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EPOCH: EARLY INVENTORS

Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore

EPOCH: EARLY INVENTORS (Rio Grande Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 45-90 minutes; $59.95)

 

Epoch is a 2018 release from Rio Grande Games, designed by the slightly cryptic Martyn F. I say cryptic, as Martiy does not disclose his last name. Adding to the mystery, Rio Grande Games does not actually put the title of the game on the top of the box. However, this does give the viewer a lovely look at the very nice frontispiece to the game.

In Epoch, up to four players will guide their tribe through very early technological developments, or as they are called in the game, abilities. Initially your tribe will have just a couple of abilities, such as Tanning and Bow. The pool of initial abilities ranges from simple (Basket) to more advanced (Casting Bronze).  In the learning game, players have two skills assigned to their tribe based on player order.  For the standard game, players will select their starting abilities from five random tiles.  This allows a player to aim for abilities that suit his or her style of play.  Some abilities will make life easier in the early game, while others will be useless early but help immensely later. 

Importantly, there is a way to use other tribes’ skills. This means relying on the other players can be a big help.  However, Epoch is a competitive game. Only one tribe can win, and so while you can rely on the abilities of other tribes, you will want to consider how much status you wish to give, as status is the measure of victory.

Epoch is an impressively heavy game box, weighing over 6 lbs., the weight of a many a newborn child!  Upon opening the game, there is just a mountain of cardboard punch boards.  Each tribe will receive 21 uniquely shaped ability counters.  Some of these counters are huge, for example the horse counter measures about 5×3 inches!  In addition, 44 landscape tiles, measuring over 2.5” wide are used to make the play area.  There are roughly 200 resource counters that are used to represent the raw materials and processed materials used in the game.  Each of these material counters measure 30mm (about 1.25”) square or round.  Every counter is substantial; the publisher did not skimp on anything.

With so much cardboard in the game, the organization of the playing materials becomes an issue. For myself, I chose to use an organizing tray for storing the ten different material counters, but this required I get a rather tall case to accommodate the size of the counters. For the several ability markers, I have bagged a full set for each tribe along with their playing pieces. It all just barely fits back in the box and only after I ditched the nice liner provided by the publisher.

Initially a play area must be built using the 44 hexagonal tiles included. The set-up instructions work well but are detailed, as the set up will be different based on the player count. Of note are the corners of the play area. On each corner, a ceremonial site is set up. Players will eventually wish to visit as many corners as possible to make sacrifices.

The author has gone to great effort to root all features of the game in historical use of the various abilities and also in explaining the “culture of sacrifice”. I am no historical sociologist but I appreciate that I was able to learn a little bit about the development of man by reading the rules to this ambitious game. The ceremonial sites on each corner of the play area are based on actual historic sites explored by modern archaeologists.

To make a suitable sacrifice, real development effort will be required. Learning to cast bronze or make rope are top notch developments in Epoch. So, let’s explore how tech developments happen.

Initially each clan has a carrier board, full of plenty of food cubes, along with some of the materials in the game (antler, tendon and hides).  Each clan has developed two tiles at the start of the game, giving them their initial two abilities. Of course, this is just a start, so each clan will need to explore the surrounding areas, yet unrevealed. Once explored and revealed, each tile lists a potential ability available. Those abilities list required materials which a clan must provide to be able to claim the ability.  The rule book nicely explains the thematic reason for the costs.  For example, “To tame a horse, you need a bridle consisting of rope or something that comes close (tendon or flax) and leather or hide for the sturdier parts”.   If the needed materials are paid, the clan marks the tile with a hut, and finds the corresponding ability tile, placing it in their play area before the player.  The ability tile summarizes how to use the ability, giving the player a ready reference on the newly acquired skill.

Spending materials for abilities is easy and expands your capabilities for movement, gathering food or enhancing various forms of work and so forth.  Gathering resources can be a big effort. There are various terrain types and, as you would expect, finding certain resource types will be easier or harder based on what you look for and where you do it. For example, gathering wood in the forest is easy, but rather hard if on the water.

A lot of my early struggles with Epoch have been around scrabbling forward. If you move your tribe to a new location tile, you can only carry so much. If you wish to learn a new ability, you will need to pay specific materials.  You have to strategize around what abilities you wish to pursue. In the game, there are six basic raw materials that are relatively easy to gather but there are also six processed materials which take planned steps to develop. Where do you wish to spend your time? Sometimes it may make sense to pay status to another tribe to use their abilities to advance your tribe because the alternative might represent multiple turns to get ready to do it yourself.

For example, my clan in mid game has explored several terrain tiles and found a ceremonial site where it would be advantageous to make a sacrifice which includes giving up some bronze. My clan does not currently have the ability to cast bronze. To develop this ability will require finding a tile where this ability is offered and, after moving adjacent to that tile, making a suitable payment of ore and wood. This might require I go find clay, stone or wood, as well as some leather or hides (if I do not have them currently available). Once I have the casting bronze ability, I will need additional ore, wood and some antlers to use in making the bronze. All of this is doable. But generally, each turn a tribe can do one main activity. Getting all of that done will represent several turns. Alternatively, I could pay one status to my opponent who already has learned how to cast bronze. For that turn. I can use his ability. With some ore, wood and antlers at hand, I could cast the bronze expediting my sacrifice. Of course, I have also given my opponent a valuable victory point.

Epoch is not a casual game. It demands that you carefully consider the options available, and decide what your tribe will pursue. The tech tree of abilities to explore is wide, and I have found it easy to get lost in all the preparations I will need to make in order to achieve a major advance. Movement of your tribe is a big consideration. Your initial carrier board sets limits on how much stuff your tribe can carry. I have found myself leaving valuable supplies behind, much to my opponents’ glee, as they swept behind me to pick up these free materials. Further, feeding your tribe is another consideration, making it necessary to pause higher pursuits, as the need for additional food to enable tribal movement can become paramount.

So there is a lot to balance. work, move, develop abilities, gather resources, hunt, butcher, and eventually the sacrifice of meaningful materials. So much to do. And you want to do it before your competitors!  The pace of the game is determined by the players.  As players visit the ceremonial sites, the unexplored tiles in that sector will be revealed.  Eventually all tiles will be revealed, and then players have three more turns to accumulate as much status as possible, with the tribe with the most status being declared the winner.

Every activity has its own set of rules. None of these are complex. However, the wide array of options can boggle a new player. Fortunately, the game provides an excellent player aid which summarizes most of the rules very effectively. Unfortunately, the game only provides two copies of this aid. I find myself constantly referring to it when I play so I cannot see how you would easily share this vital play aid.

On the other hand, I am not sure after my initial plays if I really am keen to play with higher player counts. My first play was on the prototype, in a three-player game. More recently I have played two-player. At least at first, I think lower player counts make the most sense to learn Epoch. The risk of player indecision might cause long game sessions. My current bias is to play this as a two-player game but that may change. I also note that there are solitaire rules included in the game which I have not yet explored.

My final judgement on Epoch is positive.  I like the high correlation of in-game activities to the theme.  I like that there is a wide tech tree of abilities to explore and I like that after my initial plays, I am still unclear what might be a good route to victory.  For players seeking an immersive experience, I think there is a good chance Epoch will provide it. – – – – – – – Kevin Whitmore


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