William Attia

Publisher: Asmodee

I have to admit, I just noticed the British flag in the background. No wonder the currency in the game is British pounds. Will there even be a Great Britain in the near future? (Photo credits: Camdin@BGG)

The recent board game boom has seen the rise of many talented and incredible board game designers. With few exceptions, many of these designers enter the scene with a groundbreaking design that left a mark in the gaming world. These hits often spot a brand new mechanism or theme that took the world by storm and thereafter, embraced by other designers as copycats start to flock the market. Indeed, imitation is the highest form of flattery. But what of the founding designer? In many cases, these pioneers will ride on the coattails of their popularity by redesigning games centered around their initial success. Case in point, you have Mac Gerdts popularizing the rondel and continue to use the rondel in many of his games. Matt Leacock who shot to fame with Pandemic continues to use Pandemic’s co-operative mechanisms in his follow-up designs. There are many many examples. In some instances, designers have set the bar really high only to find it almost impossible to match or exceed the expectations of the public.

Caylus is one such example. William Attia’s Caylus lit the world on fire and the worker placement mechanism is still around today, alive and thriving. While Caylus is not the first game to use worker placement, the popularity of Caylus catapulted the mechanism to stratospheric heights. So, when Spyrium was announced as Attia’s next design, the masses were salivating for the next hit. Perhaps the next big thing in the gaming world that would put Caylus far behind. The law of averages indicate that it was unlikely to happen. To create one influential hit is already an achievement.

To be fair, Caylus Magna Carta arrived between Caylus and Spyrium but it was always considered a card game for Caylus. Spyrium however, came out 8 years after Caylus. Perhaps in the intervening years, the gaming crowd had already tempered their expectations and moved on. However, I did remember a buzz when Spyrium was announced. I also recalled the let down when folks realized that Spyrium was neither the groundbreaking game that Caylus was and quickly dismissed the game. Shortly after Spyrium was published, the game appeared in many bargain bins and clearance sales and to this day, I think the game can still be had for cheap, with no reprints in sight.

For me, Spyrium stands tall alongside Caylus, if not even slightly ahead. Spyrium is the epitome of how a small, compact and unassuming game can harbor incredible depths. You do not need tons of cards, chits, tokens, sculpts, minis, metal coins, foam core inserts to have a great game. I think that players who enjoyed Caylus should really revisit Spyrium and give it a shot. Players who haven’t been exposed to Spyrium should pick it up (it’s cheap) and give it a try. I think you are likely to be surprised more than you would be disappointed.

The thing is, in 2020, there are so many games that looks and feels like Caylus, but few if any, play like Spyrium. This is no fault of Caylus, of course. After all, it is a pioneer worker placement game. The durability of the worker placement mechanism is actually quite impressive. That said, Spyrium feels like a worker placement game, but not really. In Spyrium, players have worker meeples that are placed on a modular board comprising of a grid of cards laid out in a 3 x 3 format. At the end of the round, any remaining cards are removed and a fresh set of 9 cards are laid out. In this way, players will see 54 new cards throughout the game.

There are two phases in the game. In the first phase, players put workers in between cards. That’s correct: not on cards, but in between them. Cards flanked by the workers can be activated in phase 2. Once a player is ready, they can transition to phase 2 where the bulk of the actions is card activation. Here, players can do several things with their previously played workers. They can lift workers from the grid to collect money, activate character cards to gain benefits or purchase patents and buildings by lifting cards from the grid and placing them in their personal tableau. Of course, the price of these items are determined by the number of workers that surround the cards. The more workers there are, the more expensive it is to activate a character or to purchase a building or patent. Similarly, the more worker meeples there are surrounding a card, the more income you will collect when you lift up your worker to collect money. This mechanism felt fresh in 2013 and still remains fresh when I play right now. The closest game I identify Spyrium with is probably Keyflower with the meeple placement and activation. Even then, there are lots of differences.

Over the course of 6 rounds, players vie for cards on the grid to try and develop a victory point engine. There are several ways to get points but most revolve around using or converting spyrium into points. Spyrium in the game, is this mystical green gem that is used power many things in this Steampunk setting. Typically, players will purchase buildings such as mines or factories and put workers on these sites to mine for spyrium. One can also get spyrium by engaging the help of some of the characters on the grid. In any case, the goal is to obtain as much spyrium as possible so they can be converted into points. This again can be done with specific buildings or with some character cards. Some building generate spyrium while others convert spyrium. Many of the late game building will also score victory points directly, but they are scored during end game scoring.

To make things easier, players can also vie for patents. Patents are one of three types of cards to appear on the grid (buildings and characters being the other two). Patents are expensive but will allow rule-breaking benefits and end game scoring. There is a maximum cap of 7 victory points per patent for end game scoring which may sound a little low, but points are a premium in Spyrium. I think that the benefits though, are way more important and when paired with specific VP engines, can be very potent.

That’s the game in the nutshell, but rules do not explain the game. There are many emergent properties not apparent in the rules. The game features a few rules that really make the game shine. First, the transition from phase 1 to phase 2 is entirely determined by players. This feature alone drives much of the strategy of the game. In many games, the phase transitions is marked by a distinct pause where all players transition together. In Spyrium, players are free to transition from worker placement to worker activation and are not required to use all their workers for placement. In fact, for some buildings, an active worker is required to activate those buildings in your own tableau. Hence, not placing all workers in the grid is important if you want to power some of your own buildings. One can place a single worker from phase 1 and quickly transition to phase 2 the next turn. During play, it becomes apparent that the quicker you transition, the more likely you can purchase the building you want or trigger the character you desire, but at a cost. The trade off is that you won’t get to place more workers since you exit phase 1. It is also not ideal to exit early if you want to collect income because players have not fully placed all the workers and so the income you collect will be low. This transition is not an easy decision.

The worker placement itself is unique. As it said, it has some shades of Keyflower, but Spyrium was published first. The value of a card is not only the value printed on it, but also depends on the total number of workers surrounding the card. Lifting the card and purchasing it early usually means you will have to fork out a princely sum by paying for the card and also 1 pound per worker that surrounds the card. Money is extremely tight and so, the cost can be prohibitive. You can try to wait to pick up the card when fewer workers are surrounding it, but your opponent may end up purchasing it first. It certainly has some push your luck elements and watching other players, how much money they have and anticipating which cards they want to trigger is important to determine the timing of your own actions. Delicious agony.

Finally, the game is short. 6 rounds isn’t a long time to establish an engine. For a high powered card, you may get to trigger it once, maybe twice and that could be the difference maker. Cards coming out of the deck are segregated by rounds with early round cards less powerful and inefficient, but also cheaper. Later rounds cards are very powerful but also expensive. Since every point counts, one cannot simply wait to get only powerful cards. A slow build is important as a constant stream of points is important for the win. To spur this slow build, Spyrium has a few resources (workers and money) that can be unlocked on the VP track. One has to reach a specific score to unlock these benefits and this will prevent players from holding back and unleashing their engine toward the latter half of the game.

From my plays, Spyrium can accommodate several VP engines. It seems possible to catch up quickly even if it seems the leader is far ahead. There are some cards, if played properly, can lead to a chaining mechanism to score a bunch of points. This is especially true with the right patents. I think this is a great sign for a good game. I am always a proponent of games that feature multiple viable paths to victory.

If it’s still not clear, I am a fan of Spyrium and rank it higher than Caylus. As I said, you can find Caylus in lots of other games, but not Spyrium. The game is compact, in a smallish box size with few components. The components are good quality but not glamorous. Heck, the start player token is just a card. Don’t buy the game for aesthetics. There is none. The cards drive the game and there is enough variety for replayability, but I think an expansion with just cards would be most welcome, though I know it is unlikely to happen. Which is too bad. The game doesn’t need more complexity, just variability. The core deck isn’t huge and you will see most of the cards each game, so perhaps for players who like to play a game continuously to exhaust all possibilities, the lack of card variety could be a concern. However, I think the interactive and emergent game play more than makes up for it.

I hope William Attia realizes that there is a fan base for Spyrium. My Geekbuddies on Boardgamegeek agree wholeheartedly. People I have introduced the game to in the past have all enjoyed it and commented that the game feels fresh….and different. What a high praise for games these days indeed. I hope that the game can get a second lease of life, perhaps even an expansion. As it stands, I wish gamers out there can help fish the game out of obscurity so that many others can enjoy Attia’s second masterpiece.

Final words: Great!

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