Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Fine Sand: Solo campaign – first impressions (updated after the full 10-game campaign)

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I’m back home after two days of the chaotic madness that is called Spiel (or Essen). The games/expansions that I was looking forward to the most were: Reykholt, Fine Sand, and Nusfjord: Plaice Deck.

I basically knew nothing about Fine Sand apart from thinking that it’s the first game in Friedemann Friese’s Fable series that is solo playable. I’m very interested in trying it out, because the series’ concept of a campaign where the game evolves from play to play.

Also, after last year’s Spiel Friedemann’s game Fast Forward: Flee (the first solo playable game in his Fast Forward series) was the most interesting one that I bought because it does some things that I hadn’t seen in a game before and like Fine Sand it has an evolving campaign system, which was fun to play and explore.

Board Game: Fine Sand

Image credit: 2F Spiele

Before playing

I’m writing this before having played the game.

The game

Fine Sand is a game about building sand castles.

The rulebook was nicely laid out with good diagrams that communicated the game well. There were however a few places in the rulebook that had me scratch my head. There’s for example a section about the game’s coin system where there was a situation described that I simply can’t see how can occur. I read, reread, rereread, etc. with figuring it out and ended up chalking it up to something that’d come up as the campaign added new stuff.

If that’s the case, though, I think that should have been noted to avoid the player being confused. The explanation could of course also be me misunderstanding rule or it just being badly phrased [added note after two plays: I still don’t understand it], [added note after rereading a couple of times more: I now understand the rule].

Another head-scratcher was a diagram saying that you use a specific action at any time between steps 1 and 3 (i.e. at different points in step 2), while the rules themselves state that you usually do it between those two steps. So, can you do it outside of the interval between the two steps or not? I don’t know.

The game itself looks simple:
1) Draw cards.
2) Either build a card or draw more cards.
3) discard down to your hand limit.

In addition, there’s the optional step whose timing I can’t figure out.

The cards you build increase the number of cards you draw, the number of cards you can build, the number of extra cards you can draw, or the number of cards you can have in your hand at the end of the turn.

In addition, there are sandcastles you can build, which have no effect except getting them out of your deck, and there are coin cards that helps you pay to build cards (otherwise you pay for them with cards from your hand).

You must get rid of your cards to end the game. In the solo mode you have a counter and the goal is to end the game as quickly as possible, which is one of the major factors in determining your score.

After each game, three cards from a “Fable” deck replace three cards already in the deck and then you play the next game with the updated deck.

There’s an interesting looking scoring system that can also make you lose the campaign.

Thoughts after reading the rulebook

First, I was not impressed with the unclarities in a rulebook for such a simple game, but as said it might just be me being stupid.

Second, the initial play(s) seems too simple to be fun and to me looks more like a slow and complicated setup for the real plays that will happen later in the campaign, when the hopefully more interesting Fable cards will make up a significant fraction of the games.

Third, it made me sad to see that apparently there was no way for you to make choices in one play that to affect future plays (apart from the end of game scoring/lose-the-campaign mechanism). Fast Forward: Flee has a mechanism for this that gives interesting decisions that has significant impact on your current play and the ones following that, which to me was an integral part of the game.

Fourth, gameplaywise it looks like an engine builder with deck thinning.

Forming an opinion about a game based only on the rulebook often makes you look stupid , so we’ll see whether I end up looking stupid or whether I get my worry about the initial plays confirmed.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Thoughts after the first play

OK, first play completed.

Getting it set up including punching player mats, unwrapping card decks, and separating the multiplayer components out + putting them into baggies that’ll make setup for multiplayer a breeze, took 8 minutes, which in my book is superfast.

The turns were smooth and fast and after setting up I only looked up a few rules and that was mainly to confirm that I remembered a rule correctly.

Playing the game took about 20 minutes this would have been faster had I played better. End scoring took 2 minutes. Both of these could become faster the next time I play because I now know the rules and strategy better.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: I played terribly and I now know how to do better next time. The fact that this happened shows that there’s actually more strategy to the game than I would have thought.

I had fun, while playing, more than I expected, but I stand by my statement that the initial game(s) look too simple and seem more like a slow way to do the setup needed to play the later games in the campaign. This will be worsened by the fact that the two game decks are setup the same at the beginning of each campaign.

That said, I’m still open to the possibility that I’m wrong about this and that the issue won’t be bad until the second playthrough of the campaign.

Thoughts after the second play

Setup for the second play took 3 minutes. Playing plus scoring took 25 minutes. Which unexpectedly is slightly higher than in the first game. A small part of this is due to more strategic choices, both because I now understand the game better and because of the 3 fable cards added for the 2nd play. The major part, though, is that there were two rules I was in doubt about. One related to scoring and another was whether I can use the icons on cards I activate in an order of my choosing, in the order in the stack, or in order by type (if so which).

Again, I had more fun than expected and the turns flew by, but it stills feels that the game will be a bit too simple when starting a new campaign.

Final thoughts

Playing the first two games of a 10-game campaign with gradually increasing complexity isn’t good for anything but early impressions, so that’s what this is: Early impressions based on a subset of the game.

The good:
- The game is smooth and fast.
- The game has tension because of the timer system.
- I had fun, more than I thought before my first play.
- The campaign system will increase the replayability of the game.

The bad:
- Multiple times I was in doubt about whether I had updated the timer mechanism and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to verify.
- The game seems too simple initially and ramps slowly, which makes me worry about the longevity of the game.
- The game doesn’t really seem to be about building sandcastles, they’re more like a small annoyance that gets in the way of your engine building.

The ugly:
- I had way too many doubts about the rules given how simple the game is. Let me reiterate, though, that it could be me not the rulebook that’s to blame for this.

Update after games 3-5

I have now played the first 5 (out of 10) games in the campaign.

As expected the game has become more interesting and varied. The fable cards have interesting impacts on your strategy. This helps prevent the game from going stale, which the simple core system could easily become.

I’ll play armchair quarterback and say that I think that this game would have been better for me as a core gamer if it had started out with a few Fable cards in the deck and maybe replaced 4 cards instead of 3 in each Fable step. For non-gamers or casual gamers there’s less of an issue here.

That said, I know from experience that when someone who has played a game a few times is sure that he has a way to improve the game, then that “improvement” is often something that the designer has already tried and rejected, because it didn’t work. So, keep that in mind when reading my suggested improvement.

It can matter a lot which cards are removed during the Fable step at the beginning of each game beyond the first. This is a good thing, because it will make each playthrough of the campaign different from the others and it increases the number of strategic options significantly. The latter can be counteracted somewhat depending on which cards are removed in the Fable step which replaces 3 cards semi-randomly from your deck with 3 new ones. (To those who have played the game, I lost the cheapest green card and the 3-coin, which makes a green card and/or expensive card strategy less viable).

Regarding the rule issues that I’ve talked about, I’ll add that a couple of them were misreadings on my part, but that still leaves 4 that needed/still needs clarification for me.

Wrapping this up, I’ve asked myself some questions:
1) Will I finish the campaign: Yes.
2) Do I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth: Yes, I think so (can’t remember what I paid ).
3) Would I rebuy the game if I lost it after completing the campaign? Probably not.
4) Would I rebuy the game if I lost it right now? I probably would.

Update after game 6

A brief update after game 6.

Bad: I feel locked into a specific and lesser strategy for the first half or more of the game because of cards that I've lost in the Fable steps of the campaign. This is something that the player has zero influence on, so it's slightly frustrating. I'm definitely open to that it could just be me playing badly.

Short spoiler explanation (I think it only spoils one Fable card added at the beginning of game 2):

Spoiler (click to reveal)
I've lost the 3-coin card as well as a 2-coin card, the 1-coin card that doesn't count towards the hand limit, and the cost 6 green card for increasing the number of cards you gain in step 1.

This means that it becomes really hard to buy anything beyond cost 5-6 cards for a long time, which seriously hampers the strategic options and the chance of doing well.

When I finally get to the point where I can afford expensive cards, most of them no longer has a reasonable cost/benefit ratio because they'll be activated so few times.

Good: One of the Fable cards added in game 6 is of a kind that could sort of work in solo, but badly so. This card has a special rule that changes it to work really well. Kudos to 2F Spiele for doing this where many other companies ignore such situations and leaves solo gamers with a lesser game - Tiny Epic Galaxies and Mint Works, I'm looking at you .

Update after games 7-10

I have now played the last 4 games of the campaign and the first of them added cards that did a lot to alleviate my criticism about being forced to play a specific not so good strategy because random chance had removed an unfortunate combination of cards from the deck.

This significantly improved the experience for me as did some of the other cards added in the last plays, since they opened up more strategic options.

That said, the game got back to being a bit too samey and I have a hard time seeing myself getting it back to the table any time soon and I'm not going to take it to a game night. So, at roughly 5 hours of playtime for a MSRP of $45 I don't feel like I've gotten my money's worth. Had playing it been super fun I would have felt differently, but it didn't reach those levels for me.

I might try to play the game with my family. That might work better and that's probably my (subjective) conclusion to all this: Fine Sand is not really a gamer's game, it's a family game.

So, if you're looking for a simple engine builder with no downtime and a campaign that generates a multi-session shared experience, then Fine Sand could fit the bill.

But if you're like me and want to play solo, then Fast Forward: Flee by the same designer is a much better game: It shares the same idea of a campaign that gradually reveals game elements, but implements it in ways that are more interesting to play (and to study from a game design perspective) - and it's less than half the price.
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