Buzzworthiness: Serpent Master

Thanks to Toresh Games for providing a review copy of this game.

image by BGG user tshepherd

Serpent Master is a new 1-4 player game designed by Thomas Shepherd and published by his company, Toresh Games. It’s an abstract tile laying game where players are trying to get the most pieces on the board through card play.

Full disclosure before I get started. Tom Shepherd is a local designer that’s a part of the game group I go to here in Colorado Springs. I went to the game launch for this game at a local game store, and we were both surprised about each other – I didn’t know he was a designer/publisher, and he didn’t know I wrote this blog. I’m not going to let this relationship color the review, but I did want to get that out there.

Each player in the game gets a deck of 15 cards and a set of 53 circular tiles in their color, as well as a serpent head tile. The board is an 8×8 grid, with a 6×6 section outlined for a two-player game, and a 7×7 grid on the other side for solo play. Each player shuffles their deck and removes four cards, leaving a hand of 11 cards for play.

In each round, you choose a card from your hand to play. Everyone reveals simultaneously. The player with the highest number goes first. To start your first turn, you place your serpent head on the edge of the board. Then, you’ll follow the pattern shown on your card, placing one of your tiles in each spot. End your turn by placing your serpent head on the last space.

After everyone has done this, repeat. On subsequent turns, you’ll start from wherever your serpent head ended up. The only restrictions are that you can’t cross your own path, and you can’t cross an opponent’s head. But you’re welcome to stack your pieces on top of your opponents – in fact, that’s how you’re going to get ahead in the game.

The game ends after eleven rounds, and whomever has the most tiles on the board is the winner.

Serpent Master was funded through a Kickstarter campaign last year, and didn’t really hit any of its stretch goals beyond the basic funding level. A lot of the components would have been upgraded due to that, but this really isn’t a game that needs a lot of chrome to it. And what you get in the game is certainly functional – there’s a two-sided board with different grid sizes, there are cards that lay out every possibility for how your shapes can work, and there are a lot of tokens. A lot. It’s a puncher-outer’s dream, even though it’s more tokens than you need. Everything has a nice look to it, and kind of a glossy finish. It would have been nice to get a slightly less slippery finish on the board surface, but it’s really not terrible.

My biggest comment on the components that could have been done differently is with the tokens. For one thing, the color scheme could have been done a little differently. The biggest culprits are blue and black, which can look very similar in certain lights. Fortunately, there are six different player colors included in the game (even though only four can play), so you can make sure that both are not in the same game. And since someone always wants to be blue, that means I have to sacrifice being my preferred player color of black, but I’m OK with that. I also kind of wish there were symbols on the tokens instead of the game’s logo, which would help distinguish the colors and make the serpent heads stand out more.

The game is relatively abstract. There’s a bit of a reminiscence to that old game Snake that people used to play on their graphing calculators, but with multiple people and without the targets showing up everywhere. Still, it’s a grid, you’re placing tokens on the grid, and you’re attempting to have the most showing at the end. That’s pretty much a classic abstract game.

One big thing this game has that a lot of other abstracts do not is the cards. A typical abstract game will have information that is available to everyone. Everyone has the same deck of cards, but everyone does not have the same information other players have as four of these cards are discarded at the start of every game, meaning your deck will be different. After that, there’s a bit of a programming aspect as you’re committing to the movement of your serpent head, with the number at the bottom of the card determining play order. This means you very well could blocked from what you wanted to do, and may not even get to move at all. I tend to love programming games, and to see it as part of an abstract is always pretty cool. There’s also a heavy component of area control, as you’re trying to have the most pieces in the area – there just happens to be only one you’re vying for.

This is not a game where you can hide on your part of the board and try to avoid conflict with the others. If you do, you’ll likely get stuck. So you have to strike out into enemy territory and just accept that you’ll be getting some of your pieces covered. It is a good idea to try to stay away from other players because that’s when you inadvertently get yourself blocked, but it can’t be avoided a lot of times. That’s where a lot of the tactical decisions come in – do I play this high card to try and get myself out of this jam, or a low card and hope they’ve moved on before I have to go?

This game is very tactical in nature as you have to react to what you have, but strategic in the sense that you have your whole hand in front of you and need to decide when will be the best time to play what. Everything moves very quickly, and you just need to be ready to adjust and react to all situations. It’s not really a thinky game, but you do have to try to figure out where your opponents are likely to go and either avoid them, swoop in front, or trust that you’ll be able to do your own thing.

I think my favorite way to play is with the full four players. With three, the board is a bit more open, and with two, the board is very very tight (though to be fair, I have not had a chance to play with two yet). The one player game is mostly a puzzle – a tough one to crack, but a puzzle nonetheless as you draw three cards at a time, play them all, then draw three more. I have enjoyed all my plays, but I think four is definitely the sweet spot.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? This is a game I would highly encourage more people to seek out. I am not someone who likes a high amount of in-your-face conflict in games, but I think this one provides just the right amount in what boils down to an area control abstract with programming elements. This one is a winner in my book, and I’m very glad I got to try it out. If you want to find your own copy, it’s available through Amazon.

Thanks again to Thomas Shepherd and Toresh Games for providing a review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

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