Reviewed by Pevans
COLONY (Beziar Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, about 60 minutes; $59.95)
After the apocalypse: dice!
My introduction to Colony came at the Bézier Games stand at Spiel ’16 last October. Seeing the serried ranks of cards held in place inside the square box by the slots in the plastic insert, I remarked, “It’s just like Dominion!” “Yes,” responded co-designer and Bézier main man Ted Alspach, “it’s exactly like Dominion!” Luckily, he was joking – the physical components are the main similarity between the two games.
To start with, Colony, designed by Ted Alspach, Toryo Hojo and Yoshihisa Nakatsu, is a dice game. The box insert is cunningly designed so that the cardboard strip that identifies each set of cards clips into place over the central section. It holds everything else in place: the cardboard scoring track and all the dice, cardboard chips and wooden scoring markers. Thus everything stays where it’s supposed to be when carrying the game around – on its side or even upside down – which is great news when so many dice and cards are involved.
The story of the game is that “Eighty years after the nanopocalypse … it’s up to you to rebuild civilization … it’s a race to see who can build up their colony first.” The cards represent buildings in player’s colonies. They provide victory points (usually just one, but a few cards are worth two) as well as some benefit to the owning player (extra dice being an obvious one). The game ends as soon as a player achieves the target number of points – 15 in a four-player game, more with fewer players.
The way players acquire cards is to ‘buy’ them with dice (“Resources”) of the right value. Thus, a “Fabric Replicator” requires three ‘5’s and a ‘2’, while a “Fallout Shelter” needs four dice of the same value (any value) and one ‘6’. Cards are placed in front of the owning player with their basic side face-up. They can be upgraded (to the “2.0” version), which generally adds an extra victory point and improves the card’s benefit.
Since cards provide victory points, acquiring and upgrading them lie at the heart of the game. Of course, you need to spend dice to do both of these, so gaining buildings that give you more dice gives you more choice and better buildings. However, rolling dice means you can’t be sure what values you’re going to get, making the game tactical. Adding buildings that provide specific values of dice let you plan more, making the game more strategic.
Okay, I’d better go into a bit more detail. Players start with their own set of the same four cards, providing the initial actions available to them. “Construction” allows you to build one building, paying the dice required for that building to add the card to your ‘colony’. If it’s not used to construct a new card, Construction gets you a chip instead – an important point that I keep forgetting. “Upgrade” lets you flip a card over to its “2.0” side by spending four dice: a ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ and a ‘4’. “Supply Exchange” swaps two dice of the same value for one die – usually a different value, of course. And the fourth card is your “Warehouse”. This is important as it lets you store dice between turns. What’s more, you know the values on these dice, allowing you to start looking at what options you will have next turn.
The other cards go onto the table so that they’re available to construct. However, there will only be 13 different buildings in a game: six of these are standard and seven ‘variable’ – drawn from the other 28 sets of cards in the box. Note that there will only be as many in each ‘variable’ set as there are players in the game. However, players are not limited in what cards they construct, so this doesn’t mean that every player will be able to get one of each building – multiples of the same building can be very useful.
The variable buildings come in seven different types (including attack, defence, trading…) and the introductory set-up uses one of each type. It’s easy enough to alter this by substituting a different card of the same type, or to change the balance of the game by swapping for a different type. The rules have some suggestions for different mixes of cards, each giving a particular emphasis to the game, and there’s an app available on the publisher’s website (beziergames.com) to provide random set-ups.
A player’s turn starts with rolling three white dice. They can also throw in up to three chips, if they’ve acquired any, to roll grey dice as well. Grey dice represent unstable resources and are discarded at the end of a player’s turn if they haven’t been used – only white, stable resources can be stored in a player’s warehouse. (An important point to note here is that the “Supply Exchange” lets you turn a pair of unstable resources into a stable one.) The player chooses one of the white dice (and all the greys) to keep. The next player chooses one of the remaining dice and puts it into their warehouse and the third player (or first player again in a two-player game) gets the third.
Some cards are ‘Production’ and give players extra dice at the start of their turn. Each “Fabric Replicator”, for example, provides its owner with a ‘4’ grey die (once upgraded to its ‘2.0’ side, that’s a white die). Using the dice they’ve rolled, produced and taken from their warehouse, players then carry out any and all of the actions available to them from their cards. However, each card can only be used once: the rules recommend players tilt cards slightly when they ‘Activate’ them, to keep track of which cards have been used. Once all actions have been completed, any new cards are added and the player adjusts their victory point total on the scoreboard. They discard any unused grey dice, white dice left over go into their warehouse and it’s the next player’s turn.
As you can see, the basic mechanics of playing the game are straightforward. It’s the cards that hold the complexity and the dice that limit players’ options. Tactically, what you do in a turn depends on the dice available to you. However, strategically, you can aim to acquire specific dice to make it easier to construct specific buildings. A case in point is the “Fallout Shelter” mentioned earlier. Having one of these is worth a point. Two give you three points, three score six and so on. It’s thus a very useful building – when other players are adding one or two points to their score each turn, being able to jump ahead is a significant advantage. As constructing these needs a set of four dice of the same value, getting several of the same production building makes it more likely you’ll be able to buy one.
The games I’ve played so far have followed a similar pattern. Player’s scores have stayed roughly level as each acquires or upgrades one card each turn. They remain so as players start acquiring a card AND upgrading one in the same turn. Someone then takes a lead, perhaps by acquiring another Fallout Shelter, and the race is on to the finish line. In effect, the early stages of the game are preparation for this race.
The game does offer a “forlorn hope” option to catch up, if you’ve fallen behind. A player can discard a card (out of the game) in order to roll and keep as many white dice as the difference in points between them and the leader. As this means losing at least one point, you need to be able to make good use of the extra dice for this to work.
As I’ve described it, the game is light on player interaction. This is provided by “Attack” cards – giving players a potential opportunity to steal from one another – and particularly by the ‘Trade’ cards. Having one of these lets a player propose a deal to swap (white) dice with another player. As a bonus, both parties to a successful deal get an additional die as well. Since “dice good; more dice better” is a good axiom for this game, agreeing to a trade is to both players’ advantage – if they have room to store the extra die and what they’re losing isn’t critical to their plans.
The issue with Colony is down time. The point at which a player can work out what to do in their turn is after they’ve rolled the dice. They then need to consider the dice available and what they could do with them before they decide which dice to pass on. In theory, the rest of their turn should be quick as they’ve already worked out what they’re going to do. However, that initial thinking time can be considerable. Particularly when players have cards allowing them to swap dice. Or trade dice. Or steal dice. In theory, you can do some of this thinking during other players’ turns and thus know what you’re going to do depending on what you roll. In practice it’s too complicated. And other players’ turns are when you offer them, ahem, helpful advice.
Despite this – and it isn’t that big an issue for me – I’ve really enjoyed playing Colony. I’ve tried it with 2, 3 and 4 players and it’s worked well in each case (apart from always being beaten by my teenage nephew when we play two-player). And I’m aware I’ve only scratched the surface of the game so far with different cards to try out and different mixes of cards to explore. Colony gets a solid 7/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – Pevans
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