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W. Eric Martin
Plan B Games came to be following Asmodee's purchase of most of F2Z Entertainment. In addition to holding onto the Pretzel Games portion of the F2Z business, former F2Z owner Sophie Gravel kept one title previously announced as a Z-Man Games release — Caravan by Emerson Matsuuchi — and with this title she's launched a new game publishing company that will see its first release hit the market in Germany in March 2017.
When first announced in early 2016 as a Z-Man Games release, Caravan was presented as a publishing experiment. The game would be released in two versions — one set during the time of the spice trade in the 1400s and 1500s, while the other would have a fantasy setting — but the gameplay in each version would be identical. Z-Man Games had already released Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 with two different covers, but otherwise identical contents, and now gamers would be presented with a pair of separated-at-birth twins instead of identical siblings and be able to vote with their dollars as to which one they preferred.
However, as Gravel told me at Spielwarenmesse 2017, when Z-Man presented this publishing experiment to their licensing partners, no one else wanted to participate, with each partner wanting only one version, almost exclusively the spice road setting.
Gravel says that following this feedback from their partners, Matsuuchi and the developers started playing with the design to think about other ways of having a "similar but different" approach, and over time they developed a trilogy of titles in which the gameplay would be similar in all of them with trading at the core, but with some differences across the three games. Each title would each be playable on its own, but they could also be combined to splice the different elements into each game. (The only hints that Gravel would give right now is that Century: Spice Road, the first release, will most resemble the original design, while Century: Eastern Wonders (set in the 1600s and due mid-2018) would include a game board and Century: A New World (due mid-2019) would allow players to trade with Native Americans in the 1700s.)
In many ways, Century: Spice Road resembles the streamlined, quick-play nature of Marc André's Splendor, which debuted in 2014. In both games, players start with very little and accrete tiny actions over many turns into a robust engine that ideally propels them to wealth.
More specifically, in Century: Spice Road you start with only two cards in hand: one card that grants you two cubes of ginger when played (with the cubes being placed in a storage cart that holds at most ten cubes) and another card that allows you to upgrade two spices by one level each or one spice by two levels. On the table before you lie bowls of four spices — ginger, saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon — along with two rows of cards; the top row consists of order cards that you can purchase with spices to earn points, while the bottom row has spice cards that you can "purchase" and place in your hand for later use. On a turn, you take one of four actions:
• Play a card and take the action on it, either earning spices from the reserves or trading spices you already hold for different spices; when you trade, you can trade multiple times as long as you have the goods.
• Pick up a spice card, paying nothing for the card on the left and placing one cube on each card you pass over should you take a card from elsewhere in the row; when someone takes a card with cubes on it, they place those cubes in their cart.
• Pay spices to the reserves to fulfill an order card, earning a bonus coin worth 3 or 1 points if the card is leftmost or second leftmost in the row.
• Pick up all of the cards you've played.
That's it! The game consists of tiny actions that vanish instantly like potato chips at a summer picnic, but as you start piling them up, you find them turning into something larger and tastier, with combos developing organically (or not) as you add spice cards to your hand. You grab three ginger, then upgrade two ginger to two cardamom, then trade one cardamom for two saffron and a ginger, leaving you two (better) cubes up in the process. I'm not sure how these fool traders stay in business, but that's their concern, not mine.
Set-up for the first turn
If you want a shorthand description, Century: Spice Road is a hand-building game along the lines of a more straightforward Concordia. You want to collect cards that all work well together, then chain them to get the most out of your tiny actions, with each turn spent picking up cards feeling like a lost opportunity, a pause in the momentum before you hit the trading stalls once again.
Aside from Splendor, the other influence evident to me is Sid Sackson's Bazaar, which also uses the design chestnut of trading stuff for other stuff in order to buy cards, but in each game of Bazaar, you lay out two cards showing a number of bidirectional trading equations, and all the players use these equations in order to swap two As and a B for a C and a D. In Century: Spice Road, you're solely responsible for the cards you put into your own hand, and if you can't make efficient trades, well, you have only yourself to blame.
Century: Spice Road debuts in Germany in order to be available for consideration by the Spiel des Jahres jury, then Plan B Games will have soft releases of the game at a few conventions, such as the Festival del Gioco in Modena, Italy in April 2017, before its U.S. launch on June 14, 2017 at the Origins Game Fair. (Note that the playmat shown in these images won't be included in the box, but is instead a bonus item for those who preorder the title from Plan B Games. The plastic spice cups, on the other hand, are included in the box.)