I did not want to back Villagers when it came out on Kickstarter. I tend to shy away from games with generic titles, and the gameplay mechanics (conveyor-belt drafting, production chains) seemed similarly unimaginative. Besides, it was a self-publish by a first-time designer (Haakon Gardner) and those do not have great track records, fulfilment-wise. Mind you, the artwork on the cards did look good: clean and sparse à la 2nd edition Glory to Rome with a Mitteleuropean aesthetic, but good graphics do not a good game make. And sure, there was a fair bit of buzz about it on BGG, but I’ve learned not to trust that either. A fella can’t back everything.
Then the retail version came out, and I was pleasantly shocked at the sticker price: only $21.95 (Canadian), when similarly-sized games easily go for twice as much. And the teeny little expansion pack was eight bucks! I assumed this was due to excellent cost management of Kickstarter funds and was impressed. I started to feel a bit of a hankering to try it out, just to see if it was all that. I wasn’t ready to buy it yet. But then, a coworker picked it up and she offered to crack it open after work to give it a spin.
Opening the box revealed more pleasant surprises. Decent card quality–not linen finish, but not flimsy either. Plenty of room in the box for sleeved cards (for those who indulge). Sturdy dividers for cards made out of thicker cardboard, each printed with the cards that belonged in its section. Physical quality had not been skimped.
We dove into the rules and set up. I was still in a prove-it frame of mind. By game’s end, I quietly swore to myself. I was gonna hafta buy it.
Why? Because Villagers, to me, is another TARDIS Game–way bigger on the inside. The theme, though wafer-thin, works: the Black Plague is over, displaced peasants are wandering the road(s), and you, as the Head of your Village, are trying to lure just the right mixture of vocations. And the gameplay is a ripe vintage, with accents of Oh My Goods! (the production chains), Puerto Rico (unclaimed villagers get coins for the next round–but the twist is they are wiped from the road if remaining unchosen after two), and Lost Cities (in the way player drafts and discards can affect the length of the game). The clean artwork and iconography are also pluses.
Play alternates between Drafting and Building phases. Players take turns clockwise choosing either faceup cards from the Road or taking their chances from face-down piles above it. Cards have their suits marked on the back, so if you’ve decided to build towards a Jeweller, for example, it might be worth drawing an available face-down Ore card if no face-up members of the Jeweller’s production chain are available.
There are other things to consider as well. The more food your village produces, the more cards you can draft up to a maximum of five. More cards means more choice–but you won’t be able to get all those cards onto the table unless you play Villagers with building icons. I find this to be a major bottleneck and the biggest flaw of the game–you are very much at the mercy of the draw here and if one player manages to snag extra building power early on it can be hard to catch up or even compete.
The “unlocking” mechanism is a way of forcing more player interaction by having prerequisites for building that lie outside a given production chain. For instance, the Weaver must be built on a Spinner, but also requires that payment be given to a Carpenter somewhere on the table. If you have a Carpenter–great, that’s two extra bucks (points) from the bank. But if the only Carpenter on the table is Johnny’s, why then you must pay Johnny–and if that happens early enough in the game, Johnny will benefit twice from that. If there’s no Carpenter on the table, you just pay the bank. So unlocking isn’t make-or-break, but having the only Blacksmith or Carpenter on the table can bring you a ton of extra money.
There are three ways to earn points. “Gold” cards pay off in both scoring rounds, but unless they are the last card of a chain they don’t pay much. “Silver” cards only pay off in the final round and will reward having lots of particular icons in your village; they can be highly lucrative, particularly if you synergize things properly. Finally, villagers that unlock other cards also pay off in both rounds (by virtue of being “paid off” for their unlocking services as detailed above), but their return is unpredictable, depending as it does on which cards come out of the deck and when. Success to me so far seems to depend on getting a mixture of all of these. You can’t depend on just a couple of high-scoring production chains to pay off, even if you manage to get one in place by the first scoring round (which comes quite early and is hard to bring off). You need some of those end-game points to pay off, which means you have to start planning early for which chains you’re intending to build. But you also have to work with your initial starting hand and the cards that come out after the initial six (which always start the game on the Road) have been taken. In this Villagers reminds me of good old Race For The Galaxy.
Villagers also promises a solo mode, and as expected I was excited by this (and used it to justify the purchase as well). In solo mode, you play against The Countess (cue ominous music) for whom you have to draft as well, and The Countess abides by no rules: she can take and use any card. Furthermore, every round there will be an Event you will have to draw, most of which benefit her with extra points or cards, or even forcing you to give her cards. Deciding which card would help her the least was exquisite torture, and I was sure I was sunk, but it turned out I squeaked out a victory by two points, which felt oh so good.
I haven’t even tried the expansion yet, which adds several independent modules you can slot in and out to your taste. There are some new kinds of cards that add to player interaction, new game-end scoring cards, and cards that score at the end of every turn. So much gaming goodness left to discover!
Clearly, I have been won over by Villagers. For the many reasons I have listed above (gameplay; artwork; component quality; price point) it represents the best of what small, independent games bring to the tabletop. Every once in awhile a game comes around that earns the hype it gets. Villagers to me is one of those games.