Jonathan Degann: Review of Snowdonia

Review of Snowdonia (Surprised Stare)
by: Jonathan Degann

Snow box coverSnowdonia, by Tony Boydell, is a worker placement game which puts players on a team of construction managers who are competing to contribute to the building of a rail line up Snowdon Mountain in Wales.  Players use their worker placements to collect any of three different commodities, convert some of them into rails, clear away rubble, build track, and contribute to the creation of stations.  Although it’s a game about rails and trains – big heavy behemoths that lumber along at a steady rate, the design has the virtues and flaws of an Italian sports car.  As soon as you put it into gear, you sense that this is a well engineered machine.  You speed it around corners, enjoying the feel, when suddenly the thing stalls out.  You get it back into gear, admire its quick acceleration – until you feel it suddenly lurching out of control, and feel that it’s driving you more than the other way around.

Snow game layout  The game was almost surely inspired by Caylus.  Like Caylus, it’s heart is a worker placement mechanism,  it’s about construction, and there is a linear track along which players build.  In Snowdonia the track is represented by a chain of “track” cards, interrupted frequently with “station” cards.  Those station cards allow players to place quantities of stone or rail to earn points.  What paces you is the fact that each track card leading to the next station carries some “rubble” cubes, and a station may only be built on when the rubble leading up to it has been cleared away.  Similarly, when the rubble has been cleared off of any track card, a player may then lay a rail to “build” that track, also earning points.  Gradually, rubble gets cleared, tracks and stations get built, more rubble gets cleared, and the game ends when the last bit of track reaches the last station on the mountain.

Directing all the work is the core worker placement mechanism.  In the first phase of each turn, players place their workers – only two of them – into spaces that will allow them to take commodities used for building stations and track, clear rubble (and take the rubble cubes), use their accumulated commodities to build the station and track to collect points, convert basic cubes into better resources, take special cards, or advance their special token along the track – specifically to gain escalating points each time.  Additionally, typically at one time during the game, a player will use cubes to build their train.  There are six different trains and each gives the player a unique power, and most will also allow him to spend a precious coal cube in order to be able to place a third worker that turn.

The game would be overwhelmingly tactical if not for the special cards.  As described, you’ll typically try taking some construction cubes of stone, ore or coal, and if you can contribute to a station, try doing that.  You might otherwise try upgrading your ore into valuable rails, which in turn can also build stations, tracks or a train.  Since rubble slows you down, sometimes you’ll have to take rubble – and the game has a sort of “nim” like element – some rubble just gets you – rubble.  Some uncover key spaces for points.  Optimally, you get other players to take the boring rubble and you take the ones that score.  There are several tactics for trying to force this in your favor.

Snow special cardsThe special cards do two things.  Each can be played once per game to give you a special power for that turn only.    However, all such cards you accumulate, whether played or not, will grant you key bonus points at the game end if you’ve fulfilled their requirements.  One might give you points for collecting sufficient rubble cubes; another for building sufficient segments of track.  Cards with steeper requirements have disproportionately strong payoffs.  It is these cards that will help drive different strategies for each player, as one may be focusing on building track, while another is concerned with collecting rubble.  Since players typically take multiple special cards, and there are only about a half dozen different types of goals, the cards distinguish each player’s strategy but also maintain competition.  I might get a big payoff for collecting lots of rubble, but you still want some rubble and we may compete for those cubes.  Getting these bonuses may only account for half or less of a player’s score, but the other sources of points tend to even out.  You can count on the winner frequently being the player who manages his bonuses most effectively.

There is so much to admire in this game, and yet there is much lacking.  The actual engineering (excuse me) of the game shows a great deal of playtesting, refinement and imagination.  For example, the number of times a given action may be taken is finely tuned based on the number of players – and generally the choices feel perfect.  I’ve played this with three, four, and five players and at no time did I feel that one number or another really wasn’t that good.  If you like games with agonizing decisions – you got ‘em here.  Maybe you want to jump in early for picking up cubes – because there aren’t enough good ones to go around – but will you be shut out of building if you do?   Maybe you want to go second in taking rubble, because the player who goes first will set you up for points.  But what if no player chooses the #1 rubble spot?  Well, you could take it yourself later – but at what cost?

While the game does have a wash/rinse/repeat feel to it, there is a certain amount of story arc built into the game.  Early on, you need to collect ore and turn it into tracks in order to get your train (and third worker) into gear.  The faster you do that, the more likely you’ll be able to choose the best train for yourself.  Later on, as you take special cards, you may be able to engage in super-powered moves (“Oooh!  Nice play, Jonathan! “ Don’t you love those compliments for crafty play?) and quickly focus on achieving your bonus objectives.

However, there have been luck elements built into the game – each with a good reason for being there – which never break the game, but sometimes can put irritating kinks into it.  The two elements are weather and events.

The amount you can build in a turn depends on the weather.  Depending on how that has played out, taking a “rubble” action might advance you anywhere from one to four cubes, or allow two versus one track builds in a single turn.  Or Snow weatherfoggy weather might prevent building entirely.  When these events come out in a “nice” order, it adds texture to the game.  You’ve got a big track build coming up, it’s going to be foggy next turn,  you have to make different plans.  The game picks up, slows down, and the scenery is changing.  Great.  But then in another game a bunch of rain and fog all get clustered together and the game bogs down horribly.  Nobody can do anything.  You take suboptimal turns waiting for things to open up; it can be boring and frustrating.

The other environmental element is the event cubes.  Like the weather rule, it is a smartly designed factor that keeps the pace of the game moving  and shakes things up well… except when it doesn’t.  There are “random” events scheduled to come up in the game.  You know what they are and in what order, but you don’t know the speed with which they’ll appear.  These events tend to take the role of an external player.  The “game” will sometimes clear rubble, build track, or complete stations – often in jumps and starts – often more rapidly than you’d really like it to.  You might accumulate cubes for a key build of stations – and whoops!  Out come not one but maybe three event cubes that build over the stations you planned on taking for yourself.
The speed with which the event cubes come out is partly just luck, and partly a matter of how many resources people are hoarding.  The notes from the designer suggest that this variability was by design.  I think that’s rationalization.  Many factors might cause players to accumulate resource cubes, but when it happens it can disturb the game like an irritated gamer flipping the table (okay, not really that badly.)

Finally, in spite of the many smart design elements, there is no single one that elevates the game.  Having played Caylus, my thought is: I’d rather play Caylus.  OK, this game is speedier and easier to teach.  However there is certainly a “this looks like déjà vu all over again” sense that many experienced gamers may feel when they play Snowdonia.  Sometimes a new game, like Trajan, will have a single mechanism that is so unusual, it defines the game and gives it personality.  Sometimes, as with Hawaii, there are lots of small elements that come together so nicely for a fresh gaming experience.  Snowdonia is neither.  It’s great if your game collection is small and you’d like to add a worker placement game, but it’s not a reason to trade up.  I think that if you have an opportunity to play Snowdonia, you needn’t balk.  You’ll have a fine time.  You’ll tolerate its problems.  If you’re an experienced gamer with a significant collection, you’re likely to find Snowdonia to be a redundant addition to your collection.

Joe Huber (8 plays) – As an experienced gamer with a significant collection, I find Snowdonia to be an important addition to my collection.  So why is that?

Well, first, it doesn’t give me the frustration I usually find with worker placement games – and Caylus is a great example of this – where actions are so limited that a lot of the game revolves around becoming the start player at the right time.  Snowdonia isn’t perfect at this – in particular, there are times you really want to take two specific actions sequentially in a turn, which is often where the frustration really builds – but it’s far better than Caylus.

Snowdonia also is far more interesting thematically than Caylus, at least for me.  Again – there are odd mechanisms such as hiring people from the pub by using coal, but overall the process of digging, laying track, and building stations fits.  And the weather fits very well – yes, it can lead to slow turns, but there are enough things players want to do that these are something of a relief.  I must admit that the randomness of the events doesn’t bother me – it usually is not a major factor in the game in an unpredictable way.

I think my opinion of Snowdonia can best be summed up as follows – of the 56 games I’ve played which were released in 2012 (not counting Starship Merchants), Snowdonia is my favorite.  And it’s one of the very few worker placement games that breaks out of the mold enough to be in my collection.

Lorna: I like it! Snowdonia is a nice worker placement game. I like Caylus as well but Snowdonia feels like less work which isn’t always a bad thing. I find it more interesting than other recent worker placement games and their are at least a few options to generate points.

Ted C: I have enjoyed my several plays of Snowdonia and also think I prefer it to Caylus because of speed and ease of play.  Although I have not played the blue side of the cards yet, the game is starting to feel very similar play after play.  It is still a keeper for me though.

Larry (1 play) – This is a solid design, but I really didn’t feel it did anything to distinguish itself from the crowded field of worker placement games.  I like the way that weather is implemented, although I see, as Jonathan mentions, where clumping would be annoying.  I also agree with him about events; I didn’t care for the potential they have to arbitrarily mess with your strategy.  These aren’t major concerns and the game works quite nicely.  But these days, I need to see a spark, something unique or clever in a design, and I didn’t really feel that was present in Snowdonia.  I would be perfectly happy to play again, but there are many other worker placement games I would choose over this one if given the option.

Jonathan F.: I really enjoyed the dynamism of the game with the white cubes driving the game forward.  The choices were fun and it played smoothly.  For pure planners, this might not be the right game, as you can play ‘correctly’ and have rails suddenly build which eliminates your ability to complete a huge contract.  I don’t care.  I really like it.  One of my top 5 from 2012.

Craig Massey (3 plays):  I will often find and make odd comparisons between games when playing something for the first time, but in playing Snowdonia I never even remotely thought of comparing it to Caylus.  Not being a Caylus fan, this comparison might have seriously dampened my enthusiasm and interest before the first play.  Unlike Caylus, I  found Snowdonia extremely enjoyable.  As Joe said it is far more thematically interesting than many worker placement games and it has an element of uncertainty which forces you to mitigate risk when making your decisions.  While I have not done any kind of official ranking from the games of 2012, I would not be surprised if this was in my top five when I actually end up doing so.  Recommended!

Dale Yu:  (4 plays) I have played this with a couple of different groups, and I have found the mechanics of the game are solid.  The one thing that I haven’t quite wrapped my head around is the timing of the game.  I don’t know whether it’s just weird luck in our games, but it seems like the weather keeps speeding the game along faster than I want it to go.  Now, to be clear, the problem could just be that I want the game to go slower (Like Bohn Hansa) – but we’ve had some games where is was nigh impossible to score the bonus points for rubble collection because the event cubes combined with the prevailing weather simply wiped the rubble off the board before anyone could collect them.  But, that hasn’t necessarily dampened my enjoyment of the game – it’s just changed how I approach the planning of the endgame.  I’m 4 games into it, and I’m still wanting to play it more to try out new strategies.

Dan Blum: I think some of Jonathan’s concerns are valid. A clump of bad weather can bog the game down a bit, and having a bunch of event cubes come out at once can definitely ruin your plans. However, neither bothers me that much. Another thing that bothers me a little bit is the sharpness of the cards; you get some choice in which cards you get, but not an enormous amount (if you wait around for specific cards you probably won’t get any), and the fact that the cards are all-or-nothing can make a sub-optimal set of cards really bad.

In a long, complex game these problems would bother me a lot, to the point I wouldn’t play the game. In a game of Snowdonia’s length, they don’t – they’re just things to contend with, and if I have a game where all the random elements go against me, it’s not that big a deal.

It’s still not going to be one of my favorite games, but I enjoy it and will play it again. And I prefer it to Caylus.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers:
I Love it!:  Jonathan F.
I Like it:  Jonathan D, Craig Massey, Dale Yu, Dan Blum
Neutral:  Larry, Nathan Beeler,
Not for me:

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3 Responses to Jonathan Degann: Review of Snowdonia

  1. Michael says:

    I really like this game and I agree with most of Jonathan’s points. The basic mechanics of placing workers and building the track and the stations is nothing new. What makes it interesting for me is having to shift my plans back and forth to adjust for the supply draw, events, and weather. What I DON’T agree with is the supposed inspiration from Caylus. I’m not seeing that at all. This game has no more connection to Caylus (a game I don’t particularly enjoy) than it does any other of a hundred worker placement / resource gathering games.

  2. Doug says:

    I like Snowdonia, but not sure why Caylus(*) was mentioned a dozen times in the review and comments.

    Snowdonia is fun, quirky, and importantly, knows when to end. I’ve turned over my collection several times, but I think Snowdonia is staying for a while.

    (*) Ugh. From the class of Essen ’05, give me Hacienda, Beowulf, Cash N Guns over Caylus any time.

  3. frankhamrick says:

    I’m in the same group that sees little comparison to Caylus. I never really cared for Caylus, and never gave Caylus a thought when playing Snowdonia. I love the ‘atmosphere’ of Snowdonia and admire the way its mechanisms work. Timing is essential as the game seems to have a life of its own and you have to get in sequence with its pace (pace changes each game depending on the weather, white cubes and other player’s choices). The key to the game is anticipation of the timing and being prepared when things happen. I also consider this one of the top 5 games I’ve played from Essen.

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