There is a saying, variously attributed to Toni Morrison, Pablo Picasso, and Leonardo da Vinci (among others), that one of the hardest things about creating art is knowing when to stop. Sure, beginning a new project can be excruciating. It’s also easier to add than to take away–especially if you’re emotionally-invested in what you’re working on. So tempting to lay down another backing track, bring in new characters, or add rules to deal with “edge cases”…
It’s much harder to prune, pare back, “kill your darlings”, and stick to the essence of what you’re trying to get across. I’m not saying that all complexity in art is bad. But not everyone can carry it off. More is not always better. It usually takes a lot of experience to be able to walk the wire of complexity with agility and deftness.
Which is one reason I didn’t back Hegemony when it Kickstarted last year. A fully asymmetric game about modern political economy, by first-time designers? Yeah, no.
Of course, I was wrong. So wrong. When one of my friends who had backed it offered me a chance to play it earlier in the summer, I experienced my first major case of tabletop Non-Backer’s Regret since Scythe in 2016. Hegemony is the real deal. But that’s not the story I want to tell today; my take on Hegemony will have to wait for my “best of 2023” column.
Today I want to talk about another recent release by a first-time designer: Life of the Amazonia by Jamie Bloom and published by very new publisher Bad Comet Games, who’s catalog so far leans into nature-themed games.
Amazonia is a very good game, especially considering it’s by a first-time designer. In the absence of any interviews or coverage that I could find with Bloom, I’m going out on a limb when I say that Bloom’s aim was to mash together the nature-themed tile-laying and animeeple-placement of Cascadia and the bag-building and bag-manipulation elements of Orléans. The idea being presumably that since both are great games then combining them will make for an ever greater game!
And it is greater–in the sense that it has more decisions and choices than Cascadia and more varied currencies and things to spend them on than Orléans. In both games you are building a habitat out of hex-based tiles and placing animeeples on them, with each species scoring differently at the end of the game. But whereas Cascadia only asks you to juggle the spatial relationships of five animals; Amazonia puts eight on the table and splits them into three categories (mammal; avian; reptilian)–and that’s not counting the unique species you start with, each of which having its own unique power.
Amazonia apes Cascadia in providing the same eight animals each time but allowing for four different scoring possibilities for each. But while Cascadia allows you to randomize these, Amazonia has curated them into four pre-fab sets, which on the one hand means they have been tweaked for maximum balance, synergy, and interest, but on the downside means you only get four ways to play the base game unless you want to muck about. That doesn’t bother me because I happen to be one of those people who think “replayability” is an overrated and badly-understood concept by many players (and designers), and furthermore the randomness of the tiles and bonuses provide plenty of variability in and of themselves. So in this regard at least Bloom followed a “less is more” path.
In Cascadia you grew your habitat by drafting a tile-and-animeeple pair from a market of four choices. There were plenty of interesting decisions to make within that play-space. Bloom, however, decided there was plenty of room to graft a much more weighty and involved group of mechanics. Now on their turns players need to purchase tiles, animeeples, and other goods using tokens they pull from their bags–the contents of which in turn can be upgraded by purchasing better tokens from a separate token market.
In fact, Amazonia requires you to juggle four currencies. You need plants, seeds, and/or water to acquire species for your habitat–but plants and water are also needed to move up three “waterfall tracks”–and moving up the tracks is the only way to draft new tiles and add trees and water-plants to your habitat (which in turn are needed to trigger various scoring abilities). You also need water to buy new VP cards, one-off bonuses, and upgrades to your backpack. And then there’s the fourth currency, coins, which you need to buy higher-valued tokens of all four currencies and (later in the game) to buy free actions.
You’re only ever going to draw five tokens from your bag on your turn, and you only get to keep one unspent token for your next turn unless you upgrade your backpack–which means that it’s imperative to upgrade and then thin out your bag as quickly as possible. It feels to me like the dominant strategy is to concentrate on upping your coin tokens first to maximize your buying power each turn, thin out your low-coin tokens using tile bonuses, using your other tokens as best you can. Only once your money supply is up to snuff can you go big in seeds, plants, and water. That’s what I did for my play, anyway, and it paid off handsomely–even though it was a bit nerve-wracking to see my opponents plopping their cute animeeples down before I’d even placed one.
While Amazonia has only three tracks to Orléans’ six, they have potentially much more effect on your score, since besides enabling the actions mentioned above, getting your marker to the end of each track can swing the VP balance hugely in your favour. I concentrated on going up the tracks–especially once I’d drafted a bonus card that gave me 3 end-game VP for every track where I was first or tied for first. That was nine points–not to mention 35 points for my position on the tracks themselves–and it won the game for me,
This might make me sound either smug (“I am so good at games”) or critical (“It can’t be that interesting a game if I could figure it out so quickly”) or both. But I’m not knocking Amazonia–or at least, not on the basis of one play. I mean, I do luck into a winning strategy every now and again when I play a game for the first time. I actually find it reassuring in a “not going senile yet” kind of way.
Truly, Amazonia is a solidly-designed game. It has excellent components–the screen-printed animeeples are adorable, the “Waterfall of Life” (ie, track setup) has some pretty touches, and the cardboard boats provided for player discard piles are utilitarian as well as thematic. The rules are well-written. If you or your player group enjoyed Cascadia and are looking for something a step up from that, then I could easily see recommending Amazonia.
It’s just that–for all its mechanical stürm und drang and all its decision points, Amazonia just makes me want to go back and play Cascadia and Orléans. It’s certainly not the family-friendly entry-level game Cascadia is, and the bag-building stuff doesn’t “click” as thematically as it does for me in Orléans.
In summary, designer Jamie Bloom certainly seems to know how to design a good game, and I hope they will go on to further success. They just need to find their own voice. I hope the success of Amazonia and Bad Comet Games both give them the encouragement to bring something truly new to the table next time.