Games about putting things in order aren’t all that unusual. Certainly in the world of traditional solitaire there are many varieties where the deck is all mixed up and your job is to put it into order by suit. My favorite is spider solitaire, but you probably have your own favorite, and that’s ok, let a thousand flowers bloom and all that.
But move away from solitaire and the sorting mechanic seems less common. The classic Rack-O has been around since 1956 under various guises; the latest version is from 2013 but you may well have a Milton Bradley edition tucked away in a closet or up at the cottage. The designer of Rack-O is lost in the mist of time; designers did not get credit in those days, which is too bad, they deserve a round of applause. The game is elegance itself: you start with a mixed-up set of cards from a deck numbered 1 to 60 in your rack, and each turn you draw one face down from the middle and replace one of your cards with it. The first player to get their eight cards in increasing order calls “Rack-O!” and wins the round. Simple!
And yet, despite Rack-O’s success, I’m having a hard time coming up with more modern designs which use the mechanic. You might even say I’m wracking my brain. (#rimshot) Even BGG is little help, since there is no filter for “sorting” as a mechanic, and I’m damned if I’m going to wade through hundreds of pages of “puzzle” and “pattern-building” games for you lot.
So let’s just proceed to this week’s game, courtesy of Adam P. McIver, best known (to me, anyway) as the designer of the gem of a mini-microgame that is Coin Age. McIver has concocted a whimsical fantasy-themed game which combines worker placement, tableau building, set collection, and, yes, sorting. The result is a challenging puzzle-like game with plenty of player interaction and replayability at all player counts (yes, that includes the excellent standalone solitaire variant).
In Ex Libris you are a book-lover competing for the newly-created post of Grand Librarian by assembling the best collection as represented by Book Cards you “shelve” (play) into a grid in front of you. Your grid can be a maximum of three rows (shelves) high, and the wider it is the better–as long as there are no holes in it. At games end your Stability score is the biggest rectangle formed by your cards–the catch being it must include your bottom row. And since you can’t have freestanding shelves in your library, you constantly have to calculate the risk of leaving gaps in your alphabetics versus leaving gaps open on your shelves.
Then there are the books themselves, which come in six categories. At the beginning of the game one category becomes Banned–you get negative points for these. You don’t want to ignore any of the other five categories, because at game’s end you score triple the number of the fewest books you have in any of those five. One of them is your unique Focus category–those books count double for you. And finally, one category is chosen as Prominent; the players who have the most of these get a pretty hefty bonus.
The problem is that each Book Card has between two and four books on it in these categories, so sometimes you have to take books you don’t want just to get one you do want. Plus, remember, your Book Cards have to be in alphabetical order (there’s a numbering system to help with this)–because otherwise they’ll be turned face-down at the end of the game and won’t count for anything, basically.
We haven’t even got to how you get these Book Cards yet–which is the real meat of the game in the form of your Assistants and the Locations they can visit. Each player gets two regular Assistants plus one Special one with a unique power. The Locations are drafted every turn from a common pool, and at turn’s end one becomes Permanent, so as the game goes on you have more and more choices. Each Location does something different: some let you discard and draw new Book Cards from the draw pile, for example, while others allow you to move cards around your Library, draft cards dealt to that Location, steal cards from other players, and so on. The game ends when a player’s Library reaches a certain size threshold. Points are then scored and a Grand Librarian is crowned.
The solitaire variant has you competing against the discard pile over five rounds for best library. Depending on the difficulty level you choose, each round you have to toss a certain number of Book Cards into the discard pile, which can’t help but improve their library–especially since they don’t have to worry about alphabetization or Stability. Unlike the multiplayer version, the number of locations shrinks as the game goes on, and choosing which ones to toss every turn is tricky in and of itself. Kudos to McIver for coming up with a solitaire variant which stands on its own.
I’ll admit that I turned my nose up at the game when I heard of Ex Libris: “Mmm? A worker placement game with a fantasy theme about sorting books? Reeeally? Boooooring!” But I got pulled in. Maybe it was those Special Assistant meeples; gotta love any game that comes with its own Gelatinous Cube.
Ex Libris is a medium-weight game with very friendly-looking art which flows very smoothly once you’re used to it. The book titles on the cards are pretty funny, too. Get your Sorting Hat on and dig in.