Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Artist: Atha Kanaani, Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Plan B Games
Eastern Wonders is the second in a trilogy of games designed by Emerson Matsuuchi that proposes to do something fresh and rarely attempted in the board gaming world – design stand alone board games with modular components which can be mixed and matched to create a brand new experience. In essence, Matsuuchi wants to take elements from individual games and combine them to create something new. The challenge here is to excel on all fronts. Not only do you want the combined mechanism to function well, you also need each stand alone game to be outstanding. After all, if the base game is awful, no one would even purchase it to begin with. But this write up is more about Eastern Wonders as a stand alone game.
Same concept, but with a different approach
As you would expect, the core mechanism of Eastern Wonder is again resource conversion. The major difference between Eastern Wonders over Spice Road is how resource conversion is achieved. In the case of Eastern Wonders, the market cards that power resource conversion are discarded and players share a common engine that is laid out on the board at the start of the game in the form of island tiles. Each tile is tagged with a resource type and feature one conversion scheme (e.g. two cubes of green into 5 cubes of yellow). To perform that conversion, players must first have the requisite cubes, sail to that island on a wooden boat and build a trading outpost. After that, it’s just a matter of visiting different islands to convert resources until you have enough to make the final exchange of cubes for points. This takes place on several port tiles that are careful laid out at the edges of the board. Once a player collects enough of these tiles, the game ends and points are tallied.
The core engine of the game itself is straightforward and does its job. There are of course, striking similarities between Spice Road and Eastern Wonders apart from the resource conversion aspect. For example, movement of boats to visit different island tiles is comparable to the market for cards in Spice Road. The first boat movement between tiles is free, and the cost increases by one cube thereafter should you wish to travel further. This is similar to payment for market cards in the original game where the first card off the market is free and subsequent ones closer to the draw deck need additional cubes for payment. Similarly, the claiming of VP cards in Spice Road is replicated in Eastern Wonders, except for the additional spatial consideration of moving your boat to the port tiles to claim the VP chip. For many aspects of the core mechanism, everything feels the same, but also slightly different at the same time, with each action also taking slightly more effort.
A more diverse scoring matrix differentiates the game from its predecessor.
I think Eastern Wonders would be pretty interesting (boring?) if the designer decided to stop right there. Move around your boat to different island tiles to convert resources and claim VP chips. It would be a near equivalent to Spice Road in terms of complexity and execution. But the designer decided to include a scoring sub-system to Eastern Wonders to increase more scoring opportunities and perhaps, to make the end game winner more opaque and hence, more exciting. Each island tile on the main board is tagged with one of the four resource types and by potentially paying cubes, one can lift a wooden outpost token that is carefully laid out on individual player boards to place on the tiles, thus allowing you to perform the resource conversion. In the process of removing the outpost horizontally from left to right on individual boards , you will reveal VPs printed at the bottom of the board. The more outposts of a particular resource type that you build, the more points you will earn. Using a familiar hook to generate decision angst, diversity in outpost building is also rewarded with perks. If a column of outposts which represent one of each resource type is depleted, then players get to pick up bonus tiles ranging from extra VPs, free ship movement, extra resources, etc. The intended struggle here is that players must decide whether to go deep horizontally to score points or vertically to pick up bonus tiles. In reality, players will end up with a mixture of both.
It is unclear to me if a specific focus between one scoring strategy over another provides a viable path to victory. Both however, comes with constraints. One method is to focus on building the most efficient resource conversion engine by selectively building outposts and visiting only the minimum number of tiles for conversion. However, the port tiles are scattered throughout the island and one must still go around on a boat or pay to move quicker to cash in the VP chips. This can slow things down. Moreover, the resource conversion tiles that you need might also be scattered throughout, making it harder to reach. On the other hand, a focus on building ports may net you a lot of points and bonuses, but I don’t think it is enough points to win in lieu of competing for VP chips. It is likely you need both types of scoring to remain competitive, but it would be interesting to explore if leaning hard on one scoring strategy will provide a path for victory.
The entire Century trilogy is an interesting exercise of how to coat a wall with different types of paint to achieve a slightly different look even though it is the same wall. In Eastern Wonders, a spatial element is superimposed on the same resource conversion mechanism and players are invited to figure out an optimal way to move around the board in search of the quickest way to victory. The addition of another scoring avenue beyond the VP tokens alters the trajectory of the game, making it slightly more complex and further away from then purist version that I outlined. Perhaps, during playtesting and feedback, this was deemed to be necessary, but I am curious how a core mechanism without the additional scoring would play like. It would certainly be closer in spirit to the The Spice Road where the simplicity of the mechanism is why I enjoy the game. There is nothing astounding or even outstanding about Spice Road and yet, it works and works well. Despite its “dry” and rote actions, you know what you want to do and how to get there. There is just enough to think without being bogged down. It is our current go to, 20 minutes-after-dinner game for two. It fills an important niche. This cannot be said about Eastern Wonders. The game is just a tad too long and to fill the same shoes that Spice Road is wearing. There is just more to think and each actions takes slightly longer to process. Also the setup time is more involved. By virtue of the differences, Eastern Wonders now fall into a broader category of mid-light weight games that occupy a slot in a regular game night where the competition for time is fierce.
This is not a thumbs down vote for Eastern Wonders. Far from it, I actually enjoyed every game I have played and think the stand alone game is decent and compares favorably with other games in this niche. I think it could have been a lot more had it stayed in the same weight category as Spice Road, and so for me, this is a lost opportunity. Because the game is longer, it hasn’t received as much attention as Spice Road and has not hit the table nearly as often because it now has to fight for attention during a proper game night where many will consider it too light for a full session. For now, I continue to look forward to rotate all three games with my partner, but it just won’t be happening on a Wednesday evening. Which is too bad.
A short pros and cons rant
Finally a short love-hate list. I love that the elements between both Century games are preserved, but also tweaked. For example, the cubes are the same color with the same relative values, but are named differently. Not sure why, but spotting the differences in something so familiar is comforting. Now for a minor gripe: the colors on the island tiles are just saturating and a disservice to the resource conversion scheme on each tile that really needs to pop up. It is hard enough to quickly scan for areas to visit in the entire board, but with a sea of colors, that task now takes extra effort. I think a more muted background to allow the information to stand out and that should be prioritized. There are so many games now that seem to take for granted that contrast and clarity are secondary to excellent graphics that it has become the norm. That said, this isn’t a deal breaker or a big minus to the game. It is playable and shouldn’t detract you from trying. Rant off.