Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Artist: David Richards and Fernanda Suarez
Publisher: Plan B Games
Despite being called a “Splendor killer”, Century: Spice Road is really a stand alone game with very little in resemblance with Splendor, apart from the fact that both games fall into the same niche that I like to call the “Phil Walker-Harding School of Games”. One of the hallmarks for games in this niche is that the main mechanism is pretty much the entire game. There is barely any meat on the bones and all the fat is trimmed off such that you are left with just the…… well, bare bones. The mechanisms used in this school of games are staples in many German-designed board games and because they are stripped down to the core and featured front and center, these games are often described as “dry” or “mechanical” by players seeking more. Yet, these games have found a home among casual and veteran gamers judging from the comments posted online. It is also well-received by families who want a simple-enough-for-kids but engaging-enough-for-adults alternative that doesn’t involve a lengthy time investment.
Century: Spice Road is the first in a series of three games designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. In fact, as a first of its kind, the three games are actually linked in a way that when combined, you can play one massive, epic game using components from all the games. This review is not that. Instead, I will focus on Century which feels like the most well-received design among the trio of games.
Century is a card game at heart and uses the most cliche of mechanisms in the Euro-design sandbox known as resource conversion. Essentially, players are trying to score victory point by accumulating these scoring cards with different point values. Obviously, the more points on a card, the harder it is to obtain. These cards are claimed by exchanging resources in the form of cubes. Cubes come in 4 colors that are ranked by their value, with the yellow cube representing turmeric being the lowest in value while the brown cube (cinnamon) being highest value. Nestled in between the hierarchy in the second and third spots are the red (saffron) and green (cardamom) cubes respectively. With the spices now ranked in value, it is obvious that the harder to obtained scoring cards with more victory points will require more resources, either with more cubes or more valuable cubes or a combination of both. The goal of the game is thus to acquire these cubes either directly or by trading lower value cubes for higher ones in a race to claim these scoring cards. This is a race because the game ends when a certain number of scoring cards is claimed by a player depending on the player count and whoever has the most number of points win, of course.
Since this is a card game, getting cards and playing them is how you get these resources. One of the actions each turn that one can perform is to play an action card to your own area. Cards come in different flavors, but they generally allow you to pick up cubes of different colors from the store, upgrade existing cubes in your inventory or to exchange them for more valuable ones. In this way, one can start collecting specific types of cubes in anticipation of claiming one of the scoring cards on display. While you only start with two such action cards, you can purchase more from a common row on the table. Again, using a clever but common Euro mechanism, actions cards are valued differently from one end of the row to the next. For more expensive actions cards, one must “pay” by placing a cube of any color in the preceding action card that is skipped. In other words, to buy the third card in the row, two cubes must be placed, one apiece in the first and second card in the row. Cards from the expensive end of the row are then slid over to cover any gaps made after the purchase, thus making the cheaper cards more attractive over time as more cubes are piled on.
A final action that one can choose, apart from playing cards, purchasing action cards or claiming scoring cards, is to rest. When you rest, you get to pick up all the previously played cards in your area, allowing you to refresh your hand and replay cards from previous rounds.
None of the rules in Century are revolutionary nor is it new to most board gamers. The theme of trading in the [choose your favorite landscape or geographic locale] and the mechanism of resource conversion is treated with plenty of contempt by gamers these days who are turned off by the overused elements in board games published over the past twenty years ago. Not that I agree with the sentiment. Yet, there is no doubt that Century and also Splendor has found an audience with a large swath of the gaming population, judging by the comments I read on Board Game Geek. It is easy to see why a casual gamer is able to embrace Century. The game is easy to pick up, quick to play, low-conflict and tactile. Plus the production quality of this game is excellent.These are the features in a board game that will endear grandma to pick up a copy for Jimmy next Christmas.
The more experienced gamer though, is much harder to please. As with Splendor, I think Century appeals to the experienced (and maybe jaded?) gamer because it fills a particular niche. The game is mechanistically simple, but it is not dumb down. Players can still compete to build the most efficient resource conversion engine in exchange for points. The more vigilant players among us can still devote attention to other players, trying to deduce the scoring cards they are aiming and then actively try to foil their plans. The veteran player can still manipulate the action card row to take advantage of cubes or cards that available for the taking. By stripping the chrome from the engine, the focus on the game is to maximize each turn without having to juggle two dozen variables in the head all-at-once to reach a decision. This is probably one of the selling points of the game for a veteran: you get to experience your favorite Euro-mechanism – resource conversion in this case – without being pestered by spatial orientation of polyominoes, meeple placement during action selection, extra actions or bonus tokens, all fighting for your attention in a single turn. Here, you have twenty minutes and about two dozen or so actions of getting cubes and exchanging cubes. That’s about it. There is just something really satisfying about this concept.
Circling back to the Phil Walker-Harding School of Games, there are many games that fall into this category of complexity, but they are uniquely different in that the games are mechanistically very simple and yet, there is room to enjoy these games at greater depth and interactivity should one choose to do so. Yet, in deciding to ignore your neighbor in pursuit of your own path to victory, you are perhaps not as handicapped as you would be if playing games designed from say…. Reiner Knizia. I feel that for games in the same level of complexity by Knizia, one needs to pay a more sustained level of attention on all the opponents. In the case of Century, honestly the only thing you really need to pay attention to is “oh, I want to claim this card and Tom is not going for it judging by the collection of his cubes. I am good to go”…… and that is a most pleasant thought on a Friday evening after an exhausting week of work.