Design by Andrea Chiarvesio & Pierluca Zizzi
Published by Asterion / Yemaia
2 – 6 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Hyperborea contains many elements of board game design that I generally dislike: fantasy theme, territorial conquest, and an abundance of cards with special powers. Throw all of these elements together and the result should be a game that I detest and would prefer not to play. Much to my surprise and delight, however, I find Hyperborea to be exciting, challenging and fun.
Designed by the Italian duo of Andrea Chiarvesio and Pierluca Zizzi, Hyperborea is set in a fantasy world wherein an ancient magical barrier has suddenly vanished. Six kingdoms now have access to previously forgotten realms. There are territories to be gained and riches to be found, but the ghosts of the ancients still haunt these forbidden areas. The lust for power and riches will cause the fragile peace that once existed between the six realms to crumble. Who will prevail?
Hyperborea is a big box production filled with tiles, counters, player boards, civilization cubes, technology cards and dozens upon dozens of attractive plastic miniatures. It is an assembly that would make Fantasy Flight proud. In spite of its abundance of components and sheer bulk, the game itself is not that difficult to learn; the actual rules (minus component descriptions and setup instructions) are only eight well-illustrated pages.
In spite of being able to accommodate six players, the board itself is surprisingly small. A handful of tiles are arranged, most of which are face-down to enhance the exploration aspect. These are revealed rather quickly, however, as it doesn’t take much movement before players encounter each other. Each player begins with three miniatures in their homeland, which is located along the edges of the map. Most tiles depict ancient cities and ruins, which will yield treasures and often special powers. However, once entering the forgotten realms, these areas will also be protected by the ghosts of the ancients. Fortunately, these ghosts are more moan than bite and are fairly easily dispatched.
Each player begins the game with a collection of ten miniatures (three of which begin on the board), one each of six different civilization cubes (which are placed in the player’s cloth bag), and a player board. If using the advanced option, players also begin with a special ability.
The player board is an essential element, as players will place cubes here when drawn, determining most of the actions they can perform during their turn. There are six different action sections, each with two different possible actions (these are known as Base Technologies). Each of these lists the specific civilization cubes that must be placed there in order to perform the indicated action. For example, if a player wants to move two spaces, he must place a green and any other cube on the movement section. If he desires to attack and move, he must place a red and green cube on the appropriate section. Sections can be partially filled, with the cubes remaining in place until the section is filled on a later turn.
The player also tracks his progression on the six civilization charts. When a player progresses far enough on a track, he adds one or two cubes of the indicated type to his bag, thereby increasing the chances of that cube being drawn. Further, cubes earn victory points at game’s end, so increasing one’s supply is extremely important.
Advanced Technology cards are also on display, divided into four sections. These cards represent various technologies, achievements and advancements (Phalanx, Smugglers, Universities, Flying War Mounts, Roads and Bridges, etc.) that can be acquired by the players during the course of the game. As with Base Technologies, these generally require the placement of specific cubes in order to be activated.
Each turn, a player will draw three civilization cubes from their bag, placing them on the “Available Cubes” area of his board. Certain technology cards may also provide benefits at this time. The player then assigns these cubes to the activation spaces on his player board, or onto Advanced Technology cards he may possess. If a section is completed by the cube placement, that action is performed.
Base technologies include movement, attacking, constructing fortresses (which aid in defense of an area), adding a new miniature to the board, earning victory points or gems, acquiring a technology card or progressing on one or more of the resource tracks. It is possible to complete several of these per turn, and the order in which they are performed is left to the player’s discretion. Advanced technologies provide similar benefits. Sometimes a player is able to draw more cubes during his turn, giving him even more possible actions. Cleverly managing this is one of the challenging and appealing aspects of the game.
Enhancing this flexibility and creativity is the board movement. When a player moves a miniature into a city, he may perform the special power depicted. These powers are generally similar to the Base Technologies, allowing additional movement, attacks, progression on the resource charts, etc. Moving into a ruins location allows the player to take a ruin counter of the indicated type (bronze, silver or gold), each of which grants a similar special power or benefit. A player can save a ruin counter for later use, but may only store one at a time.
Attacking is not automatic. Rather, a player must activate an attack ability by placing the required cubes. Attacking an opponent or ghost is essentially the same. Each attack successfully removes a fortress or miniature. Thus, if an area is occupied by multiple miniatures, multiple attacks must be generated. In order to occupy a ruin or city location, which are initially protected by ghosts and later may be occupied by an opponent’s miniature, the player must generate an attack against it. Eliminated miniatures are usually kept by the player, as they will generate victory points at game’s end.
Movement is also somewhat restricted by the type of terrain being entered or traversed. Often a player will need to generate multiple movements in order to successfully move across one or more spaces.
During his turn, a player may perform as many actions as possible, either from his player board, technology cards or board locations. Once his turn is complete, the resource cubes from any completed areas or cards are set aside, and the player draws three more cubes from his bag. Only when the bag is completely empty are all previously used cubes returned to the bag. This can be tricky, as if a player does not plan correctly, he may have a turn wherein he may only draw one or two cubes, thereby limiting the actions he can perform on the next turn. Thus, one of the many challenges of the game is to manage affairs so as to have exactly three cubes in the bag when one ends his turn.
The game continues in this fashion until either one player accumulates 12 victory point chits, collects his fifth Advanced Technology card, or places his last miniature on the map. Bonus points are earned for achieving these goals. Longer versions are available, which basically require multiples of these end-game triggers to be accomplished.
At this point, victory points are tallied to determine the victor. Points are earned for gems, ghosts and opponents’ miniatures slain, civilization cubes, Advanced Technology cards, bonus tiles and control of territories. It is important to not overlook any of these areas, as ignoring one or more may prove extremely costly. On one occasion I forgot about the final victory points awarded for controlling territories and it almost cost me the game.
While I tend not to be fond of territorial conquest games, and a fantasy theme is actually a deterrent for me, Hyperborea overcomes these drawbacks by being very creative and allowing players great flexibility to perform their actions. At first glance, drawing only three cubes each turn seems extremely restrictive and limiting. However, the game offers numerous other methods by which to perform additional actions and extend one’s turn, particularly by occupying the cities and ruin sites on the board. This can also be supplemented by the appropriate Advanced Technologies. I really appreciate the opportunities afforded by combining these different methods, which gives players wide latitude to be creative in performing tasks and accomplishing their goals.
Further helping matters is that attacking is only one aspect of a game that has many other facets. Attacking is a simple matter: achieve an attack action and remove an opponent’s miniature. Simple. No dice rolling, no hit points, no complicated weapons, shields or special powers. I really like this simplicity. While it is necessary to attack opponents, it is not a cumbersome process. Further, everyone realizes that attacking is necessary in order to occupy cities and ruins in order to gain their benefits. Any hold a player may have on a particular location is viewed by all as temporary.
Properly managing and apportioning one’s civilization cubes is the vital task facing players. Specific cubes are needed to perform the various tasks, and one can concentrate on certain types of cubes depending upon his strategy. For example, militaristic actions and Advanced Technology cards tend to require more red (warfare) and purple (growth) cubes, while movement generally needs more green (exploration) cubes. Players can plan their actions and acquisitions accordingly.
Hyperborea’s flaw lie within the abundance of often ambiguous icons and the sometimes poor explanation as to how these powers and abilities work. These icons are explained in different parts of the rulebook, making it difficult to locate them when needed. Further, some are not fully explained. Player aid charts depicting all of these icons and their powers would have been very useful, as would have more comprehensive explanations.
These flaws, however, are not enough to derail a very creative and exciting game. The use of the civilization cubes to determine the actions that can be performed is quite clever. Properly arranging the use of these cubes, along with board and technology powers to optimize one’s actions on a turn is quite the challenge, forcing players to think and plan carefully. Indeed, this is a “thinking” game, but it does not get bogged down in an avalanche of rules or special powers. A typical game with four players can usually play to completion in two hours or so, which is amazing considering all that can happen. Considering I normally avoid this genre, I continue to be surprised and intrigued by Hyperborea and look forward to more excursions into this forbidden realm.
NOTE: Special thanks to Mario Brunelli for use of his images.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry (1 play): Hyperborea was one of two bag-building games from 2014 I’ve played, with the other being Orleans. Orleans wound up being one of my favorites from the year, while Hyperborea was merely okay. One of my issues with it is that you’re only drawing 3 cubes a turn. Not only does that emphasize the luck of the draw, but it also limits the amount you can accomplish each turn, which gives the game less of a dynamic feel. Ironically, even though Hyperborea has a much more interesting back story, the way its mechanics are implemented means that it feels considerably more abstract than Orleans. And the board play was kind of ho hum. On the plus side, the different actions and the way the cubes are used to activate them is definitely interesting. I do want to play this some more, because I still feel it has promise, but while my first play was fairly enjoyable, it didn’t really live up to the high hopes I had for it.
Matt C. (5-ish plays): I believe I’ve played with 5, 3, and 2 players. The five player game was a bit much, the game wasn’t too bad (I did shoot myself in the foot early one) but it simply lasted too long for my tastes. Two is an interesting give and take, but I think three is a better sweet spot for me. I like how conflict is mitigated (it’s not useful to attach anyone twice until you’ve attacked everyone once) so it doesn’t result into “picking on the weaker player.” Some of the starting abilities seem slightly unbalanced. Nothing game-breaking but for several of the colors I feel like one of the two starting choices is a given. I love specializing and upgrading technologies so even fiddling with the bag is fun for me. Some of the points-gathering seem to be better than others. Getting more cubes in one’s bag earns points, but that’s a hard way to earn victory points as then you have a long time between refreshing one’s pieces on the board – limiting your non-cube actions.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I have followed the development of this game from the beginning as a playtester, and I wrote in my preview here, years ago:
I really like how Hyperborea combines the theme and the mechanics and I really love the playing experience. Every time I play I feel deeply immersed in a fantasy setting, trying to best develop my empire. I like how you can plan your strategies, how the action on the map combines with your choices, and the different strategies you can follow to win the game. For me it is one of the greatest games ever.
Brian: One year ago this seemed to be one of the “big new things”. Now, only twelve months later I found myself in a couple conversations at the same con about how quickly it seemed to have faded. Maybe I’m just becoming an old curmudgeon against the Cult of the New, but I think this is a game that deserves better than that. The vague rules for some powers when initially released was a bit of an issue, but there are plenty of clarifications now available if needed. However, I think the main challenge this game has had is that it is dressed up as an engine building, exploring, fantasy themed war game, but in reality it is a an efficiency measuring sprint to the finish. The game sometimes seems to end just as you are getting your engine going, but at the same time the power curve is so exponential that there is no clear way to extend the duration. I do think that with all familiar and experienced players even the full complement of the game moves right along. I like it…a lot…but it falls just short of the Love it! category for me only because I would like a bit more build-up and thematic flair in a game like this.
4 (Love it!): Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
3 (Like it): Greg S., Larry, Matt C., Brian
1 (Not for me):