03rd Jul2017

‘Century: Spice Road’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

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Introduction

Marking the first release in a trilogy of games that will each share the Century title, Century: Spice Road is a 2017 release from popular player-turned designer Emerson Matsuuchi. The rub of the Century series is that each one is intended to interlink with the others, enabling larger and more complex games to form. With only Spice Road currently available, I’ve been keen to understand how Century: Spice Road holds up as a standalone experience, but I’ll also be considering how the experience might scale, and looking ahead to those two additional offerings.

Game Components and Rules

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Spice Road is packaged in a smaller than average box, which is clearly made from decent quality, shiny cardboard. Sample artwork for the future releases of Century is shown on the back half of the box, and unsurprisingly it looks as if all boxes will match, which I believe will make this series an attractive addition to any game shelf. Inside the box, a plastic stand enables all of the pieces to be stored easily and conveniently so that play can commence almost immediately upon opening, regardless of how the box is orientated during storage.

The components themselves are simple, purposeful and of a very high standard. Spice Road includes a deck of merchant cards, a deck of contract cards, four plastic bowls and four sets of coloured cubes which each represent a different spice, and fit conveniently into the bowls (including when stored, due to the snugness of the lid.) There is also a bag of silver coins, and a bag of gold coins, each of which is made from a pleasingly weighty metal. There is no board, but the two decks of cards essentially form one, and artwork aficionados are in for a real treat here. Both decks of cards feature beautiful, classically-themed artwork depicting ancient people busily picking, weighing and trading spices from all over the globe. Every card is detailed, colourful and thematic, adding a real sense of immersion to the game.

The rules are also of an exceptional standard, and I was delighted to find them compressed onto both sides of a single sheet. Spice Road is a simple game to learn, teach and play, and the joy comes from mastering the basic mechanics of card drafting and resource collection. I found no ambiguities or errors in the instructions, and in my first game (two players) we were up and running within less than fifteen minutes from opening the box to the first turn.

Game Structure

During game setup, each player receives an identical pair of cards to kick things off with, and a variable amount of the least expensive spice depending on starting position, with the player who goes first receiving least. On the table, each of the bowls is filled with spice in ascending order of value, and six of the merchant cards are laid out in a row from left to right, with the remainder of the deck face down at one end. The contract deck is placed face down above the merchant deck, and five (not six) contract cards are laid out above the merchant cards. Above the last contract card, a pile of gold coins equal to two times the number of players is placed, and above the second to last contract card, a pile of silver coins based on the same calculation is stacked.

During play, there are four options available to players depending on their current hand and what spices they have in their caravan. The first of these is to play a card from their hand, which usually enables them to draw more spices from the bowls, or to change the mix of spices in an advantageous way. The second is to draw a new card from the six visible merchant cards, but should the player choose any card beside from the one furthest from the deck, then they must place a spice cube on each preceding card to pay for the privilege. The third option is to rest, which enables the player to simply pick up all of the merchant cards that they have played so far, thus restocking their hand. Finally, if the player is able, they may pay the cost in spices needed to fulfil a contract, thus claiming the victory points shown on the card. If the contract they fulfil has either a silver or gold coin stack above it, they may take one coin, adding additional points to their final tally. The game ends when any player has amassed five completed contracts, or six in a two player game.

Game Experience

Typically, a game of Spice Road begins with players silently determining their strategy based on the available contract cards, weighed against the merchant cards they can easily access. Many contracts focus on the higher end spices, but with a large and varied deck to draw from, there are also contracts that demand a higher number of lesser spices, or a greater variety of them. Because each player only takes one action per turn, playing with experienced players is quick and intuitive thanks to the simple rules and crystal clear layout.

No matter which contract a player decides to target, establishing a strong deck is the most important part of the early game in Spice Road. Some (fairly uncommon) merchant cards allow players to draw higher value spices directly, whilst others allow open-ended upgrades. Cards like these compliment those that each players begin with, and will be sought after early in the game. Less valuable cards are those that require more complex payments for a specific reward, for example trading two spices of different values for the other two spices. Such cards can be useful to fulfil specific contracts, but only if you have a reliable way to meet their cost by drawing spices or trading for them.

Even so, the cards in Spice Road are beautifully balanced, and whilst there are some clear favourites, none are so powerful that they break the game. Almost every effect (from drawing spices to upgrading them) can be valued based on the number of incremental movements in spice value that it generates. Aside from the rarer cards that offer the more open-ended benefits I’ve just described, most cards will increment the value of the traded spices by about twenty percent. Some reach as high as about thirty percent, but have a more complex cost to pay. Determining the right approach is a matter of balancing risk, reward and probability.

Across all the games of Spice Road that I played, I never felt as if anything was left to chance. I was occasionally beaten to a lucrative contract by another player, but because you can see each players caravan and the cards they have played, and because resting takes an entire turn, you have lots of advance warning. If you think you’ll lose a race to reach a contract, then it’s best just to switch to another target. Across about twenty rounds of Spice Road featuring two, three and four players, most games ended closely, and at no point did anyone appear to be getting left behind or frustrated.

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Future Expansion

With the two additional chapters in the Century trilogy pencilled in for 2018 and 2019 respectively, it will be some time before we understand exactly how Matsuuchi’s intention to bring all three games together is realised. However, based on my experience with Spice Road, I could imagine that all resources (spices in this game) might share colours between games, and the decks are simply merged to provide more variance at the cost of theming. I doubt that will be the case however, and I’m really excited to see what new rules and ideas the second game introduces, ideally without compromising the balance and simplicity that make Spice Road so good.

Conclusion

Century: Spice Road is an exceptional demonstration of board game design. It features an incredibly simple base mechanic that has been translated into a credible and immersive theme, supported by glorious artwork and tactile pieces. Drafting cards with which to gather and trade spices feels fantastic, and the range and variance of the contracts that drive the action means no one is left behind. Spice Road is as simple as perhaps any game that I’ve played in the last few years, and yet it still manages to provide players with a tremendous sense of reward because there is practically no luck involved. Learning which cards to draft to provide a tiny edge is hugely important, and yet that understanding is never enough to provide an absolutely certain victory. For anyone looking to introduce an easy to learn, competitive and memorable board game into their evenings, I don’t think I can recommend a better game than this.

***** 5/5
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You can buy Century: Spice Road online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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