Reviewed by Herb Levy
VILLAGERS (Sinister Fish Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; £20)
Life could be hard for folks living in the Middle Ages. They were susceptible to all sorts of upheaval – including plague! In this new game by Haakon Hoel Gaardner, the devastating effects of plague have ravaged the countryside. In the aftermath, players find themselves trying to recruit survivors with the goal of establishing a new – and most prosperous – village, all thanks to the efforts of their Villagers.
Villagers comes in a brick-sized box that holds lots and lots of cards. Cards come in 9 suits (Grains, Grapes, Hay, Ore, Solitary, Special and Wood with 2 or 3 players, Leather and Wool added with 4 or 5). All of these cards display a Suit symbol and, along with its name/occupation, shows a Production Chain which, in effect, tells you what card you need to have in play in order to add it to your village and, possibly, which card you can now play once this card is in your display. Some of these cards also show a “padlock” and the villager necessary to “unlock” that card. Some also show a “Food” and/or a “Builder” symbol; Gold or Silver symbols too.
The game area is a “road” occupied by six “starter” cards with six stacks of face-down cards on a row above them. (The number of these cards in these stacks is twice the number of players.) While you cannot see just what cards are face down, the backs of villager cards show the suit to which the card belongs so you have some sort of idea what those cards COULD be. Market cards are placed underneath the second and last stacks. Remaining cards form a reserve next to the road. There is also a supply of “Basic” villagers (Lumberjacks, Miners and Hayers) which will come in handy in constructing your production chains.
Each player starts with a Village Square and Founders card. All are dealt a starting hand of five villagers and 8 Gold. The First Player card is given to the player who has lived in the same place the longest (or randomly).
A turn consists of a Drafting and Building Phase. All players may draft at least 2 cards. For each Food symbol on a card in that player’s display, another card may be drafted (up to a limit of 5). The First Player begins by drafting a card from the display. He/she may take one of the face up cards on the road OR take any of the face down cards on any of the stacks above. This card is placed on his/her Village Square. If the card taken is from the road, the top card of the leftmost face down stack is flipped over and takes its place. Drafting continues in clockwise order until all players have drafted their allotted number. After the first round of drafting, villagers remaining on the road have 1 Gold placed on them. After the second round of drafting (and after every completed drafting round thereafter), cards still with coins on them are discarded and replaced by cards from the reserve. (This is handled a little differently with 2 players.) Once done, we build.
In turn order, villagers can be added to a player’s display. All players may “build” 2 cards plus an additional one for each Build icon on a card in their tableau, up to a maximum of 5. Some cards can be played on their own; others require a Basic villager to get started. By discarding any card from your hand and returning it, face down, to any of the face down stacks, a Basic villager may be added to your village; better yet, this does NOT count as one of your builds. However, you can only do this a maximum of 3 times per turn. (If the stacks are all gone, these discards go to the top of the reserve. If no reserve, they are simply discarded.) AS mentioned, some villagers show “padlocks” and need to be “unlocked” to be placed by the villager named on that card. If the same player has that villager, he/she receives 2 Gold from the bank (which is placed on that card). If another player has that villager, that player must pay that player the 2 Gold (which, again, goes on the card). If that needed card is not yet in play, then the player must pay the bank 2 Gold. Once everyone has made their builds, players check to see if they have at least one Food symbol showing. If not, their Founders card (which shows 2 Gold) is flipped to its side that shows a Food symbol but no Gold. (That card may NEVER be flipped back so players will suffer that loss of Gold scoring during the Market phases.) Now, the First Player card is passed left and we do it all over again – until we hit a Market Phase.
When the second stack is emptied, the first Market Phase is triggered. Players add up all the numbers found in the Gold circles on their cards. (Cards covered by subsequently played cards do NOT count in this nor do numbers found in Silver circles.) In addition, any Gold found on cards (from “unlocking”) are also added to that total. (These coins STAY on their cards.) Players then collect that amount of Gold from the bank.
Play now continues as before until the last stack of cards is finished and the Second Market Phase is triggered. This time, not only do players collect the amount of Gold found in the Gold circles on their cards but now the Silver Circles score.
Silver Circles score Gold based on certain stated conditions (such as a number of particular symbols, the amount of money found on a card etc.) This is added to the Gold already collected. (Gold remaining on players’ cards is added to the combined holdings.) The player with the most Gold has the most prosperous village and is the winner of the game!
Presentation of Villagers is first rate. The box is sturdy and comes with card dividers for easy set up. The artwork (by the designer himself) is charming with colors easily recognizable and the typefaces used easily readable (although the yellow suit/lettering on a white background, used with 4 or more players, can be a little more difficult to read). The game comes with lots of heavy cardboard counters to use as gold. (A wooden coin upgrade in a nice box is available too, priced as £15, as well as a small expansion adding more villagers as well as a little “take that” for £7.) But be aware that as your village grows, so does its need for space. If you’re playing with 4 or more players, be sure you have a LARGE table!
Ever since 7 Wonders (featured in the Winter 2011 Gamers Alliance Report) appeared on the scene, card drafting has been a popular game mechanism. 7 Wonders also utilized a sort of “production chain” mechanism where one card can make playing another easier. Production chains are a critical element in other card games too (such as Oh My Goods! [Summer 2016 GA Report]}. Villagers makes wonderful use of these mechanisms without being weighed down by tons of icons. The game scales best with more players (more cards come into play to help fill in those production chains) but, if you can’t find a fellow player, a solo mode is also provided.
In pursuing a strategy, it is to good to focus on a a few of the many suits so as to more easily construct those valuable production chains. It is also a good idea to do a bit of a “balancing act” as well between Food and Builder. More Food symbols allow you to draft more cards (always a good thing as there is no hand limit) but usually cards with Food symbols do not have Builder symbols. Without those, valuable cards held may not get to the table! In your hand, they do you no good; it’s only when you can create your chains to maximize Gold that you are well on your way to victory. You also need to be mindful that scoring skews a little differently from the First Market to the Second. In the first, Gold scores its face value. In the second, Gold scores too but Silver Circles reward you for achieving long range goals. This forces you to shift your focus if you want to have the most prosperous village. And speaking of the village…
The game nicely captures the bucolic nature of villages in the Middle Ages with its varied assortment of workers and artisans that would populate it at the time. (No zombies, no hidden identities found here.) But one glaring omission, especially as these villagers are survivors of a plague, is the lack of any healers or physicians (or even barbers who acted as semi-physicians during that time). Did they all succumb to the epidemic???
Thematically, Villagers works well and makes sense as you can readily see that you need a Lumberjack before you place a Carpenter or appreciate the more involved Miner to Seeker to Spelunker to Jeweler relationship. As more and more villagers join you, you can see the nature of your village evolve, take shape and come alive. Win or lose, you feel proud of what you have accomplished – all in a streamlined, smoothly flowing and delightful game of card drafting and tableau building. – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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