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Subject: [Review] The Epic Strategy Game Earns Its Title rss

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Seth Brown
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OVERVIEW
As it promises on the box, The Colonists is an epic strategy game where you attempt to grow your colony by acquiring and refining goods, selling them and using them to construct buildings, and building residences to provide people to staff your buildings. All of this is accomplished by moving around a modular hex board which grows as the game progresses.

Also: This is a long game.

COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
4 individual player boards, 60 cardboard place hex tiles, 100 wooden worker meeples, 20 steward pawns, 1 billion tiny cardboard resource chits, 1 billion small cardboard building tiles, 8 small decks of market and improvement cards, a few dozen plastic bags to hold all this stuff (although I'd recommend plano boxes for the billions)



GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF
A board is created with a markets and 12 hexes. Players each receive a starting board with 2 farms, 1 food in the warehouse, and 3 wood* filling your 3 storage spaces. Each Era has five Years. Each Year gives you 2 turns. At the beginning of the year, the start player adds the 3 on-deck tiles to the board (or a market to start the game), and reveals 3 new on-deck tiles. Players all start on a market of their choice.

On your turn, you must take 3 actions, which consist of moving your piece to an adjacent hex (or any market), paying any players already present on that hex (unless market), and carrying out the action of the tile on which you land. Note that all payments must come from your limited storage space. Tiles include:
*Production - Gain the produced materials
*Refinement - Pay the indicated materials to receive upgraded materials
*Sustenance - Gain food, or pay food for points
*Builders - Pay the indicated materials to build the indicated building. (Many buildings require a worker to become active)
*Other - Various one-off special buildings that let you do anything from draw or play cards, to becoming the start player
*Markets - Take any of the 3 actions on the current market card (Pay goods for points, gain materials, Other)

Each player takes a turn in clockwise order, and then each player takes a second turn in clockwise order. After this, players must feed their employed Citizens (but not farmers), and receive any production from active production buildings. After five years, the era ends. After the chosen number of eras (1 for the intro game, 4 for the full game), the game ends, and whoever has the most points (from selling goods, on buildings, and for employed workers) wins.



GOOD POINTS

*Satisfyingly Epic.
I tend to side-eye games which make adjectival claims right on the box title, but I have to admit, playing the full length of The Colonists is a pretty epic affair. The amount of table space taken up is actually less than one might expect given the size and weight of the box, although part of that was a function of our acquisition of a Plano box or two for various pieces. But the game itself definitely has the feel of starting from nothing and slowly building up your engine, which continues to build as each new era introduces more and better options, until finally by the end you have a board filled with buildings staffed by people whose housing you've added and improved storage holding various resources, a testament to the colony you have created.

*Friendly To New Players
With a game of this complexity, it's important to have a good rulebook. Thankfully, The Colonists comes through here with a fairly easy-to-follow rulebook, as well as an appendix listing of colonies and buildings and whatnot. In addition, because learning these types of games can be a challenge, there's even a full walkthrough of 1 era of the game, so you can set up the board and play through pre-scripted moves just to see how the game works. This won't be necessary for everyone -- nor will the appendix section listing each resource and all the ways to get it -- but given the difficulty of self-teaching epic games, it's nice to see a lot of attention paid to making things accessible.

In addition, there's a special side of the player boards used for the intro game. And heck, the game itself has 3 tiers of workers and you don't have to pay food upkeep for the first tier (farmers), which is not only thematically appropriate, but also lets you ease into the food upkeep thing.

*Aesthetically Pleasing, and Functional.
Bright colors keep the game not only easy on the eyes, but easy on the playing as well. It's pretty easy to remember that green is farmers, who populate green buildings. Likewise, each type of hex has an easily visible colored symbol to indicate whether it is a production hex, building hex, refinement hex, etc., in addition to intuitive iconography for the specific function. The improvement cards have some amusing flavor text, and overall the game looks good and nudges the players towards understanding the gameplay.

*Conveniently Modular for Shorter Games.
The Colonists comes with an introductory game, which is played on a slightly smaller board, for only a single era, and without any embassies to other colonies. Even this may take 30 minutes per player with new folks, but is much more manageable than attempting to play the full game with first-time players, which would be a terrible idea. However, even after people know the rules and you throw in the embassies, you can simply decide ahead of time how many eras to play, whether the full gamut, or stopping at the end of era 2 or 3, etc.

There are even rules for skipping an era or two and starting with a partially developed board, if you don't have time for the full game but still want to experience the full strategic options the game has to offer. In a game whose full length can easily run 6+ hours, the wealth of options for cutting down the time without neutering the game is really handy. So many of my favorite games rarely hit the table because they are epic games with no express service.

*Exceedingly High Replay Value.
Immediately after each of our games, I have found myself thinking and discussing with other players what we want to try to do next time. My partner wants to have built more wood production early, another player regretted not upgrading farms earlier, I want to get more clay earlier, etc., etc.. To me, these kinds of discussions are the hallmark of the best boardgames, because the participants a) already know that they want to play again, and b) have a sufficient wealth of options that they can make strategic declarations about different paths they want to try.

The board will also be quite different between games, which means that your perfect turn from last game of "Just walk onto the get 2 clay space, and then the turn clay into brick space, and then the spend bricks space" may not be possible when those three spaces are scattered across the board instead of next to each other.

And finally, the embassies. The game includes 9 colonies, of which 4-5 are available in any game. Each of these colonies offers game-changing abilities, so the game will feel very different depending on which are available.

In short, while some may lament that "Get more people, storage, and production" will always be the base of the game, there are plenty of systems in place to keep it from feeling too samey.

*Embassies Change the Game.
I know I mentioned this above, but it's worth taking a minute to talk about the embassies, which really do change the pain points (or pleasure points) of the game. You can build the first level of an embassy for 3 wood, 2 clay, and a tool, by going to the Diplomat space, and in later eras, you may pay additional goods to continue upgrading your embassy up to the level of the current era. You may build multiple embassies, but probably will have to make some tough choices about which to prioritize.

The Storekeeper colony lets you basically double your available storage space. This is incredibly important, as storage restrictions are one of the main tensions of the game. Having this embassy will vastly relieve that pressure, leaving you free to focus elsewhere.

The Scholar colony gives you a free card every year and free card-plays when you land on a draw cards space. While improvement cards normally are expensive to make use of (one action to draw, one action to play - often paying a cost), this embassy means you always have cards in hand, and a single action will let you filter more cards while also playing one of your choice.

The Envoy colony gives you extra hex movement and an extra person on the board to move (more options, not more actions). Especially as the board continues to expand, the ability to be in two places at once and leap across the board means you can land on the spaces you need, as opposed to landing only on the spaces adjacent to you.

And of course there are 4 levels of each embassy. So not only are you choosing which embassies to build, but then weighing whether you want to spend your action starting an Industrialist colony so you can get free good refinement, or upgrading your Envoy colony so you can get the extra movement every action instead of once per turn.

The result is a giant tech tree with the same randomized options available to all players, a giant mixing board that mucks with the levels of various tensions, and it definitely adds a lot to the game.

*The Storage System Prevents Stagnation.
In many games of this ilk (Gather resources, refine them, build things, sell things), the obvious strategy is to simply grab the most and/or best resources you can, pile them up for a bit, and then go on a spree of building whatever you want. Stockpiling resources for later is an obvious strategy. But in The Colonists, you have a limited amount of storage and warehouse spaces in which to keep goods, and can only spend resources from your storage spaces. The result is a more dynamic and focused game, where players need to spend their goods, then identify what they plan to do next, and then gather the correct goods to do it. Additional storage is available (and recommended) throughout the game, but the lack of infinite space remains a tension right up to the final year of the game, pushing players not just to stack up every resource they can, but to carefully manage spending out to build/sell things and make room for the right resources to do the next thing.



BAD POINTS

*The Storage System Is Very Fiddly.
While it certainly has its advantages, one downside of the storage system is that you will constantly be mucking about with your goods. As noted above, the separation between warehouse spaces (which can hold goods for you) and storage spaces (from which goods can be spent) does some work in preventing an obvious "grab it all, spend it all later" strategy, but the downside is that often on your turn you will have to shift goods around between your warehouses and storehouses, an unrewarding process made no less irksome by the little cardboard goods chits. There are a lot of little cardboard chits, you have to move them around a lot, and they just take up a lot of space on the table. Get yourself a compartmentalized box for this one.

*Turns Will (in most cases) Consume a Large Amount of Time.
As mentioned above, if you are worried about overall game length, you can certainly play a curtailed version of just a few eras. But once you've played the full game, stopping at the end of era 1 will probably no longer be satisfying. Admittedly, there are rules for starting in medias res at the beginning of era 2, 3, or 4, but playing the full game is where the most satisfaction lies, and that may well be a 6 hour affair if you have any players who are not swiftly decisive. With 4 players, the downtime also becomes an issue, with minutes possibly elapsing between turns. (The good news is, with only 2 players, downtime is all but eliminated if you use your opponent's turn to plan your turn.)

*Although an Epic and Beautiful One, Still an Optimization Game.
In the grand scheme of things, any game that is about collecting and refining resources to build and sell is likely to be an optimization game. Consequently, in spite of the high board variance and replay value, there will be some who find the game to be too "samey" between plays. Like any such game, some will also likely accuse the game of being "multi-player-solitaire", although I think The Colonists can defend that charge more than most between the fact that you must pay other players to land on spaces they occupy, and the ability later in the game to swap unoccupied tiles, which can often quite viciously confound an opponent.



CONCLUSION
As promised, The Colonists lives up to its claim of being an epic strategy game. It is a very long game, with very many pieces, and if you're playing the full game you'll want to set aside a full day (although the intro game plays in quite a reasonable time). But you *will* want to play the full game, because it is satisfying in the way that only an epic game can be, where you start with but two lonely farmers and 3 meager storage spaces, and by the end of the game your citizens are running storage sheds full of bricks and iron that you're using to build fancy occupations for your merchants to work at as your board produces a plethora of goods every year.

Many of the same satisfactions that come from the recent crop of worker placement games (Agricola/Le Havre/Caverna/etc.) can be found here, but The Colonists is also doing something new by throwing in the slowly expanding hex board where positioning matters, the tension of limited storage, game-changing embassies, and various other clever mechanics. The fact that it's far easier to learn and/or teach than other games of this length is a big plus, and between that and the high variability, I fully expect this to become one of our most played 3+ hour games.

IS IT FOR YOU?
If long games are a deal-breaker for you, I might have to advise against this game with more than 2p. Which I feel bad about, because they have taken great pains to allow you to play a shorter game. Introductory game of just the first era, rules for starting in the final era... they even have special rules for recording your progress at the end of an era so you can "save the game" and start next time by resuming in the next era with a position based on your previous play. It's a fantastic set of options that most epic-length games lack, and they should be applauded for including it... and to my mind, it will all still never be quite as satisfying as just sitting down to play the full game. Which isn't to say that the shortened games aren't perfectly good, just that I don't think they are sufficiently good to justify the purchase if you will *never* play the full game.

But presuming you might, at least sometimes, make the time in your day to play the full game (or even if you have a table on which you can leave the game set up for a few days), The Colonists is quite a treat. I'd say just reading through the rules and intro playthrough may be the easiest time I've ever had learning an epic-length game, and that includes being taught games by other players. It is quite accessible to new players, and offers a lot of the enjoyment of your typical worker placement games while simultaneously offering up a few new mechanics and twists. All this, combined with a high variability and replay value, means that I would recommend The Colonists to anyone interested enough in this genre of game to have read through this entire review.



*Review copy provided by publisher
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jeff
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Osirus wrote:

*Friendly To New Players
With a game of this complexity, it's important to have a good rulebook. Thankfully, The Colonists comes through here with a fairly easy-to-follow rulebook, as well as an appendix listing of colonies and buildings and whatnot. In addition, because learning these types of games can be a challenge, there's even a full walkthrough of 1 era of the game, so you can set up the board and play through pre-scripted moves just to see how the game works. This won't be necessary for everyone -- nor will the appendix section listing each resource and all the ways to get it -- but given the difficulty of self-teaching epic games, it's nice to see a lot of attention paid to making things accessible.


Awesome review... I just wanted to comment on the above.

I thought this was a HUGE plus for the game. When I first got the game and opened it I was intimidated by all the "stuff". I'm a fairly experienced gamer and have tackled some complex game rules so I was confident in being able to learn the game, but still apprehensive. When I started to read the rules and understand the lay out I was really pleasantly surprised on how well they were written and all the references within. I don't know if it's part my experience with games like Agricola, Caverna, etc.. but I felt like a bulb went off while reading them and I thought... "oh this really isn't all that complicated, it's actually mechanically simple"

Also... LOVE walk-through additional rule books and this one is nice and illustrative.
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Seth Brown
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AvidHunter wrote:
Osirus wrote:

*Friendly To New Players
With a game of this complexity, it's important to have a good rulebook. Thankfully, The Colonists comes through here with a fairly easy-to-follow rulebook, as well as an appendix listing of colonies and buildings and whatnot. In addition, because learning these types of games can be a challenge, there's even a full walkthrough of 1 era of the game, so you can set up the board and play through pre-scripted moves just to see how the game works. This won't be necessary for everyone -- nor will the appendix section listing each resource and all the ways to get it -- but given the difficulty of self-teaching epic games, it's nice to see a lot of attention paid to making things accessible.


Awesome review... I just wanted to comment on the above.

I thought this was a HUGE plus for the game. When I first got the game and opened it I was intimidated by all the "stuff". I'm a fairly experienced gamer and have tackled some complex game rules so I was confident in being able to learn the game, but still apprehensive. When I started to read the rules and understand the lay out I was really pleasantly surprised on how well they were written and all the references within. I don't know if it's part my experience with games like Agricola, Caverna, etc.. but I felt like a bulb went off while reading them and I thought... "oh this really isn't all that complicated, it's actually mechanically simple"

Also... LOVE walk-through additional rule books and this one is nice and illustrative.

Yeah, I've played many games with little walk-through example scenarios, and this is the clearest I've ever seen.
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Val Doonican
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Excellent review and I agree with all your main points. This is a fabulous game.
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Jack
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I CANNOT wait to play this. Looks right up my alley!
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senorcoo wrote:
I CANNOT wait to play this. Looks right up my alley!


You do know I live right down the street from you right?

Come join Scott, Jason and me next weekend...
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Josh
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This is currently the game I have stuck in my mental craw. My wife and I played an Era I game, and we got a mile's walk of discussion about what we wished we'd have done differently (and how difficult we'd set up the board, in retrospect).

Nice review. Props.
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Jack
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AvidHunter wrote:
senorcoo wrote:
I CANNOT wait to play this. Looks right up my alley!


You do know I live right down the street from you right?

Come join Scott, Jason and me next weekend...


Haha! Weekends are really tough for me and I'm not sure how good this would be for me with 4p. Thanks, tho!
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Geoff Speare
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We played a 4 player 1 era teaching game (2 players new, 1 experienced, I had done a solo to learn the rules). Rules plus game took under 2 hours and was a lot of fun.
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Jack
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I plan on playing this full boat.
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Seth Brown
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Tonight - 3p game (1 new player), 3 eras, 5 hours. New player schooled us with a pub rush while I prepared for a non-existent fourth era.
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Brian Gallagher
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Osirus wrote:
Tonight - 3p game (1 new player), 3 eras, 5 hours. New player schooled us with a pub rush while I prepared for a non-existent fourth era.


Of course I want to know where you played & with whom!
I'll see you Sunday to discuss.
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Jack
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Played it Tuesday night and I liked it, but even with players that aren't AP, it runs really long. It starts quick, but bogs halfway through the third era, probably because of all of the input. I can appreciate what it's trying to do, but it will get sold or traded.
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Seth Brown
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senorcoo wrote:
Played it Tuesday night and I liked it, but even with players that aren't AP, it runs really long. It starts quick, but bogs halfway through the third era, probably because of all of the input. I can appreciate what it's trying to do, but it will get sold or traded.

We've been loving it, but admittedly we're no longer trying to play a full 4 eras in 1 day. We play 2 eras and then leave it set up on the table overnight. Having now played at least a half-dozen games of it in the past few weeks, we're taking it out of rotation for a bit, but if you have a place to leave it set up and play half a game each day, it's pretty ideal.
 
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I don't and I don't think its worth it for me to play over multiple days.
 
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Hank Meyer
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Just bought this, spent quite a while punching 4700 cardboard bits, etc...played through era I to get a feel for the mechanics...and then took a deep breath and tackled a new game through era II (wife and me)...
we spent 2.5 hours on it, getting used to all of the options one faces and learning about the utility of certain buildings and maximizing traveling efficiency across the hexes...
Since we don't have kids and are retired (though I work part time in the tournament bridge world), we plan to play all 4 eras by leaving the game out on the table and playing it in doses....
It is really an amazing game and the actions, requirements, etc, all make sense, which makes learning the mechanisms much easier...more brain cells can focus on making good choices...
I could see where a 4 player game could take quite a while...especially the first time with newer players....but Colonists is a winner....(just don't take it on the train or plane, expecting to play it while traveling!)
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This is interesting - the storage mechanic that you love because of how it works is one of the most irritating issues I have with the game again because of how it works! That was a deal breaker along with the length, though I'm talking how long it is to play solo yet alone if I was crazy enough to want to play with other players given it has almost zero player interaction, which I'm surprised you didn't mention. And no, a tiny little fee and 1-2 colony abilities is not full on player interaction.

Not sure I'd call it mechanically simple though. It could be much harder I'll give it that. But, there was a lot of rule-checking to remember the fiddly storage/resource spending system and the timing of the "end of year" phase.

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Seth Brown
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farmergiles wrote:
This is interesting - the storage mechanic that you love because of how it works is one of the most irritating issues I have with the game again because of how it works!

Admittedly, it is also the first thing I listed under negative points. The fiddly nature of it is a definite downside for sure, but strategically I know it does a lot of work in preventing the optimal move from just being first stockpile everything you can get in bulk, then spend it all (which is one of the reasons Le Havre I consider merely a good, and not great, game).

farmergiles wrote:

I was crazy enough to want to play with other players given it has almost zero player interaction, which I'm surprised you didn't mention. And no, a tiny little fee and 1-2 colony abilities is not full on player interaction.

You may have also missed this other paragraph under negative points:
Seth's Epic Colonists Review wrote:

*Although an Epic and Beautiful One, Still an Optimization Game.
In the grand scheme of things, any game that is about collecting and refining resources to build and sell is likely to be an optimization game. Consequently, in spite of the high board variance and replay value, there will be some who find the game to be too "samey" between plays. Like any such game, some will also likely accuse the game of being "multi-player-solitaire", although I think The Colonists can defend that charge more than most between the fact that you must pay other players to land on spaces they occupy, and the ability later in the game to swap unoccupied tiles, which can often quite viciously confound an opponent.


Naturally, this will vary depending on who you are playing with and how confrontational they like being. When I play 2p with my girlfriend, we always intentionally end our turns on spaces blocking the other player from what they most need, will swap tiles to move tiles they need further away, place tiles as inconveniently as possible, and likewise use any special colony abilities to generally hinder the opponent. It's not Nexus Ops, but I think anyone who thinks this is MPS is probably going to feel that way about most Euros.
 
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Steve Stanton
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After lots of hesitation due to off-the-cuff comments about The Colonists I read on the Geek, I finally just purchased it.

Your review makes me want to break it out this weekend and solo it. Thanks.
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fiatkid55 wrote:
After lots of hesitation due to off-the-cuff comments about The Colonists I read on the Geek, I finally just purchased it.

Your review makes me want to break it out this weekend and solo it. Thanks.

I'd love to hear what you think of it, come Monday!
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