Friday, 20 October 2017

Century: Spice Road

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Many people proclaimed that Century: Spice Road would replace Splendor. This was what piqued my interest in the game. Splendor had fascinated me. The rules are simple. The game is easy to teach. Yet there are subtle strategies and a hidden depth not apparent at first (or second) sight.

Century: Spice Road is a card game and a resource conversion game. You collect spices (cubes), upgrade them, then put together specific combinations to buy contract cards, which have point values. The game ends when a player reaches a certain number of contract cards. You add up points to determine who wins. To do all these, you use merchant cards like the ones above. Those two on the left with blue borders are starting cards. Everyone gets the same two cards. The first card lets you collect two yellow spices. The second lets you do spice upgrade twice. The two merchant cards on the right let you convert specific spices to another set of specific spices.

This is how the game is set up. The row of five cards are the contract cards. Each card specifies the spice combination required to purchase it. Above the first two cards there are gold and silver coins, which are worth 3pt and 1pt respectively. If you buy a contract card at either of these positions, you claim a corresponding coin. Whenever a contract card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards to fill the blank, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position, i.e. Through the Ages style.

The row of six cards are the merchant cards. One of the actions you can take on your turn is to claim a merchant card from this row. If you take the leftmost card, it's free. If you take any other card, you need to place a spice on each card to its left. This means the rightmost card is the most expensive. If you take a card with spices on it, you take the spices as well. Similarly, whenever a card is taken, cards to its right are shifted leftwards, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position.

Every player has a warehouse card. You can store at most 10 spices.

These are the contract cards. They specify point values, and the spice combinations required to purchase them.

On your turn you have only 4 options: take a merchant card, play a merchant card, reclaim all merchant cards or buy a contract card. When you take a merchant card, you are deciding what ability you will have from then on. You take the card into your hand. To use it, you simply play it in front of you (on a future turn, of course). The more cards you play, the fewer you will have remaining in your hand. To be able to use those played cards again, you need to do a reset, which is spending a turn to claim all played cards back into your hand. This cycle of taking merchant cards, playing them and reclaiming them is something you will do many times. Ultimately your goal is to buy contract cards, which is the fourth option. That's the whole process. Pretty straightforward.

In this photo some of the merchant cards have spices on them. That's because someone had previously taken a merchant card which was not the leftmost one. Sometimes it is worth spending spices to take good merchant cards.

The Play

Century: Spice Road is a simple game to explain. There is little information to go through, and actions are straightforward. It is hard to imagine how the game feels by just understanding the rules. Your goal is the contract cards. You need to collect the right combination of spices to buy contract cards. So the whole game is about using your merchant cards efficiently to collect and upgrade spices. This is a deck-building game, just that your deck is your hand and you have full control over when to play which card. Everyone starts with the same two merchant cards, but as the game progresses, your hands will diverge. Some players may be collecting many cheap spices and then converting them to better spices. Some may be collecting fewer but better spices. Some may even be collecting small amounts of expensive spices then downgrading them to larger amount of cheaper ones. Some players will be better at producing a certain grade of spices than others. The deck-building is the most important aspect of the game. You want to put together a set of cards which chain together to make an efficient supply chain, like a factory production line. If you are collecting many yellow spices, you want other cards which will then convert these yellow spices to other spices that you need. It feels good to have a hand which is like a straight flush - you know exactly in what order you will play them to produce spices at the highest capacity. Once the last card is played, you reset and do it all over again, smooth as silk.

That's the general idea. In practice, there will be adjustments here and there. The spices required by the contract cards are different. So it's not as simple as repeating the same recipe over and over. There are many tactical plays to be made throughout the game. You need to grab opportunities and respond to threats. You need to pay attention to what spices your opponents are collecting, so that you know which contract cards they are going for, and whether anyone will beat you to the one you are going for. If you know you will lose the race, you should switch to something else. Even if you are ahead, you need to make sure you are not overtaken.

The contract cards row and the merchant cards row keep changing. The game system gives you time to prepare. Players tend to take the leftmost cards, so these two card rows behave like sushi belts. If an attractive card comes up at the rightmost spot, you usually have some time to prepare to fight for it. There is some planning you can do.

There are little tactical advantages you want to exploit. Let's say you have enough spices to claim the second contract card, and you see that another player will soon have the spices to claim the first one. You want to politely let him claim the first card, so that the one you want will shift to first position, and you can then claim it together with the bonus gold coin.

The long-term strategy is in how you build your hand of cards. Your hand evolves throughout the game. You need to pay attention to both improving your hand and scoring points. At the same time you watch out for tactical advantages. The game has good player interaction. It's the passive aggressive type, but it can be frustrating. Imagine spending a lot of effort collecting the spices for a high valued contract card, only to have it stolen from you at the last minute. Now you have a set of spices which you can't quite use for the other contract cards, and you need to spend more turns converting some spices to other types in order to fulfill a different contract card.

This was my hand around mid way through the game. The two rightmost cards let me collect many yellow spices. The 2nd and 4th cards require many yellow spices to produce other higher grade spices. This is synergy. As you put together your hand of cards, you will know which grades of spice you can produce efficiently. That will guide you in deciding which contract cards to compete for.

The Thoughts

Century: Spice Road is an engine-building game and a race game. OK, I'm probably losing all credibility now since I have also called it a card game, a deck-building game and a resource-conversion game. Your engine is your hand of cards. That is the core of the game. Your hand of cards determines what you can do. Putting together a set of coherent cards is satisfying. If you have done your engine-building well, playing cards requires little thought. You already have an obvious, efficient sequence in your hand. You do have to make adjustments frequently, to meet the many tactical challenges that come up. The cycle of playing cards to collect and upgrade spices, reclaiming cards to do these again and again, and eventually spending the spices to buy contract cards, defines the tempo of the game. Players will have different tempos and will not be in sync. Some players will have more cards, some few. Sometimes some will have many spices and will be on the verge of claiming a contract card, while others have barely started collecting spices for the next contract card. These are all things you need to observe and make use of.

You need to consider how many merchant cards you want to have. More is not always better. If a card doesn't really help you, you might as well spend the turn doing something else. More cards do generally mean you have more flexibility and you get more done between resets. Too few cards is a no-no.

Coming back to the question of whether Century: Spice Road replaces Splendor, I say no it doesn't. There are similarities. They have simple rules, are easy to teach non-gamers, and have more depth than is apparent. If you are buying a game with the purpose of playing it with non-gamers, then yes, either one will do. However these two games have different souls. In Splendor you need to consider the nobles and high level cards right from the beginning, and plan what capabilities you want to develop to help you eventually score some of these nobles and high value cards. In Century: Spice Road, you are building an efficient hand of cards to help you produce spices to fulfill contracts. Splendor doesn't have the kind of card synergy in Century: Spice Road. Century: Spice Road doesn't have the start-with-the-end-in-mind strategy in Splendor. You get different things from these two games.

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