Maeshowe – an Orkney Saga (Review by RJ Garrison or RJ enters solo gaming)

Maeshowe – an Orkney Saga (Review by RJ Garrison or RJ enters solo gaming)

Designer: Lee Broderick

Publisher:  Dragon Dawn Productions

Players:  1-2 players

Playing Time:  15-25 minutes

Ages:  12+

MSRP: €28.00

In the 1150’s two different sets of Norsemen under the prospective leadership of Jarl Rognvald and later, under the leadership of Jarl Harald broke into the Maeshowe tomb looking for treasure and relief from a snowstorm. While there, they were trapped and needed to dig their way out of the tomb.  Some of their companions went mad.  

In Lee Broderick’s game, Maeshowe, you play as one of two Jarls trying to dig your way out of the Maeshowe tomb before you either go mad or die from collapse or starvation.  

How to play solo:

The game is fairly straight forward.  A player will start with a hand of 5 cards and will then play a card and discard a card.  The cards have a “play” effect and a “discard” effect that will affect your health, progress, and sanity.

When a player plays a card to the row, they will activate the “play to the row” effect.  The objective is to play four “Excavate Passage” cards consecutively to the row multiple times in the game in order to make it out of the tomb alive.  If a player manages to do this without losing their health or running out of cards from the draw pile, they win!

However, there are cards that when played affect a player’s health and sanity.  Some cards will benefit you when played to the row and increase your health, food supply, or similar.  Other cards will cause the tunnel to collapse so beware what you play to the row.  

When a player discards a card, there is often (but not always) a negative effect that can cause them to lose food, health, etc.

After playing and discarding a card, the player draws 2 cards back to their hand of 5 and see if they have gone mad.  Each of the cards has 1 of 2 Norse rune symbols on it.  If a player ever has a hand with all 5 runes of the same type, they go mad!  

When a player goes mad, they will take their hand and discard pile and shuffle them into the draw pile.  They then permanently lose one health point, draw back up to 5 cards and continue digging their way out of the tomb.  

2-Player Cooperative:

Similar to solo play, but with a few differences:

  1. Each player has their own discard pile for when/ if they go mad.
  2. Players start with 3 health instead of 4, but can max out at 4.
  3. The Jarl Token is used.  If a player has the Jarl token, they can decide to pass on their turn, pass the Jarl token to their comrade in arms and not take a turn.
  4. Flip the 1-player board to the 2-player side.  Each player has their own health track.  

There are a number of variants and small expansions added to the base game that will add greater variability and number of cards to the draw pile.  Grab a copy of the game to learn more about them!

COMPONENTS:  The components in Maeshowe for the most part are quite excellent.  This is a small box game and my wife quite liked the geese meeples and the health tracker hearts.  They are a very good quality and design.  The cards are a good size and thickness and the artwork is dark and grim which fits the theme of the game (more on the artwork below).  The player board is a decent thickness, but not the highest quality as it is slightly bubbling up on parts of the board.  This is not enough to affect the game, nor is it peeling apart, but it is noticeable.  The rulebook is very nicely laid out, easy to read.  It walks you through how to set up the game and how to play the game and is quite clear, making it quick and easy to learn and teach.  The rulebook also includes a section explaining how each card works, as well as a quick reference guide on the back for each of the icons found on the cards.

MECHANICS: Maeshowe works well both as a solo or as a 2-player game, but if playing 2-player, I highly recommend using at least one of the expansion decks.  The hand management mechanic is crucial for winning this game.  The push your luck with deciding whether or not to, or when to go mad creates a great tension in the game.  The combination of mechanics keeps the tension going: This makes the game quite fun allowing you to almost see the light at the end of the tunnel while feeling the dread of worry that the next card you draw will make you go mad!  The game feels really nicely balanced.  I’ve won a number of the games and lost a number of games, but always feel while I’m playing that I can make it.  And then that light diminishes as I slowly go insane.

TIME, AGES & PLAYER COUNT:  Each game I’ve played has lasted about 20-30 minutes and hits a sweet spot in a game that gives a challenging puzzle but doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ve played this solo and with my wife, but feel the age 12+ is appropriate for both theme and complexity.  This works well as both a solo game and as a 2-player cooperative game.  The cooperative game doesn’t vary much from the solo game, but is set up so that no one suffers from “alpha gamer syndrome” which I, I mean my wife, greatly appreciates.

ARTWORK:  I quite like the artwork for Maeshowe.  Artists Matthias Catrein and Lars Munck create a dark, visceral atmosphere with the artwork on the cards.  My wife saw the geese meeples and commented, “Oh, how cute!” until she saw the artwork on the “Eat” card (yes, the geese are food…).  Then she was sad for the geese, but still happy to play!  The rest of the cards are equally dark and foreboding, helping create the tension and atmosphere for the game. On minor nitpick I have with the artwork is that the tunnel on the player board doesn’t look like you’re actually digging out of the tunnel. It is just different color than the passage tokens. Perhaps in the reprint they will change that?

FINAL THOUGHTS:  As you can tell by the title, this is my first venture into solo gaming and Dragon Dawn Productions keeps surprising me with games I haven’t heard of, but am enjoying quite a bit.  Maeshowe is a nice little puzzler.  Lee Broderick brings a game that offers some good strategic choices without trying to do too much or overstay its welcome.  I’ve played the solo game a number of times with just the base cards and without the expansions, and both won and lost several games.  Traci and I have yet to beat the game with 2-player without the expansion cards.  I think it can be done, we just haven’t been able to do it yet.  However, the expansion cards add a couple more cards to the deck (depending on which set you use) that both assist players in digging out of the tomb, or hindering them and drive them insane!   Players can get so, so, so close to getting out or just happen to draw all the same rune cards at the wrong time and get trapped in the tomb as both their food and their life run out!

There are some cards, like the “Passage Collapse” card that you will never, ever play to the row, so I’m not quite sure why that card is there.  Most of the cards offer a good choice on whether to play to the row or to discard, but that one seems to just be an easy discard card.  I wish the designer had done something different where there  would be a reason to ever play that to the row.  There’s not enough of those cards to ever worry about having 5 in your hand and being forced to play it to the row, so that particular card doesn’t really offer a strategic choice.  It just offers a discard card (where if discarded, the player will lose 1 health point).

Should you purchase this game?  Absolutely.  It’s fun.  It’s puzzly. It’s a great filler.  It’s small and fits easily into a backpack/ travel bag.  It can be played alone or with a companion.  There’s some nice variability with the different sets of expansion cards that can be added in to the base game.  


I Love it! 

I Like It.  RJ Garrison,


Not for me.

Check out reviews of other Dragon Dawn Productions games here:

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