BG Review - Century: Spice Road
It's always good to find a new game that completely replaces an old one in your collection. A game with possibly similar themes, and definitely similar mechanics, but just seems to do things a little bit better, a little more refined, or a little bit more interesting. It's particularly fascinating when it happens to a game you love to play, as it means the new game must be something special. And that is exactly how I felt after a couple of playthroughs of Century: Spice Road.
Designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and published by Plan B games, Century: Spice Road is the first in a trilogy of Century games planned to be released, with the follow ups being both expansions and standalone games. The newly released Century: Eastern Wonders is the second game in the series, and can be played completely independently, but it also contains additional rules for combining it with Spice Road to make a separate game called From Sand to Sea. It sounds like the third Century game will be similar, and you will be able to mix, match, and combine these as you like. That makes purchasing each one slightly more palatable, as you know that with each new box you are getting a stand alone game and new ways to play your current games. It's an interesting way to release a series of games and hopefully something that catches on.
But I digress, as this review is about the first game, Century: Spice Road.
Spice Road sees players taking control of caravans of spice traders as they look to become the most prosperous spice dealer in all the land. Well, really its ALL about the cubes. Tiny cubes that represent the spices that you will be attempting to manipulate to your will. There are 4 that scale from least value to most, going from Yellow (Turmeric), to Red (Saffron), then Green (Cardamom), and finally Brown (Cinnamon). And yes, we all know Saffron is the most expensive thing on the planet, and no, I don't know why it is only second most valuable of the 4 spices, and yes it mildly annoys me quite a bit.
Players take turns taking one of 4 simple actions; playing one of their Merchant cards for an effect, picking up a new Merchant card from the row of available cards, Resting to pick up all of their played cards, or Claiming one of the points cards by cashing in those valuable spice cubes.
The bulk of the game lies in the Merchant cards, and the effects that they have. Some will let you collect spices from the stash, some will let you upgrade spices you have to higher value ones, and the others let you trade some spices you have for others in the stash. It's all about the spices. And it's a combination of these that lets you get a masterful spice engine running, that allows you to gather the requisite spices to trade in for those all important points cards. Once 6 of those have been collected, the game ends and the player with the most boss caravan (...most points) wins the game.
It is deceptively simple, which makes the ease at which the game can be explained a bonus. All the cards have very clear iconography for what they do, making it really clear to tell what each does, and therefore easy to see what cards you want, and what your opponent is playing or maybe going for. Everyone starts the game with just 2 cards, one to collect 2 yellow spices, and one to upgrade 2 spices to the next level. But as you gather the pieces of your spice empire you start to be able to chain a lot more of these together, creating a spice waterfall of acquiring, upgrading and trading. Those 2 yellows might look bad at the beginning, but then you grab a card that turns 2 yellows to 2 greens, and another that then turns 1 green into a red and 3 yellows, which lets you upgrade the yellows back up into reds, and then another card that oh wait you took the points card I was after, bugger.
Assembling the pieces is fun, and there is a lot of strategy around when to use the cards you have, when to pick up new cards, and even when to rest, which effectively skips your turn to give you more options for following turns. It's a level of strategy that is very appreciated in a game of such simple mechanics. It balances well between allowing you to plan ahead multiple turns, and also letting you forget what that plan is (say for example, if you're playing after a few drinks), then being able to quickly decide on playing a card and getting some cubes without worrying too much and bogging the game down.
The game seems really well balanced, we've played quite a lot of 2 player, and never has someone steamrolled the game. Multiple games have been won by a point or two, and it always feels like you have a chance until the end. This gives it a very good 'one more game' factor and luckily the play time is short, with 2 player games lasting only around 20-30 minutes.
The component quality here is also superb, the cards are large and thick and the cubes are perfectly cube like. They even supply 4 fun little bowls to keep the cubes in while playing which makes it much easier than just having piles of stuff lying about. Even the box looks pretty cool on the shelf and overall the presentation is all to a very high standard.
The only possible negative I can think of at this time is in replay-ability. While the simple to learn and teach nature of the game is definitely a bonus, with the limited number of options it may get too samey after multiple plays. Especially due to the board state being pretty static, other than pushing cubes around nothing much changes on the table top. Luckily, we are nowhere near fatiguing this yet, and it will be a staple in the house for awhile to come. And even if it does become a little stale, that's when it's time to pick up Century: Eastern Wonders and freshen the game up with essentially 2 new games in one box.
Overall, it's hard not to recommend Century: Spice Road. It's easy to pick up for beginners and to teach new players, it's got enough strategy and depth to the mechanics and engine building for seasoned players to dig into, and the overall presentation is just top notch. While expansions shouldn't really factor in to a base games enjoyment, the fact that the sequels will also breath new life into this game is a clever decision that means this, or variations of it, will still be played in years to come, which is more than can be said for most new titles. It's definitely going to be hitting the table consistently here for the foreseeable future... sorry Splendor.