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One of my favorite internet browsing stops is Board 2 Pieces, one of the very few online comics that has to do with board games. The author, Ted Alspach, is an all around excellent person to converse with about games, and I was pleased to see one of his designs picked up and published. Seismic (Atlas Games, 2006 - Ted Alspach) is certainly an interesting theme - that of the earthquakes around a fault line in San Andreas. Upon first glance over the rules, it looked similar to Carcassonne but with hexes. If this was the case, I thought, why get it?
And, indeed, the game plays like a faster, easier form of Carcasonne with only the roads. Except that there are hexes. And quakes. And no farmers. You know, the games aren't that similar after all! I will say that I enjoy Seismic as a fun little filler. It is possible for a player to sit there and overanalyze the board, spending a long time on their turn; but I feel that ruins the game's charm. It's neat how it can be played in a short period of time, and watching the growing networks (with the present danger of earthquakes causing tension) is rather fascinating. On a light level, Seismic really works well.
The hex containing San Andreas is placed in the middle of the board, with the remainder of the hexes being shuffled. There are six "quake" tiles, numbered from "1" to "6". These are mixed with six normal tiles, and then six of these twelve mixed tiles are removed from the game, with the remaining six mixed into the other fifty-four tiles. Each player takes a pile of wooden cubes in their color - their road workers. The top two tiles are turned face up next to the board, and one player (sitting closest to a solid doorframe - although I would imagine that Ted would want players to use his custom Start Player) goes first, with play proceeding clockwise.
On a turn, a player flips over another tile so that three are face up on the table. That player may then choose one of these tiles and place it on the board, connecting to any tile already there. Each tile has one to three roads on it, connecting in different combinations from the six edges of the hex. Some tiles have an intersection in the middle of the tile, with a certain amount of points on it. After placing the tile, players may place one of their road workers on one of the roads that has at least one section on the tile placed, as long as no other workers are already on that road at any point.
Tiles must be placed so that they extend one of the highways on the table; and if none of the three face-up tiles can be placed, they are discarded and three new ones drawn. When a quake tile is revealed at the beginning of a player's turn, an earthquake occurs. Starting with the San Andreas tile, each of the six lines of tiles that extend directly from it are examined. The line that has the most tiles (in case of ties, the drawing player chooses) has an amount of tiles removed from the game equal to the number of the quake, starting with the tile closest to San Andreas. Any road workers that are caught in the quake are returned to their owners. Another tile is flipped over to replace the quake tile, and the game continues.
When the last tile has been placed, or there are no incomplete highway sections left (unlikely), the game ends. All players must remove their highway workers from any "uncompleted" roads - ones that do not have both ends in San Andreas and/or an intersection (the same spot can be at both ends). The remainder of the roads are scored. Each highway is worth the sum of the numbers on both intersections, as well as one point for each highway section. If more than one player has road workers on the same road (due to clever placement of the tiles, joining existing roads together), then the player with the most markers score the points, with ties giving all the points to all involved players. The player with the most points is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The hexagonal tiles, which are almost identical in size to the Settlers of Catan hexes, fit together well and are functional, if a little bland. In fact, I wondered why there wasn't any variance in how the roads looked, or some background scenery? - It would have added to the theme. And the cubes, while they worked fine, were awfully small - with the pink ones looking like cubed ham. Still, these are only minor annoyances I had, and everything really was fairly good quality, in a nice sturdy box with humorous (in a twisted way) artwork.
2.) Rules: The rules are on a single page (there is a four page rulebook with four different languages) and very clearly explain the game. They are formatted slightly poorly, with small print, and only two illustrations, but I still had no problem understanding and explaining the game. People easily picked it up; as connecting roads to each other is an intuitive action and rather easy, since roads are the only things people are dealing with.
3.) Carcassonne: One must be careful when mentally comparing games, but I have yet to show Seismic to someone who hasn't thought of Carcassonne (and has played both games). At first blush, Seismic may appear to be a simpler version of Carcassonne that only includes the roads; and while that's partially the truth, Seismic is different enough in its own right to warrant playing. It has hexagons rather than squares, there are earthquakes which destroy tiles, and incompleted roads score nothing at the end of the game. It's faster than Carcassonne, but I would hesitate to call it better - it's simply different.
4.) Earthquakes: The theme of the game is what is likely to attract people (disasters always do), and the earthquakes in this game can often be rather devastating to a player. I suppose it's possible for a game to have no earthquakes (the odds are staggeringly against it), although games can have several large earthquakes or only a few minor ones. What makes the game interesting is that while there are only six lines of tiles that are affected by earthquakes, there is the possibility to wreak great havoc regardless. In the games I've played, the winner often could contribute their victory to a swing in fortune due to an earthquake. Sometimes a long, lucrative road is broken up, and another piece that fits the spot of the devastated tiles never shows up again. Other times a road worker is destroyed, and another player gets to swoop in and snag the road for themselves. One could attempt to build tiles and place road workers in such a fashion as to avoid all possibilities of earthquakes, but that's practically impossible and rather futile if you're trying to win the game at all.
5.) Time and Fun Factor: Seismic can easily be played in thirty minutes to forty-five minutes. I have played it with folks who tend to take a long time on their turn, and I think that could have a ruining effect upon the game. It seems to be best played as a "filler", in which players quickly place one of the three face up tiles, then the next player, etc. (side note: I don't like when all three face up tiles are the same; it happened to me five times in one game) As long as everyone is playing with an attitude that the game is "light", I think Seismic will remain enjoyable.
6.) Variants: The rules list four variants, three of which are quite interesting (the fourth requires a second game of Seismic - yeah, right!). One ensures that the level "6" quake is always in the game and places it near the bottom, which avoids the anticlimactic large quake on the second turn of the game. Another allows players to place two tiles rather than a tile and a road worker. After my game with three of the same tiles to choose from, I always play with this option now. The third option, and quite possibly the most interesting, allows all players to legally rotate one hex after an earthquake. Talk about a changing board! I personally like all three of these variants and will use them in my games.
Seismic is not "Carcassonne with earthquakes", although that descriptor will give you a feel for what the game entails. It's a good light game and allows players to control a spaghetti-like network of roads. The earthquakes themselves add a level of tension to the game, as players worry that they'll hit their roads; and the game is usually fairly competitive down to the end. A nice design by Mr. Alspach!
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