I think I might really like Glass Road. Like, really like it. I will need to play it a lot more to be sure, but it might just be Uwe Rosenberg’s crowning achievement – and this is coming from someone who loves Agricola more than any man should love a board game.
So the thing is, a while ago I wrote some ruminations about how the length of a game is not a feature, but simply a by-product of whatever mechanics you have in play. Such that one should not aim to create a long game, but should instead work as hard as possible to shorten a game’s length while maintaining one’s mechanical vision.
I said something to the effect of, “Wouldn’t Twilight Struggle be better if you got the same experience but it took half the time?” And, well, okay, my aversion to Twilight Struggle is well-documented, but the same idea applies to any game, and I think the answer is “yes.” Specifically, if you could get the same mechanical depth of Agricola, but the game only lasted an hour, wouldn’t that be awesome? Or at least wholly impressive that a designer managed to pull such a feat off?
Now, first of all I should make clear that Glass Road is very different from Agricola. It’s kind of funny because Rosenberg has been refining his Agricola engine for, like, 7 years now with Le Havre, Ora et Labora and has even now just released Caverna at almost the same time as Glass Road. All these game add or take away mechanics from Agricola, but Rosenberg’s true coup has come by stripping everything away and rebuilding it tighter and more basic, so that you get the same deep thought processes in a single hour of gameplay. I am simply amazed at the design prowess.
So let’s talk about the game. At it’s heart it is a game of role selection and resource management. Everybody has the same set of 15 cards, 5 of which they are going to select as their hand for a round. There are only 4 rounds in the game and you can select from any of the 15 each round. Once everybody’s got their 5 cards, they each place 1 face-down in front of them and then, starting with the first player, take a turn to reveal their face-down card. The trick is that each card has two actions – normally you would get to take both, but if another player has that same card still in his hand, he essentially interrupts your turn, plays that card as well, and then both of you can only take one of the two actions on the card. This is great for the opponent because each player will only get to play 3 cards face-down. They will only get to play their other 2 if they play them as interrupts on other people’s turns, so interrupting is essentially a free action, unless you were planning on playing that card face-down later to get both actions off it…you still have to interrupt and only get the 1 action instead.
What is so nifty about this is that it uses a very different mechanic to achieve the same logical effect of worker placement. In order to truly excel at the game, you need to anticipate what your opponent is going to do, what order he is going to do it in, and then react to that in the most efficient way possible to block his actions and maximize your own. And the most wonderful part is how little time it takes because everybody is making their decisions at the same time. It’s not reactive. I can’t see what your move is and then formulate a plan for what my best move is in response to that. Everyone picks their 5 cards at the same time and then picks cards to play face-down at the same time. Once you get the hang of it, the game flows astoundingly well for how deep it is.
So what are these actions doing exactly? Well, you are collecting resources to build buildings. Everyone’s got their own player board that consists of a 5×5 grid with most of the spaces filled up with forests, clay pits and lakes. The goal is just to maximize your points at the end of the game, of which there are 2 main sources: buildings and refined resources – glass and brick.
So first let’s talk about the refined resources. There are actually 6 basic resources in the game – water, food, charcoal, wood, sand and clay. And you automatically convert a single water, food, charcoal, wood and sand into a single glass whenever you are able, and a single charcoal, food and clay into a single brick whenever you are able. And if that sounds fiddly and hard to manage, don’t worry because Uwe’s got you covered. These little wheels you have to keep track of resources are so nifty, I don’t even think I could explain them properly. But trust me, it doesn’t feel fiddly at all.
Anyway, so each piece of glass and brick you have at the end of the game is worth a point, but you can only have 3 of each of those max. And sand (max 7) is also worth a half a point. So that’s like 9.5 points total, which, well, that’s a pretty terrible score. No, you’re going to have to build buildings, too, which usually cost resources – both refined and basic, and will go on your player board on an empty space.
And buildings, well, buildings are the other place where the game really shines. Because the true heart of Agricola in my opinion is its replayability. You’ve got so many potential hand combinations of occupations and minor improvements, and they have such a strong impact on the game, you have to devise a completely new strategy every time you play the game. I believe Glass Road offers this same replayability with its vast assortment of building tiles. There are 3 big ol’ stacks of ’em, and you’re probably only going to see about 1/3 of them in any given game.
And one building by itself isn’t going to do much for you. No, it is all about the building combinations. To really do well, you’ve gotta look at the initial offering of buildings, figure out which ones will synergize to yield lots of points, and then devise a plan for getting them before your opponents. And once you can figure out what buildings your opponents are going for, be sure to use that information against them in the role selection.
If all this is still feeling a little abstract, let me give you an example. In the game I played, there were two buildings (out of the 15 dealt) that really caught my eye. One was the water tower, which, when built and placed on your board created a lake in each space adjacent to it. The second building was the flood gate, which gives a point at the end of the game for each contiguous lake space. So I made a plan to build the water tower as soon as possible and use other actions as well to start filling up my entire board with lake spaces. Then I nabbed the flood gate to earn a cool 10 points by the end of the game. Plus there are a couple action cards that give you resources based on how many lakes you have. Another building came up later in the game that gave points based on how much extra food you have at the end of the game, so I ended up getting even more points by grabbing that and then getting a bunch of food from my lakes.
It’s not too intense, but there definitely is a level of spatial reasoning involved in what to build where on your player board and what forests and whatnot you need to remove to make room. I like spatial reasoning in games, and I think it has a tad more than what you’ll find in Agricola.
Oh my word, I have rambled on here. Conclusion: Glass Road is great. It is very interesting and innovative, and I really need to play it some more – both because I enjoy it and to confirm whether it does truly have the depth and replayability of Agricola.
I’m not sure how I feel about the shared pool of buildings, as two people could easily devise the same strategy and then end up sabotaging each other pretty heavily, but if that is something that bothers you, you can always play the action card that gives you your own private pool of buildings to choose from. Also, because it is so short, there’s really not a lot of wiggle room. You’ve really gotta hit the ground running and work towards a master goal from your very first action, or you can easily be left by the wayside and end up with not very many points. On the other hand, there really aren’t that many game play mechanics that you need to grasp. Everything is pretty simple and intuitive, such that it should be pretty easy to hit the ground running. Maybe not on the very first turn of of your first game, but, still, a very approachable learning curve I think.
Also, there are no sheep.
And I have no rebuttal for this complaint. In fact, the entire theme is a little ho-hum, but that doesn’t really stop me from enjoying a fantastic game.