Design by William Attia
Published by Asmodee
2 – 5 Players, 1 1/2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
While not a big science fiction fan, I must admit that I find the steampunk genre to be highly creative and original. For those not familiar with this science fiction subgenre, steampunk is usually set in the 19th century British Victorian or American West era. Electricity has never been invented–or the technology has been lost due to an apocalyptic event–so all machines are powered by steam. Fantastic inventions ripped from the pages of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are common, and the fashion is a bizarre combination of Victorian, Wild West and punk. An entire steampunk culture has emerged, with conventions, shows, literature, movies and more.
While I am not surprised that the theme has crept into board game design, I am surprised that it has not been used more often. There have been a few titles, but not many. Perhaps the genre is not one that has wide appeal amongst boardgamers, or perhaps the right game using that theme has not yet been published. Time will tell whether or not the theme proves popular.
One game from a major publisher using the steampunk theme is Spyrium by renowned designer William Attia, author of the award winning Caylus. Spyrium, a powerful mineral with remarkable properties, has been discovered and is revolutionizing industry. Players head industrial conglomerates and are frantically acquiring and improving their factories and patenting new technologies, all in an effort to acquire great wealth and bring glory to Her Majesty’s empire.
Spyrium is essentially a worker placement / engine building game. Players will place workers to acquire cards representing factories and techniques, and use the special abilities of various characters. They will attempt to use the benefits of these acquisitions to increase their wealth and earn victory points. Players begin the game with only three workers and a miserly 8 pounds (money). The small central board mainly serves to track the phase in which each player is active, the current basic income level of the players, and provides space for the current and future events. Nearly all of the action occurs on the 9-card display (known as the “market”), which is set afresh at the beginning of each of the game’s six turns. Each turn 9 cards are revealed, placed in a 3×3 pattern. Cards are a mixture of buildings, techniques and characters. Each card will list the cost to purchase it, the victory points (if any) it will yield, and any special power it conveys.
Players begin each turn in the Placement phase, wherein they can alternate placing workers or using (once per turn) the current event. At any time, players can decide to move into the Activation phase, but once this decision is made, the player cannot go back to the previous phase. This is an interesting mechanism and proper timing is often critical. Since most of the action occurs during these two phases, they are worth examining a bit closer.
Placement Phase. The player has three choices each time his turn arrives: place a worker, execute the event, or move to the Activation phase.
Place worker. A worker must be placed in the interior of the market (not along the edges), adjacent to at least one card in the display. That worker will then have the option of using one of the adjacent cards. Thus, it is possible for a worker to be adjacent to at most two cards. Multiple workers from the same and/or different players can be placed at each location.
Use the Event. Once per turn, a player may use the current event. Events provide a variety of abilities, including the ability to earn money, spyrium or victory points; convert money to victory points; earn a new worker and more.
Move to Activation Phase. The player moves his token to the Activation Phase and on future rounds he may perform the actions available during that phase. As mentioned, once a player makes this decision, he cannot go back to the Placement phase.
Activation Phase. The Activation phase gives the player five options.
Earn money. A player may remove one of his workers from the market, earning 1 pound for each other worker that is adjacent to one of the cards that the worker is adjacent to. This is a handy way to earn money.
Activate a card. Building and technique cards are purchased and removed from the market, while character cards are simply used and remain in the market. A player must have a worker adjacent to the card in order to purchase or use it. The cost of purchasing a building or technology is listed on the card. Additionally, the player must pay 1 pound per worker that is also adjacent to that card. Popular cards tend to attract a lot of attention, so purchasing it early will be costly. However, wait too long and the card may be scooped by an opponent.
When a building is purchased, it is placed to the right of the player’s start card. The first card purchased has no placement cost, but each other card costs additional pounds based on how many buildings a player already has in his display. This cost must be factored in when purchasing a building, as if a player cannot pay to place it, he cannot purchase it. Alternatively, a player may replace an existing building with no additional placement cost, but he then loses any abilities and victory points the replaced card conveyed. Many buildings provide abilities that can be used once per turn. This procedure will be described shortly.
When a technique is acquired, it is placed to the left of the start card. There is no placement cost. Techniques also grant special abilities and award end-game victory points for achieving the requirements listed. For example, Taylorism allows the player to reuse a building that has already been used this turn and gain one victory point for each worker he possesses at game’s end. Automation allows the player to use any mine building without having to place a worker, plus earn one point for each spyrium he possesses at game’s end.
Character cards are not purchased. Rather, the player pays to use the card. The amount paid is equal to 1 pound per worker adjacent to that card. As with buildings, characters that provide an attractive benefit tend to be popular, so using them early will cost more as there are usually an abundance of workers adjacent to it. It is usually wise to wait to use the card, but often these cards have a limit as to how often they can be used in a turn, so wait too long and the opportunity to use the card may be lost.
Use the event. The opportunity to use the current event card is still present in the Activation phase, but a player may only use the event once per turn.
Use one of their Buildings. Some buildings provide an instant benefit when purchased (increased income, a new worker), while others simply provide end game victory points. Other buildings provide a benefit that can be used once per turn. These generally include gaining or converting spyrium into victory points. Sometimes a worker or two must be placed onto the building in order to gain these rewards. Each building may only be used once per turn. Once a player has accumulated one or more of these buildings, it is usually wise to conserve a worker or two so they can be placed during this phase.
There are a few other nuances. Some cards will have tokens varying in value from 1 – 3 placed upon them. When a player uses the card, he removes a token and either gains the corresponding number of spyrium, victory points or pounds, or in some cases must pay this amount. Further, players will receive an additional worker and pounds when they pass certain levels on the victory point track.
Once all players have passed, a round ends. Workers are returned to their owners and a new display of nine cards are placed in the market. Each player earns income, and a new round is conducted. After the passage of six rounds, the game ends and players tally their end game victory points, which are derived from their buildings and techniques. Of course, most points wins.
Spyrium is vintage William Attia. There are tough decisions to be made throughout the game. Deciding which cards to acquire is made much more difficult by the competition that results via the workers. Not only is worker placement an important aspect, but the timing of the removal of those workers is perhaps even more critical. It is not uncommon for workers to be left stranded as the surrounding cards are scooped before they can be employed. There is nothing sadder than a worker so forlorn.
Players must also be expert accountants, carefully keeping track of their funds and stretching them to the limit. It is vital to be able to estimate the costs of the actions you desire to perform, as all too frequently a player finds himself a coin or two short of acquiring that coveted building or using the services of a particular character. Removing a worker in order to acquire money only works if the adjacent card is still present. Again, waiting too long can prove problematic.
It is wise to seek complimentary buildings. For example, acquiring a building that grants spyrium–such as a mine–is made even more lucrative when that spyrium can be converted into victory points by a building such as factory, workshop or laboratory. As with many worker placement games, increasing one’s supply of workers is also desirable as it gives players more options. However, spend too much time in the Placement phase placing those workers, and the desired buildings may be scooped by the time you move to the Activation phase.
The only real drawback in Spyrium is the theme, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Other than the attractive cover art, the game fails to evoke any of the steampunk atmosphere. The building names and art are those that can be appropriate for just about any city-building game, and there is nothing present to develop the feel of a steam-driven economy. No real bother, however, as the same lack of theme charge could easily be leveled against many European-style games. That hasn’t yet stopped me from playing or enjoying them!
William Attia certainly isn’t as prolific as many other game designers, but the quality of his two major releases–Caylus and Spyrium–is excellent. Spyrium is rich with decisions–many of them quite tough–and has a timing element that truly escalates the tension level. While I wish the theme were more present, I still thoroughly enjoy the game.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry (about 10 plays): Spyrium is my second favorite game from 2013, behind only Russian Railroads. Attia has boiled this design down to its essentials and it works really well. The way that placed workers determine both auction prices and cash payouts is its defining feature and is very clever. Workers are also needed to power your buildings and getting the balance right is an interesting problem. The tough decisions are plentiful and there’s lots of nice design touches. And despite a constant card set, its replayability is excellent. Best of all, it plays really fast and has become our go-to design when we want to play something meaty in a short time period. I’m very surprised that this hasn’t gotten more praise from the gaming community, as I have no problem labelling it Attia’s second great game.
Jonathan (5-7 plays): Spyrium is one of my favorite games of the past few years. It is a great design with variability is substantially different paths to take. It is meaty and tense, but not brutal. Everyone needs to know the possible cards of the last round, otherwise you might be in for some rude surprises. Bonus points when playing with Patrick Korner and Larry Levy.
4 (Love it!): Larry, Joe, Jonathan F.
3 (Like it): Greg J. Schloesser, Craig Massey, Fraser, Jeff Allers
1 (Not for me):