J.B. Howell has been building a diverse catalogue of solid games. I think it's obvious when you explore some of his more recent releases such as Reavers of Midgard, a viking-themed worker placement in the Champions of Midgard universe from Grey Fox Games, or his eye-catching, butterfly-themed tile-drafting and area-majority game Papillon from Kolossal Games...and we certainly cannot forget Flotilla from WizKids, where he and Michael Mihealsick made a big splash with some fresh and innovative mechanisms combined with an engaging theme, drenched in Waterworld vibes.
Just at the tail end of 2020, WizKids released Howell's latest creation: Gates of Mara, a fantasy-themed strategy game featuring a compelling blend of layered area influence and upgradeable worker placement. I had a demo of Gates of Mara in August 2020 and got the opportunity to play a round on Tabletop Simulator. I went in with low expectations since I wasn't particularly excited about the theme, and I honestly did not know what Mr. Howell had to offer as I hadn't played any of his releases at that point — but I walked away from the demo pleasantly surprised from my experience.
After eventually playing Flotilla and being captivated with the interesting design choices there, I was looking forward to revisiting Gates of Mara. WizKids graciously sent me a physical copy so that I could finally see what it had to offer outside of my brief TTS demo.
In Gates of Mara, 2-4 players lead one of four factions — the reptilian dragonkin, the amphibious goblins, the insectoid antids, or the arboral elves — over four rounds, commanding the elements and controlling realms, with the classic goal of scoring the most victory points.
The set-up for Gates of Mara is a bit unique since there's no actual game board, but instead, a series of smaller boards, with some being randomly selected and positioned each game for increased replayability. There's an enchantment board, and then in the center of the table, the Chaos Realm board, the central gate, and standard gates placed between a varied selection of realm boards based on player count, all positioned in circle as if a ceremony of the elements were about to kick off.
When it's all set up, Gates of Mara has an eye-catching table presence, from the arrangement of the boards and all the different figures on standees featuring beautiful artwork from Nastya Lehn. It almost appears slightly intimidating initially as you're churning through all your first move options, but once you dig in, it's quite intuitive and features clean, tasteful graphic design which helps.
Each round, players spend energy (action points) to place their workers on either one of the realm boards, the enchantment board, a standard gate or the central gate. Depending on which type of worker you place and where you place them, you can potentially gain influence in one or more of the realms and activate special abilities.A few of the goblins
Everyone leads their own tribe with five different types of workers, each having their own energy cost that must be spent to place them on one of the boards. The workers mainly function the same across factions at the start of the game, with the exception of a specialist worker that has a tribe-specific innate ability, making the factions ever so slightly asymmetric. As the game progresses, players can acquire banner cards and enchantments (upgrades) to customize their workers with juicy special abilities and bonuses.
Each space where you place workers has a specific shape or shapes associated with it that matches the shapes on the bases of your various workers. For example, only leaders (triangle base) and champions (square base) can be placed on the standard gates between the realm boards because those spaces show a square and triangle.The antids champion placed on a standard gate gains 1 influence in each adjacent realm
I mentioned gates and realm boards, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of Gates of Mara is how your different types of workers interact with these components to secure your influence in the realms. As an example, your leader figure is the most expensive worker to place (3 energy), but offers a variety of placement options for crafting your strategy.
You can place your leader in any realm and gain 3 influence in that realm, which is huge! Or you can place your leader at a standard gate (between two realms) and gain 2 influence in both adjacent realms, which is also huge, especially when timed right. Orrrr you can snag the one and only spot at the central gate and gain 1 influence in all realms, which is also huge because you'll have even more options for winning claims at the end of the round. Plus you'll gain any keys stacked on the central gate when you land there, and having a majority of keys is another way to score a healthy chunk of points at the end of the game. You have many awesome choices with placing this one worker alone. I will warn you, though, the central gate spot tends to go fast, so don't sleep on that one.
For example, two spaces on each of the regular realm boards (not the chaos realm) are seeded with banner cards at the beginning of the round. One of the abilities you may activate when placing a worker on these spaces is spending 1 energy to take the banner card and attach it to one of your workers. These banner cards are pretty awesome, especially the ones that let you gain victory points and place one of your caravans for extra influence, points, or resources. Some banner cards even allow you to place a worker in an occupied space, which I found came in handy on many occasions for me to gain the extra influence I needed to win two claims. These all sound great, but I quickly discovered my personal favorite banner cards are the ones that let you gain energy. Think about it — you'll stack these on some of your workers, so when you spend energy to place them, you immediately gain some back, which will allow you to take more actions!
Along with the Wanderer figure, each game you play with two of the four elemental lord figures that each grant a different benefit when you place your workers into their corresponding realms. They add a bit of spice to the game, and players will generally want to follow them to gain their benefits. They can also be moved to different realm boards at the end of each round, in addition to boosting the replay value of the game since you play with only two each game.
If you place a worker in the realm occupied by the Earth lord and place one of your caravans, you gain an extra influence in that realm. Placing a worker in the Air lord's realm allows you to gain one of any type of element gem. When you place a worker in a realm occupied by the Water lord, you can activate the Wanderer and optionally trade any influence gained that turn for victory points.The Elemental Lords
The Fire lord works a bit differently from the others as it has no ability when you place your workers in its realm. Instead it competes with players in its realm with its own influence marker set to 4. If you don't gain at least four influence in the Fire lord's realm, you cannot place any claims there at the end of the round. However, if you do manage to gain at least four influence and place a claim, you gain a special Fire banner card that you can attach to any of your figures. The Fire banner cards are mighty juicy, too, as you gain an extra influence and victory point whenever you place the worker to which it's attached. My friend went heavy Fire lord strategy one game and ended up attaching three of those Fire banner cards to his workers, and I suppose it worked out well since he won the game — but only by 3 points...I'm not bitter at all about it.
Most of your workers will interact with the elemental lords and the Wanderer throughout the game as you place them on the various realm boards, but never your enchanters. The enchanters are a bit different and can be placed only on the enchantment board. When placing an enchanter, you can gain up to two enchantment cards by paying the cost on the card. You immediately gain some victory points, then you can attach your newly acquired enchantment(s) to your workers as another type of upgrade, giving you more special abilities when placing your different workers.
To recap a bit, players take turns spending energy to place one worker at a time. Depending on which worker you place, you may activate innate abilities (listed on player board), the Wanderer and/or elemental lord abilities, any abilities on the location you're placing your worker, and any banner/enchantment card upgrade abilities on attached to the worker. You can really set yourself up with a wonderful array of rewarding choices.
After all players have passed or depleted their energy, you evaluate each realm to award claims. As I mentioned earlier, whoever has the most influence places two claims, with the player in second placing one claim. Any players with three or more figures or caravans on or adjacent to a realm board with an elemental lord gain one key. Two public objectives are placed on the enchantment board each round, and you score 4 points for each objective you complete this round.
Finally, you update turn order and reset the board, pulling back your workers, refilling your energy, setting influence markers back to 0 in each realm, refilling banner cards, placing new objectives, etc. The Wanderer wanders clockwise to the next realm board, then the new first player gets to move one of the elemental lords to a different realm board, and the new second player gets to move the other.
Even though I'm not in love with the theme, Gates of Mara does a solid job when it comes to its mechanisms and ends up being a fun, tight game. Every single time you place a worker, you get something. As the game progresses and you upgrade your workers, you get even more goodies and trigger special abilities, and it all feels really satisfying. Plus I dig the fact that you can use one worker to gain a card that immediately upgrades another worker that you haven't placed yet that round.
There's a great deal of player interaction with the blend of area influence and worker placement...and with no score track, it's not always easy to tell who has the most points, which makes for some nail-biting experiences when you're scoring things at the very end. I love that there are so many choices and it becomes all about making the most optimal choices to earn more victory points than your opponents. With Gates of Mara and Flotilla under my belt, I'm planning to keep an eye out for upcoming releases from J.B. Howell, and I'm hoping to play some of his other existing games, too.
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