Wednesday 18 February 2015


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

One of the hot new mechanisms at the 2014 Essen game fair was bag-building, which is actually just deck-building, except it uses coloured cubes in a bag as opposed to a deck of cards. Hyperborea uses this mechanism. Other games that I know of which uses this are King's Pouch and Orleans. I have not played those or read their rules though.

This is the background story of Hyperborea: Players are little kingdoms separated by a magical force field for many generations. They used to be part of a large, rich and advanced empire. An experiment many years ago went awry and almost destroyed the empire. Only small pieces of the empire survived, but they were separated by the magical force field which engulfed most of the empire. They developed in isolation and became very different civilisations. Now, the force field has suddenly collapsed, and the ancient lands, its ancient cities and ruins are accessible again. The kingdoms now rush in to grab all the goodies. This is where the game starts.

Everyone starts with a small kingdom at the edge of the play area, 3-tile sized. The unclaimed tiles in the central area all start face-down. A tile is flipped face-up once someone's unit is next to it. In this photo, most tiles have been flipped. Tiles have either cities or ruins. Cities let you execute actions by entering them, ruins let you collect treasures. Cities and ruins are haunted though (the grey pieces are ghosts), and you need to kill the ghosts occupying them before you can use them.

On your turn, you draw three cubes from your bag and use them to try to execute actions. Cubes come in 6 colours. On your player board you have 6 action categories, each offering two options. To execute an action you need to place the cubes of the required colours. Actions include moving, attacking, producing units, collecting gems (worth 1VP each), collecting development points (which can be traded for additional cubes for your bag) and claiming new technologies. The table at the centre of the player board is the development chart. Whenever a marker reaches a specific level, you can reset it to claim one or two cubes of the specific colour and put it into your bag.

If on your turn you empty your bag, at the end of that turn you get to do a reset, putting all cubes back into the bag so that you start afresh next turn.

These are the tech cards you can claim. There are always 8 available. If you choose to buy a tech, you may discard and redraw up to two cards before you decide which one to get. The coin icons at the top right corners of the cards are point values. Techs are mostly additional actions on which players can place cubes to trigger.

The tiles at the bottom right are the game end trigger conditions. In a short game, two conditions being met, whether by the same player or by two different players, will end the game. Meeting a condition gets you 2VP too. From left to right: gaining 5 techs, gaining 12 gems, getting all your units onto the board.

The Play

Ivan, Jeff, Laurence, Thomas and I did a 5P game. We were all new to the game. The max supported by the game is 6P.

The faction I drew was a matriarchal society, and my specialty was I could produce units (reproduce?) more quickly. During the game I picked techs which boosted my unit production even more. I intended to make full use of my ability to flood the board and control as many tiles as I could. Controlling tiles by having majority is worth points at game end.

Cities and ruins with units in them means they have been activated. The units are temporary locked. They are freed the next time you reset your bag. Once freed they may choose to immediately enter the cities or ruins again to use them again. Entering a city or ruin is a free action.

It is not hard to keep track of the cubes in your bag, unless you have collected too many. My policy was to keep the count low, because I thought it was more efficient. Easier to keep count, easier to plan which actions I would take. I would reset more frequently, which meant I could use the cities in my area more frequently too. The only downside was I would get fewer points at game end. Each cube was worth 1VP.

I also tried to keep my cube count a multiple of three, since every turn you get to draw three cubes. I wanted to avoid drawing fewer than three cubes on my last turn before a bag reset. This is a game in which you can calculate and plan down to very precise details. Combat is diceless and deterministic. As long as you are able to place the cubes to take an attack action, you kill the enemy unit. The only thing your opponent can do is to place a temporary defense token on his turn, but even so that token protects against just one attack.

You know what cubes you have. The only uncertainty is when you will draw which colours. So it's a matter of timing and order. You can plan how to use all the cubes in your bag the moment you reset it, if you want to. You can even think up multiple plans, to cater for different orders of cubes getting drawn. This is contingency planner heaven.

In a 5-player game, the starting positions are uneven. Thomas and I started slightly further away from everyone else, while Jeff, Ivan and Laurence were closer to one another. They came into contact earlier. On the surface this looks like a conflict game, but actually you don't get to kill others very often. The basic actions on your player board allows you to kill at most twice per bag reset, assuming you are willing to spend your cubes on those actions instead of others. Killing ghosts gets you 1VP for the first ghost, 2VP for the second, 3VP for the third, then 1VP again for each additional ghost. Killing player units normally gets you 1VP for the first one from each opponent only. So players will tend to race to be ghostbusters rather than fight each other.

This is the score pad. The ways you score points are: collect gems, kill ghosts, kill enemy units, gain cubes, achieve game end trigger conditions, claim techs, control tiles.

At game end, controlling a player start tile is worth 1VP. Controlling a tile in the main central area is worth 2VP, except for the single central tile which is worth 4VP.

The three cubes at the top left are the new ones I'll get to use next turn. I can draw them early so that I can plan ahead while others are taking their turns. This helps a lot in reducing downtime and keeping players engaged. Along the top you can see that I have collected one gem, and killed two ghosts. The grey cube is a waste cube. Whenever you claim a tech, you must claim a waste cube too. They normally just clog up your bag making it inefficient. However some techs accept grey cubes, so if you have many grey cubes, you probably want to consider getting such techs so that grey cubes can be useful.

The green faction's specialty is movement. They can ignore terrain effects. Normally it is harder to move into or out of swamps, mountains and forests. Unfortunately for Laurence who played green in our game, the terrain tiles drawn were mostly just plains, so his ability wasn't very useful.

The miniatures are nicely done.

Game end. Thomas (yellow) was the one to get the fifth tech. I (purple) was the one who produced all units.

The Thoughts

My first impression after completing the game was this has some Ameritrashy flavour. However the rest didn't think so. We discussed, and I realised I had been tricked by the plastic miniatures. All that detailed planning and cube counting I had been enjoying were all Eurogame elements. This is a Euro-style point scoring game, despite the conflict element. The conflict is not of the type where you want to obliterate your opponent (well, unless you want to do it just for the satisfaction). You kill mainly because of VP's, and the game incentivises you to attack ghosts more than it encourages you to attack other players.

Before I played Hyperborea, I didn't have high hopes. I was a little worried whether it was the kind of game where one unique mechanism has to hold up the whole game. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the setting and the mechanisms are well integrated. The bag-building is still at the core, but I feel the rest of the game comes together to form a consistent world, and is not just a jumble of scoring methods forcefully bundled together. The story and the setting is nothing particularly outstanding, but I like the sense of wholeness and how everything fits together naturally. I like the unique abilities of each faction, and also how the techs can further boost each faction and provide variability from game to game.

I enjoyed the game more than I expected. I like the forward planning of how to make full use of my bag of cubes. I like planning what coloured cube to add, and setting a direction for my little kingdom. Conflict is limited so I don't need to worry too much about others spoiling my plans. The interaction in the game is mostly in the form of racing to kill ghosts, to use city powers and to scavenge for treasures at the ruins. There is fighting over control of tiles, but since the number of attacks you can do is limited, you don't often get long protracted wars. They are lose-lose situations and no one wants to get into those anyway.

Hyperborea can be seen as a civ game too. There is exploration, there are techs, there is fighting. However there is no colonisation or city-building. The techs are mostly just additional actions being enabled. They give more options but don't alter the basic stats and costs of the game. I wouldn't call Hyperborea a "simplified" civ game. That would send all the wrong signals. I'll just call it a game with some civ-like features.

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