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Spyrium

Reviewed by: Joe Huber

(Ystari/Asmodee, 2 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, 60 minutes, $34.99)

spyrium1For me, one of the unexpected aspects of becoming more heavily involved in the boardgaming hobby has been the opportunity to spend time with and become friends with a lot of game designers. But, as enjoyable as that has been particularly in discussing game design with them, there’s another aspect that I hadn’t anticipated. For designers who have designs I enjoy, all’s well; I can simply point folks to those games. But in a number of cases, I will get to know a designer before I discover one of their games which I enjoy. I always find this difficult but never more than when I get along really well with the designer. Such was the case for me with William Attia.

William is the designer of Caylus (featured in the Winter 2006 Gamers Alliance Report). I had the chance to meet William at The Gathering of Friends, playing in a Race for the Galaxy tournament. I immediately noted his skill as a player. I won our game due to the actions of the third player but William played extremely well. I’ve played a number of additional games with him over time and it has always been a most enjoyable experience’ he’s not only a very strong player, but a very gracious one. But… I don’t like Caylus.

I’d note that that doesn’t mean Caylus is a bad game – it certainly isn’t. But I find it an incredibly frustrating game; plans typically require multiple actions in order to complete and, because of the nature of worker placement games, it’s almost impossible to ensure that you get even one particular action, not to mention a series of actions. Fortunately, game design has moved towards more default actions being available and towards requiring fewer actions to carry out a plan. Caylus Magna Carta (Fall 2007 GA Report) helped some with this issue but still didn’t really strike home with me. Thus it was that I was very excited to give Spyrium a try. I was taught the game by William and immediately realized that it bore little resemblance to Caylus.

Spyrium is, like Caylus, a worker placement game but that’s about the only similarity. Players are in Victorian England, looking to take advantage of a new mineral, Spyrium. Spyrium seems to exist primarily to be transmuted into victory points.

The game is played over six rounds. Each round, nine new cards are laid out in a three-by-three grid. Cards are of three varieties: people, businesses, and technologies. Most people offer an advantage such as providing Spyrium or victory points. Most people offer an advantage such as providing Spyrium or victory points; these advantages can only be used a limited number of times (one fewer time than the number of players). Businesses can be added to a player’s tableau and often utilized on that and future turns. But each business after the first requires increasing payments for property or building over an existing property and losing both the ability and victory points from the old building. Technologies each provide an ability – some always present, some usable only once per round – and can be added without additional costs but are more expensive than most buildings.

spyrium2Once the cards for the round are laid out, players start taking their turns. Each round, there is one special ability such as the ability to sell one Spyrium for £3 or three Spyrium for £6. This ability can only be used once by each player. There are two phases to each round and each player can switch to the second phase independently. In the first phase, a playermay place one of their workers between any two cards or use the special ability. If a player doesn’t wish to – or can’t – do either of these actions, then they move to the second phase, and take one of the actions there.

There are four actions available in the second phase. First, the special ability is still available if it wasn’t used in the first phase. Second, a player may pick up one of his workers and earn one pound for each worker still around either of the cards the removed worker was next to. Third, a player may pick up one of his workers in order to buy an adjacent business or technology or to use an adjacent person. In this case, in addition to any normal cost, the player must PAY one pound for each worker still adjacent to the card. Finally, a player may use one of their buildings. If a player wishes to do none of these actions, he must pass and sit out the remainder of the round. Once all players have passed, the round is over and the next begins.

Cards are divided up into three varieties: A cards for the first three rounds, B cards for the fourth and fifth round, and C cards for the final round. After the sixth round, endgame points are scored for businesses and technologies and the player with the most victory points wins.

As noted earlier, one of my biggest frustrations with Caylus is the need to complete multiple actions to carry off a plan. There is some of that here but a lot more flexibility. A player can aim to earn the money they need just as it’s needed, and can be frustrated when it’s not available, and certainly a player can be frustrated when cards they are adjacent to are purchased ahead of them. But it’s usually possible to determine where that’s likely to happen and it’s always possible to shift to the second phase early in order to grab a particularly desired business or technology or to position workers around people and, at a minimum, allow the workers to be pulled for cash.

spyrium3Above and beyond the fact that I don’t find Spyrium frustrating, there’s a lot that I like in the game. A number of games are characterized as cube pushers; Spyrium avoids feeling like one by having only one type of cube (well, crystal). Overall, the only resources in the game are Spyrium, money, and workers. This can make for a game which feels like it’s missing in depth but Spyrium avoids this via the variety of buildings and technologies plus enough secondary play elements to both add variety to the play and give players more to think about.

One of the best aspects of the design, in my opinion, is that unlike many worker games where getting additional workers early is clearly optimal, in Spyrium, it’s entirely possible to play the whole game with a small number of workers. Because of the variable shift from the first to second phase, having fewer workers can even be advantageous as it encourages an earlier shift, often one out of sync with the rest of the table. Which is not to say that there aren’t strategies that take good advantage of lots of workers; it’s just that having lots of workers isn’t required to play the game well.

The steampunk theme works for the game but doesn’t particularly enhance the play experience. But neither does it detract from the game as some themes might. The artwork works well but, at least for me, does not stand out. Overall, the production is perfectly reasonable given the price and all of the components are easy to use. The rules are well done and clear; I don’t recall having had any rules questions or uncertainties.

One of the frequent complaints about Caylus is the length but that won’t be an issue here; Spyrium is easily played in under an hour. The game is easily picked up by gamers. While there is sufficient depth to continue learning with additional play, experienced gamers will have no difficulty in forming a plan even on their first play. That’s always helpful when trying to get impatient gamers to try a game more than once.

I was undoubtedly well inclined towards enjoying Spyrium, at least initially. But I’ve now played it seven times and it’s continuing to be very enjoyable. Even better, from my point of view, is the ability to attempt very different strategies. The game is more tactical than strategic, to be fair, but there are enough strategic options – and opportunities to carry them out – for the game to be a good fit for me. But even more importantly, the game has been a minor hit with my gaming groups. Not a major hit – and, to be honest, it’s not a major hit with me nor likely to reach that status. But it’s a game I expect to play many times and one which I don’t expect to always have to be the one to suggest. Given the low cost – less than $25 from online stores – it’s a good game to consider picking up, even if you haven’t had the opportunity to play it first. It should appeal to fans of worker placement games, steampunk-themed games and medium-weight German games.


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