Century: Spice Road (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
  • Publisher: Plan B Games
  • Players: 2 – 5
  • Ages: 8 and Up
  • Time: 30-45 Minutes
  • Times Played: > 14

Century-Spice-Road.jpg

Century: Spice Road — a game designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and published by Plan B Games — will be released in the United States in June.  Plan B had a few copies flown into the Gathering of Friends, and the game was an immediate success, becoming one of the most-played games of the Gathering.  

This is the first game by Plan B Games, and they have subsequent titles in the “Century” series for 2018 and 2019.  Each game will be stand-alone, but they will also be “mixable.”  Each is set in a different century with a slightly different theme.  

So far Spice Road is my favorite game of 2017 (although we still have several months left), and I could see this being a hit of the summer.

SpiceRoadArtistic

Spice cubes are shown on the left.  The game comes with the bowls.  The bottom row are the Merchant Cards, and the top row are the Point Cards.

The Gameplay

Players become caravan leaders in the spice trade, competing to earn victory points by trading in spices (represented by cubes) for Point Cards.  The game will end in the round when a player has taken their fifth or sixth Point Card, depending on the number of players, and at that point the player with the highest score will win.  

Depending on turn order, each player starts with a fixed number of cubes.  There are four colors of cubes in the game, yellow (the lowest value), red, green, and brown (the highest value).  

SpiceRoadBoard

The player mat is a separate purchase, but for preorders it is being sold as part of a package with the game.  The coins above the first and second Point Cards are metallic and come with the game.

On a player’s turn, he may take one of four actions:

  • Play.  Play a Merchant Card from his or her hand.
  • Acquire.  Acquire a Merchant Card from the row of available ones.  There are six on display, and the first card is free.  To get later ones, the player must put cubes on all earlier cards (kind of like in Small World).  When a card is picked up, the others shift down.  
  • Rest.  Take all previously played cards back into his or her hand.
  • Claim.  Claim a point card, paying the number of cubes.  There are five point cards on display to buy.  The first one in the row comes with a gold coin (worth three bonus points) and the second row comes with a silver coin (worth one bonus point).  When a card is picked up, the others shift down.  

The game is centered around acquiring cubes or converting them using the Merchant Cards.  There are three types of Merchant Cards.

  • Spice Cards.  These simply give you the cubes shown.  Each player starts with a Spice Card that will give them two yellow cubes when played.
  • Upgrade Cards.  You can upgrade a cube one level.  Yellow upgrades to red, red to green, and green to brown.  Each player starts with an Upgrade Card that will let them do two upgrades.  
  • Trade Cards.  These allow you to exchange cubes for other cubes.  You can do this action as many times as you’d like when playing the card, provided they have the cubes available.  Players don’t start with any Trade Cards.

There is a 10-cube limit in each player’s caravan.

In a two- or three-player game, the game will end at the end of the round when the sixth point card is taken.  In a four- and five-player game, the same happens after five cards.  At that point, players get the points shown in their Point Cards, plus the value of any coins, plus one point for each non-yellow cube.  

Century Spice Road

On the bottom right, you see a Spice Card and an Upgrade Card that have been played down.  There are Trade Cards available in the market.

My Thoughts on the Game

Century: Spice Road it is tense, addictive, and incredibly fun.  This is a phenomenal family-weight strategy game, and it is one of my favorite games of 2017 so far.  Every group I’ve played with has enjoyed this, and I expect Spice Road to be a big hit over the next few months.   

Spice Road offers interesting decisions from the first turn.  You need to build a hand of cards to efficiently acquire, upgrade, and convert spices cubes.  You’ve got the basics in your hand at the start — you can get two yellow cubes and upgrade them — but you’ll need to buy better Merchant Cards in order to have any shot at winning.

So the question becomes which Merchant Cards you need… and at what price.  You’ll need cards that work well together, but you also need versatility to adapt as new Point Cards come into the market.  

The result is a tense “will I or won’t I get what I need” race for Merchant Cards at the start of the game, followed by a race for Point Cards towards the game’s midpoint and conclusion.  

The tension comes, in part, from the fact that you can’t take just any Merchant Card, nor can you take just any Point Card.  Cubes are prized resources, and you have to pay what you’ve accumulated to get the newer Merchant Cards.  Similarly, those coin bonuses on Point Cards (3 points in the first column, 1 point in the second) can be the difference between winning and losing, so you have every incentive to plan for the same cards as your neighbors, creating a race for certain cards.  

Despite that depth and interesting decision space, gameplay is extremely fast-paced.  Rather than making big, sweeping moves, players accumulate the resources necessary to buy the Point Cards via micromovements.  The result is minimal time between turns, even at a maximum player count of five.  Though the box says 30-45 minutes, most of my plays have come in under half an hour.  And the game works equally well at all player counts, though it is a bit more tense with four or five.  

And the game is easy to teach.  Players only have four possible actions on their turn, all of which are intuitive and easy-to-understand.  The rules are well written, and they cover on a single sheet of paper (on both sides).  I can teach the game in two to three minutes.  

The production value is top-notch.  The artwork on the cards is striking, and the plastic cups holding the cubes come in the box.  I’m not one to buy player mats, but this one is attractive and functional, so I recommend it: the cards — which regularly slide down the table as gameplay progresses — glide along the player mat.  

If there’s one downside to the game, I could see it getting stale after a couple of dozen plays.  I’m at least fourteen plays in, and I still love the game, so maybe that concern won’t materialize.  And even if it does, I suspect the other two games in the Century line will freshen this up.

Overall, I’m extremely impressed.  This is a beautifully-designed game, complete with a streamlined combination of strategic and fast-paced gameplay.  Throw in the high-quality production value, and confident Spice Road will be a big hit in the gaming community this summer.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Alan How: I completely agree with Chris’s assessment. The game plays extremely quickly and engages throughout its short duration. In addition I found that the visibility of all the other player’s cubes meant that you were clear whether another person would pip you to a particular point card. This meant that with a quick glance you could see what the situation was and continue playing with almost no downtime. This was an unexpected surprise hit for me.

Craig M: The ease of teaching combined with the quick play makes this a likely hit when it gets a wide release. My one play with five players was taught in two minutes and play moved along at a cracking place. Good stuff!

Greg S:  Am I a curmudgeon?  I found the game decent, but nothing spectacular.  I’d play it again, but it didn’t captivate me in the least.  I didn’t find anything startlingly new here, and felt it was yet another “average” game.  Will it be a contender for Spiel des Jahre?  Most certainly, as it appear to have the relatively shallow depth and family accessibility that the jury seeks.  For me, the game feels to offer the same types of challenges and thinking of Splendor, a game that did not excite me.  

Dale Y: This is a game of micro transactions – You may have 40 or 50 turns in the game, but each only accomplishes a single action, and you’ll probably need eight to ten of these actions to get your cube situation to a place where you can claim a scoring card.

The catch here is how to most efficiently get to the endpoint of the scoring card.  As you are gaining and converting cubes, you’ll need to watch what your opponents are doing – and try to remember which actions they have left in their arsenal.  Because, in addition to being efficient in your transactions, you really need to know when you’re going to get beat to a particular card and then shift gears to a different card.  

I have found that the key to success is choosing effective action cards which work well with the rest of your hand.  Additionally, wasting as few actions as possible when you transition (i.e. recognizing when you’re beat to a target card) usually makes the difference.  One final efficiency that it often missed by new players is opting to choose action cards which have multiple cubes on them because sometimes gaining the cubes is a decent action in itself and then you also get the benefit of picking up an action card along the way.

The folks that seemed not to like it mostly seemed to dislike the micro transactions – stating that it felt that you didn’t do anything on your turn.  And, I think that is a true statement, and if you don’t like that sort of thing (or if you didn’t like Splendor), you probably just won’t like this style of game.  However, I find it to be a very intriguing puzzle which has not yet grown old after 6 plays.

Once you’re familiar with the game, it should move along swiftly.  Turns often take 5 to 10 seconds.  To highlight the possible speed of the game, I taught the game to Joe Huber at the Gathering. He had never seen the game before.  We got thru the rules, and played a full game – which was quite competitive – in 12 minutes total.  That’s some serious bang for your gaming buck there.

Joe Huber (1 play): Century: Spice Road is a pleasant game – but a fairly static one; the game state just doesn’t change that much over time.  It reminds me strongly of Bazaar, but without the changing transactions that make Bazaar a more interesting game.  And for that reason, I don’t see it as a contender for the Spiel des Jahres, though I’ve certainly been wrong about such calls before.  And while my game with Dale was certainly fast – there wasn’t enough bang for me to be pulled into a second game, yet.  Not that I’d be unwilling – just that there are lots of games I find more than pleasant.

Larry (2 plays):  This was a very pleasant surprise for me.  The game is dead simple and plays extremely quickly, and yet there’s enough to think about that it can still engage experienced gamers.  For me, the key difference between CSR and Splendor (which I’m very meh on) is that in the former game, you’re building an engine.  Given the large number of Merchant cards provided, there seems to be many different viable engines that can be constructed, so this provides a nice challenge.  You need to decide when to stop with your engine-building and then properly execute what you’ve created in order to outperform your opponents.  It’s a fun exercise, but what really makes the game work is how fast it plays.  As Dale says, it’s a very nice bang for the buck (although he might have provided a better example than an uber-short game with Joe Huber, the world’s fastest gamer!).

I have no idea about the game’s SdJ chances.  For starters, I’m not sure if it was released early enough or if the Jury will feel that Plan B will be able to produce enough copies of the game in case it wins.  But I do know that this is the kind of game I’d want to be nominated for the award; my fear is that the Jury won’t consider it simple enough to be considered.  That would be a shame–it isn’t a great game, but it’s quite good and its ease of play and depth would make it a fine SdJ winner.

Tery (2 plays): I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Before I played it several people told me it was just like Splendor., which is not a game I really enjoy, so I had low expectations. While there are some similarities,  I liked Century Spice Road much more.  The choices you make to build your hand are more varied and interesting, and since there are more choices for scoring victory points you can easily adapt your plan based on your available options. It’s still a light game, but there is more strategy there than Splendor.

Dan Blum (2 plays): I rather like it but understand some of the concerns. Someone (not writing here) mentioned that they didn’t like that it had no sense of progression, which Splendor has – here you cycle repeatedly. I agree that a sense of progression is in general good, but I still prefer this to Splendor because I think the gameplay here is otherwise superior. As for Joe’s comparison to Bazaar – dealing with the fixed set (per game) of equations in Bazaar is a more interesting problem than the one presented here, but I always liked the idea of Bazaar more than the execution. In particular getting random gems always annoyed me. I prefer this game, which is not to say it doesn’t have its problems. One is that the market system doesn’t really work at the start of the game – a very desirable card may be in the leftmost slot, giving a bonus to the first player – but on the other hand games like Small World have the same problem and few people seem to care.

Brian L. (1 play): I suppose I need to join the curmudgeons. I simply didn’t find enough in this game to really grab me. It is pleasant enough and I would play if asked, but I prefer the arc and decisions in Splendor to this. The separation of gaining points and new action cards wasn’t quite enough to avoid the slightly static iterative game play for me. The presentation is clear and with the optional mat it is very attractive, so I wouldn’t warn folks away, but it’s not one I was left feeling inspired for more after playing.

Nathan Beeler: This came to me advertised as Splendor plus, and indeed that’s how it felt, more or less. Neither is in any way offensive or particularly gripping. Splendor does have the tactile satisfaction of collecting chunky poker chips, which is missing here. In exchange, Century Spice Road seems to have a tiny bit more depth and lookahead. But still being a filler weight game, that’s just not enough to get me excited. Maybe time will show there’s more I’m missing. Given the excitement around it I suspect I’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out.

Jonathan F.: I think if you think Splendor, San Juan, and Jump Drive are trifles, you will likely think this one is too.  If you like those sorts of shorter engine-building games, this should fit right in with without being too duplicative.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Chris Wray, Alan How, Dale Y
  • I like it. Craig Massey, Larry, Tery N, Dan Blum, Erik Arneson, Lorna
  • Neutral. Greg S., Joe H., Brian L., Nathan Beeler, Jonathan F.
  • Not for me…
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3 Responses to Century: Spice Road (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. Pingback: Congratulations to the 2017 IGA Nominees! | The Opinionated Gamers

  2. skip says:

    There is heated argument over the rules governing the upgrade cards. The rules say:
    “when playing a ‘upgrade 2’ card, you MAY upgrade a cube on your caravan 1 level and upgrade a cube 1 level again. It is not mandatory to upgrade all cubes from an upgrade card.” This suggests to some that you don’t have to take the second upgrade. For example, you can elect to advance a yellow cube to a red cube and stop right there.

    Others, however, point to the examples that follow this rule, in which 2 cubes are advanced 1 level, or 1 cube is advanced 2. There is no example given that allows only one upgrade to be taken and the other not. This suggests that, while there is more than one way to upgrade your cubes, all upgrades on the card must be taken.

    Both arguments have merit based on the rules provided. Both have complicated our understanding of, and pleasure playing, the game. Which interpretation is correct?

    Thank you.

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