Ben Bruckart:  Review of Golem

Golem

  • Designers:  Simone Luciani, Flaminia Brasini, Virginio Gigli
  • Artist:  Francesco Ciampi, Roberto Grasso
  • Publisher:  Cranio Games
  • Players:  2-4
  • Age:  14+
  • Time:  90-180 minutes
  • Times Played:  5

Golem is a new euro-game from my favorite designer group in Italy: Simone Luciani, Flaminia Brasini, and Virginio Gigli. This is a pretty big box game, rivaling the box size of Barrage from Cranio. Brasini is known for her involvement in games like Lorenzo il Magnifico, Coimbra, Egizia, and Alma Mater. Gigli co-designed Grand Austria Hotel, as well as many games with Brasini. Simone Luciani has touched greatness with such masterpieces as Tzolk’in, The Voyages of Marco Polo, Council of 4, Grand Austria Hotel, Barrage, Darwin’s Journey, and more. I have a special affinity for Italian designed games because of the tightness in scoring in games where there just never seems to be enough turns and efficiency must be squeezed out of every choice. This is a true gamer’s game. 

Theme

Thematically it struck me as a bit odd as I haven’t played anything with this theme before. Pretend for a moment, if you will, that it is 1584 in Prague and that Jewish tradition allows Rabbis to build Golems (famous clay automatons). The Rabbi and the students manage their coins, clay, and knowledge on three tracks but must keep their Golems in control. The game has Hebrew style lettering, menorahs, gold forges and books. I have played thousands of games with Catholic priest, farming, and Viking themes, but never this theme before. The artist really does convey a lot through the imagery and fonts.

Basic Description

There is a big board in the middle with neighborhood tiles that change game to game. This is organized into three separate streets, where your golems roam, along with the students who (try to) control the golems. Each street is associated with each of the game’s three resources (coins, clay, and knowledge). There’s a marble tower (called the Synagogue structure) where the marbles of white, black, red, blue and yellow are dropped and separated into five rows. During the course of 4 rounds, you get 3 turns per round. Each turn, you can choose to take a marble and perform the actions of that row or place your Rabbi on an action tile from a set of tiles refreshed each turn. The marble color you choose has impacts on the main game board: choosing a yellow marble moves the corresponding student up the coin street, Red marbles move the student on the clay street and Blue moves the student on the knowledge street. White is a wild colored marble that counts towards an end of round situation but does not move any student. The Black marble moves two students, but you are disqualified from meeting the end of round condition. Each round, you will take two marble actions and one Rabbi action.

The player board is broken into three sections:

  • The blue section allows you to acquire book cards, each of which gives you a small reward. Books are placed in columns of the same color card and when a new card is placed, the previous cards in the column are activated again. The section also includes a Study Track, where the higher you go, the more books can be placed in a column. The track also gives you knowledge income. Finally, the section shows which knowledge upgrades you can purchase during the game.
  • The red section is where you can build new golems and where you can purchase golem upgrades. It also includes a Golem Track, which gives you VP income and dictates how far you must move your golems each round.
  • The yellow section includes the artifacts, which are unlocked by the ever so precious gold bars, and the artifact upgrades, which are purchased with coins.  If you can unlock these, they give you an income of various things each round.

Each of these sections is a big part of end game scoring. When upgrading (developing) sections within each color, you not only receive in-game benefits, but you display a menorah of that color. At the end of the game, for each color, you earn VPs equal to (Number of menorahs of that color) x (Number of accomplishments in that color). The accomplishments are, respectively, the number of columns with books, the number of golems built, and the number of artifacts unlocked. If you play it right, this can give you a whole bunch of points at the end of the game.

Round Structure

A round structure looks like this:

1) Refresh the board, grab and re-drop the marbles into the synagogue and replace the action tiles.

2) Move your golems. The more golems you have placed, the higher up on the Golem track you may be and the more total spaces you have to move your Golems. Moving golems past your students in a row will cost you later. Your golem movement is your number on the Golem track, plus what’s displayed on the end of round card (normally a 2 or a 3). 

3) Actions: this is the heart of the player’s turn. You will either choose a marble action or place your rabbi on an action tile. Action tiles are randomly laid out in order and you can’t choose a tile that was previously chosen by another player. The higher up on the track you choose your tile, the earlier in the turn order you will go next turn.

There are five marble actions you can choose from. The more marbles in a row, the greater the effect (this works similarly to the designers’ earlier Grand Austria Hotel).  The five actions are:

  • You can get a benefit from the spaces your golems are on, at the cost of knowledge. The more advanced spaces have some sweet effects, but moving your golems too far past your students is risky.
  • You can earn clay, buy a golem upgrade, and place a new golem.
  • You can earn coins, buy an artifact upgrade, and buy a gold bar to help unlock an artifact.
  • You can earn knowledge, buy a knowledge upgrade, and buy a book card.
  • The Mirror action allows you to take any of the other four actions, at the additional cost of a coin.

4) Turn order is updated based on the Rabbi’s placement in step 3. 

5) Influence Characters is where you evaluate if you met the end of turn goals. They normally list two colored marbles you want to aim for (remember white is wild towards this goal). If you meet it, you can perform the bottom of the card which allows you to take coins or turn in coins for special abilities.

6) Take your income and you get to buy one upgrade.

7) Golem Control: if your golem is past your student on its street, you must pay 1 knowledge per space ahead. If you can’t afford this, you will be hit with a stiff VP penalty.

You will do this for 4 turns and at the end, evaluate some end game scoring and the most points wins.

Replayability

The game’s replayability is fairly high. The neighborhood tiles that make up each street vary. When randomly seeding the board, 3 of the 10 tiles for each street are removed, but the tiles are still placed in numerical order. So one game might use the 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 tiles and the next game might be 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. The number and color of marbles per row and action tiles also change each round. There are a dozen different action tiles provided and you may see some of them twice per game. Also, part of the player board changes each game and the book cards will come out in a different order. So the players need to adjust to the conditions and each game plays out differently. 

Pros

Well, the game is very tight. True to Luciani’s design style, you never feel like you have enough actions. Playing the board state is very important here. We sometimes joked that the game played you more than you being able to implement a consistent strategy. Early choices affect you in the long run, since the resource you focus on at the beginning will be earned more times throughout the game, due to the income phase at the end of the round.

Cons

This is a very icon heavy game. All the tiles (neighborhood and action), the book cards, and many of the player tableau features (upgrades) need repeated explanation when learning to play. We need to make a second or third copy of the rulebook because the latter half of the rulebook is just icon and action explanations. The art on the top track for clay (which is consistently referred to as “red”) is actually green on the board, which is weird and a little confusing. Also the blue section of the board has both opened books and closed books as icons, which makes explanation a little tricky when referring to the books or knowledge sections of the board. 

Components

The components are cardboard chits except for the gold bars, those are painted wood. The cards feel like they are good quality. The board is big and a little unnecessarily so. The tracks for the neighborhoods are long and tall and the information at the top of the board is small in comparison. 

Playtime

The first few plays have been much longer than subsequent plays. The teach is 30 minutes but there will be a lot of questions about iconography that will add to this during the game. In my games, it was not uncommon to see people completely redo their turns a couple of times. My two player games are now lasting about 90-120 minutes.

Overall, I enjoy this game. I have played four times now. Two times at 2 player; two times at 3 player.

Thoughts from the other Opinionated Gamers:

Larry (4 plays):  Another excellent design from my gaming god, Luciani.  This may not be quite up to the standards of his very best games, but it’s not that far off.  And it’s still early yet—the title has been steadily growing on me the more I play it.

Unlike the game which inspired Golem, Grand Austria Hotel, the action selection process (based on how the marbles/dice turn out) doesn’t seem to be the central aspect of the game.  Instead, it’s more about managing your golems and maximizing your end-game points.  The golems provide the design’s main innovation, as they can provide very nice benefits, but you’re constantly worried about keeping them close to your students, lest they rip precious knowledge tokens from your supply.  As is often the case with efficiency games, it seems like a good idea to focus on two (or maybe even one) of the three end-game areas.  I agree with Ben that it seems to be easier to get big VPs from building (and, usually, killing off) your golems, but the steady income generated by the other two areas may make them just as valuable.  In my last game, I had a good deal of success with book cards and, even though it does seem hard to obtain the gold bars you need to unlock artifacts, I’m not convinced that it can’t work just as well if the right characters show up or if you can take advantage of some books and rabbi actions.  So my hunch is that, with experience, this will prove to be well balanced.  So far, Ben has had a lot more success with his objective cards than I have, showing there’s many ways to skin a golem in this game.  As usual, there are many aspects to take advantage of and, after only four games, there’s still plenty for me to explore.

By the way, some people have complained that the marbles don’t fall randomly when you put them in the Synagogue, but we had no problems with the process.  If you do it the way you’re supposed to, I think this works exactly as intended, so much ado about nothing, IMO.

Overall, this is a very meaty title with lots of decisions to make, as well as a nice blend of strategy and tactics.  It’s very good with 2, but I think it’s best with 3.  Based on our experience, I’d say the learning curve is a good two games, but now I feel much more comfortable with it.  Given its weight, it’s not too long.  It’s one of my favorites from last year, despite the very unusual theme.  Long live Luciani!

Mark Jackson (1 play): Clever bits but fiddly (and the graphic design is occasionally confusing, as Ben notes). While I like the unusual theme and everything “worked”, I feel no need to play it again.

Doug Garrett (3 plays, all at 2-player): I agree with Mark’s “clever bits but fiddly” comment. It’s interesting, but felt more like work than fun, especially during our first play. The luck of the marbles can lead to some very frustrating moments. We discuss it in Episode 830 of the Garrett’s Games podcast.

Dale Yu (2 plays): In short, not for me.  Part of this is just my dislike of super long games.  I just tend to lose focus in games >2hrs, and as a result, I have learned to move away from these sorts of games.  The capriciousness of the marbles bothers me, especially in a game of this length and depth – and while I see Larry’s point that marbles can work ok, our experience showed something different.  Like Doug, this game crosses the barrier from interesting puzzle solving into arduous work, made worse when you feel like the marbles went against you.   I’ve heard that there is an app somewhere that takes the human element out of the marbles, and that might be a help – but I’ll probably never find out.  I’ll gladly leave this for others to play and I’ll move on to experience other games.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I Love It:  Larry, Steph

I Like It:   Ben, Lorna, Tery

Neutral: Mark Jackson, Doug G., John P

Not for me: Dale

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1 Response to Ben Bruckart:  Review of Golem

  1. cbrandt300 says:

    Superb review of Golem! I just played it for the first time on 5/27/22… This past Friday. I really enjoyed the game and Ben absolutely nailed the game play and especially the pros and cons. (The red/green confusion for the first road plagued us the entire game, maybe it’ll be fixed if there’s a second edition) The design team is responsible for creating some of my all time favorite games as also noted. The cat pic makes the article perfect. Kudos to Ben. This is the first review from him I’ve seen in the OG and it’s a home run.

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