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Subject: Timing is everything -- A review of Spyrium rss

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Matthew S.
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Spyrium is a worker placement engine-building game that is noteworthy for packing a large number of strategic choices into a small number of turns. This might be the only game I have ever played that has caused me to say, “Man, I wish that game had lasted longer.” That's not a criticism; the game's extraordinary tightness is a strength. Players accustomed to worker placement games that allow them to carefully develop a strategy over the course of 2-3 hours are going to be in for a surprise, however.

There are several different ways to score victory points in the course of the game's six turns. Strategic flexibility is a must, particularly in the early turns, because it is essentially impossible to guarantee yourself the ability to follow through on any one particular strategy. (Spyrium plays 2-5, but I think it is best with 3 or 4. With 2, the opportunities to exploit the game's principal mechanic – about which more in a moment – are too limited; with 5 things are so chaotic it's difficult to strategize at all.)

Workers can earn VP by visiting certain people cards on the board, or by working in factories, laboratories, or university cards that have already been purchased into a player's tableau. Some buildings provide a fixed number of VP at game end. Patents, meanwhile, provide both a bonus effect during game play and a variable number of VP at game end. (Patents with stronger in-game bonuses tend to be less valuable at game end, and vice versa, although I think the Crane is is fairly strong both during and after the game.) Whenever a card with the residence symbol is activated, a player also faces a difficult choice between increasing their income in future turns or receiving VP equal to their current income.


Examples of buildings. Some buildings provide resources such as a higher income or additional worker immediately upon purchase, while others allow a player to employ workers in them to gain spyrium crystals or VP during the activation phase.


Examples of patents. Most patents either reduce the cost of an action or increase the number of spyrium crystals or VP that gained from one's buildings.


Examples of people. People with token symbols on them can only be visited a limited number of times (1 less than the number of players); other people can be called upon without limit, making them the only kind of card that is a sure bet for an adjacent worker.

The board of Spyrium is made of of cards from 3 progressively more powerful decks that represent the progress of players from humble startup to industrial magnate. Each game of Spyrium will be slightly different, as only 27 of 30 cards in deck A and 18 of 20 cards in deck B will appear in a game (all 9 cards in deck C always appear in the sixth turn). There are 7 event cards, 1 of which will not occur during the six turns of any given game.


Examples of events

Whereas a typical worker placement game employs scarce, exclusive slots to force difficult tactical choices, Spyrium instead relies on the finesse of timing. Players may place a worker between the same cards as other workers already placed, but choose when to switch from placing workers to activating them, and waiting too long can see the card you were looking for purchased out from under you. Meanwhile, the cost buy a card is increased by 1 for each additional worker adjacent to it. On the other hand, in this game of extremely scare money, one can also forgo purchase and instead pull a worker to receive 1 additional income for each other worker around the same card.


A 2-player game in progress. Here you can see players employing two very different strategies. One has acquired the maximum number of workers, in order to better exploit people on the board, while the other has specialized in efficient mining to maximize VP from spyrium processing.

Turn order passes clockwise from player to player each turn, rather than being bid on or depending on a particular slot on the board. Unlike a typical worker placement, being earlier in player order is not an unambiguous advantage. On the one hand, it increases the chances that one will be able to switch to the activation phase first and grab a valuable card. On the other hand, because slots are not exclusive, placing a worker first provides valuable information about your strategy that can still be exploited by subsequent players. You can really ruin someone's day by placing a worker that causes a needed card to cost 1 more pound than they have available, even if they placed their worker first. I won't come out and say that this is unambiguously superior to more typical mechanisms, but is it is definitely a nice change of pace (in both senses of the phrase).

Spyrium's mechanics, with the implied supply-and-demand curves, tie in well to an economic theme. Need this have been a steampunk theme specifically? No, it would have been just as well-integrated as a historical game about the industrial revolution. As a gamer for whom visuals are important and who is extremely fond of science fiction and fantasy, though, I am far more pleased with this choice of theme. My only complaint is that, presumably for language-independence, the names of the cards, which are all listed in the rulebook, are not actually printed on the cards themselves. Anyone playing this for the first time is going to have to consult the rulebook repeatedly to fully understand the thematic relevance of many cards.

I paid about $20 for a new copy of Spyrium. This is not the cheapest game I've ever bought, but it contains both more tactical and strategic depth and more actual game components than most other games at a similar price point. It is now one of my favorite games, and I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys medium-weight Eurogames.

(Link to my other reviews)
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Fernando Robert Yu
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This is indeed a great game in a little box
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