14th Oct2021

‘Furnace’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Bearing the weight of a theme that features heavy industries extracting coal, iron and oil from the Earth during the early 19th Century, it may be a surprise to some that Furnace is a relatively lightweight teach, with simple rules and mechanics giving away to a feverish optimisation puzzle. Variant rules can increase the complexity if you want them to, but otherwise, this is a bidding/auction and engine building game that you can set up, teach and play through to completion well inside an hour.

The cover artwork sets the tone for the rest of the components. A wealthy looking man complete with serious beard and hat stares away from us resolutely, and instead of a torso, his neckline gives way to a number of factories – the heart of which glows red – the furnace. Every other card in the game shares this “all business” aesthetic, with five characters and five different starting factories to choose from, draft, or deal randomly. The other components are limited to cardboard coins and upgrade tokens, with wooden coal cubes, steel bars and yellow drums of oil.

With a character and a starting factory, each player takes four bidding disks worth one, two, three and four respectively. One character takes a fifth disk worth two, whilst each other character has some other ability that affects how they play the game. The first thing I really like about Furnace is these characters. Each is distinctly different, with abilities that change the game in very powerful ways in their favour. Honestly, if I have any one criticism, it’s that I would have liked there to have been perhaps ten to choose from – but that’s only because I like what they do to the game so much.

With setup complete, the first of four rounds will begin. Up to eight cards (based on player count) are drawn from a deck that is – perhaps a bit like Res Arcana’s – a bit too small. Each card has one or more icons along the top, some very serious industrial artwork in the middle, and then an operation action at the bottom. Most cards have a second operation action below the first, which will be greyed out – this helpfully shows what that factory will become should you spend an upgrade token and a coal to flip it to its upgraded side.

The players then bid for them by placing one of their four disks onto any card and then passing. The highest value token will win the card when the bidding is over, but anyone else who has placed their disks will be compensated based on the value of their losing disk. The only rules here is that each card can only have one token of each colour and value. To make this point, the red player could not place two of their disks onto the same card, but if they did play their four-value disk, then no one else could play their own four onto it – and it would therefore certainly be won by the red player unless a character ability were to say otherwise.

To explain how compensation works, let’s continue this example. Our red player is now certain to win a factory card because they have placed their four-value disk on it, and no other player has an ability that will affect it. Let’s say yellow now places their three-value disk onto the same factory, knowing they will not be able to win it. When it comes to resolving the end of the auction, before the red player takes that factory, the yellow player will be compensated three times. This means that they will take the resource shown on the top row of the card multiplied by three – if this was one coal, then they would take one coal three times. If yellow had played their two disk, the same thing happens, but they only take one coal two times.

After all the compensation is done and the factories are claimed, they are placed in front of the players that won them. Players then resolve the operation phase, by running their factories. In the base mode, this can be done in any order and it takes new players a bit of getting used to. As everyone gets more familiar with the game, it can be done simultaneously by all players, and for a super tough variant, you may wish to introduce rules governing the order in which factories run – for example from left to right, with strict placement rules when a new factory is taken.

The production phase of each round is the most satisfying part of Furnace. The players need to get coins – which are ultimately used as victory points and nothing else. To do this, more often than not, they will need to trade coal into steel, steel into oil and oil into cash. Upgrade tokens are also valuable because they make your existing factories more efficient, which is valuable early in the game. Cards which allow a player to break the coal > steel > oil > cash chain are also valuable, but usually come with some steep entry conditions of their own such as having to spend a lot of steel, or an upgrade token.

The beauty of Furnace is that it can be explained in about five minutes, but the decisions about what cards to draft, when to lose on purpose, when to risk losing (because you won’t always know what others want) and then what order to produce in are all massive. Almost all of the in-game time will be spent making interesting and valuable decisions and not on dealing with fiddly rules, and as I mentioned earlier, I really like the how the characters allow each player to break the rules in interesting ways. Furnace is one of those games where every player thinks that every other play has a more powerful ability, but actually, the balance is good.

Overall, Furnace has a difficult theme to sell in a world that is increasingly – and rightly – worried about climate change. That said, it’s also a very relatable theme and it does fit with the production chain mechanism that is already tough to think through without having to also consider a more abstract concept. The components are decent without being amazing, and the box is perhaps a bit bigger than it should be whilst also still being small enough to fit in a rucksack or hand-luggage style case. Furnace is verging on filler for those who take the time to learn it, but the complexity of the decisions always make it interesting, and if you see the chance to play it, then I urge you to do so as I believe it is capable of drawing almost anyone in with its excellent gameplay.

***½  3.5/5

Furnace is available 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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