This review originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Gamers Alliance Report. It has received minor editing for BGG.
Also - please note that the pictures included are from BGG; my photography skills can't generate such nice pictures.
Designed by Fabrice Besson and published by Asmodee and Matagot
Setting up as a new publisher in the boardgame world is a tricky business. It’s certainly more accessible than setting up in some other industries – imagine the cost to set up as a new car manufacturer, for instance – but until a publisher has a selection of games to sell – and a reasonable level of demand for those games – a new publisher faces an uphill battle. To drive that demand, publishers work hard to find new and innovative, but still accessible, designs. When it works – Ystari's initial offering of Ys and follow-up of Caylus being an ideal example – a publisher gains the flexibility to take chances on more daring designs and the influence to build productive licensing relationships with publishers in other countries.
But far more common is the experience of Matagot. They arrived on the scene in 2006 with the release of Khronos, a well produced game with some supporters but overall a mixed response. This was followed in 2007 by Utopia, which again drew some acclaim for the production values – but the reaction to the game was again mixed, perhaps a little less positive than with Khronos. So the release of Giants at Essen in 2008 was not heavily anticipated, perhaps, but still on the radar of Essen attendees.
Those who investigated the game discovered yet another game themed around Easter Island, which might have the greatest ratio of game designs to people of anywhere on Earth. Here players are carving Moai, and then transporting them to the edges of the island, with the most points earned by carrying the largest Moai to the furthest points of the island. This scoring is complemented by that for sculpting and placing headdresses for the Moai; they come from the other end of the island, and so the scoring is roughly reversed.
Giants is played over a number of rounds, each consisting of five phases. Before the game begins, players receive 2 tribe markers, 1 worker, 1 sorcerer, and 1 chief. In the first phase, a number of Moai are made available for auction. In the second phase, these Moai are bid upon by the players using tribe markers. To claim a Moai, a player must not only make the highest bid, but must also supply enough workers to carve the Moai desired. A single worker can carve a small Moai, two workers can carve a medium Moai, and three workers can carve a large Moai, while a chief can carve any size Moai.
The third phase is where most of the action in the game takes place. Players take turns, executing one action at a time, until all players pass. There are four options for actions. Any person – worker, sorcerer, or chief – may be placed on the board; these pieces will be available for transporting Moai in the next phase. The second option is to execute a sorcerer action – a sorcerer may acquire an additional worker at the village, acquire an additional tribe marker at the sorcerer’s hut, acquire wood in the forest, reserve an Ahu – the spaces where the Moai are to be built, or sculpt a headdress. Another option is to acquire half of a Rongo tablet by displaying a tribe marker. When a full tablet is acquired, a fourth option becomes available - by turning in a complete tablet, the chief may be used for any sorcerer action. Players continue choosing actions, one at a time, until they pass; once all players have passed, this phase is complete.
The fourth phase is the transportation phase. One at a time, players move Moai or headdresses; they can be moved using any player’s pieces. When another player’s workers are used, that player receives one victory point for each worker used. If a Moai is moved all the way to the coast, it can be built immediately on a player’s base. Otherwise, a tribe marker must be placed upon it, or another player can claim it in the next round. The same rules apply to headdresses, but they must be brought to a built Moai – perhaps even one completed in the same phase – to avoid the need for a tribe marker. Finally, in the fifth phase the board is cleaned off for the next round. If any player has placed Moai on all of her bases, then the game is over. Only Moai on bases and headdresses on Moai now score. Headdresses score based upon their location, while Moai scored based upon their size and location. Whoever has earned the most victory points wins.
There are a lot of things to dislike about Giants. First, there are rules issues; the published rules state that 3 victory points are awarded for each complete Rongo tablet, which is far too many; the latest rules provide for no victory points. Personally, I find that 1 victory point is about right – it provides sufficient use for tribe markers, without making the collection of the available Rongo tablets too high a priority. The rules also specify hidden scoring. While there are games where scoring is complex enough to make it difficult to keep track of, here there’s a very limited amount of information that needs be tracked to calculate the exact scores, and further this information needs to be tracked anyway to avoid putting a headdress on the wrong Moai. A variant is offered in the rules to solve this issue, and I would definitely recommend using it.
Further, the game tends to be long for what it is. There’s a fix for this noted in the rules, too – hidden in the game preparation is a suggestion of starting each player with two workers, which again I would strongly recommend. But perhaps the biggest problem with the game is that the very nice production is compromised by pieces that don’t fit together effectively. Tribe markers don’t fit securely on either Moai or headdresses, and headdresses don’t fit securely on Moai, making it very easy to knock things over and upset the game state. Adding all of these issues up, Giants has a lot going against it. (It's possible that this last issue has since been resolved.)
However – Giants also manages to make shared delivery work in a way I’ve never seen it done before. I first became attracted to this concept in Lancashire Railways, the earliest game I played which offers an interesting attempt at allowing players to work toward mutually beneficial route building. But the advantage to the player whose routes were utilized was too large, and the series was developed in a way that emphasized other elements of the system. The next game to explore shared delivery in a way I found appealing was Canal Mania, which I greatly enjoy – but which still tends to utilize shared delivery as a secondary aspect. In Giants, shared delivery is a key element of the game – and, to make it even more interesting, the routes are rebuilt fresh every turn. This mechanism is an amazing discovery, but it also fits very effectively within the remainder of the game. The key is that players are given victory points from the bank, rather than from another player, making the advantage of utilizing other player’s workers greater than the tendency towards greed.
While Giants is not a complex game, it does have a fair number of rules, and as a result tends to take a while to get started. The theme works quite well within the structure of the game, which does help to cut down on rule issues once the game has started. In particular, the slow but certain destruction of the forest, the exceptional (if not fully functional) pieces, and the mechanisms of moving the Moai do a very good job in evoking the theme. The brief history of Easter Island provided in the rules is also very welcome. And with some points awarded for Rongo tablets, there are plenty of viable choices for scoring, and thus good choices to make during the game.
Upon first play, Giants was my second favorite of the Essen 2008 releases, behind Le Havre. While it didn’t slip much, other games – Planet Steam in particular – passed it. In the end it lasted four plays for me; I'd still be willing to play it, but I let it go in 2010 and haven't missed it. The shared delivery was _so_ well done that I wanted to enjoy the game as a whole more; I’ve described the game as the one I wanted Age of Steam to be, for this reason, but in the end Canal Mania fills that role significantly better for me.
For the reasons enumerated above, it's hard to recommend the game without reservation. For many, this is a game to try before you buy. But the shared delivery aspect of Giants helps the game overcome its flaws and, if the shared delivery aspect appeals to you, I would definitely recommend it.
DNA results:Scottish, Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Iberian Peninsula = 100% American!
Very capable review. I love this game for the neat mechanic you mention of the "shared delivery" which you do not find in most other games. One thing you don't emphasize is the amazing quality of the bits. And I think the theme of the forced coop is true to the historical setting. But it is a gamer's game, because of the planning involved in transportation, since you are including other player's workers. Excellent game.