Buzzworthiness – Century: Spice Road

I’ve been doing my reviews pretty much the same way since the beginning of this blog.  Let’s try something different today.  This is what I’m calling a Teardown.  I’m going to start at the end result and start breaking down the game into smaller and smaller chunks in order to better analyze what everything does.  It may crash and burn, but you never know if you don’t try, right?  So let’s get started with a review of

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Century: Spice Road is the first game in the so-called Century Trilogy from designer Emerson Matsuuchi and publisher Plan B Games.  It’s a 2-5 player game that takes 30-45 minutes to play.  You’re basically leading a caravan trying to deliver spices across the continent.  The winner is the player who has the most points after a round in which someone has claimed their fifth point card.

The game is structured as a turn-based game in a round format.  This means that players will be taking turns one after another, with an entire turn occurring before the next player takes theirs, with a round consisting of everyone taking a turn.  This means everyone gets the same number of turns, with the game ending at the end of the round where a player took their fifth point card.  I’m not a huge fan of “equal turns” games, but they are good for keeping things relatively fair.

As mentioned, the object of the game is to score the most points.  There are three ways to accomplish this:

  1. Point Cards
  2. Coins
  3. Leftover Spices
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

Let’s look first at the Point cards.  There are alway five available to claim, and each point card has a value from 6 to 20 points.  Obviously, the lower scores are easier to claim, but if you can get your engine working to grab those high numbers, you’ll be in good shape.  Grabbing a bunch of lower scores quickly can accelerate the endgame, and if you get five Point cards before others who are going for higher scores can get them, you can still be in good shape to win.

Thematically, the Point cards represent different places you’re going with your spices.  From the 36 Point cards, there are six different locations pictured – they’re not specifically identified, but they look like Rome, Egypt, China, India, Persia, and Arabia, which were all historically stops on the Silk Road.  Point distribution across all cards is one 6-pointer, one 7-pointer, three 8-pointers, two 9-pointers, three 10-pointers, two 11-pointers, six 12-pointers, two 13-pointers, four 14-pointers, two 15-pointers, three 16-pointers, two 17-pointers, two 18-pointers, one 19-pointer, and two 20-pointers.  That’s 468 available points from the Point cards alone, which comes out to an average of 13 per card.  Also, if you assign each spice a numerical value based on the hierarchy (yellow=1, red=2, green=3, brown=4), 24 of the 36 cards have spice distributions that directly correlate to the point value.  For example, 3 red and 2 greens are 12 points (2+2+2+3+3=12).  It frustrates me a little that every card doesn’t have that algebraic formula, and I’m not entirely sure why they changed it.  I know that’s all pretty geeky and most people won’t care, but it interests me.

image by BGG user HedgeWizzard

So that’s the Point cards.  The second scoring method was Coins.  These are only acquired through the acquisition of Point cards.  Gold Coins, worth 3 points, are gained when you take the oldest, or leftmost, Point card.  Silver Coins, worth 1 point, are gained when you take the second Point card from the left, or the leftmost when the Gold Coins run out.  This is a nice little bonus, but also a good incentive to try to take some Points that may have been available for a while.  It also increases competition, and it becomes a race to see who can get there first.  It’s a pretty clever twist in the game that I appreciate.

image by BGG user HedgeWizzard

The third scoring method is leftover spices, but before we get there, how do you get spices?  For that, we go to the Merchant cards, which are dealt out in a row of six below the Point cards.  Each player also begins the game with two starting cards (the darker bordered cards on the right side of the hand above).  These are functionally the same as Merchant cards, though generally less powerful.

There are three types of Merchant cards – Spice, Upgrade, and Trade.

  • The Spice cards give you the type and quantity of spice shown.  These have no arrows on them, just a white box containing the spices you’re going to get.
  • Upgrade cards allow you to turn spices into other spices.  These have an arrow pointing up from 2-3 gray cubes (and other than your starting Upgrade card, there is only one other in the game).  The gray cubes mean you have that many Upgrade points, so you can move a cube up to the next level spice as many times as are shown.
  • Trade cards allow you to turn in spices for other spices.  This is the majority of the Merchant cards.  These show a downward arrow, meaning you can trade the spice(s) on the top for the spice(s) on the bottom.  Trades always equal or increase the collective value of your spices.  That is, if you assign each a numerical value (1 for yellow, 2 for red, 3 for green, and 4 for brown), the sum of the bottom value is always equal to or higher than the upper value.  A brown for two reds is trading a 4 to make a 4, and two reds to a green and three yellows is trading 4 for 6.  You can see how you can set up combos in this way.

The actual distribution of Merchant cards in the game is 34 Trade cards, 8 Spice cards, and one Upgrade card.  The Spice cards all get you either 3 or 4 points of spices, in every possible combination.  The Upgrade card in the game is basically just a more powerful version of your starting Upgrade card, with three Upgrade points instead of two.  By acquiring it, you can have five total Upgrade points in your hand.  There are people I have played with that think that’s too powerful, especially if it comes out early in the Merchant row, and remove the card from the game.  Your mileage may vary.

The starting cards for each player are a Spice card (2 yellow) and an Upgrade card (2 points of Upgrades).  It’s interesting to me that these are the most rare types in the Merchant deck – nearly 80% of those cards are Trade.  By not including Trade cards amongst the starters, players can customize their own strategies as they play.  I haven’t attempted to play the game with just the starting cards, and I doubt it’s a viable strategy in the game – even if it was, it would probably be incredibly boring as the variety of Trade card is what adds…ahem…spice to the experience.

When you take a Merchant card, you can take the first card in a row for free.  If you want to take any cards to the right of that first card, you’ll need to leave one spice cube on each card you skip.  This passing mechanism is very similar to what you see in Small World – you leave an incentive on older items that are available to entice others to take them.  I do like the method, but I think I like its implementation in Small World better, where some race/power combinations are clearly better than others, and skipping over the weaker ones provides some balance.  Here, one thing that is not necessarily better for you might be great for someone else, so it doesn’t really balance things as well.  This mechanism was also present in Small World’s older brother, Vinci, and a form of it is present in Puerto Rico as well.

We’ve reached the end of this teardown – we’ve broken apart all the various pieces, now it’s time to put them together.  A turn in the game is very simple – you take one action, which can be either to a) take a Points card, b) take a Merchant card, c) play a card, or d) rest.  Resting is the act in which you take all your cards back into your hand – otherwise, once they’re played, they sit on the table forever.  You take turns in this manner until the end of a round where one player has taken their fifth Point card.  The high score then wins.

Let me close out this analysis with a few points based on my traditional review categories:

  • Components: Very nice looking game with cool bowls to hold the cubes.  Cards are oversized.  Insert is nice, but the box could have been smaller and not needed it.  Every card does not have individualized art, but what is there is very nice.  The coins are metallic, and very nice.
  • Theme: Spice trade is never going to be the most thrilling of themes, but it’s the framing device around this game.  The cube colors are aptly named based on their real life counterparts – yellow is turmeric, red is saffron, green is cardamom, and brown is cinnamon.  That’s the most thematic touch in the game.  The rest is pretty well abstracted.
  • Mechanics: This game features Hand Management; Deck Building (or, more appropriately, Hand Building); Resource Management; and Engine Building.  It all works pretty well, though you need to be prepared for your engine to move pretty slowly.
  • Complexity: It’s not a super difficult game, but you’ll find that you need to think several steps ahead while trying to plan how to get the most points possible.  You also need to make sure you keep an eye on the other players to see if they’re about to swoop in and take the Point card you’ve been building towards.  Rules are simple, turns are simple, and the game moves fairly quickly.
  • Interaction: There’s not a whole lot.  It’s all pretty indirect – taking Point cards others might be going for, taking Merchant cards others might want, leaving spices for others to collect, getting Coins before others snatch them all up.  Nothing directly that you can do to others.
  • Time: The game moves at a fairly good clip because actions are relatively short.  But, being turn-based, it definitely moves quicker the fewer players you have.  There’s not much scaling in the game, other than adjusting the number of Coins available.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY?  There’s nothing in the game that feels particularly revolutionary or new.  It feels very familiar, and there’s something comforting about that.  The game often gets compared to Splendor because of the engine building aspect, and while that’s fair, it is its own game.  I hesitate to say that one is better than the other, but I will say that Century: Spice Road is a very fun game with its own take on the genre, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in engine building experiences.

Hope this format worked OK for you.  CSR has been out for a couple of years at this point, and people seem to have mostly moved on, but I just got my own copy for Christmas, and wanted to share my thoughts.  I still need to play Eastern Wonders and Sea to Sand, and am looking forward to hearing about #3 in the trilogy (A New World) whenever it comes out.  Thanks for reading!

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