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CENTURY SPICE ROAD

Reviewed by Herb Levy

CENTURY SPICE ROAD (Plan B Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 45 minutes; $39.99)

 

In times long past, the legendary Spice Road was the trading route that merchants took to journey east and gather the valuable spices that made them rich upon their return. In Century Spice Road, designer Emerson Matsuchi revisits that time and place as players are in charge of their own caravans and will do their best to convert spices into treasure and become the most successful trader of all. 

Four spices (represented by cubes) are in the game. They are, in ascending value, turmeric (yellow), safran (red), cardamom (green) and cinnamon (brown). The deck of Merchant cards is shuffled and a display of 6 of them displayed. In similar fashion, the deck of Point cards is shuffled with 5 of them revealed. All players begin with their own caravan (a randomly dealt card with room for 10 spices) and begin with a supply of spices (3 yellow for the first player and then slightly more for the players that follow in turn order). Everyone also gets an identical starting hand of 2 cards. On a turn, a player may do one of four things. 

First, a player may place a card from his hand and do the specified action. Actions range from getting more cubes of specified colors, upgrading cubes from a lesser value to more valuable ones and more. Alternatively, a player may collect a Merchant card from the 6 card display.

Merchant cards allow you to do similar actions to what your basic cards can do but at a higher level (e.g. more cubes, more upgrades), even turn in some cubes to get more/less/different cubes in return. The Merchant card furthest to the left is free for the taking but if you want one of the other cards, you must spend a cube (spice) of any color on EVERY card between the one furthest to the left and the card you wish to collect. Cards obtained go directly into a player’s hand and may be played on a later turn. (If a card is taken, the unclaimed cards slide left to fill in any gaps and a a new Merchant card drawn so there are always 6 cards to choose from.) Later on, any player who decides to collect an overlooked card with cubes on it will get that card AND those cubes. (Although it may be tempting, hoarding cubes is not a viable option. Caravans are limited to carrying 10 cubes. If you end your turn with more, you must discard down to the 10 cube limit.) When enough cubes of the required type have been collected, a player may BUY.

All Point cards have a victory point value and a “purchase price” in spices. When a player has the required spices (cubes) that a card demands, he may use his turn to return the appropriate cubes and claim the card. (Only one card may be purchased on a turn.) If the card bought is the first in the row, a gold coin is awarded; if it is the second card, a silver coin instead. At the end of the game, gold coins are worth 3 points each, silver worth 1. As with Merchant cards, remaining cards in the row slide down to fill any gap and a new card drawn so there are always five possible purchases on a player’s turn. 

As cards are played and actions taken, there will come a point when either a player will want to reclaim an already played card or simply have no more cards in his hand to play! That player may “rest” and scoop up all of his discards. That is the total action of the turn but, of course, now the player has a full arsenal at his disposal for his next turn. 

When someone has purchased 5 cards (or 6 cards in a 2 or 3 player game), the endgame is triggered and the round finished so everyone has an equal number of turns. The total value of all bought cards plus the value of any gold or silver coins collected along the way plus 1 point for any non-yellow cube on a player’s caravan is a player’s score. High score wins!

For want of a better word, the game play of Century Spice Road is “smooth”. The flow of actions is seamless so that play is quick and easy to understand. Except for the competition for Point cards, there is very little interaction but the game, surprisingly, does not suffer for it as players become engrossed in their own tactics, mesmerized by the challenge of getting from here to there. Like Sid Sackson’s classic game of Bazaar, the heart of the game is “color conversion” (manipulating one set of colors to create another set of colors). In Bazaar, five colors are in play and the conversion goes back and forth in different directions, making that game a brain burner that make you sweat. With Century Spice Road, play is much more straightforward as the four colors of spices are always valued in the same ascending order making the game less taxing and, maybe because of that, accessible to the less “serious” gamers among us but very enjoyable for all. 

The artwork for the game is exceptionally good, adding to the atmosphere. Numbers are easy to read as well. The inclusion of four small bowls to hold the cubes adds to the Eastern feel of the game too. The “rest” action is reminiscent of Kreta, the excellent Stefan Dorra design (featured in the Fall 2005 issue of Gamers Alliance Report) and is used to good advantage here. Theoretically, you can always continue to recruit Merchant cards but, as you are building your deck, there are, more than likely, cards already held that will do what you want and do it quickly. You want them back! Players need to decide just when to retrieve their played cards to minimize the damage caused by, essentially, giving up a turn (although, admittedly, if you have emptied your hand and have no more cards to play, the decision is made for you). 

Century Spice Road is fun, fast and completely engaging. It scales well with 2, 3, 4 or 5 players making this a first class choice for your gaming sessions regardless of number. Although the game is supposed to be about spices, in the final analysis, the successful combination of game play and graphic design makes Century Spice Road very very sweet. Highly recommended. –  – – – Herb Levy


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