending, forcing players to abort their plans. This can get frustrating. I recall a moment of frustration with the event track: prior to train maintenance event which at that time was two white cubes away, I held on to a steel bar to pay for locomotive maintenance for the longest time not knowing when the event will trigger. After a few rounds with no events, I distinctly recall feeling somewhat annoyed at holding on to a non-productive steel bar in reserve just so to prevent an event which I had no way of predicting when it would occur. I am not sure if that was expected of the game, but I didn’t want losing the locomotive but I also did not like the idea of just holding on to a steel bar that doesn’t turn over. I know one needs to anticipate the unexpected, but I also know I do not enjoy this particular mechanism.

I am sure the event track will be polarizing and will have its detractors and supporters. Players who love this push your luck feature will say that it “breathes” life into an otherwise routine worker placement. I am not sure I can argue with that especially if you like injecting some uncertainty during game play to ratchet the tension. There might be ways to mitigate the impact of events, but I honestly haven’t played enough to assess if that is the case. On the other hand, if you like to plan ahead, the event track can be a frustrating exercise depending on how the cubes are coming out. I wonder why events can’t be handle like the weather track where players have at least a round to prep for what is to come. It will change the game of course, and for better or worse, there will be gamers who love and hate the idea. Whether you like Snowdonia really boils down to how you approach the game. For me, Snowdonia sits right the edge of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t mind playing it if asked and will continue to enjoy it. But I have to admit the unpredictability of the event track has soured me a little on the game even though I think Snowdonia deserves credit for being one of the more thematic worker placement games out there.

Initial impressions: Average

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