Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

PANDORIA (Irongames, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 90-120 minutes; $64.99)


I guess lessons are not learned very easily.  The five peoples occupying the fertile Hiddenlands—elves, mages, dwarves, halflings and humans—bickered and vied for prominence and glory.  It was during this dissension that the Goblin hordes invaded, leaving little time for the divided races to unite.  The end result was predictable:  the expulsion of all non-goblin races from the land.  In spite of the harsh defeat, the five races continued their competition when resettling in Pandoria, each trying to claim more than their fair share of this rich new land.  Will their dissension and in-fighting again invite disaster?

This is the background story for this intriguing and somewhat nasty tile-laying game from experienced designers Jeffery Allers and Bernd Eisenstein.  Players each represent one of the aforementioned races (not goblins!), attempting to explore and reap the greatest rewards from the newly discovered land of Pandoria.  The clever placement of tiles will not only reap rich resources for the players, but also just might expel competing races from that area.  Resources are used to construct buildings that improve one’s productivity and abilities, as well as cast spells that can benefit one’s race and/or hinder one’s opponents.  It seems the tried-and-true axiom of “united we stand, divided we fall” continues to be ignored.

The board depicts a large section of Pandoria, which is a fertile area surrounded by mountains and the sea.  Tiles depicting various types of terrain and resources will be played upon the board’s grid, progressively filling the land.  Four building/spell cards are displayed in a row.  Players each receive a personal board, which is primarily used to track one’s resources: crystals, gold and wood.  Players also receive a supply of six figures, one leader, four building/spell cards, two castle tiles and one randomly drawn regular double-tile.

A player’s turn consists of:

Playing a double tile.  The tile must be placed adjacent to a previously placed tile, but no other restrictions apply.  The object is to build areas of like terrain and position your figures next to this terrain so that when that terrain is fully closed-in, resources are earned.  If the placement of a tile does, indeed, close a region (meaning a particular terrain is completely surrounded by other types of terrain), any figures positioned in this newly enclosed region are removed and returned to their owners.  This is one of the nasty aspects of the game I mentioned earlier.

Instead of playing a double tile, the player may place one of his two castle tiles.  These tiles are single hexes, so can sometimes prove advantageous.  Plus, if he places a figure on his castle, it cannot be expelled in the manner described above.

Place or Remove one Figure.  This is optional, but in the vast majority of turns, it is exercised.  The player may place a figure on one of the two hexes of the newly placed tile.  He may not place it in a hex that is now enclosed.  The proper placement of figures is essential, as figures are needed to collect resources from enclosed areas.

The player may only place his leader figure—which counts as two figures when gathering resources—if all of his other figures are on the board.  It is a big advantage to get one’s leader on the board, but can prove challenging as one’s regular figures are often expelled and returned to their owners when terrain regions are closed.

Alternatively, a player may remove a figure from the board, returning it to his supply.  This is sometimes necessary if a player’s supply of figures is depleted.

Play a Card as a Spell or Building.  A card may be played as a building or spell, paying the specified cost in wood (building) or crystals (spell).  Buildings generally provide the player with advantages throughout the game (enhanced resource collection, reduced building or spell costs, etc.), while spells are enacted immediately and are one-time use.  They can, however, be quite powerful.

A player can have at most five buildings active.  Previously constructed buildings can be covered by new constructions, with the player being required to pay only the difference in cost.  Each time a new spell is cast, it simply covers the previously cast spells. 

Alternatively, a player may construct a monument.  Monuments provide no ongoing benefits, but do earn the player victory points.  However, the victory points decline as more monuments are constructed, so it is best to beat your opponents to the more valuable ones.  Monuments cost wood and can cover an existing building.

Score Regions and Buy a Card.  If the placement of a tile causes a terrain region to be completely enclosed (the mountains are considered barriers and help to enclose regions), it is scored.  As mentioned, any figures on hexes on the enclosed region are removed, so they will not provide any resources to their owners.  Any player who has figures on hexes immediately adjacent to an enclosed region will earn the depicted resources in the enclosed area.  Each figure earns the player resources equal to the total number of resources in the enclosed region.  So, if a region depicts five resources and the player has two figures next to that region, he will earn ten resources, moving his marker that number of spaces on his player board.  A player’s leader will act as though he is two figures, so his resource haul is greater.

It is important to note that the maximum number of each type of resource a player can possess is ten.  If a player’s total is going to exceed this amount, he instead earns one victory point for every three resources in excess of ten.  This ratio can be improved with the construction of certain buildings.

The idea, of course, is to position your figures next to regions that will yield a wealth of resources.  However, if it takes a region a long time to close, those surrounding figures may be tied-up and unavailable for a considerable amount of time.  One challenge is to place figures so that they will be regularly expelled and returned to your supply, thereby making them available for placement on a subsequent turn.

Whoever placed the tile to close a region has the right to purchase one of the face-up building/spell cards.  Cards cost the indicated amount of gold, so maintaining a healthy supply of gold is advisable—just like in real life!  Cards can significantly enhance a player’s options and abilities, so regularly closing regions is important so that new cards can be obtained.  Sometimes it may be advantageous to do this even when you won’t be gaining many—if any—resources.

Play continues in this fashion until the end of the round when the supply of double tiles has been exhausted. End game points are earned for resources (one for every three of each type) and remaining cards (one point each).   Of course, the player with the most points wins the game and his race emerges as the most prominent and influential in Pandoria … until the goblins arrive!

In spite of the fantasy theme—a genre that I personally feel has been overused, but yet remains immensely popular—Pandoria has proven to be a very pleasant surprise.  It hits that sweet spot in gaming for me:  challenging with some tough choices, yet playable in a reasonable amount of time (I usually prefer games of two hours or less).  While the game is more tactical than strategic, one can do some long-term planning, particularly in playing to the advantages given by one’s buildings and spells. 

Players must continually adapt to an ever-changing board, the cards available, the tiles drawn, and, of course, the actions of one’s opponents.  This forces players to regularly adapt and change their tactics and moves, preventing a stubborn pursuit of one path.  While this can sometimes be frustrating, I enjoy the challenge of having to change plans and re-figure my moves and placements.

I mentioned earlier that the game has a nasty aspect, most pronounced when a player’s tile placement causes the expulsion of opponents’ figures.  Another aspect is the board itself.  While most of Pandoria is surrounded by mountains, there are a few “exit” paths (tunnels) through the mountains.  It is possible to play a tile adjacent to one of these exits that will prevent a region from closing.  This can foil the plans of a player who was counting on a region to close so a windfall of that resource could be enjoyed.  While these aspects can be considered hostile or cruel, none of them are devastating.

The game also provides for a few variants, including a partnership option wherein players earn points as a team.  The variant I regularly use is “Realms”, wherein players each represent a specific race and have a unique power or ability.  This provides incentives to plan one’s strategies so that one’s strength can be accentuated. 

If there is one concern with the game is that it is prone to some “analysis paralysis”, particularly when playing with folks who tend to think very carefully before taking their turns.  While the game should regularly be played in 90 minutes or so, it is possible to have that time extended beyond two hours if someone thinks a bit too much before taking their turns.

This one caveat aside, I am thoroughly enjoying my exploration of Pandoria.  The game is easy to learn and it is rarely necessary to consult the rules.  It plays smoothly and logically, seldom causing rules questions or ambiguities.  There are numerous factors to consider and balance, and there is just enough luck and nastiness to foil the development of perfect strategies.  I am looking forward to further exploration…unless the goblins arrive again! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schl0esser

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