First Impressions of Pandoria

  • Designer: Jeff Allers and Bernd Eisenstein
  • Publisher: Irongames
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 90-120 minutes

Pandoria, the newest game from Jeff Allers (Piece o’ Cake/NY Slice, Nieuw Amsterdam) and Bernd Eisenstein (Peloppones), is many things, but the first one that I thought of after playing it twice was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  Some gamer’s games look like they’re going to be meaty, so there’s no surprise when they turn out that way.  But Pandoria is a tile-laying game vaguely reminiscent of Carcassonne (every turn you place a tile and put one of your pieces on it), so how heavy can it be?  Turns out, it’s a thinky, studious game where you need to be at your best to do well.

So let’s describe the game.  Each player plays one of the five fantasy races of Pandoria.  The board shows an irregular hexfield roughly 14 x 10 hexes.  The tiles that will be placed are made up of two hexes joined at one side.  Each hex shows one of four different types of terrain—forest, hill, mountain, and city—and the two hexes of a tile never have the same terrain.  Each hex also has one or two symbols on it and the symbols for each terrain are always the same:  hills produce gold, mountains produce crystals, forests, shockingly, produce wood, and cities produce VPs.  Wood, crystals, and gold are the game’s three resources and each race has different starting levels for each of these.  Each race also has a special ability.  In addition, there’s a deck of cards and each card shows a spell on the upper half and a building on the lower half.  The players begin the game with a randomly drawn tile and four randomly dealt cards.  They also have from 4 to 6 pieces in their color, depending on the number of players, and a single leader; collectively, these are called figures.

Each player, on their turn, places the tile in their hand on the board.  It must be placed on vacant spaces next to another tile, but other than that, there are no restrictions.  Adjacent hexes with the same terrain form a region.  One of the principal goals of placing tiles is to close one or more regions.  A region is closed if, due to the tile placement, it is now surrounded by hexes of a different terrain or the board’s edge.  If this happens, then all the figures in each closed region are removed and returned to their owners.  The active player, whether or not a region was closed, also has the option of placing one of their figures on one of the hexes of their just placed tile.  Leaders can only be placed if the player has no other figures in front of them.  Alternatively, a player can remove one of their figures.

Next, the player can play a card from their hand and employ it as either a spell or a building.  Spells cost the amount of crystals shown on the card.  These have powerful, one time effects, including the ability to place additional tiles or figures on the board, along with other juicy things.  Buildings cost the amount of wood shown on the card.  These give abilities which last until the end of the game (or, at least, until the building is built over); each player has five slots for buildings.

If the player closed a region, then it is scored.  Each player (not just the active player) who has figures on hexes adjacent to the region scores for that region.  What the player receives depends on the type of terrain—wood for forests, VPs for cities, and so on—and the amount received is equal to the number of that player’s figures multiplied by the number of symbols in the closed region.  Leaders count as two figures for the purposes of this calculation.  Players cannot store more than 10 resources of each type; the excess is converted to VPs, at the rate of 1 VP for each additional 3 resources.  With planning this can turn out to be a significant source of VPs.  Finally, if the active player closed a region, they can buy a new card from a display of 4 face up cards.  Each card has a cost in gold and the player must spend this in order to place the new card in their hand.  This is the only way to replenish your hand, so there’s a strong incentive to close regions.  Finally, the player draws another tile.  This continues until the tiles run out and the highest VP total wins.

There are some other details, but those are the main features of the game.  So how does it play?

It’s considerably more challenging than that description may make it sound.  The key rule is that the income from a closed region is not based on the figures a player has in the region (those figures actually get removed when the region is closed), but the figures adjacent to the region.  So the goal is to place your figures skillfully enough that they can contribute to the scoring of multiple lucrative regions before some cold-hearted opponent forces them to be removed.  But that’s easier said than done.  Setting yourself up for those big scorings in the face of your opponents’ actions and your own random draws is difficult and requires good visualization and solid planning.  Each play can have many cascading (and often nasty) effects, so the ramifications need to be considered carefully.

The spells and buildings affect things quite a bit.  Spells tend to be more tactical, allowing you to trigger scorings or increase your benefit from them, although there are a few spells which have long lasting effects.  Buildings form a big part of your strategy and there are plenty of combos to utilize.  Because of the importance of the cards, it’s vital to maintain a steady supply of wood, crystals, and gold (since you can never have more than 10 of any resource), which is just one more thing to try and manage.

Both of my games lasted a little over two hours.  With experience, I’d expect the duration to come down to two hours or a bit less; fast players might be able to get this played in 90 minutes or so.

Pandoria plays from 2 to 4 players.  My two games were with 3 and it’s probably a good idea to limit your first few games to that number or less.  There’s a good deal to think about each turn and the position can change drastically after each player’s turn, so with 4 beginning players, downtime could easily be an issue.  In addition, there’s more control with only 2 opponents to have to worry about.  Two players might very well be the sweet spot for this game; not only would there be less downtime and greater control, but you wouldn’t have to worry about one player setting up another due to a careless move.  Honestly, even with experienced players, I think I’d like to limit this to a maximum of 3 players.  The rules include a partnership game variant and that might be the best way to play this with 4.

There’s also a beginner’s game provided, in which the special racial abilities aren’t used and each race begins with one constructed building customized for them, another customized card in their hand, and two randomly drawn cards.  Even seasoned players might consider playing their first game this way, to give them a head start on figuring out the somewhat unintuitive mechanics.

Like many highly interactive games, Pandoria is probably best when played with players of equal ability.  The players need to be on their toes to avoid setting up an opponent for a big play, so one player consistently making such careless plays could lessen the experience for the others.  The watchfulness required gives the game a certain tension, which is antithetical to your typical Euro, but should be welcomed by many players.

In summary, Pandoria is a thinky tile-layer, which is easy to teach, but which features unusual mechanics.  It’s a true gamer’s game, despite what appears to be a simple premise.  It’s very interactive and fairly aggressive, so be prepared to have your best laid plans spoiled by nasty opponents.  Planning and good spatial awareness are rewarded, although a bit of luck in drawing tiles doesn’t hurt.  It is decidedly not your father’s Carcassonne, but we don’t need another one of those, do we?  According Irongames’ website, it should already be available (it lists October 15 as its publication date) and will be for sale at Essen.

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