The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Unearth Leaves Players Digging for Fun

by | published Friday, July 28, 2017

Back in 2013, Brotherwise Games debuted Boss Monster, a bonafide success that propelled the company into a booming indie board game scene. The following years have been spent capitalizing on the Boss Monster brand, but now Brotherwise aims to deliver another hit in Unearth. Unfortunately, this stylish gateway game feels more akin to a sophomore slump.

At its core, Unearth is a dice placement game. Typically, this means blending strategy with luck by first rolling dice and then using them to drive a form of worker placement. Unearth presents a compelling twist on this formula by giving each player a variety of dice (one D4, three D6, and one D8), but also by requiring players to select die placement ahead of time. Rather than dancing around input randomness to make the best of the roll they receive, players are instead required to call their shots. The counter is that players can dial their odds up or down based on which die they choose to roll.

Unearth’s dice placement mechanics drive two simultaneous set-collection games. Roll high and place enough die pips on a card, and a player can claim that card (color-matching sets lead to big points). Rolling low means players are unlikely to collect a card, but they’ll get a hexagonal “stone” token as a consolation prize.

While card set scoring is very straightforward, turning stone tokens into points requires a bit more planning. Stones are placed in front of players as the tokens are earned, but future stones must be built adjacent to existing ones, while also placed within a specific pattern of rings. Once a ring of six stones is formed, the void is filled in with a special “wonder” token. Wonders add a dash of variety to each game. Some give points, some unlock special abilities, and others do a bit of both. The more powerful the wonder, the tighter the limitations are on which stones must be used in the ring to earn that wonder. Any old set of six stones won’t do.

There are certainly the makings of a good game in the above gameplay summary, but where Unearth falls flat is in appealing to any one segment of the gaming population. For a title marketed as a gateway game, the rules can be incredibly fiddly and turn off a casual gaming audience. On the hobbyist side of gaming, Unearth provides too many overlapping elements or randomness to provide a satisfying strategy experience. Let’s dive in on the fiddliness first.

Unearth asks quite a bit from its players in remembering minor exception and interaction rules. In numerous plays prior to writing this review, at least one player in every game lost track of a minor rule. These ranged from the tie-breaking procedures when determining which player can claim a card (highest value rolled on an individual die, with ties broken by highest value on largest die) to the rules regarding stone collection (cards are seeded with stones to reward players for rolling low, but don’t forget to take a random one from the bag if those initial stones have already been claimed). Oh, and if you win a card, don’t keep any leftover stones on it. Those get thrown back in the bag.

There’s also a bit of card-play that can drive rules interaction. Players who contribute dice to a card but do not wind up claiming that card are given a consolation prize in the form of “delver cards.” These are played at the beginning of a turn and present a wide range of abilities to modify die rolls. But again, some interactions with delver cards (as well as the abilities granted by wonders) sent players to the rule book seeking clarification.

Lastly, some players struggle with the abstract mental exercise of building rings of hex-shaped tokens (where breaking the ring pattern is forbidden). A player board or mat would come in handy here to guide new players on legal vs. illegal placement.

None of the above concepts are very hard to grasp once properly explained to players, but teaching Unearth can be a bit of a slog, leading to multiple tangents and questions. This is not the experience sought when a gateway game hits the table.

Now let’s talk a bit about randomness. Unearth presents luck stacked on luck stacked on more luck, which is unlikely to draw experienced players back for another round.   

The randomness starts before the game even begins. The 25-card deck contains 5 cards of each color, and remember, color-matching sets are Unearth’s single-biggest point scoring opportunity. When the game is set up, 5 cards are randomly removed, and each player is given a face-down card. Seeding a player’s collection before the first turn is usually intended to set players toward an initial strategy, yet in Unearth, it’s not unheard of for players to receive a color that is not otherwise present in the deck!

The concept of “calling your shot” by committing a die prior to rolling makes Unearth unique, but attempts to mitigate die roll risks simply don’t work in practice. Delver cards are very situational, and selection of die size doesn’t do enough to open up strategic options. There’s typically an optimal move, but it lays obvious to all players. 

Once Unearth has concluded, it becomes clear that for all the complexity added by delver cards and stones, they are still fleeting attempts at catch-up mechanisms. Even if players attempt to deny the completion of a dominant color set, these attempts are not guaranteed to succeed. There’s a fair risk that a player trying to take down the leader will simply help them instead, yet removing oneself from the card collecting to focus on stones will rarely generate enough points for a victory.

As seen in Boss Monster’s video game-inspired theme, Brotherwise Games is no stranger in seeking artistic inspiration from the digital world. Unearth brings a beautiful aesthetic to the table, combining a bit of Monument Valley with a dash of Minecraft. But with lackluster gameplay and no real thematic tie, the high-quality art warrants little more than a passing mention. Ideally, the artistic element would help define Unearth’s audience, but instead, players are left wondering whom this game is really for.

Disclaimer: Brotherwise Games provided  a complimentary copy of Unearth for this review


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