Monday, October 8, 2018

Board Game Review: The Island of El Dorado

The Island of El Dorado (by Daniel Aronson) is a tile-laying exploration board game for 2-4 players (60-90 minutes) in which players are 16th century explorers discovering the island of El Dorado and competing to be the first to lay claim to all four shrines, which is said to grant the explorer access to untold wealth and power. A typical turn goes through a two-step process of first rolling two dice to determine how many spaces you can move your explorer as well as how many resources you produce at the beginning of your turn, and then going through your “explore phase” in which you move your explorer and/or villagers (who serve double-duty as both army units for combat as well as workers for resource-production) and spend resources to build structures, recruit more villagers, or give offerings to shrines. Players may also confront each other in direct combat by moving their explorer or army figures onto another player's space, rolling dice based on each player's total strength in the battle to determine a victor. Three of the shrines can be found scattered around the island, but the fourth is hidden inside a cave that must be explored separately, and which also houses assorted monsters and dangerous encounters. The first player to control all four shrines wins the game.

In practice, The Island of El Dorado plays like a cross between The Settlers of Catan and Risk, with a tile-laying exploration element like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Escape: Curse of the Temple where you build the map as you play. As a game with relatively light, simple rules and a high degree of luck, it's intended to be more of a family-weight game for families and more casual gamers, though the designer has since published rules for a "Hardcore Mode" intended for more strategic gamers who dislike how much of a factor luck plays in the standard rules. I backed the first Kickstarter because I hoped it would serve as a more pleasant alternative to Catan, since it fits in the same weight class and has so many superficial similarities (plus, I'm a sucker for exploration games) but I find that I just don't like it very much, or at least not with any of the current rules. Even for a family-weight game, the luck element is just too prevalent in this game, and I feel like it runs too long for such a simple, luck-dependent game. The "Hardcore Mode" rules help, but I have some issues with those, too. The bulk of this review will deal with the standard rules, and then I'll discuss the "Hardcore Mode" rules separately.

My biggest issue with the standard rules is that pretty much everything in this game is random: how many spaces you can move per turn is random, how many resources you can gather per turn is random, how the board shapes up is random, where the shrines appear is random, what you encounter in the cave is random, how you win battles is random, and so on. It's so random that practically no amount of strategy will help you win, because so much of it comes down to random luck in terms of who can get to the shrines first, and who can win key battles. So many times in this game I've felt like I had a great plan for my turn, only to roll the dice and get stuck with low rolls that prevent me from doing much of anything, or I confidently move in to attack someone with a vastly superior army and lose because I rolled poorly on the dice. I've had players win because they were the ones constantly discovering the shrines while everyone else was discovering nothing in the opposite direction and having to waste turns moving back into position just to catch up. And every single game I've played came down to a situation where a single roll of the dice or a single tile draw (both of which you have very little to no control over as a player) was the only thing separating three or more players from first place.

A three-player game in progress.

Every game follows roughly the same pattern; players take turns exploring the island until they find a good spot to set up a farmhouse and/or until they discover a shrine, then players take turns building up their pool of resources and moving to give offerings to shrines, then once a player has all or most of the island shrines and a big enough army they go into the cave to try to find the cave shrine, which is the most important one since it grants its owner +2 strength in combat (as opposed to +1 for the other three shrines) and is the only one with exclusive ownership -- whereas multiple players can share control of the normal shrines, only one player can ever possess the cave shrine at a time, passing it to someone else if their explorer is defeated. And since finding the cave shrine requires you to (likely) fight assorted monsters, it's a task better saved for later in the game after you've gained combat strength through other shrine offerings, and/or by stockpiling enough resources that you can give up on resource production and take your villagers into the cave with you as an army. Typically, the winner is whoever discovers the cave shrine first, or whoever defeats the cave shrine possessor in combat.

It seems like every game I play, everyone ends up roughly neck-and-neck towards the finish line, with all players controlling three of the four shrines and needing just one more to win. That sounds like a good thing, since that means the players are all fairly evenly matched and everyone should feel like they're in it for the whole game (no one's ever so far behind that they can't catch up, or no one's the clear runaway leader), but here's the problem: when everyone is that close at the end of the game, all it takes is a small bit of random luck to swing a victory. Usually, in the games I've played, the person who wins is the player who got the luckiest at the very end of the game; someone wanders into the cave and happens to find the last shrine without ever having to fight any tough cave dwellers and wins the game, or someone rolls better results in combat thus taking the cave shrine from its current owner and wins the game, or someone rolls better results in combat and thus has an unchallenged path to their final shrine and wins the game. Consequently, most games tend to end rather abruptly and anticlimactically, with players often feeling like they didn't do anything to earn or deserve their outcome.

"King-making" can play a role in the end-game, since a player out of contention can potentially choose the victor depending on whom they attack in the final rounds, while "bash the leader" also comes into play, since players are basically forced to target a specific player if someone's making a strong push for their final shrine just to prevent another player from winning. On the one hand, that's kind of exciting having to react to other players and make a last ditch effort to stop someone else, but on the other hand it gets kind of tedious when all you're really doing is prolonging the game just so you can keep knocking each other around until someone gets lucky on a critical dice roll or tile draw. And it's not like these are deep, interesting, tactical decisions you're making -- in these instances, you're reacting to the game state and doing essentially what the game mandates must be done in order for you to continue having a chance to win. "This doesn't really help me, but I need to move over here and fight this player just to prevent them from winning" isn't a very satisfying decision to me, especially when the outcome is determined almost entirely through a single dice roll over which I have no influence, other than bringing a larger army so I can roll more dice and hopefully roll better results than my opponent.

Blue rolls a 5 on three dice, white rolls a 4 on five dice.

Combat is particularly egregious when it comes to random luck, largely because there's no real strategy, but also because the dice are so highly variable. The game uses regular six-sided dice (numbered 1-6) to determine your movement and production points each turn, but uses Betrayal at House on the Hill dice for combat (sides numbered 0,0,1,1,2,2). While that lower range of numbers should help in theory to keep the variance to a minimum, you have the same chance on every die of rolling a 0 or a 2, and when you're only rolling 3-4 dice it's not uncommon for one player to roll a couple 0's while the other rolls a couple 2's. If two players are committing the same (or similar) strength to a fight and they're therefore rolling a similar number of dice, then it's pure random luck who wins.

Your only way to influence the outcome of the fight is to simply bring a bigger army so that you can roll more dice, but the fact that you can still roll blanks doesn't guarantee a better roll -- adding more dice to the pool raises the ceiling of your roll, but not the floor. With the 001122 dice, if you're rolling four dice against your opponent's two dice, then your results can range anywhere from 0-8, versus their roll of 0-4; if you roll slightly below average, you score a 3, and if they roll slightly above average, they score a 3, and you'd tie, meaning that all it takes is a slight difference in a random dice roll to determine a victor. If the dice had sides of, say, 112233 instead, then you'd be rolling between 4-12, versus their 2-6; if you roll slightly below average, you score a 7, and if they roll slightly above average, they score a 5, meaning that rolling more dice would actually reward you with generally better results, and it would take more extreme rolls to swing the outcome. You could, alternatively, achieve the same results by adding your strength to your final roll, which is a rule I might consider implementing in the future.

The production dice aren’t much better, since a random dice roll determines basically how good your turn is going to be. Roll high and you can produce a ton of resources and swoop across the board to fight someone or lay claim to a shrine; roll low and you can’t do much of anything and feel like you basically just lost a turn. While it’s true that dice rolls will generally average out over a period of time, they’re still vulnerable to good or bad streaks where a player might get multiple good or bad rolls in a row, and it’s not fun to spend multiple turns rolling nothing but 1's and 2's while someone else consistently lands on the upper half of the dice rolls. The official “less random” variant for your production roll helps a bit (instead of rolling 2d6, players roll 1d6 and use the face-up side and the face-down side as the two results, so that you always have a sum total of seven points on your turn; the dice just determine the ratio), but you still run into issues where you’re like “man I really need a five or a six this turn” or “a four and a three would be an ideal combo” and you just don’t get the results you need, thereby throwing a bit of a wrench in your plans. And even then, you’re still stuck with the even worse combat dice.

The final layout of a two-player game. 

Losing just a single battle can have pretty dire consequences, and can knock you completely out of the game if it happens at the right time. Pretty much every session I've played had the victor determined by whomever won the last combat, because it either gave them the victory right then and there or left a clear path for them to reach victory. When you lose a fight, all of your villagers in the battle die, you lose half of your resources, and your explorer gets moved to somewhere of the winner's choosing, usually the most remote space on the opposite side of the board. If you had any structures attached to that space (like a farmhouse necessary for resource production) then they will likely destroy it, too. So, if your home base of operations just got attacked and you lose the dice roll by a single point, then you lose practically all of your pieces on the board, plus half the cards in your hand, and have to rebuild everything with now fewer resources than you had, in a remote corner of the board far away from everything else. It’s not completely crippling because buildings and villagers are pretty cheap to produce, but it effectively sets you back several turns and that can be enough to knock you out if it's near the end of the game, when you might not have enough turns left to get back into it.

I just played a two-player game, for instance, where we went from being tied at two shrines a piece midway through the race to me losing in the span of two turns. I had just found the cave shrine (putting me at two shrines), and my opponent (who had both of the revealed island shrines) decided to camp on the cave entrance and form a blockade, forcing me to attack him to get out. I did so on my turn and lost the fight, purely due to bad luck (we were both rolling eight dice, the maximum we could commit to the fight), and thus lost the cave shrine to my opponent (putting me at one of four shrines and him at three of four) plus all my pieces on the board and half of my resources. On the very next turn, he went exploring and stumbled upon the final island shrine, and had enough resources on hand to give an offering then and there, ending the game in a sudden victory (for him). And there was nothing I could do about it, because I had lost pretty much everything in that one fight. He felt like it was a hollow victory, and we both agreed it was stupid that we went from being tied roughly halfway through the race to me losing, all in the span of 30 seconds, all because of one random dice roll and one random tile draw. 

The reason I get so hung up on the highly random combat dice is that it feels like you have no control over the outcome, and that's generally a bad feeling to have in a game. I understand that it's supposed to make the game more family-friendly, since the luck aspect should balance the playing field over time and give less experienced or less strategic players a chance of winning, even when they'd realistically be completely out-matched, but losing a game because of random dice rolls is really deflating, and winning because of them devalues the victory. We played a game where one player went undefeated in every fight he was involved in, despite the fact that the other player and I were consistently rolling more dice than him (sometimes twice as many), and so we were constantly bereft of resources and never in a good position on the board, while he had an overabundance of resources and practically free-roam of the board -- all because of random luck. I've played all ten or so of my sessions with relatively light gamers who’re only used to games like Catan and Ticket to Ride, and even they complained to me about how random everything felt, and how much of a role luck plays in winning. 

Explorer cards are all double-sided for 10 unique explorers.

The asymmetric explorer abilities may not be fully balanced, either. While they all seem to have interesting abilities and I generally enjoy trying a different character and making their ability work to my strategy, I've found some to be just more useful than others. Tizoc's free food and Victoria's extra starting resources come in handy early on, but then give you practically zero benefit in the second half of the game. Emma's ability to look at and rearrange the top three island tiles gives her more control of exploration, but only really comes in handy on rare occasions when she draws an ocean or shrine tile. Stella's +1 speed seems pretty nice, but I sometimes find myself not using my full movement because I want to end my turn on a certain terrain or don't want to stray too far from my army, in which case the extra movement is wasted. When playing as William, I found that I rarely needed to use his discounted exchange rate. And so, in a game with as much chaotic dice rolling as El Dorado, I usually find myself wanting to play as Nicolas (or is it Nicholas? It's printed two different ways on the player board and in the manual) or Pedro, the two characters who give you benefits to dice-rolling.

I feel like the game suffers a bit from "Betrayal at House on the Hill Syndrome," where the quality of each individual session and therefore the amount of fun players can have can vary wildly depending on how the board happens to shape up. Sometimes you end up producing interesting maps with tactical bottlenecks between shrines, where players are encouraged to set up defensive blockades and have to plan their movements more meticulously, and other times the shrines all appear right next to each other and it ends up being a quick skirmish where someone jumps out to a quick lead and then the game ends. Sometimes everything lays out conveniently for one player and does no favors for anyone else, or other times someone goes into the cave and randomly finds the cave shrine in one of the first tiles, abruptly winning the game in an unsatisfying anticlimax. Point is, some games just end up being better or worse than others, largely due to random elements, and while the good games can be fairly decent the bad games have little to no redeeming value. At least with bad games of Betrayal you get a unique scenario you haven’t seen before, and maybe some kind of memorable story, but with El Dorado you get basically the exact same game but with less fun.

Despite whatever strategy you may think you have going into the game, all players have the exact same objective (be the first to claim all four shrines) and have to go through the exact same steps (deliver two of each resource to all three of the island shrines, and either find or steal the cave shrine) to achieve that goal. Consequently, there aren't a lot of decisions to make in this game, and the few that exist all lead directly to very short-term, surface-level goals. That is to say, decisions and gameplay mechanisms don't really lead to branching strategies where players might try to do different things to win the game in different ways, because everyone's forcibly railroaded into very similar strategies, and whether or not you win largely comes down to circumstances beyond your control -- random dice rolls and random tile draws. Compare this to, say, Viticulture, which isn't that much heavier than El Dorado in terms of rules complexity or total length; while everyone has the same objective of "be the first to reach 20 victory points," Viticulture gives you a lot of different ways to earn points, so when things don't go your way you have other options to fall back on. Not to mention, it allows you to go into the game with different long-term and short-term strategies that could vary from game to game, because it gives you a lot more choices about how to play the game and how to achieve your goals. El Dorado, in contrast, says "play the game in this exact way, and if that doesn't work then try again and hope for better results."

Green and blue are both producing all three types of resources.

Besides combat and exploration, there’s also a light economic element with building structures, recruiting villagers, and managing resources, almost like an engine-building game. Unfortunately, like everything else in the game, this dimension of gameplay feels incredibly shallow and underwhelming. Setting up your economy is as simple as building one farmhouse and recruiting a handful of villagers onto adjacent tiles, and that’s all you need to do for the entire game, which can be accomplished in one or two turns. This process can be expedited even further by finding one of the garden tiles, which count as "wild" and produce all three resources on a single tile, meaning you only ever need to commit a single villager to produce any and all resources you could ever need. If no one ever attacks your farm, then it just sits there the entire time passively collecting resources. So, it’s not really engine-building since your economy doesn’t progressively evolve over the course of the game, which is fine I guess for a light, simple, family-weight game, but there’s no real satisfaction to setting up your economy because there aren’t any extra layers of decision-making going into it -- your economy is perpetually in a binary of state of either existing or not existing, which isn't very exciting and feels like a missed opportunity to do something more engaging with the gameplay.

Meanwhile, there’s no limit to the amount of resources you can have at any time (ie, a hand limit) so the whole process of gathering resources only usually matters in the early stages of the game, because after a while people will start accumulating so many excessive resources that production no longer becomes as necessary, and also because certain resources become progressively less useful as the game goes on. Food is basically only used to recruit villagers, and wood is basically only used to build farmhouses. These resources are only used sporadically after the early stages of the game, if you lose your farm or your villagers (or still have a shrine offering to give), making gold the only resource with any late game value since you have to spend gold to move your army, and it’s usually being spent in large quantities to move your army greater distances. Not to mention its usefulness in building forts, which are perhaps more important in the second half of the game when there's usually more combat. Decision-making, therefore, is further reduced to a single dimension because after a certain point there’s practically no reason to take anything other than gold.

And because there’s no hand limit, it’s entirely possible for a particular resource to be completely drained from the supply, with one or two players hoarding all of them, leaving you with no way to gain those resources except by beating someone in combat (which might not be possible if you don’t have any gold to move your army) and hoping they choose to give you whatever resource you need (likely gold), which they might not even have to give if they have enough other useless resources lying around (likely gained from another player they beat in combat). In one game, a player decided to turtle up in a remote corner of the map and spent half the game slowly taking the entire gold supply until eventually she had practically all of it, leaving hardly any gold for me or the other player to move our armies, which then put us at a severe disadvantage trying to take it from her because we couldn't bring our armies with us. In another game we somehow drained the entire supply of food, and so the player with the explorer ability to gain one free food at the start of every turn went several turns in a row gaining no benefit from his explorer ability. Maybe this is an intended strategy and it’s all just a part of the gameplay (because maybe it promotes combat, or encourages trading between players), but it just seems like a weird oversight to me, especially since the "Hardcore Mode" rules aim to "fix" this problem by implementing a hand limit.

All three shrines randomly ended up right next to each other.

With the "Hardcore Mode" rules, players have a hand limit of 10 cards, which I kind of like because it makes the decision about what resources to take more interesting, since you not only need to think about how many you need, but how many you can hold. It forces you to plan at least one turn ahead, most of the time, and puts you in situations where you have to decide between holding on to enough resources to give a shrine offering, or holding on to a bunch of gold so that you can move your armies and re-roll dice in combat. Using gold to re-roll combat dice is another nice change, since it gives you more decisions to make during a fight, and adds a bit of a "push your luck" element to the gameplay -- you can re-roll as many dice as you want, spending one gold per die, but you only get one re-roll, so do you re-roll those 1's that could possibly turn up as 0's? I also like how the attacker has to complete their roll (and possible re-roll) before the defender even takes their first roll, because then you have that thought process of "my roll is pretty high, what're the odds he can roll better than me? Should I bother to re-roll anything at all?" (This, by the way, makes gold even more valuable, which is a bit questionable since it was already far and away the most valuable resource in the game.)

The third major change in "Hardcore Mode" is that you don't roll dice to determine movement and production; you're simply allotted six "points" to spend either way; you get to choose exactly how many you spend moving or producing, giving you a lot more strategic control over your turns. Finally, each player gets assigned one of the shrine tiles at the start of the game and gets to choose where they place it, as long as they do so within three turns, guaranteeing that each player will at least have an equal opportunity to discover a shrine, rather than possibly being burned wasting turns exploring and finding nothing. Besides that, a minor tweak of "Hardcore Mode" is to shuffle the cave shrine into the bottom half of the cave stack so that players are more likely to have to encounter cave dwellers, and will have to actually explore part of the cave to find the cave shrine.

These are all positive changes that I enjoy since they help reduce the extreme randomness and make the game a little more strategic, but in practice I still have issues with them. My biggest gripe is that they inflate the total playtime even further, since the hand limit now forces you to spend multiple turns doing something that might've only taken one turn previously in addition to having to spend more time thinking and planning out future turns. Other things like re-rolling dice in combat and having to explore at least half of the cave add extra time taking more actions and also calculating odds in one's head, and each player getting to choose where to place a shrine almost guarantees they'll all get placed on opposite corners of the board creating a larger, more spread-out island. The game ran about 90 minutes or more in a three player game with just the base rules, which was already a little too long for what was supposed to be a family/gatewaty game, but the hardcore rules added an extra half-hour with the same group, which is simply too long for this kind of game even if the "Hardcore Mode" is supposed to make it more of a "gamer's game." It's still the same game and it still comes down to "who can roll the best in the final moments." So while I like the intention of the hardcore rules, I think they're a bit of a mixed bag, and if I continue to play El Dorado in the future I'll probably pick and choose what rules I use and may even house-rule a few things.

Exploring the cave and encountering the thieves.

The rule book is pretty bad, by the way, at actually explaining the rules. The garden tile isn’t even mentioned in the rule book, except in a graphic summary on the back cover of the rules, which doesn't even clarify how it functions. Can it produce multiple different types of resources at once, or do you choose only one type to produce that turn? The rules for building a fort specify that it must be built on a corner between three tiles adjacent to your explorer where all three adjacent tiles are "unoccupied," but your explorer "occupies" the tile he's on, so clearly that's an exception that isn't mentioned anywhere in the rules, but what about your villagers? Can you build a fort on a tile if it's "occupied" by your own villagers, or is it only opponent pieces "occupying" spaces that blocks building? If you lose a fight to a cave dweller, you're supposed to shuffle the cave dweller back into the cave stack, but it doesn't say what to do with your explorer; does it follow normal combat rules between players where you get moved back to a shrine you control, or do you move back one hex to your previous tile, like in the explanation for what happens in the event of a tie? The thieves are found inside the cave, but they have their own entry in the rules, separate from the “cave dwellers” entry so are they technically cave dwellers and do they follow the rules for cave dwellers? Can there be more than two people in a fight, and if so, how does that work?

Other rules just don't make intuitive sense. Farmhouses are listed as having 1 strength, but for some reason they don’t add their strength to combat on adjacent tiles, so players constantly get hung up on the fact that “well my farmhouse is there, why isn’t it part of the combat? Why does the player board even list a strength value if it doesn't participate in combat?" The “move army” action is particularly confusing, since it says that armies can move "to an adjacent tile" out of turn, but must be done "after any explorer or army movement" but "before an opponent buys offerings, buildings, or villagers." The timing here is incredibly vague; if an opponent is moving their explorer multiple spaces, do I have to wait for them to finish an entire movement or can I basically interrupt their turn, but only if they interrupt their own movement to do something? How is movement even defined in this context? If they're going to build something, do I have to move my army before they actually declare a build action, or do I wait for them to say "I'm building something" and then go "Actually, before you do that, I'm moving my army and attacking you"? Whose action takes priority in that case? Can you spend multiple gold to move your army multiple spaces at a time, or are you restricted to moving your armies at a one-to-one ratio with your opponent's movement?

I'd watched a few video overviews and a full playthrough and thus thought I had a pretty good understanding of everything, but then became immensely confused when reading the actual rules for the first time, and even more so when playing for the first time, because so many things either weren't explained clearly, or didn't make intuitive sense, or weren't covered at all. The above examples are just some of the more egregious ones; there are plenty more to be found in the rule book, which I'm not sure was ever blind-tested. The rule book seems to assume you already know things about how the game works, and doesn't bother to clarify exceptions to the rule, or rule out alternative interpretations of the rules. Some important rules are never stated at all, while others are merely implied. Some rules are just poorly explained and difficult to understand. Learning to play the game correctly, therefore, requires a bunch of research checking the online FAQ (which only addresses a few of the more glaring issues) and digging through forum posts to find answers from the designer, whose rule explanations sometimes seem to contradict what the printed rulebook would imply. 

Apparently they finally posted an updated rulebook a few days ago (here on BGG and on the second Kickstarter) while I've been writing this review. It seems to add some much needed clarity in terms of how certain rules are supposed to function, though I'm still not convinced the new explanation for army movement is as clear as it could be -- it looks like they added restrictions to moving armies out of turn, but I can't tell if that's an intended rule change or just poor wording. Interestingly, some rules from the hardcore mode have made their way into the normal rules. Notably, there's now an enforced hand limit of nine resource cards even in the standard rules, which is even more extreme than the 10 card limit in the hardcore rules, and you're also required in the normal rules to shuffle the cave shrine into the bottom half of the cave stack. Other things were also added to the rules, like being able to pay to tear down your own structures. I appreciate the designer's willingness to listen to community feedback, plus his continued dedication to the game, but I feel like these are the kinds of tweaks that could have (or rather, should have) been made during play-testing, because it's not like these are radical, sweeping changes -- they're just minor tweaks and a few extra sentences of clarification. It's better late than never, but I can't say I'm fond of paying to essentially beta-test a product.

Sharp corners get scratched easily, plus there's no art anywhere. 

The components are generally pretty nice -- the custom-cut explorer meeples and the painted-resin shrines are both exquisite, the terrain hexes are made from a nice thick, dense cardboard, not to mention the color-coded, cloth draw-string component baggies and the card tuck box -- but I have some gripes here, too.

Mainly, I just hate the box. People tell me that the solid black box with reflective gold lettering looks fancy and elegant, but to me it looks bland and boring. There’s no art anywhere on it to inspire any imagery of the game's theme or what it's like to actually play, and the thin gold lettering can be difficult to read under certain lighting conditions. Usually people just see a black box and have to ask “Hey, what’s that game?” And then when I go to explain it to them, I can’t just show them the back of the box to give a visual demonstration, I have to open it up and start pulling components out, or give them an abstract description with no visuals, neither of which is particularly ideal. The solid black exterior also makes every scratch, nick, and cut on the box stand out more visibly, and those sharp corners and edges scratch really easily, leading to a lot of obnoxious white gash marks. The magnetic lid-flap seems like yet another luxurious touch, but I find it highly impractical because it doesn’t fully enclose (or even seal) the interior contents of the box, meaning that thinner components like terrain hexes easily come loose and slide out between the lid and the top lip of the box, ruling out vertical storage and making me paranoid that I'm going to randomly lose terrain hexes in transit if I take the game anywhere, because I actually have had tiles slide out.

As a nice touch, all of the artwork (printed on terrain hexes, resource cards, and on your explorer board) consists of vintage paintings from the 16th century; while this lends some authenticity to the visual flair of the game, it's a bit like using stock art to make your game -- even though the art looks really nice, it was not created with a board game in mind and therefore doesn't necessarily reflect or facilitate the actual gameplay. The terrain tiles, for instance, are cropped, monochromatic closeups of paintings that, at a glance, look like blurry color palettes to me, and so in practice the board just looks like an abstract combination of colored hexes, like you're playing an abstract strategy game. It doesn't matter thematically that it's a mountain yielding gold, because it's just "yellow" to me. The tiles also don't connect or line up in any kind of interesting way (like in Carcassonne, or The Cave, or Taluva, where elements of one tile bleed into the next to instill a sense of continuity between tiles); instead we get a generic brown border that visually separates the tiles. I'll concede and even admit that the island tiles do look visibly striking when they're set up on the table, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) their relative simplicity, so maybe I'm over-thinking this, but the graphic design just doesn't impress me.

Resources cards and brown-bordered terrain hexes.

I'm also not fond of how the designer chose to launch an expansion on Kickstarter mere weeks after finishing fulfillment of the original game. Some of the expansion ideas feel like they probably should've been in the base game already (namely, more things to flesh out the cave), and so I have to wonder why they didn't make the first cut and whether they were intentionally held out to pad out an expansion, though maybe I'm just being cynical. But really, I'm just annoyed that I felt like the designer was rushing me into a decision to back an expansion for a game that I'd barely even had a chance to play, especially with the veiled implication that these games may never come to retail. Will there be more reprint campaigns on Kickstarter in the future? Who knows, make sure you buy the expansion now to guarantee your copy! I get that the designer was probably just excited and wanted to share (what he thought was) good news right away, but it feels like a pushy sales tactic, especially when the game has only been out for a few weeks and people haven't had enough time to let the game digest. I'd only played three or four games at the time, so how was I supposed to know if I even wanted the expansion? Normally I buy an expansion because I've played the base game to death and want to breathe new life into it, not because I'm being rushed/pressured into an impulse purchase before I've even had a chance to evaluate the base game. (For the record, I opted out of the expansion and I think I'm glad I did.)

It just feels like the base game wasn’t very well thought out, like they had this cool idea and came up with some basic rules, then play-tested them with a limited audience of close friends and released the game to the public. That may not be what actually happened, but the poorly-written rulebook, the un-intuitive rules, and the minor balance issues suggest a crude level of refinement. I personally detest the insane amount of random luck in this game, but I could tolerate or possibly even appreciate it if there were at least interesting decisions to make that could allow you to mitigate luck, but it almost feels like the game plays itself. Many decisions feel completely obvious and therefore aren’t satisfying to make, while other decisions don’t even really matter. There’s not enough deep strategy to appeal to heavy gamers, and the luck element is so prevalent that even light gamers complained to me about it. None of the people I've played with (in a few different groups, at various player counts) particularly enjoyed it, while some people actively disliked it.

I like the concept, particularly the first half of the game as you’re exploring the map and wondering how the board is going to shape up, but once you get into the meat of the actual game (ie, the race aspect of trying to be the first to claim all four shrines) then it loses a lot of appeal to me. I feel like there's a good game to be made with the components and the basic gameplay concepts, but neither the core rules nor the "Hardcore Mode" rules feel that great to me and so I'd rather just play something else instead. I might still play it occasionally, to see if I can find the hidden charm that the designer sees in it, or to see if I can work out my own worthwhile tweaks to the rules, but doing so would be purely experimental, not for love of the game itself. Though to be honest, after about 10 plays I don't think I care to give it any more chances.

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