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Review: Mining Colony Solo Mode

Patrick Cox
United States
South Saint Paul
Minnesota
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Hi folks. I never planned on reviewing games in this blog or anywhere else, and I don't plan to do many more. I think there are enough reviewers and reviews on BGG and I don't really have anything different to add to that "conversation." But then I found myself with a brand new game that doesn't have any reviews posted for it (there are Kickstarter previews--aka promotional material--of prototypes but no reviews of the finished game) so I have rather brazenly decided to fill the void. Here goes!

This past month has seen the release of the four newest games from designer Steve Finn at one-man shop Dr. Finn's Games. Two of them contain what seems to be only the company’s fourth and fifth solo modes, according to BGG: Mining Colony and Biblios: Quill and Parchment. As I’m a solo gamer, these are the only two I bought. Here’s what I thought of Mining Colony in solo mode.
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Mining Colony with Biblios: Quill and Parchment still in shrink wrap

Overview

In Mining Colony solo mode, human competes against an imaginary player named Zorlord. Your goal is to fully develop a mining colony on an unnamed planet by completely covering a grid with polyominos. You must also build science stations and outposts by placing the polyominos not just to cover the grid, but so that blank spaces and pictures of certain buildings on them are arranged in specific patterns, allowing you to place resources and build additional required structures.

The tiles, gems, and structures needed to accomplish these goals are drawn from resource cards which the player and Zorlord compete over: choice of resources goes to whoever plays the higher excavation card from their hand. The human player has some incentive to keep a few high cards back to be used to collect extra credits in the final round. These can be used to get needed buildings and resources. This adds a nice bit of tension when deciding which excavation cards to use when competing for resources.


Production

I like having components to manipulate. To me this an essential part of the modern board gaming experience. I like a nice quantity of interesting and maybe even unique components. This small box is stuffed with stuff to do stuff with. The game is almost entirely about components and their placement. There are four different colors of crystals, and their cuts, shapes and sizes vary as they naturally would. There are four different styles of wooden meeples: workers, spaceships, outposts, and science centers, all of which are color coordinated in different groupings. And there are nice cardboard polyominos. Each player uses a small deck of cards and their own player board, and there’s a shared deck of resources cards and a shared board. Throw in a couple different kinds of cardboard tokens and this game has the components covered with both quantity and nice quality. The crystals are pleasing to look at and hold, and the meeples are rich in variety and unique representational stylings (especially the science center).
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Dramatically lit Outposts, Science Stations, Workers, Spaceships, and Crystals

The AI

Zorlord is a very easy to use AI who does exactly exactly what he's supposed to do to provide a rewarding solo experience. Zorlord only plays excavation cards and collects resources. He does not develop a mining colony or use the resources. In taking resources you may be after, Zorlord is along the lines of the Viticulture Essential Edition Automa that blocks the player’s hoped for worker placement. It’s not meant to duplicate a human player like more complex AI’s (see Barrage). It only takes actions to fill the space where you would otherwise interact with a human player: the competition over resources, and the possibility of taking resources you wanted. As such, Zorlord performs his AI job very well and very simply.

I love that there is no special deck of cards or tiles or any other components connected to the solo mode. Zorlord’s deck of excavation cards is the same one a human would be using. This makes determining the AI’s action incredibly simple: it's just flipping and reading a card that you already know how to read because it’s the same as your own—no special icons or language for maintaining the AI--and simple and smooth AI maintenance is welcome. I find additional components and cards just for solo mode add to a feeling that the solo mode is something separate from the “real” game and thus needs different bits and pieces to play. Using the components of the core game helps ground the solo mode in the game.
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Human vs. Zorlord Excavation Decks: we're all the same! Note the artwork gives fuller renderings of what the meeples and smaller pictures on tiles might actually look like. Nice touch, Marius Janusonis.

At the same time, playing solo mode is like taking a pass/fail test in one of Dr. Finn’s classes. There are no points so there’s no “beat your best score.” You either win or lose and that’s that. So you don't have an opponent to defeat per se, nor are you given points and a score. It's like playing Terraforming Mars solo and with no points: you're just accomplishing a task in a set number of turns. There are four different difficulties, though, so once you’ve won the game, you can make winning tougher. Zorlord does not get any tougher, though. The difficulty level simply increases the amount of credits you must pay for resources.

This is a pet peeve of mine about AIs and difficulty levels. I’m always waiting for the AI that actually gets better, where the AI itself gets harder to beat by dint of better “play” rather than by external conditions attached to the same play. Certainly, more expensive resources are tougher to buy and I can confirm it definitely makes Mining Colony's solo mode harder. It's similar to the two AIs in Architects of the West Kingdom, Constantine and Helena, who are provided to create two levels of difficulty. In reality, though, neither one is a better "player" than the other: Helena is simply given more victory points for playing the exact same way as Constantine. Gameplay is not changed in anyway at all, there’s just been a change in arbitrary values attached to gameplay. To me, this rings hollow, as I think most victory points do. Mining Colony's adjustment of resource prices is slightly more tied to gameplay and theme than a VP adjustment, but only slightly. And I'm not sure if this would bother anyone besides me.
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Gameplay

Like a lot of polyomino games, this essentially comes down to a puzzle to be worked out, and it’s a good one. The need to place the polies not just so they fit together and cover the board but also have the little pictures on each of them match up in prescribed patterns is tricky and engrossing.
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A fully developed mining colony. Rare in my experience.

The game has good flow. One of my favorite things about it is its quick start that gets you to the meat of matter quickly. The first round goes by in a flash as you take and (probably) place one tile. Likewise a couple of resources, about which there will be very few options to slow you down. Once you’re into the second round, though, you are already into much more complex decision space, and it really only gets more complicated from there. The game slows down in the most decision-y and delightful way as your base becomes occupied with buildings, structures, and resources and you need to find a way to work the polyomino tiles into the dwindling available space while planning out where your required crystals, workers, spaceships, and empty spaces will be to build the needed structures. You can plan ahead and hope for the right resources in coming rounds, but you have a very finite staging area where you can store meeples and crystals from one round to the next: they either get placed on your board (and can never be moved), fit in the tight storage space, or your best bet is to sell them for credits. This all adds a lot of weight to your decisions that will impact the rest of the game and the success or failure of your base.

Most of the time spent in each round is in your own decision making time, which I like. The stuff you have to do to advance the game doesn’t take too much time away from the enjoyable part, and the rounds flow together nicely because you spend really no time on superfluous fiddling with all the components. Game time is spent in the decisions, not in maintaining the game.

Zorlord, meanwhile, merely collects resources. You can trade resources with him if he gets his hands on something you need (and he will), but it will cost you a credit. He also takes tiles from the resource area. You cannot trade for these, but his taking them changes the tiles that are available for the human player from one round to the next.

Initially I struggled a bit with stacking the tiles in their designated spaces on the game board during set up. Placement is putsy and the piles precarious, sometimes getting knocked over during the game.
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The Stacks

It is possible to do away with the board all together. Next to them on the board are four areas where multiple players would place the resources indicated on each resource card. This is to have all the resources central where the players can see them all before taking from one area. In solo world, this isn’t necessary. It’s enough for me that I can see the resources pictured on the resource card, where their respective areas are also indicated. There’s no need for a solo player to move the resources bit by bit from the supply to the board only to move them to my supply and Zorlord’s supply literally seconds later...ten times throughout the course of a game. (At one point in his solo walkthrough, even Dr. Finn edits this step out of the video.)
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The full board. Note the resources in their zones duplicate what is shown on the resource card.

Once I realized I didn’t need the two-thirds of the board reserved for resources, I figured I also didn’t need the one-third where the tiles are precariously stacked. Now I sometimes keep tiles piled on the table but spaced further apart then they would be on the board, making them less likely to be knocked over. A simple unstacked pile eliminates the most fiddly and time-consuming part of set up.

That said, honestly, I sometimes use the board anyway. I like how a gameboard creates a sense of place. But tile stacking, set up, and storage could all be improved. As an alternative, BGG user
GamerCoon (^X^)
United States
Oregon
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made a perfect 3D printed insert and tray that solves it all.

Replayability
Replayability gets talked about a lot on BGG. I always think every game has as much replayability as you get enjoyment out of playing the game. I’ve played Mining Colony 11 times and I’m not done by far because I like it. But I will speak of variability which is what I think many people mean by replayability. Mining Colony has some variability built in.

goo Solo mode has four different difficulty levels (and the instructions suggest another tweak you can make for three more intermediate levels, really making seven levels in all).

goo The pictures printed on the polyominos are all different and there are more than enough of them to get through a game, so with proper shuffling that’s going to make every game play differently.

goo Player boards are double sided, offering two different beginning configurations for your mining colony at the start of the game.

On the other hand, there are only ten resources cards for exactly the ten rounds of the game. They’ll appear in a different order each time you play but you will see the same 10 sets of resources every game. Now I’m not likely to memorize them, though it’s certainly possible to do so and then be able to predict what cards are coming next with increasing accuracy as the game goes on. This is why games like Love Letter and Silver & Gold contain more cards then they use in each game: blindly discarding even one means players never know what cards are in the game and thus can't reliably predict what's coming. Including fifteen cards to be shuffled with five randomly discarded each game could have varied things up a bit. This would also create an impression of variability--or variabilitiness--that might be more important than the actual (minimal) amount of variability it would create. Like I said, I'm not the person who will invest any time in memorizing the ten cards, yet even I noticed I was seeing the same ten cards over and over. Even though I could never tell them apart, shuffling in a few others to blindly discard before each game would have created a satisfying sense of variation, even if in reality I knew it wasn't much variation at all. And I think replayability qua variation matters enough to people that this would have been a good and inexpensive addition.

Also, and more significantly, some objectives could have easily been used to add some variability. It wouldn't be fair of me to call out all the things a game designer could have added in to his small, packed box. But in this case the small box actually comes with objective cards that are only used in the multi-player version, available to be added into the solo mode but ignored. (The copy I have is the Kickstarter edition, but the objective cards also come in the box in the version being sold on Dr. Finn's Games' website.) In the multi-player version of this solo game (see what I did there?) three objective cards are chosen from the nine included. They add additional requirements of differing difficulties for resource placement on the tiles. Players who accomplish them score victory points, which solo mode is mercifully free of, but the same objectives could have been used in solo mode and awarded resources. I plan to use them as “special projects” I've been tasked to work on as part of my mining colony job and for which I am rewarded with credits.
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Oddly almost artless objectives. The backs are completely black.

One final thing about Zorlord which is entirely my personal preference and I can’t actually count it against the game. I’m kind of a sucker for theme and story and there was room to build up the AI thematically. What we are given in the instructions is “an imaginary player named Zorlord.” When I play against players they have names like Steve and Finn and Susan, so I assumed a player named "Zorlord" was a fictitious character in the game’s alien world. A martian identity could have been woven into every mechanic in the solo mode. Zorlord could have been an inhabitant of the planet defending his orb from invaders, in which case he has no need to build a mining colony of his own. Following the mechanics of the AI, an alien Zorlord could steal (or protect) resources in the excavation zones rather then the purely mechanical AI gathering resources simply to stymie the human player. The player could at times raid Zorlord’s camp at a cost to steal those resources back. I'm always a little amazed at how much opportunity designers have to weave in theme, and then they don't do it. But seriously that’s just me. I like a good story.

So in the end…

1 Smooth, solid easy AI
2 Easy to learn and play
3 Smooth gameplay that is mechanically solid and pleasing
4 Quick to set up
5 Lots of good decision making depth that belies its simplicity
6 The easy level is nicely challenging, then it gets harder
61 Lovely production in a compact box. This definitely makes the cut for the The Suitcase: Solo Games I Will Travel With...Someday

All in all I think Mining Colony is great for a 15-20 minute light but thinky solo puzzle, including set up time. It's not a large, complex, immersive endeavor, but the thought it takes and all the components involved make it feel closer to the experience of a larger game than it is. It's a game I pretty much always play twice when I take it out and I'll be taking it out plenty more times I'm sure.
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