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Subject: Get off my land! - New Earth Review rss

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Nick
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This review is available, with pictures, at https://www.gamesquest.co.uk/blog/new-earth-review/
Many thanks to Games Quest for kindly providing a review copy of New Earth.


New Earth, designed by Nicholas Higgins, is the debut release from Ergo Sum Games, an independent company based in Newark in the UK. ESG and their leader promise great things, with one hundred and twenty designs mentioned and five further releases already trailed on their website, even though these are sketchily described at present. Designed, illustrated and play-tested by a small in-house team which includes Algie "the test programme" (so that's an algorithm), New Earth needs to come out firing on all cylinders in order to prove that this nascent games company has what it takes to go up against the big boys, in quality as well as quantity.

The box bodes well, especially if you like the colour blue. The front illustration is suitably apocalytic and promises a game of decent depth with a play time of up to two hours. Inside the initial impressions are good, though the lack of any kind of insert will please some and disappoint others. The card stock for the boards and tokens is decent quality, the deck of cards substantial enough, and the various cubes and tokens pretty much what you would expect. There's a big thumbs down for the nasty paper money, which feels like it belongs in The Game of Life, and my copy at least was missing all the 3-value tokens in red and white, which was not a good start, but otherwise there's enough stuff in the box to keep you punching away merrily for a half hour or so, and a decent supply of generously sized plastic bags for your post-punching storage.

The rule booklet, again very blue, is - let's be frank - not brilliantly written, and really has the quality of having been put together by somebody who is already acquainted with the game. It could certainly do with more illustrations and perhaps an index, but more seriously it is populated by acronyms that are not explained, and terminology that is inconsistent. “Production mat” and “player mat” are both used, eventually turning out to be the same thing, while what is listed as a “Machine worker unit” turns out not to have the qualities of a worker at all as far as the rules are concerned, and should really be called a “Machine unit” to differentiate it from the three types of workers already in the game. Even in the quick setup guide the rules refer to “SD” markers, an acronym that appears to go unexplained, and I think I worked out correctly that this refers to the “Zone Control Centre Markers”. Also in the setup players receive “one stockpiled manufacturing unit”, but given that there are “manufacturing worker units” elsewhere in the game, these really should be referred to as “manufactured units”. Are you keeping up?

The rule book is also nebulous on the subject of how to convert one resource to another in-game and what should be paid. The information is given, to be scrupulously fair, but usually in the form of examples from which the correct procedure may be inferred. It would have been far easier to give clear examples for maintenance costs, upgrade costs and the like in the rules, maybe on one of the cards. Instead some of these costs are in the rules, some are on the player mats, and others are dotted around elsewhere.

Even placing a city is confusing on this New Earth. You are told that you can "convert" a zone into a city zone, placing the city marker on the zone control centre. Does it replace the SD marker that's already there? Hang on...hang on...ah, here it is in the game example on page 16 - it goes underneath. Likewise, stockpiled consumer goods cannot exceed the number of consumer goods expended in the current turn. So I have 10 goods but only want to spend 3. Do I discard 4 after purchase? Must I spent 5 or more? Who knows... There's more, but that's enough for now.

Well, almost enough. The illustrations for setting up for different player counts are also a little tricky to follow (much bigger and brighter next time, please), but the board looks impressive when it is ready to go, and the bright colours of the tokens stand out well. The six segments of the board are double sided and are slotted together randomly, so this New Earth will almost always be different, and it looks suitably post-apocalyptic when it is all set up, although getting there might take a little bit of head scratching.

It is a real shame that the rule book is so tangled, because the game itself is not too hard to get to grips with once you have a turn or two under your belt - but you will definitely need that turn or two. Once New Earth is up and running you will find that a further inconsistency is that the icons for the population limits for each sector show a person (for workers) and a cube (for machines), but in the game itself they are all cubes. Representing workers by a white/red/black striped cube would probably have made more sense. Finally, the manufacturing plants (which look suitably factory-like) are grey and would presumably have been better in white, to link them more readily to the (white) manufacturing workers and (white) manufactured units. Gradually, though, a picture does emerge from the post-apocalyptic haze, and it is the image of a game that promises to be quite good, so let's put the rules aside for the moment, take a very deep breath, and look at what awaits players who want to visit this New Earth.

The game is played out over 12 rounds, each of which has 6 phases. Players produce goods, receive income, convert resources into new units, pay for the upkeep of their zones and cities and, at the end of each turn, can attempt to expand into other territories by triggering elections. In time-honoured fashion, the more money you throw at your campaign the more likely you are to win, and you can always play a card from your hand to boost your own chances and hamper your opponent, what you might call a Trump card.

These multi-use cards are one of the strongest and most enjoyable aspects of New Earth. Not only are they worth victory points if you hold onto them until the end, but they can negate catastrophes, allow for one-off bonuses and, as mentioned above, swing elections in your favour, so players need to choose wisely when to use them, especially as you are only allowed to hold seven of them in hand at any one time. The artwork on each type of card is functional rather than inspirational, and it would be good in a future edition to see the publishers push the boat out a little more on the art. Games like Imperial Settlers or the mighty Agricola really set the standard on this where each type of card has its own individual artwork.

Now, I mentioned catastrophes, and some players are going to be severely put off by these. Yes, they can be mitigated if you happen to have the right cards in hand but they still have the potential to be pretty nasty. In a way they remind me of the similar events in Discworld: Ankh-Morpork so personally I do not have a huge problem with them, but you will need to gauge the tolerance of your fellow players. More ominously, though, part of the method of scoring New Earth is decided by a card draw right at the end, thematically representing the huge storm ('El Gigante') against which players have been building their cities. There is an option in the rule book to do away with this and to decide that particular aspect of the scoring method at the start of New Earth, and it would seem wise for players who can be a little upset by randomness to go down this route.

Even so, some other areas of New Earth's scoring feel decidedly odd, especially the 10-point bonus a player receives for having all their zones at the same level. New Earth begins with each player owning six level-1 cities, worth 6 points plus the 10 point bonus. Now, if I were to upgrade all of them except one to level-2 and pay handsomely for the privilege they would now be worth...erm...11 points in total, losing me 5 points! This 10-point bonus is explained away as the "balanced society principle" (although we're not told why that is such a good thing), but it seems decidedly overvalued and lopsided.

So New Earth chugs on for twelve rounds as players try to sustain their emergent societies while making inroads into the board, all the while waiting for the storm to hit. There's economic and resource management, area control and many other things to be dealing with and, when it's purring along, New Earth has its decent moments, but it never really achieves the heights it aspires to, even if it definitely has promise. Part of the problem is that getting a group of players to invest proper time in the game is a struggle, especially as it is so difficult to explain clearly.

In conclusion, underneath it all in New Earth there beats the heart of an ok game that has the potential to provide an interesting experience, especially if you play it with the same group. In two it feels quite open, whereas in four things become much more tight (and better!) as the various factions interact and inevitably come to political blows over the board. For all that, though, this feels like a final prototype rather than a finished product, and exemplifies some of the problems Kickstarter can present, in that it enables publishers to produce products according to their own timetables and standards without necessarily being subject to the same rigorous procedures that companies such as Portal or Plaid Hat aspire to. Now, it is not as if the big companies do not drop the ball on occasion (I think immediately of Prêt-à-Porter with its wonky component list and thirteen-months-in-a-year cards) but the game needs to have enough heft to make the effort worth it (and Pret-a-Porter does).

It is also hard to ignore that Higgins has been - how shall we put this? - overly protective of his baby in response to criticism, and in a gaming world where so many designers are happy to chew the fat and be extraordinarily open about things (Ignacy Trzewicek, for example) that is unfortunate. Even the legendarily surly Sirlin makes up for his grumpiness by turning out great games that stand up to hundreds and hundreds of plays, but New Earth, while occasionally fun, is simply not up to that mark.

I hope that ESG, if they read this, take these points on board (ahem!) in the spirit they are given. It is a fiercely competitive world of new cardboard out there as the hobby goes from strength to strength, and every barrier to entry is going to place a game at a disadvantage, but there are some aspects of New Earth that just don't seem to have been playtested rigorously enough, and the lack of playtester names in the booklet might bear testament to this. Even the heaviest of hobby offerings now goes out of its way to get players up and gaming as easily as possible, so it is something to bear in mind if and when a second edition hits the shelves.

New Earth, then, is not a brave new world, but neither is it the end of the world as we know it. Somebody, probably Paul Grogan, needs to be brought in to rewrite the rules from the ground up, and the game itself needs to be crash-tested to destruction before a second edition is released. ESG say that their new games "will only reach fruition with the support of the gaming community" and that is an approach that they will need to embrace if they want that presumably financial support to materialise. New Earth is a decent first step, I suppose, if very rough around the edges, so let's see where ESG go from here and what their future holds.
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