Design by Tony Boydell
Published by Surprised Stare Games / Lookout Games
1 – 5 Players, 90 – 120 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Snowdonia is a dramatically beautiful national park located in Wales. Parts of it are surprisingly barren, yet still stunning. I had the great pleasure of visiting the park about fifteen years ago, not only marveling at its beauty, but also shaking in terror at its frighteningly narrow and precarious roads. I am amazed that a railroad through the mountains was actually constructed in the late 1800s, somehow managing to navigate the steep precipices and remaining functioning to the present day.
Tony Boydell’s Snowdonia recreates the construction of the Snowdon Mountain Railway. While it uses a train theme and does involve the construction of a railway, the game feels decidedly different than most train games with which gamers are familiar. Indeed, the game is primarily a worker placement affair, with players claiming spaces in order to excavate, acquire resources, build stations, construct track and more. Through it all they must adapt to the vagaries of the Welsh weather, which can cause work to slow to a crawl. Proper planning, timing and persistence are required to successfully complete the stations and achieve fame as the master builder.
The board mainly serves as a holding space for various cards and components and provides spaces whereupon players will place their workers in order to claim actions. No track is constructed on the board itself; rather, cards are preset around the board. These cards include excavation cards (which yield rubble), stations and viaducts, the latter two requiring various amounts of rubble, track and/or resources in order to be constructed. Players will place their cubes on these cards when they complete the specific task listed. For example, Waterfall Station requires three items in order to be completed: two rubble, one track and two stone. These can be completed separately and by different players, with each aspect granting the fulfilling player a specific number of victory points. Before a station can be complete, however, all rubble preceding a station card must be cleared and track constructed. There are a total of 22 cards surrounding the board, all of which (except the final station) must be excavated or constructed before the game ends.
Each player has a limited number of laborers and ownership cubes. This limitation is quite challenging, forcing players to make tough decisions as they seek to take valuable actions, yet optimize the use of their cubes. If one places his ownership cubes too early, he won’t have any available for potentially more valuable tasks later in the game.
A game round is fairly straightforward: assign laborers to tasks and resolve those actions. Each of the seven possible actions has a limited number of spaces, so not everyone can take every action they desire. Timing and turn order can be critical. This is a very tense and exciting aspect of the game, which causes those nervous, yet appealing fluttering butterflies in one’s stomach.
The actions are performed in a set order, again forcing players to plan properly. The possible actions are:
Stockyard. The stockyard contains three spaces: iron ore, stone and coal. Each turn, a set number of cubes are randomly drawn from a cloth bag and placed in the appropriate spaces in the stockyard. Thus, the available mix will vary each turn. Further, any “event” cubes drawn are placed on the event track and will trigger a variety of events—some favorable, some not—as the game progresses.
Each laborer placed on the Stockyard action space can take three iron ore and/or stone cubes from the stockyard. Alternatively, the player can take one coal and two iron ore and/or stone cubes. The stockyard location has space for four laborers, so those going later will often have few, if any choices remaining. There is an incentive, however, for placing a laborer on the fourth slot on the stockyard space: that player becomes the start player, an important holding.
Excavation. The current excavation work rate is based on a table. The potential yield in rubble cubes will vary from 1 – 4, but this can also be affected by the weather, which will change repeatedly throughout the game. Laborers placed on the excavation space remove the indicated number of rubble cubes from the card(s) ringing the board. If a player removes the last rubble cube from a station card, he places one of his ownership cubes on that space on the station. He will earn the indicated number of victory points at game end.
As with resources, rubble is necessary to construct the stations and viaducts. Plus, some contracts will award bonuses for rubble.
Works. Players placing laborers here can covert three iron ore into one steel bar (used for constructing track and paying train maintenance) or change two rubble into one stone. The player(s) can do this up to three times. This can prove quite useful and gives players more options when selecting other actions.
Lay Track. As with the excavation action, a chart, which is greatly influenced by the weather, lists how much track (1 or 2 segments) that can be constructed with this action. As mentioned, track is not actually constructed on the board. Rather, a fully excavated card is inverted, the player surrenders the indicated amount of steel, and places an ownership cube on the card. Most stations and/or viaducts also require track in order to be constructed. The player constructing that track will earn the indicated number of points at game’s end.
Build. Once all track leading-up to a station has been constructed, each laborer on a build action space can construct one of the sites listed on the station card. For example, Hebron Station has five sites, one of which requires the clearing of rubble. Two of the sites require one stone apiece, while the other two sites require one steel apiece. Sites on a station card can be completed in any order, and each space rewards the completing player with victory points.
Instead of building, a player may select one of the available train cards. Trains give players specific advantages. All trains give their owners the ability to surrender one coal at the beginning of each round to gain a temporary laborer for that round, while some grant additional actions. The cost of each train is different, with the more valuable trains being, of course, more expensive.
Site Office. The player may take one of the three face-up contract cards. These cards give the player special abilities that can be used during the game, but they can also grant victory points at game’s end if the player meets the specified conditions. For example, one contract grants the player two victory points for each coal marker he possesses, while another gives the player a whopping 40 victory points if he has constructed four tracks. Contract cards can supply a considerable amount of victory points, so they should not be overlooked. An important point is that resources can only be used to satisfy the requirements of one contract card, so players cannot use the same resources to satisfy multiple contracts.
Move the Surveyor. Each player has one surveyor who can be moved along the cards one step at a time. Players will earn victory points based on how far along they have progressed on the cards. Reaching the final station will award the player with an impressive 21 points, so this action should also not be ignored.
The game ends at the conclusion of the round once the final track card in the route is completed. The final station (Yr Wyddfa) may or may not be completed. Players tally their victory points from completed sites on station cards, completed track, contract cards and the final position of their surveyor. The player with the most points becomes the toast of Wales and wins the game. While the box claims a game can be played to completion in an hour, all of my games have taken considerably more time—1 ½ to 2 hours. There is a lot of planning to do and a lot of decisions to be made. This takes time, but it is all very engaging so the game never seems to drag or overstay its welcome.
I must admit that I have a bias in favor of worker placement games. I thoroughly enjoy the mechanism and the inherent decisions and challenges it presents. Snowdonia presents players with the same type of decisions. Where and when to place your workers are critical decisions that must be made each and every turn. Since the actions are rectified in a specific order—and each site is also resolved in the order in which the laborers are situated at those sites—proper timing and placement is essential. This strict order of resolution means that one misstep could drastically alter a player’s plans. Fortunately, there are numerous options available to a player, so usually one is not completely crushed if a mistake in planning is made.
The event track has a way of moving things along. When triggered, events will cause the removal of rubble from a number of track cards and the completion of track cards or stations. Thus, if players are procrastinating in regards to these tasks, the game has a method of pushing things forward. Players must plan for the dreaded “Train Maintenance” event, which forces players to play a steel bar in order to maintain their train. Failure to do so results in the loss of that train, a costly occurrence.
Snowdonia is filled with those tough decisions that endear a game to me. The critical timing element adds tension to the proceedings, as players must carefully assess their opponents’ intentions and plans, hoping to complete a desired site or track in order to earn the victory points. I appreciate that the game provides players with numerous options, so that even if a desired site or action has been scooped by an opponent, there is always something else useful a player can do.
Snowdonia is by far designer Tony Boydell’s best effort to date. While the theme is one of constructing tracks, it is refreshingly different than the vast majority of train games on the market. My only quibble is that the game does follow a scripted path, with all of the cards and stations laid out in a set pattern each game. This may cause the game to have a similar feel if played repeatedly. Fortunately there is already an expansion, so this should keep things fresh for aficionados of the game.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry (1 play): I think Snowdonia is a solidly designed worker placement game with some nice touches (I particularly like that each train you buy gives you some interesting abilities that can shape your strategy, and that you can switch trains mid-game if the situation calls for it). However, worker placement is a crowded field and I really don’t feel there’s enough innovation here for the game to distinguish itself. Having the events occasionally trigger the government purchase of tracks and stations is good, as it keeps the game moving along, but for this eminent domain to occur randomly is fairly annoying, as it can mess with your strategies. The inclusion of weather is fine, as it lends variety and you have three turns to prepare for it. Other than that, this is pretty standard stuff and it makes for a nice game, but not one that stands out at all, particularly if the theme isn’t that attractive to you (and it did nothing for me). I’m tempted to say I Like It, but since we’ve never felt the urge to play it again, I guess Neutral is the more accurate category.
Liga (4 plays): A nice worker placement with some freshness. It looks well tested and balanced (something not so common nowadays). I like the dig mechanism and also how the game evolve around the the table. I also like the resources bag. I also like the weather mechanism: something you have to consider but with enough time to plan your strategy. I’m not sure about long-time replaybility since the set-up don’t change too much from game to game and I have the impression to play the same game every time. Anyway a game I would like to play again.
Craig (4 plays): Snowdonia was a highlight of the 2012 Essen games and is one of a handful of that has garnered a spot on my game shelf. The worker placement (sheesh I dislike that term) field is indeed a crowded, but Snowdonia does distinguish itself enough to merit exploration. The randomness in the game along with the weather actually helps to keep the game from stagnating, instead keeping it fresh over repeated plays – all four of my games have felt different enough. Game play does not feel scripted either with the randomness directing a flexible approach by players. With the recent edition of some new scenarios that tweak gameplay in the same way Power Grid maps change the basic game, Snowdonia will stay fresh for some time to come.
Joe (8 plays): For a long time, Snowdonia was clearly my favorite 2012 release, but a couple of 2012 releases I discovered later (Circus Grandioso and Machi Koro) are now threatening to overtake it. But I still really enjoy Snowdonia; in particular, the weather mechanism works very nicely, and leads to significant variability in the feel of the game from one play to the next. I do not care for the game with five players, but otherwise am happy to play; the usual issue I have with worker placement games (the lack of opportunity to carry out a strategy) is mitigated by the small number of workers combined with sufficient actions to allow for meaningful choices.
Patrick Brennan (3 plays):The theme is the gimmick here. It’s a nice worker placement where the effectiveness of what the workers do each turn is determined by the incoming weather (random, but you get to see it coming). If it’s foggy and rainy early, it’ll be a longer game with not much excavating and track building done early, so work out another way to earn VPs. If it’s sunny, the opposite. Otherwise it’s a traditional worker placement with the traditional turn order importance for the traditional race for the best placements, but the variability in how fast or slow things develop should make for some replay. And the theme is really nicely incorporated so, given it’s a solid game, this will help drag me back.
Mary P (2 plays): I agree with Larry for the most part, especially the random/annoying events part. The weather is fine because you can plan around it. The other problem with both of my games (although more expected on the second play) is that the end can ramp up so quickly you really need to watch for it and plan accordingly. In general I really like worker placement games – not sure about the replayability of the base game though. I’d like to play again with the new scenarios.
4 (Love it!): Greg J. Schloesser, John P, Craig M., Joe
3 (Like it): Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Patrick Brennan, Mary P
2 (Neutral): Larry, Nathan Beeler
1 (Not for me):