To bring Robert Browning’s famous quote up to date: “A human’s reach should exceed their grasp/ Or what’s a heaven for?” As a species we’re always trying to push the envelope. Sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. Even if we confine ourselves to the creative realms, there are plenty of examples of artists who went mad or foundered in trying to break new ground. Brian Wilson’s “Smile”. Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. Pretty well anything George Lucas did after “Return of the Jedi”. You get me.
In the tabletop world we have our own examples of games with ambitious reach. What I mean is a game which on some level tries to be an “everything” game, covering all the bases in terms of concept, theme, or gameplay. Some of these games have succeeded, others not so much:
I’m sure you could add your own.
Now we have American designer Emerson Matsuuchi, whose first major-label design, Specter Ops, debuted in 2015. But it was with the arrival of Century: Spice Road that year where Matssuchi threw down the gauntlet. C:SR was, the box said, but the first in a series of interlinked games which could be played separately or together, supposedly in any combination.
How is that for insanely ambitious?
C:SR came out after Splendor and many people (including me) saw a fair amount of overlap. They are at heart both races to deliver combinations of goods (gems in Splendor, spices in C:SR) as quickly and efficiently as possible. Both games allow the players only one action per turn. In Splendor players can either accumulate gems or trade them in for cards, which serve as “virtual gems” on future turns and can be worth VP as well. C:SR is more about swapping and “upgrading” spices; accumulation is often less efficient (though sometimes necessary).
I think both games are very good–maybe Splendor edges C:SR out because of its clunky poker-chip gems and slightly simpler ruleset. A “Golem” edition of C:SR came out in 2017 which trades in cubes for huge luscious-looking gems and gorgeous card art. I would recommend it hands-down over the “Spice” version except that because of its different components it doesn’t mate quite as neatly with Eastern Wonders. Despite considerable fanlove for the Golem version, publishers Plan B games have yet to announce a Golem edition. Won’t someone please think of the Golems?!
Anyway. To deliver on Matsuuchi’s promise, Eastern Wonders must stand alone as a good game and also meld with C:SR to provide a separate, third experience. For those who were afraid Eastern Wonders would be a mere rehash, fear not: although it is clearly set in the same engine-efficiency cube-delivery world, it has a different set of scaffolding mechanics. Just because you rock at C:SR does not mean you will rule Eastern Wonders.
The first difference is the game’s initial state; each player starts with a different bundle of goods which are drafted at the start of the game. Each player in reverse turn order chooses a bundle and a starting point, which assures asymmetric and flexible play.
The game plays out on a hexagonal grid of modular tiles which are randomly laid at the start of the game (and allow for endless configurations). Most of the tiles are Market Tiles, each of which allows players who build an Outpost on them to perform a specific kind of cube-swap. Four of the tiles are Ports, where the delivery tiles with specific cube sets and are placed, each with a VP value. C:SR players will be excused if they feel underwhelmed so far, since it looks like all that’s happened is that cards have been exchanged for tiles.
But it is precisely the introduction of geography which changes the nature of the game. First, movement across the board requires cubes, which get dropped off on intervening tiles as you go (and be picked up later by whoever stops there–useful). If an opponent’s boat is already where you want to stop, you have to pay them off, too–which can definitely wreck your plans.
Second, the requirement to build Outposts (which are paid for in cubes, and get more expensive the more players have already built there) adds a whole new layer. This is because each Market specializes in one type of spice. Building Outposts on many islands of the same type gets you more VP, but building sets of Outposts (one of each colour) lets you draft an upgrade. Upgrades are powerful–even more powerful if you can stack them. And some are worth VP on top (or instead) of being powerful, which is nothing to sneeze at.
So it is still a race which rewards efficiency, but because all players essentially have access to the same pool of actions, it is a matter of making best use of what you start with.
Now for the real clincher: what about the combined game, called From Sand to Sea? The result game is, indeed, a hybrid. You use almost all the bits from Eastern Wonders as well as the Starter and Market Cards from C:SR. FStS also starts with cube- and location-drafting, and the rules for obtaining Market Cards are ported straight from C:SR (although there are only four and not six to choose from).
The major differences in FStS are in movement and upgrades. Unlike Eastern Wonders, you pay for extra movement with cards, not cubes in FStS–a source of frustration and confusion the first time you switch from one to the other. The variety of upgrades in FStS is smaller, and instead of taking an upgrade you can lift a card from the Market for free when you clear a column on your player mat.
FStS really tests your efficiency skills and opportunism. If the right card comes up in the Market, it’s often much better to snag it rather than waste cards and turns moving across the board for the same swapping action. Conversely, I think upgrade and production Market Cards are more valuable in FStS than the base game because no island performs those services. The best player will need to find just the right combo of cards and movement to come out on top.
In conclusion, I think Eastern Wonders is a solid Euro game experience which is easy to teach and learn. And if you already own C:SR, you really do get three games for the price of two. It’s really a no-brainer if you like this kind of game. Matsuuchi’s board ambition has thus far been justified.
The only question in my mind is what the final game in the series (to be called Century: The New World according to the text on the back of Eastern Wonders) is going to be about. What mechanism(s) will it include? My guess is some kind of bidding or stock market will be involved. What do you think?