I was minding my own business last week, innocently playing games at the weekly board game group when a friend totally blind-sided me with a recent acquisition. He held up a small box with some steampunk miner on it and says, “Would you be interested in playing this? It’s by William Attia.”
William Attia, of Caylus fame. Caylus being one of my all-time favorite board games. Caylus being the game that Lords of Waterdeep shamelessly ripped off and made into a huge success by dumbing it down and adding randomness and king-making elements. Because if Caylus has one problem (which may not be a problem depending on who you ask, i.e. me) it is that it takes a long time to play and it’s a little hard to break out at board game nights because a lot of people aren’t interested in playing a 3+ hour game.
But not only is Spyrium an Attia venture, it also boasts just a 45-60 playtime, reinforcing this idea with its small, unimposing box size. This was definitely something to check out.
Well, unfortunately Spyrium wasn’t in the cards that night, so then I had to wait a week anticipating playing it. Which is never fun in itself, but nothing enhances an actual experience like the anticipation of the experience. It’s one of the reasons Kickstarter can be so successful. It would be better if the wait between purchase and arrival were significantly shorter, but still, anticipation makes everything better.
So a week went by of me reading rules manuals and watching videos online. It’s not like that is all I was doing – I have plenty of other things going on – but still, when our next game night rolled around, I was prepared. We started up a 5-player game and I was ready to roll.
Now, because I’m an arrogant asshole, when I am presented with a score track in any game, my immediate goal is to break that score track by getting more points than can be denoted, thus proving I am smarter than the designer’s wildest expectations. Of course, if there are little tokens to denote a players trip around the score track so that you can traverse it multiple times, well that means the designer expected as much, and it’s no longer any fun to do it. And then of course there’s end-game scoring. If you break the score track during end-game scoring, that doesn’t count either because you technically don’t actually need to move yourself up the score track since you can just arrive at a final number and keep it in your head, since you don’t have to fill your head with playing the game anymore.
So I look at Spyrium’s score track of a mere 50 points and think, “Surely I can break this.” There’s a ton of end-game scoring for buildings and tech cards, so clearly people will end up above 50 points, but I needed to do it before the end of the game. This was my single, solitary goal.
And what’s great about Spyrium is that there are so many strategies you can work with. There are, like, 8 or 9 tech cards and they all give you a nice load of points at the end for various things, and getting these things will also get you points in other ways. But a lot of these strategies only get you those points at the end of the game, so I settled almost immediately onto a quick point-grabbing strategy of producing the spyrium resource and trading it in for points.
But hold on, I’m singing the praises of an excellent “multiple paths to victory” design when I haven’t even mentioned the cool part of the game: spatially dependent worker placement. I know.
So we’ve got a 3×3 grid of cards, and on your turn you can place a worker between two of these cards. Play goes round and round the table with people placing workers until one guy decides he wants to start activating cards, so he moves to the second phase of his turn and starts pulling dudes up (once per turn) and activating one of the cards they are between. But the problem is that when you want to activate the card, not only do you have to pay the card cost, you’ve gotta pay a dollar (pound, whatever) for every other worker also adjacent to that card. Alternately, you could pull that worker up and instead of activating the card, you could simply collect a buck for every worker next to the card. So it’s this very beautiful dance of figuring out when to pull workers up and to either take the money or pay the money to activate a card, which is extra tricky because every card is a limited source. Once somebody activates a building or a tech, they take it off the board and stick it in front of them, limiting the choices of the other workers next to it. If a worker has both cards he is next to removed, well then he’s just out of luck.
Anyway, so we start playing and I am really enjoying this game mechanic. You really have to sit and think about what your opponents are going to do. One the first turn, there was one building that gives you an extra worker (you start with 3), but it was in the center of the grid and hotly contested (i.e. expensive), so my initial goal was to get 8 points the first round, as that would also get me an extra worker. Yeah, sorry, didn’t even mention that other brilliant game mechanic. You get rewards for getting to 8 and 20 points during the game.
Why is it brilliant? Because it significantly opens up your options. Let’s think about Puerto Rico for a second (or any number of other Euro games). What is your strategy at the beginning of the game? To build an engine that will get you massive points at the end of the game. If you focus on getting points at the beginning of the game, you’re not going to build up a good engine and get crushed in the late game. In Spyrium, by rewarding players for getting points, it becomes a viable strategy to collect points at the beginning of the game, essentially doubling the number of available game play strategies. If you don’t think that’s brilliant, well, then I don’t know what to do with you.
Of course, collecting points isn’t a very good engine. It just gets you an extra worker at 8 and $5 at 20 (or the other way around), but it doesn’t have to be great because you’re also getting points, which is great because I’m trying to break the score track here.
So I picked up the factory that lets you turn 2 spyrium into 5 points and I played on the event that lets you turn 3 quid into 3 points. Bam! 8 points and an extra worker, while some other chump had to pay a fortune to get the worker building in the middle and didn’t even get 8 points to boot. We were off to a good start.
Locked into my strategy and ahead on workers, I decided to simply collect as much spyrium as possible and use the factory as much as possible to get points. On turn 1 I only got 8 points, so in order to break the track I was going to also have to improve my engine somewhat in order get past 50 by turn 6.
Next round didn’t go so hot, as I missed out on both of the mines (generate spyrium) that were placed, but I continued to collect spyrium through other means and use my factory some more.
Turn 3 I manage to pick up an improved mine (generate 2 spyrium) and a tech that gave me extra points for using my factories (and double the end-game value of my factories, but that was no help in my goal). I had passed the 20 mark by this point, which gave me the 5 coins needed to make those 2 purchases.
Then we entered stage B on turn 4, and I snagged a second factory that was just a single spyrium for 5 points (or 6 with the tech). Now I was able to start generating 12 points per turn and was beginning to be very pleased with myself.
Turn 5 an interesting tech came out that allowed you to untap a building once per turn. Yes, I would most definitely like to use my improved factory twice per turn. And the added bonus was that I was using most of my workers in my own buildings, so I could head into phase 2 on my second turn, snagging cards that I needed before they got too expensive and before other people had a chance to get them. Keep in mind, however, that my engine was a little threadbare. I was never able to improve my income track, so I was getting 2 extra cash per turn when others were getting 7, and I still only had 4 workers, so I couldn’t spare any to go out onto the cards and collect more money if I wanted to run my mines and factories efficiently. I had flamed out early, and other people had massive worker pools. massive cash flows and were starting to catch up on my early lead.
Nothing to do but double down and commit. I picked up the tech and tapped my improved factory twice for another 12 points, now sitting at a cool 39. What was weird at this point was that my strategy had now become totally independent of the cards. I saw that the event for the final round was a single ability to untap a card, so I could use my factory 3 times on the final turn for another 18 points, but each of those uses required a worker, and my 4th worker needed to use the mine to feed the factory engine. I was already done with the game, sitting at 57 points (yeah, I broke the score track) with another 14 points in endgame scoring.
All there was to do was sit back and see if anyone could beat me. Mr. Moneybags sitting to my left was giving me a good scare as he had been focusing on increasing his income track. He’d reached 7 in turn 4 and then spent turn 5 tapping it 3 more times to earn an easy 21 points (instead of increasing the track, you can use that action to gain an amount of VP equal to where you are on the track). If he got a bunch more income actions on the last turn, he might just be able to catch up…
Luckily, there are no income actions in the final turn of the game (one one hand it makes sense since there aren’t any more turns to collect income, but it does kind of limit that strategy). He still had a ton of money, though, and quite possibly could have caught up if another player hadn’t screwed him out of acquiring multiple buildings.
In the end, I earned a solid victory at 71 points, with Mr. Moneybags and another player tying for second back at 58, with another player sitting at 57 and the owner of the game bringing up the rear at 40-something.
I don’t know what else to say except, “Oh man, this game is so brilliant!” I really want to bust it out again and will probably even purchase it at some point in the future. My one disappointment was that my strategy, by the end of the game, had totally removed me from the card grid where all the sweet, sweet action was going on. I wanted more opportunities to screw other people over, so I guess I’ll have to go for a high-worker count strategy next time. Also, the game ended up taking more like 2 hours with 5 people, but we were all playing for the first time.
Either way, Spyrium is totally rad.