Dale Yu: First Impression of Embark


  • Designer: Philip duBarry
  • Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Times played: 2, with review copy provided by Tasty Minstrel Games

I have always been interested in Philip duBarry’s games – I think that he has an interesting way of looking at game mechanisms, and I’ve been lucky enough to playtest some of his works in progress as he is relatively local to me here in Ohio.  I had not heard about this one prior to the email I received from TMG, but I was all for a new worker placement/area control game – advertised to come in a small package as well!

Per the official description:  In Embark, you will load various boats heading to these new, uninhabited islands in order to explore, colonize, and mine their riches. Only fully-loaded boats will launch, so assign your voyagers carefully. Explorers will scout out the islands, unlocking their mysteries. Miners will collect ore, and colonists will cultivate farms and reap the benefits that the islands have to offer. Watch out for your opponents’ warriors, who can replace your voyagers and take over their jobs!

The board is made up of one double sided island board per player – they are randomized and then placed in alphabetical order on the table.  The deck of boat cards is shuffled and one card is placed below each of the two lettered slots per board. Key and ore tokens are placed on the appropriate spots on the island board.  Each player gets their own player board, a screen to hide their activity and the cubes in their color. Finally, a selection of Talent cards is dealt out and players choose their talent for this particular game in reverse player order.

The game is played over six rounds with each round having the same four phases: Allocation, Boarding, Landing and Island.

In the Allocation phase, all players secretly and simultaneously allocate 5 new cubes (plus any in their pub) to spaces on their planning board which correspond to the boats under the islands.  When all players have done so, the screens are removed and the cubes are moved to an area underneath the boat associated with the cube’s space.

In the Boarding phase, those cubes will attempt to get onto the boats.  Starting with the starting player, each player can move ONE of their cubes which is below a boat and place it inside the boat.  The spaces in the boat are color coded and have icons next to them to tell you what job that cube will have – there are 5 different possibilities.  If a ship is completely full, it will set sail in the next phase. Any cubes which were waiting underneath to board are now placed in their respective owner’s pub on the player board.

In the Landing phase, all boats which are completely full end up sailing to the islands where they are unloaded.  Boats are unloaded in alphabetical order (i.e. left to right). Additionally, the boats are unloaded from front to back.  Each cube, in turn, is removed from the boat and placed on the island based on its job description:

·         Colonist – This cube is placed in the farming area in the center of the island and can eventually build a farm

·         Explorer – This cube is placed on the next available space on the exploration track.  If you place your cube on a key token, flip it over to the unlocked side and place it on the island to unlock a bonus area

·         Miner – This cube is placed on a vacant mining space where they will collect ore

·         Captain – can be placed in any of the above three zones

·         Warrior – can displace any previously placed cube (except a colonist which has already built a farm) to that owner’s pub

The now empty ship is placed on the bottom of the ship card deck and a new boat is put in the now empty space underneath the island.

In the Island stage, the cubes do stuff.  First, score 1 point for each explorer you have on the islands.  Then look at your farmers, if you have 4 colonists on an island, arrange them in a 2×2 square and cover them with a farm tile and score 15 points.  Finally, each miner collects one ore token from the supply adjacent to the mine. If the mine runs out of ore, tough luck.

Then go back to the top and repeat for a total of six rounds.  At the end of the sixth round, there is some end game scoring. First, score any unlocked island bonuses.  Then, score points based on the number of ore tokens you have 3/10/25/45 pts for 1+/5+/10+/15+ ore. Finally, score the exploration bonus – this is determine by the progress made on each island’s exploration track, and the points are given the the player(s) with the most colonists on the island.  The player with the most points wins.

My thoughts on the game

Embark is a simple game to learn and play which uses the secret and simultaneous assignment of cubes as the main mechanic.  For me, I like this sort of game as I enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure out where my opponents are playing so that I can either thwart their plans or I can go somewhere else to get an easier time of things.

Even if you are good at guessing what your opponents want to do, there is also a bit of cat and mouse with the timing as each player moves one cube at a time onto the boats; so even if you have the cubes in the right loading spaces, you need to figure out how to get them into the desired seats on the ships so that they will take on the desired action on the island.  Also, it helps to get on ships that will fill up this round so that they will be able to unload their workers!

In some sense, all of the actions are good as they can help you score points, but I do think that you’ll need to have a more focused strategy to succeed.   You can score a lot of points for explorers as they score each round; but if you get far enough along the track, the bonus for the player with the most COLONISTS will get larger and larger… and, it’s really hard to lead both of them because there are only so many seats on each boat heading to the islands.

For a game with simple rules, there is a surprising amount of depth.  There is also a decent amount of variety; each of the island boards is double sided, and each of the sides has a different special rule.  What this means is that each game is likely going to be somewhat different from previous games, and that helps keep it fresh over multiple plays.

The talent cards also help give each player a different focus (special rule) each game, but man they can be swingy.  They are also used in a way to compensate for starting order, but given my druthers, I’d pick to go last in player order everytime in order to get first pick of the talent cards.

The artwork is decent.  I’ll admit that I’m really not a fan of the cover art, and I am not sure what segment of the gaming market is looking for a coarsely drawn cartoony whiskered teen pirate; but lucky for TMG, I am here for the game and not for the art.  The game itself is done well. The cards are easy to interpret and the island boards are easy to see/read. I like the fact that each player screen has both a pictoral round recap on it as well as the scoring rubric. Everything that a player needs is right in front of them.

There is a huge amount of cardboard in the game, but it gives a nice heft to everything.  Though you have to assemble the player screens from three cardboard bits each game, they seem to stand up a lot better than a flimsy 24# coated paper sheet with two creases in it.  My only quibble with the components is that there is a needless duplication of player colors with non-related things in the game. TMG has chosen non standard player colors of lavender, green, robin’s egg blue, yellow and black.  However, some of the roles in the game USE THE SAME COLORS! At least once a game thus far, someone playing yellow has mistakenly put a cube in an explorer place on a boat because all of the explorer spaces are yellow (or black playing a cube in a miner spot, or lavender playing into a captain spot).  It’s a minor thing, but this is an un-needed point of confusion in the game that could have been easily solved.

As I have come to expect from PdB, this is a nice family level game that is quick to teach and does not overstay its welcome. Games play quickly – probably closer to the 30 minute range right now, and given the small box, this is a game which is easily packed for a family get together or evening out with friends; and that’s what I feel is the target audience for this type of game. Maybe a bit too simple for what I’m normally looking for, but definitely a good fit of lighter game groups or families.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.
  • Neutral. Dale Y
  • Not for me..

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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