Epoch: Early Inventors
by Martyn F
Prototype: Currently on Kickstarter
2 – 4 players
Non-compensated Preview by Jonathan Franklin
I really enjoy games with technologies, modular boards, and a narrative arc integrated into the game, so when Epoch hit my radar, I asked Martyn F. if I could try Epoch early and write it up. He agreed and sent me a copy of the prototype. The game is now on Kickstarter, so go fund it if this review makes you want it.
Please take this three question quiz now.
1. How do you feel about turns where you get to choose one of six actions, each with sub-actions, as well as unlimited movement, and a few other options as part of your turn? Do you enjoy planning a few moves ahead and figuring out a way to get the resources you need one turn before one of your opponents?
Like? Neutral? Dislike?
2. How do you feel about extensive resource conversion? Deer can become tendon, antler, skin, and/or food. There are also six other basic resources, clay, stone, flint, ore, wood, and flax. These can become processed goods, including rope, bronze, and leather. For example, you can gather food and then work for flax to use a rope making tile to convert food and flax to rope, which can then be used to more easily move on to mountain tiles.
Like? Neutral? Dislike?
3. How do you feel about a well balanced game where the exploration mechanism is a tile flip that could enable you to gain just the technology you need or benefit an opponent at just the right time for them?
Like? Neutral? Dislike?
3 likes out of 3 – Pledge now
2 likes out of 3 – Read this review and the rules overview below
1 like out of 3 – Read this review and see if you care about the rules after that
0 likes out of 3 – This game might be like going to the dentist for you
Epoch is a fairly low luck exploration game with technologies to invent and no negative interactions between players other than taking a space someone else was working towards.
The game is not hard to explain, but every action and decision point has sub-choices, which can make the rules explanation a bit long. It is a good game to teach by demonstrating the actions rather than describing them.
The goal of the game is to have the most status at the end. Status is gained largely by exploring, developing technologies, and making offerings at holy places. The game is played in turns going around the table until the end game is triggered. At that point you finish the round and have three more full rounds so everyone has an equal number of turns.
There is a large X shaped board made of hexagonal tiles in the middle of the table. Players start in the middle of the X. Each tile has three aspects. terrain type (color), cost to develop, and benefit once developed. The cost to develop is on the tile while the benefit is described in the player booklet. It is unfortunate that there is not a way to see the development’s benefit on the tile itself, but I am sure the designer will have a great solution for this.
Each player board holds up to 16 food and a fixed number of resources. 7 resources if playing on normal and 5 if playing on advanced.
On your turn, you may discover an invention, make an offering at a holy place, and/or take one action. In addition, there is unlimited movement, trading, and one time per turn use of your inventions.
Developing a tile means paying the cost on the tile, such as one flax, one stone, and one food to get a new technology, such as a knife, a basket, or a spear, which will give you special abilities. When you develop a tile, you place one of your huts on the tile and other players have to pay you to use it.
At the far end of each arm of the X-shaped board, there is a holy place where you can make offerings. These are similar to what you need to gain developments, an assortment of general or specific resources. Instead of a technology, these offerings gain you status, which is how you win the game.
Along with discovering and making an offering, you may also take an action, often getting food. This is done by choosing to hunt, fish, gather, or butcher. Your choice will be largely dependent on the terrain you are on and what technologies you have. For each of these actions, there are sub-actions you can take that often involve giving up resources to get more food or giving up some of the food you just got to get resources. In addition to gaining food, you can also gain resources (clay, stone, flax, etc.) by working. You roll the dice (0, 1, 1, 1, 1, and 2) and get that much work. Depending on the terrain you are on, you can allocate this work into acquiring different resources. The final action you can take is exploring. Explore by paying two food, flipping over a face down tile adjacent to your camp, and gaining a status.
Movement is unlimited and you must pay food for each terrain you cross. You can get across the board in one turn, but it will cost you quite a bit of food, so you have to plan ahead. For a more detailed discussion of the rules, see below.
We enjoyed the game while acknowledging that the number of resources involved and length of the final few turns can be tiring. For some, this game will feel like work and for others, it will clearly be play. I particularly liked that it has something even more fluid than a tech tree, in that any two techs can go together, but some are far more strategic pairings than others. There really is a strategic aspect to the game, although it is highly tactical. Since you know which inventions are on which resource tiles, you can actually gather the needed resources in advance and go seeking the developments you want. Ok, that is also slightly ahistorical.
In some games, you can look over and see you are racing someone to make the same offering at a holy place. Often you can look ahead enough to see if you will lose the race and start to revise your strategy. The game definitely rewards lookahead, at least planning a few turns in advance for what you are going to do, if not actively watching the other players and trying to thwart them or cajole them into using your technologies. Trading is built into the game and you do not need to be anywhere near each other to trade. We rarely did traded, but probably because we were too new, even after a few plays.
I enjoyed Epoch as a thoughtful exploration game with quite a bit of Euro to it. I would steer clear if you don’t want a somewhat fiddly game where you do have to look up what tiles do which actions for the first few plays, as the iconography looks like caveman math – 2 ore + .5 wood or .5 antler =3x 3 bronze. This means you can use the tile three times. If you run it twice, you pay 4 ore + 1 wood to get 6 bronze. If you run it three times, you pay 6 ore + 2 wood to get 9 bronze. Then you spend a bronze and a food and a wood to develop the shovel, which you use to do work and get more clay to make an offering.
Epoch has a dense puzzly aspect, especially once the board is covered with huts and you need to figure out which ones you need to use to achieve what you want. If you played and like Colonia, Imperial Settlers, Shipyard, Upon a Salty Sea, and/or Homesteaders, Epoch is likely in your wheelhouse. Early turns are quick because your engines don’t have many parts. As you go along, turns become longer due to the larger flexible decision space. You can definitely plan ahead, so it is engaging even when not your turn, but can be brain burny towards the end.
In-depth discussion of the rules
The players will constantly need food. Your player board only holds 16 cubes of food. Developing and moving require food, so often you will spend your action gathering food. If only it were that simple. After you decide you need food, you can choose to gather, fish, or hunt. If you have deer already, you can also choose to butcher. Your choice will depend on what type of terrain you are in and what inventions you have. For example, if you have the spear, you will want to hunt. If you have the basket and sowing, you will likely want to gather. The actual process of getting food is quite interesting. Depending on your terrain and technologies, you will get a certain amount of food and perhaps some food dice. Food dice are rolled. Four die faces have 1 food, one has 2 food, and one has none, so it adds some luck. Let’s say you have a plan for your move and the die gives you no food. You can often give up resources to get more food or spend some of the food you just got to get resources you will need this turn or later.
Martyn has given these extra actions very cute names, such as, Be Hardheaded (give up 2 food to get an antler, tendon, or skin) and Do Not Give Up (give up 1 food and 1 ore/stone/flint to get an extra deer). Deer can always be converted into three food, but if you use the butcher action, you can get extra goodies, such as antler and 3 food or tendon and skin. The problem is that butchering takes an action, so it might not be efficient unless you have the knife, which improves butchering. This is not a game where being a generalist is the way to go. You want to develop new technologies that play to your existing ones. If you have a basket and sowing, pottery will be far more useful than an axe.
Let’s say you have enough food. There are two other actions you can take. You can work to get resources (stone, ore, flint, wood, flax, and clay). The resources you get depend on your terrain and also how much work you put into it. For example, in the grassland, flax and ore are plentiful and only take 1 work each. Clay is harder to get and takes 2 work. All other resources take 3 work. There is no way to get flax in the desert or flint in the swamp.
If you choose to work, you spend one food to get two work dice (same as the food dice). Let’s say you need more work to get what you want. You can Sweat and give up a food to roll another work die. If you want still more work, you can Put Your Back Into It and spend yet another food to get another unit of work. If you don’t want to take the risk, you can Put Your Back Into It without Sweat. Work is far better when you have technologies that enhance work. Flax costs 2 work in the forest, but if you have a knife, flax only costs 1 work. Gloves automatically give you an extra work. Horses give you an extra work if you feed them, but have a side benefit of helping to carry more resources, if you feed the horse when you move – more on that later.
The final choice for your action is exploring. Exploring is the easiest action, you pay two food and flip a tile adjacent to your camp. The modular board starts with all the tiles face down other than a few in the center of the X, where you start. Your camp defines where you are at that moment. Exploring lets you see a new tile, as they are all face down at the start, but it also earns you a status, which is how you win the game. You can gain 3 status if you explore a tile next to a newly discovered holy place. Since two players cannot have their camps on the same tile, you don’t risk exploring only to have someone else swoop in and explore beyond you so long as you move your camp onto the tile you just explored.
The remaining two parts of the turn are even easier, develop and/or make an offering (or do neither).
Developing a location means discovering the invention on the tile. For example, the hex that has the knife on it requires 1 bronze or 2 antler or 3 flint plus 1 stone plus 1 food to develop the knife. If you are on that tile, but have not paid the price, there is the potential to develop the knife, but it is just a forest space so far as you are concerned. So if your camp is on the knife tile or on an adjacent hex to it, and you have a bronze, a stone, and a food, you can develop the knife. This means placing your hut on that tile. There can only be one hut on each tile, but there are multiple hexes for each technology. Once you have a technology, you can use it once each turn. If you want to use the technologies developed by others, you pay them a status or negotiate with them. After that, you can use all their technologies for that turn for that one price. This is important, as you might have a somewhat efficient way of producing leather that is supercharged when adding your tech to that of another player. They get a status and you get more valuable resources much faster.
Along with getting resources and developing tiles, there is a third element to your turn. You start at the center of the X-shaped board. At the end of each of the arms of the X is a holy place where you can make offerings. Making an offering at a holy place is quite similar to developing. You move next to a holy place and offer one of the sets of good that it wants. In exchange you gain status and improve your end game score based on how many holy places you make an offering at.
Moving is a matter of addition – add the cost of crossing each terrain type you want to cross and pay food to go where you want to go. You can zip across the board if you have a decent amount of food, but you cannot move on to an unexplored hex, so this is more of a late game option. Moving is not limited, so you can move-gather-move-develop-move-offer-move all during one turn. Surprisingly, most moves are pretty straight forward, so even the AP among you should not have much trouble planning and executing your turn in a reasonable period of time.
There is one little trick about moving. You can only carry up to 16 food and a set number of resources. If you want to carry more, you can develop relevant technologies, such as canoes, carts, horses, cloaks, and boots. These are important because they can help you carry more, but sometimes only if you are on land or water – the canoe is a pain to move in the desert and you cannot use your cart in the water. You can leave resources somewhere and then go get them later. If you leave them, someone else can come get them before you get back. Foods spoils, so you cannot create food caches.
The game continues going round and round until someone has made an offering at a second holy place. Since you can only make one offering at each one, it might not take someone that long to make a second offering. Then you finish that round and have three full rounds before ending. Everyone gets the same number of turns.