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You know, when I step away from Wayfinder (Funagain Games, 2006 - Benjamin Corlis), I see a game that on paper I probably shouldn't like. It's a game in which you must look several moves ahead, and one in which strategies aren't immediately obvious. The theme is nonexistent, and the whole gameplay is very abstract - with the strategy bordering on rather heavy - even though it seems simplistic on the onset.
But for some reason it fascinates me, and I find that it is because the sum in this instance is more than the parts. Yes, the components are beautiful, but I've played other beautiful games, and I wasn't as fascinated by many of them. It's hardcore abstract, and you can see moves that you make a few turns ahead of time pay off later. When I win a game, I feel incredibly satisfied, as there is no luck; and while tactics (dealing with what other players do) come into play, long term strategy has its benefits.
A large board is placed on the table, made up of a six by six grid of squares with islands in the background (that have no bearing on gameplay). One jewel (tribesmen) of each of the four colors (green, yellow, blue, and red) is placed on each spot. Each square on the board also has a waypoint on it, marked in one of the four colors. Players each take a piece (Wayfinder) and six huts in their color. One player is chosen to go first and places their Wayfinder on any square on the board, followed clockwise by the other players. Turns happen in the same order.
On a players turn, they pick up all the gems in the space where their Wayfinder resides. They then make a voyage with their Wayfinder, moving in a straight line on the board (one turn is allowed). In each space they stop over, they must place one tribesman on the waypoint there. As long as there are multiple colored tribesmen in the space, a player may place any color gem in the space. If the space is empty, the same thing occurs. However, if there is only one color type of gem in a space, then the player must put a gem of the same color in that space, or they may not move through it. A player must end their voyage by using up all their gems. When encountering an empty space, then may drop off all of their remaining jewels. If a player cannot find a legal move to make, then they must remove their Wayfinder from the board. Either way, the player places their Wayfinder into a new position before the next player takes their turn.
By placing a gem of one color in an empty space, a player starts forming a "village". Once a fifth tribesman of that color is placed in that space, then the village is finished, and a hut of that color is placed in the square, replacing the gems. If the village is the same color as the player placing it, then that player receives twenty-five points; otherwise, they receive five points. The space with the village is not considered an "empty" space and may have gems of other colors placed in it. A player can also do a special "homecoming" move, if they move into a spot that contains only one color, and that color gem is all they have left in their hand, AND the sum of all the gems involved is five or less. They can then drop all the gems in that space.
The game continues until there are no more legal moves for players to make. At this point, final scoring occurs. Players take each square on the board that contains ONLY their color and find the value of it. The space score = (tribesmen + huts + 1 for the same color Waypoint) squared. So if I have a village of my color, plus two of my tribesmen, and the square happens to have the waypoint also in my color, I would score sixteen points for that space. Players add these points to the ones that they've scored during the game, and the player with the most points is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: I would have preferred that Wayfinder came in a box, as it's getting more and more annoying to store tube games on my shelf. And it can be annoying to try to read the rules when they keep rolling up from having been in the tube for a while. Still, the tube does hold all the components well, especially the very striking board, which is essentially a huge mouse pad. The sea and island background really means nothing to the game, but it does add a bit of color to what is essentially an abstract game. The gems are fantastic little plastic jewels that really are fun to move around - my only problem with them was that in poor lighting, the red and orange (yellow) ones were a little difficult to distinguish. The wooden huts and Wayfinder pawns look good on the board, and it really is a beautiful setup - one that will probably be attractive to prospective players.
2.) Rules: The four page rulebook has examples and illustrations, but even still I found the game a bit unintuitive when I first read over them. It wasn't until we were several moves into our first game that everything came together, and folks who are less cerebral than others will have a very difficult time. The absolute abstract nature of the game combined with the high thinking involved means that this is not one that my teenagers would be interested in, although many of the adults I taught it to had few problems.
3.) Speed: For a game that requires such a level of thinking as this one does, I must admit that the rule in which players must place their Wayfinder as quickly as they can when their turn is over a bit confounding. I know that the reason is to keep the game from dragging, but it almost feels at odds with the rest of the game. There is an option for two players that allows players to place their Wayfinder BEFORE their turn, and I actually use that option. Some players really did not enjoy the "put your Wayfinder down now or lose a turn" feature - it really detracted from the game for them. On the other hand, I do realize that Wayfinder is by no means a quick game. It can be played in forty-five minutes; but those forty-five minutes will feel long, because of the thought processes involved.
4.) Mancala: The game will feel similar to Mancala, and I'm sure that classic abstract game had some inspiration upon Wayfinder's design. Here, however, players can move in multiple directions, complicating the game and adding many more choices. Fans of Mancala, however, should probably check it out - it adds more depth yet feels similar enough.
5.) Strategy: I mentioned that I enjoyed Wayfinder because of the rewarding strategy in the game. Much of that has to do with the final scoring. Yes, scoring twenty-five points for finishing your own villages is very rewarding - and finishing someone else's more so - stealing twenty five points from them and getting a few for yourself in the process. But the end of the game can be very interesting, as players position their pieces to score the most points. Leaving a village and three gems in a spot with a Waypoint of your own color can get you a good bonus at the end of the game, and it's one that other players can't "steal" from you. If I put four gems together in a space, it's very easy for another player to drop in and finish the village. But if I only put three, and keep the rest of my gems far away, I'm guaranteed points at the end of the game. Players must always keep an eye out for high scoring opportunities of their opponents, and move their Wayfinder accordingly. When moving the Wayfinder, it will initially appear that a player has almost more options than they can handle, but only a few major choices are really available. What's really important is that moves that a player makes on one turn will have a much more lasting impression on moves they (or another player) make further on in the game. If I move several gems of the same color to one square, I'm setting that square up to be a prime target for a Wayfinder (or a decoy from what I really want to do).
6.) Fun Factor: I thought harder in Wayfinder than I do in most games - harder than most any other abstract (other than that monster Go). Normally, I find this sort of cerebral gymnastics annoying and non-fun. But in Wayfinder, something just clicked for me, and I think it was the satisfaction of seeing everything pay off in final scoring. Wayfinder will have a more limited audience - this isn't something you'll pull out with every group of players, but with a crowd that wants to just brain-burn, it will most likely be a hit.
Determining whether or not you will enjoy Wayfinder is simple - I tell you it's a heavier, thought-heavy abstract. If you like games that require more thought and have no luck, then Wayfinder will be something you enjoy - especially with its absolutely gorgeous components. Fans of themes or lighter games should look elsewhere; as Wayfinder, while perhaps seeming light on the onset, is anything but. I enjoy it - more as an anomaly than it being the kind of game I generally enjoy (or am I changing?) - and am glad to own it but will only pull it out when in need of a thoughtful, strategic game. Fortunately, that happens quite a bit.
"Real men play board games"
I basically agree with your assessment of this game, but perhaps emphasizing that Wayfinder lacks "clarity", as defined by Robert Abbott in an influential essay that can be found here:
I don't think clarity in games is an absolute virtue, although it does make Wayfinder unintuitive, as you noted. Games lacking clarity can still be very absorbing, and I think Wayfinder is one of them.