Review of Artifact: Surprises Under the Surface


Designers:  Jeff Allers, Bernd Eisenstein
Publisher:  White Goblin Games
Players:  3-5
Ages:  12+
Time:  90-120 minutes

Theme:  Archaeology
Main Mechanics:  Set Collection, Action Selection

Times played:  1

It’s always fun when games fit their themes in unusual ways.  Take Artifact, the latest design from Jeff (Nieuw Amsterdam) Allers and Bernd (Peloponnes) Eisenstein.  On the surface, it appears to be a straightforward middleweight game.  But it only takes a couple of turns to realize that there’s more to be found once you dig a little deeper.  How delightfully appropriate for a game about archaeology!

I got my first introduction to this game several years ago, when Jeff, who is a penpal of mine, asked me if my group would be interested in playtesting the prototype.  We did and provided him with our impressions.  To thank us, Jeff very kindly asked White Goblin to send me a review copy of the finished product.  I got to play it just before Thanksgiving and this review is based on that first impression.

Each player is an archaeologist dreaming of international fame during the 1920’s.  They scour the four corners of the world to dig up artifacts and then assemble collections of them to present exhibitions in some renowned museum for victory points.  It sounds like a standard set collection game, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s more here than meets the eye.

The heart of the game are the artifact cards.  There are four digging sites on the board (in locations like the Middle East and Africa) and each one has its own dedicated deck of artifact cards.  Every card has two pieces of information:  the site it comes from and the artifact type (there are five different types and they’re equally represented in each deck).

Also central to the game are the action markers. There are six groups of these:  specific worker markers for each site, museum markers, and ship markers. At the beginning of the game, each of the groups is lined up at their appropriate locations on the board, on spaces with dollar amounts listed. The first markers to be taken are on $1 spaces and the values increase up to the last markers on $5 spaces.

Finally, the exhibition tiles are displayed face up on the board.  The requirements for these are of two sorts:  4 or 5 artifacts from the same site; and 3, 4, or 5 artifacts of the same type.  Each tile shows the number of VPs and additional income it provides when the requirements are satisfied.  Naturally, the exhibitions with the larger requirements have the better rewards.

Every player begins the game with a group of worker huts in their color.  These are used to show how many people you have working at each of the sites.  They then prepare for the first round by choosing six of the action markers and placing them on their player mat.

artifact_component photo

Acting like an archaeologist

The game lasts a maximum of nine rounds.  Every round begins with the players receiving income.  This is a set amount for each player (which tends to decrease with each succeeding round) plus individual bonus income based on the exhibitions that the player has produced.

The players then carry out their actions for the round, which are based on the action markers they chose at the end of the previous round.  In clockwise order, each player performs one or two actions.  This continues until all the players have passed.

There are six types of actions and each is carried out in the same fashion.  The player takes a marker appropriate for the action from his player mat and places it on the highest valued empty space for that marker on the board.  He then pays the bank money equal to the value of that space and then carries out the action.  Thus, actions taken early in the round cost more than ones taken later on.

Here is a brief description of each of the types of actions:

Research – You know, you don’t just stumble into a desolate area and hope to make like Indiana Jones.  First, you have to find a promising location, by cracking the books at your local museum.  Consequently, this action is required if you want to place worker huts at a site where you currently have none.  Place a museum marker onto the board, pay for it, and then put one of your worker huts onto the site of your choice.  You may then be able to reveal an artifact card at that site; the general rule is you do so only if there are other huts, of any player, already at that site.  Thus, there will always be one less exposed artifact card than there are total worker huts at a site.

Hire Workers – This is where you get the locals to assist with the digging.  It requires that you already have worker huts at your chosen site.  Place and pay for the appropriate worker marker at the site, put one of your worker huts there, and then reveal an artifact card at the location.

Ship Artifacts – It’s an unfortunate fact that all dig sites are separated from the museums that will exhibit their artifacts by large bodies of water.  So you gotta hire a ship if you want to move that precious cargo.  Play and pay for a ship marker, then take back all of your worker huts at a site of your choice, and take an equal number of exposed artifact cards from there (or fewer, if there aren’t enough cards there) and add them to your hand.  There is no hand limit.

Produce an Exhibition – Finally, the payoff.  Play and pay for a museum marker and then select one of the exhibition tiles that you qualify for.  Play artifact cards that meet the requirement.  Take one of the cards back into your hand and put the rest out of the game.  Take the exhibition tile; it will give you VPs at the end of the game and add to your income at the beginning of each subsequent round.

Sell Artifact – Times are tough all over and carrying out all that archaeology stuff ain’t cheap.  Even the most efficient scientist needs more money than is provided by a research grant.  So sometimes, you just gotta turn to that ol’ black market.  The two black market actions are carried out a little differently than the other ones.  Place a ship marker, but do not pay for it.  Above each spot on the ship track is a value that is higher than the corresponding one on the track.  Place a card from your hand onto the black market display and receive money from the bank equal to the black market value.

Buy Artifact – The black market works both ways, you know; you can pick up a much needed artifact from those slimy salesmen and your reputation is such that you can get it at cost.  The last three cards that were sold to the black market are available to be purchased.  If you want to buy one, place a ship marker and pay the associated black market value.  Then take a card from the black market display and add it to your hand.

Finally, if you want to carry out one of the first four types of actions, but you don’t have the right action marker, you can always do so by turning in any action marker and paying $6 (which is $1 more than the most any action would normally cost).  Then just carry out the action as if you had turned in the appropriate marker.  Obviously, this is pricey, but sometimes you just gotta throw money at a problem and make it happen.

Because players can take either 1 or 2 actions a turn, and because players can run out of money before carrying out all 6 of their planned actions, the players don’t always finish up a round at the same time.  Therefore, when a player doesn’t want to or cannot perform any actions on her turn, she must pass, which means she won’t be able to carry out actions for the rest of the round.  However, passed players don’t just sit there; every passed player, on their turn, must either take an action marker from the board or swap one they already have with another one.  Thus, they get an early shot at planning for their next turn, which can come in handy, since some action markers can be in short supply.  It also means they might cause the players who are still active to pay a little more for their actions.

Once every player has passed, the round ends.  All players must now plan for the next turn, by taking enough action markers to bring their total back up to 6.  The next round then begins, starting with the player who was last to pass in the previous round.

There are four ways that the game can end.  Three of them occur due to certain shortages of exhibition tiles or artifact decks.  Alternatively, the game always ends at the end of 9 rounds.  Players score for all their produced exhibitions, as well as a few VPs for their leftover money.  Highest total wins and gains bragging rights among all the world’s archaeologists!

But wait!  There’s more!!!

What I just described is the base game.  In an effort to make Artifact more accessible,  White Goblin has followed the lead of a few other publishers and stripped out some of the standard rules and labeled them “expansions”, which are described at the end of the rulebook.  Jeff advised us to play with them the first time, so we did.  I’m detailing them separately, because it’s easier to describe them that way.

There are two parts to the first expansion.  First, a handful of special cards are added to each artifact deck.  These don’t change the gameplay too much, but add some spice and variety to the proceedings.  The second part are four Research Tracks, one for each site.  The players begin the game at the bottom of these tracks.  Every time a player performs a Research action, they go up one step on that site’s track.  There is a VP value associated with each step.  At the end of the game, each player finds the track that has their next to lowest advancement and scores the VPs associated with their advancement there.  Essentially, this is similar to the scoring in Euphrat & Tigris, except that the players get to ignore one of the tracks and focus on the other three.

The second expansion uses eight spaces printed on the board.  These consist of four spaces named after major cities and four spaces named after famous archaeologists.  Each space is associated with a special ability.  Whenever a player produces an exhibition, they can either place one of their two markers on a space or move one of their already placed markers.  Multiple players can be on the same space; the only restriction is that players can’t have both of their markers on city spaces or both of them on archaeologist spaces.  The special abilities are pretty powerful.  For example, one of them allows the player to perform a seventh action at the end of their turn, at no cost and without a marker, while another one lets them use one of their artifact cards as a joker when producing an exhibition.  This is a significant addition to the game and gives the players a good deal to think about while deciding which spaces to use at different points of the game.

Indy would approve

So what did I think of Artifact, after one game?  I liked it, with one caveat I’ll get to later.  One of the reasons I enjoyed my play is that it’s not the friendly, middleweight set collection game it might appear to be at first glance.  For one thing, money is tight and the actions involving shipping and the museum tend to get expensive.  Not only does this require you to be careful with your actions, it also means that selling to the black market will happen with some regularity if you want to make the most of your turns.  So don’t get too attached to all those lovely artifacts you’re collecting.

Having to plan your turns in advance also pushes this more towards gamer’s game territory.  Ideally, you’ll want to be able to carry out a plan, while still being flexible enough to react to the draw of the cards and your opponents’ actions.  With only three kinds of action markers, it isn’t rocket science, but it’s still pleasantly stimulating.

The most efficient way of gathering artifacts is just to let them pile up at one site and then swoop them all into your hand with one shipping action.  That’s kind of boring, but thankfully didn’t happen in our game, for a couple of reasons.  First, even a small number of enemy huts will inspire you to cut bait and grab the artifacts early on, lest your scurrilous opponent snatch the ones you really want.  Second, the sooner you produce some exhibitions, the sooner you’ll get the bonus income and that comes in mighty handy.  So it’s definitely more interesting than letting your hand size grow to obscene levels and then producing a bunch of exhibitions.

The central mechanic of your early actions costing more than your late ones works well and the main reason for this is the clever choice of letting players take one or two actions a turn.  This is not a straightforward decision.  Sometimes you want to take things slow, in the hope that your actions will cost less.  Other times, you’re in a rush, particularly if you think you’ll be in a race to grab an exhibition tile before an equally qualified opponent.  These varying speeds give the game a unique feel.

The special abilities in the second expansion change the game dramatically and are the final ingredient towards pushing the design away from middleweight status.  The abilities are all powerful ones and deciding which ones to utilize and when to switch between them can be a difficult choice.  With impactful effects like these, there’s always a concern that some of them might be unbalancing, but we didn’t feel that way in our game, as we all employed different strategies.  I really like the way this affects the game and since the first expansion also worked well, I agree with the designer that both expansions should be used from the very beginning.

Artifact was a pleasant surprise for me, because it turned out to be more intense than I thought it might be, but that also might explain why its early ratings have been disappointing.  I’m sure a lot of the folks trying it at Essen expected a light game about archaeology and instead found they were playing a true gamer’s game.  People are often unhappy when their expectations aren’t met.  The game is also a little unintuitive and the rulebook has some issues, making it less than an ideal game to try to learn during the squalor of Essen.  There are still fewer than 40 ratings of the game on the Geek, so the game’s overall rating may not be an accurate indicator of how it will eventually be received.  Hopefully, we’ll get a better picture once the title gets greater exposure.

There’s always a curse

Even though I enjoyed my first game, there were some issues.  The biggest one is the game length.  The box lists the duration as 60-120 minutes for a 3-5 player game, so 90 minutes for the 4 players we had seems like a reasonable estimate.  Unfortunately, our game lasted about 2.5 hours, which frankly was too long.  With experience, that value should come down, but it’s still a bit of a red flag.  90 minutes or a little longer would be ideal for what this game provides and the hope is that we’ll be able to achieve that.  If future games consistently exceed the 2 hour mark, that will serve to dampen my enthusiasm for the design considerably.

Most of my other concerns have to do with the physical production.  Overall, this is a reasonably attractive game.  The artifact cards are nice looking and the icons are large enough that the critical information is easy to read from across the table.  And keeping track of player cash on the board, rather than using coins or bills, was a smart decision.  But the box in my game suffers from OTCBS (Overly Tight Chinese Box Syndrome)–the best way to open it is to hold the box six inches off the table and wait ten seconds to let gravity do its work.  There’s also the rules; they’re laid out in a peculiar fashion and more diagrams (particularly for the Setup section) would have made them much easier to understand.

Then there’s White Goblin’s continuing love affair with gigantism (remember the huge buildings in WGG’s Nieuw Amsterdam?).  All of the wooden markers are larger than they strictly need to be.  For the museum and ship markers, this works fine, as there’s room for them on the board and the large size merely enhances the nice detail on them.  The markers used to track player cash are a little too large and make shifting them around a bit awkward, but I guess I can live with that.  The real issue is the worker markers at each site.  These are very large and top-heavy and must be crammed into a small area so that their costs can be tracked.  The result is that they keep tipping over, which obscures what the current action costs are.  This is more than a little annoying and detracts from the overall playing experience.

Neither the problems with the rules, nor the components are enough to keep me from playing the game.  But, combined with my experiences with earlier WGG games, this shows a lack of attention to detail that the publisher would be well advised to correct.  Little things like this can be the difference between a successful title and a flop.

I Dig It

Even though I acknowledge that the game has a few issues, overall I think that Artifact is a very solid gamer’s game, with plenty of scope for planning and decision making.  The big proviso is that it might be a little long for what it provides, but my hope is that the duration will go down as the players become more experienced.  Luck can certainly play a role, but it’s by no means overwhelming and is at quite an acceptable level for a game of this weight and theme.  Even though there isn’t anything dramatically innovative, there are some nice new design touches, which give the game a different feel from anything else out there.  And the provided expansions add a lot to the gameplay, at the cost of only a little extra complexity.  Keep in mind that all of these impressions are based on just a single play of the game, so take that into account.  But if you’re the sort of gamer who doesn’t mind digging a little deeper into a game, with the hope of finding the treasure buried within, I think you’ll probably like Artifact.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Yu – Rating based on 3 plays (2 basic, 1 with expansion rules) with review copy provided by WGG

Larry has done a great job covering the mechanics of the game – and I found the game easy to learn personally, though some of the local gamers have had problems remembering the actions and which token is needed to activate them.

Gameplay – There are a lot of great ideas in the game, especially the action selection mechanism.  It is definitely a complicated process that takes some significant advance planning to do well.  You need to constantly keep track of how much money you have (or will be able to obtain) – then you need to make sure that you’ve got the right wooden bits selected to allow you to take the actions that you want.  Your choice of wooden bit may also be modified by what the other players are selecting.  For instance, if everyone else is choosing the purple men, the actions there may end up being too expensive at the start of the round and you might need to change your plan accordingly. 

When you’re actually taking the actions, the choice of one or two actions per turn also presents the player with some tough choices.  Taking two actions in a row can often lead to a huge swing in the game, but this usually comes at a much higher cost because the price of the actions are higher now than they would be later (if you had waited in turn order).  We have had to add an active player marker to the game because there were a few times when the next player in turn order would forget about the option for a second action and start their turn early – sometimes to their detriment because they mistakenly pointed out a good move to the player who was still able to take another action.  By adding in a token, it becomes simple to know when the active player is done deciding whether or not he is taking a second action.

There is a slight rich-get-richer income issue that I have seen in the game.  As the game progresses and more exhibitions are completed, the base income for each player reduces.  This is supposed to be compensated by players receiving individual bonuses for their completed exhibitions.  The problem here is that players that get snaked out of exhibitions unexpectedly might end up with income issues.  And, once you are at the low end of the income ladder, this generally means one or two less actions that you are able to afford a turn.  This can be overcome by selling artifacts to make more money (in order to take more actions), but you end up depleting your artifact stores to do this which then make it harder for you to score exhibitions later in the game.  While the game allows you to keep doing stuff, most of your actions are spent spinning your wheels while the other players are able to continue to take positive actions that keep them moving forward.  Perhaps my three games are an aberration, but in all three, there has been one player in each that got off to a slow start and then could really never get back in the game.  Maybe that’s a player issue?  I’m not sure yet.

Having played the basic game twice and then once with the expansions – I would definitely lean towards playing with the expansions in later games.  The two sets of rules each add a nice bit of complexity to the game, though they also add to the game length.  The special actions can be very swingy, but since all players have equal access to them, the burden is on the player to figure out which actions he needs and when.  The other expansion helps make the last two rounds of the game be more interesting by giving a generous amount of bonus points for playing in the research areas at the end of the game.  Without this bonus, there isn’t a lot of reason to play in the research areas if you cannot finish an expedition making the final round in the basic game somewhat anticlimactic.

Our games have not been as long as Larry’s, with even our first 4p game coming in just over 90 minutes – My most recent game also was 90 minutes, though I attribute the lack of improvement due to the fact that we added in the expansions which were certainly more complex.  This will hopefully improve in later plays, though having to constantly review which wooden piece was needed for a particular action kept delaying us.  I will admit that at 90 minutes, the game was starting to feel long – so hopefully this will improve

Components – As far as the components go, they are fine for the most part.  I am generally neutral about the Chinese components – I have certainly seen marked improvement in the quality over the past few years.  My two issues are the same as Larry’s.  First, while thematic, the unbalanced expedition figures are a bad choice for the game.  They are way too large for the area that you’re trying to cram them in, and they are so large that they obscure the information you want to read in that space.  They also are somewhat imbalanced and easily topple over.  These would have been much better as simple cubes or discs.  Second, the waxy plastic box has always been a bane of mine, and this is no exception.  It’s hard to open, and the lack of linen finish on the box does stick out on the shelf.  My frustration with the box is more with the manufacturer than White Goblin though because this is an issue with many of the Chinese made games.  I actually tore my New Haven box cover (another Chinese produced game but from a different publisher) trying to wedge the thing open last week!  With all the other improvements in component quality, I’m not sure why box technology lags so far behind.

Overall – I have enjoyed Artifact.   It is a meatier game than I had originally anticipated, and I’m glad to have it on the shelf.  I will probably push to play it with the expansions from now on, and hopefully playing time will come down a bit with repeated plays.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it! –
I like it – Larry, Dale
Neutral – Joe, John P
Not for me –

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