Saturday, 15 November 2014

Glass Road

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

Glass Road is a medium-weight resource conversion game from Uwe Rosenberg. He has been doing many such games lately. He used to be famous for quirky card games like Bohnanza, but since Agricola and Le Havre, his design focus has switched to medium-to-heavy resource conversion games. Glass Road is another one of these, but it has a few interesting bits.

Everyone starts with a domain (player board) with 20 spaces, and initially most of it is natural terrain, like forests, lakes and quarries. You also have two factories, one producing glass and the other producing bricks. The factories not only produce. You also use them to keep track of your resources. It's quite nifty. Let's take a closer look.

These are your two factories. The top one is your glass factory, the bottom one your brick factory. The hands divide a factory into two segments, the larger one is where raw materials are tracked, and the smaller one is where the finished product is tracked. You must always turn the dials clockwise as much as possible, until one of the hands is blocked by a marker. Usually it would be one of the raw material markers, e.g. at both factories in this photo it is the white (food) marker stopping the long hand. The numbers on the dials indicate how many of each resource you have. When you gain or spend a resource, you move its marker clockwise or anti-clockwise accordingly. Whenever you have at least one unit each of all raw material types, there will be no marker blocking the long hand, and your factory will produce (must produce, in fact). This is done by simply turning the dial, until it is stopped again by one of the markers. By turning the dial, you decrease your raw materials and increase your finished products. That's how production works. It's automatic. You produce as soon as all ingredients are ready. This can sometimes cause trouble though. E.g. you are collecting wood to build a house. If you collect wood, but then find you now have the right materials to produce glass, your factory will immediately produce glass, and your collected wood is immediately depleted again.

This is a victory point game, and most VP's come from buildings you construct. Every round there will be some buildings on a common board available to be built by any player. Some buildings let you convert 1 unit of a resource to 2 units of another. Some buildings give a one-time benefit, e.g. a batch of resources, or the ability to modify terrain. Finally there are buildings which score points at game end depending on how well you meet certain criteria. Throughout the game you need to collect resources, produce glass and bricks, and constructing buildings, ultimately to score points. All these are done using a character card play mechanism.

This is the building board. There are three types of buildings. The top row displays resource conversion buildings. You can convert any time you like and as often as your like. The middle row is for buildings with one-time benefits. The bottom row is for end-game scoring buildings. When a building is constructed by a player, the board is not immediately replenished. It is only replenished at the start of the next round.

The character card mechanism reminds me of Witch's Brew. Everyone gets a same set of character cards. At the start of every round, you secretly pick five. You want to pick some which others won't pick, and also some which others will. Players take turns to play cards to take actions. You will only get three turns to play cards, which means out of the five cards that you pick, in the worst case you many only get to use three. Here's the catch - if the active player plays a card which someone else has also picked, then the passive player must immediately play his card too. Both active and passive player(s) will get to execute an action, but they only get to execute one out of the two actions on the card. If the active player plays a card which no one else can follow, he gets to execute both actions on the card. Ideally you want to pick three cards where you are the only player selecting them, and two cards which others have also selected. Then you'd get to fully utilise your five cards.

These are some of the character cards. The orange section is the fee that must be paid to use a character. The yellow section shows two actions.

One other consideration is the order of cards being played. If you intend to play one card to collect some resources, and then another one to use said resources to construct a building, you can be royally screwed if someone else plays the construct building card first before your building materials are ready.

The game is played over 4 rounds only, so in the best case you get to do 20 actions.

The Play

Allen and I played two games back to back. We were both new to Glass Road. It has been sitting on his shelf for some time. I find that the most important thing in the game is to analyse the available buildings. The factory mechanism is clever. The card play is tricky. However scoring and winning is all about getting the right mix of buildings to help you and to maximise your scoring. The game comes with many buildings so there will be much variability from game to game. There is competition in racing to construct buildings before they are claimed by others.

The card play can make or break a round for you. Both Allen and I experienced getting screwed by the order of cards getting played. We were caught without the resources needed to construct a building or to make use of another character card. Sometimes almost a whole round was wasted, with little being achieved. The card play can be brutal!

You do need to watch your opponent's board. There is much you can tell. If he doesn't have many lakes, but you do, then it is not likely he will pick the character which makes use of lakes. Well, unless he just wants to mess with you, which is definitely possible. You can also guess whether your opponent will compete with you for a particular building by looking at his board. If the building doesn't quite jive with his strategy, you can probably hold off getting the building for a little longer.

In our first game we took some time to digest the buildings and the character cards, but once we felt comfortable, the game play was very quick and smooth.

This is my player board, and this is not in mid game. This is almost at game end. I have only constructed four buildings. Not good. However this is partly because one of my scoring buildings scores points based on natural terrain that I have. So I have been preserving my natural beauty, even terraforming to regain some which was removed earlier.

The Thoughts

Well, Glass Road is yet another cube converter game. It has a few nifty mechanisms. It plays very smoothly and feels satisfying. I get a feeling that the factory production mechanism is a solution looking for a problem. I imagine Uwe Rosenberg being an enthusiastic mad scientist who had just discovered a new chemical and was eagerly looking for an application for it. Glass Road feels like a mechanism-first game. I think it does address a problem of cube converter games. Sometimes I get tired of these games because the many steps required to convert one resource type to the next, and then the next, and then yet again are just so much work. In Glass Road, production is free and automatic. You also get to use conversion buildings for free, at any time, and for as many times as you want. You don't need to wait for your next turn to do one step of the conversion, and then another turn to do the next step, and then another and another until you forget what you were trying to convert that lousy piece of wood to in the first place. Compared to Agricola and Le Havre, Glass Road is cleaner, and slick. It is a medium weight game, while the other two are heavier. I still like the older brothers more, despite them being a little clunkier. They have more story to tell. They feel more personal - begging for food for your family in Agricola, or progressing from a fish and chip restaurant to a steel business in Le Havre. But then maybe that's just nostalgia speaking.

What I like about Glass Road is the variability. The factory mechanism and the card play are the execution layer. The strategic layer is the building combos. With every game you need to analyse afresh the buildings on offer. The game has a bit of a tableau game feel too, like Race for the Galaxy, San Juan.

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