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Subject: Innovative, Interactive, and Fun - an overlooked gem rss

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Don't Turn Your Back is one of those games I find myself coming back to again and again, because it's simply a genuine joy to play.

A hybrid worker placement/deck builder, it manages to take genres famous for low interaction and make a package that will have you bumping into your friends in the best possible way.

Snapshot:

Plays in 40-60 minutes (+10 for new players)
Best at 3-4
Light weight, but moderate to high strategy
Good match of theme to mechanics
Low luck (Slightly more than Dominion or Splendor, for reference)

Structure and components


Don't Turn Your Back starts with you laying out a board, putting a deck of "laws" out, shuffling your starting deck (8 cards) and your "market" (20 cards), putting your marker on the point tracker, and then drawing your starting hand of 4. It's a very fast setup even for beginning players, since all of the cards are color-coded, and everything is quite intuitive. The decks are small, making shuffling easy, and you know exactly what you will be playing each turn. The game plays comfortably in 60 minutes with four. Add 10-15 minutes for new players unless they're very familiar with worker placement games. Experienced groups can move this down to 40 minutes for most games.

Additionally the decks are colorblind friendly. The teal and blue have proven quite distinguishable, and the orange and gray aren't similar to any of the colors. I like to note these things, and for a game that uses color this is a 10/10 on accessibility. The cards aren't terrible, but you probably want to sleeve them if you play frequently. This has a lot less shuffling than Dominion, so you'll probably get a lot less wear, but it's still a good amount of handling.

Gameplay


Gameplay is simple. The city is divided into five districts, each with their own benefits. Your cards represent your agents in the city. Each one has a value (called "pain") ranging from 1 to 5 (most on the low end), and sometimes a special ability that will activate if they're placed in the Bazaar district. Not everyone can be used everywhere! You'll have to carefully plan how to get what you want each round using what you get. Players place one agent each round until everyone has passed, or all the spaces are full, then resolve the effects of each district (except the Bazaar).

This is reasonably simple gameplay, but it belies the depth of strategy. Each area has its own logic, and its own benefits. You can't win by neglecting an area, but at the same time you want to specialize. How it works is very interesting, as each district gives you very different benefits and demands your attention:

City Slumbering/Wax Kingdom - These are the deckbuilding areas of the game. City Slumbering has 6 spaces, and at the end of the round you can recruit agents from your market based on the pain you place there. Wax kingdom, on the other hand, removes cards from your deck. Cards sent there leave the game, and will contribute to final scoring based on the value of cards remaining in your deck. Using these two is how you improve your deck, acquiring higher value agents and removing low value ones for later benefit. Obviously you need to improve your deck, so neglecting this is a bad idea.

High School - This is a mean high school! You can send your agents there as students. At the end of the round, whichever player has the dominant group (highest pain) scores equal to the pain. Everyone else gets a consolation prize of one point/card. But interestingly the cards here stick around - only a small number are cycled each round. This means getting in early can be very important. There's a way to kick other agents out of the high school so you can't be guaranteed to dominate - but it's not reliable to acquire, so neglecting this is a bad idea.


District 13 - This is the center of law, and as befits the theme the law is whimsical. Each round an "act" will be enacted by flipping the top card of the law deck. Each one will have some benefit for players who play into District 13, doled out at the end of the round. These range from pretty nice to absolutely crucial, but once you seen one it's gone forever. Because you'll only get one shot at many crucial bills neglecting this is a bad idea.

Bazaar - And this is why your agents are cards, not chits with a number on them. In the Bazaar, agents can do special effects - anything from knocking people out of other districts, scoring points, drawing cards, or just defending you from attacks. There's a ton of variety, as more than half of the agents have their own effect and they're very unique. This can be the big moves of the game - but nothing here scores big points on its own. Neglecting this is a bad idea, but so is dumping too many resources into it at the cost of other districts. You can easily end up drawing a bunch of cards, making your opponents discard a card, and having nowhere useful to place.

The Puzzle

Every game (or at least every good one) has a puzzle. Some are simple, some are very complex. In the case of this game, the puzzle is how to use what you're given and acquire to work around your opponents' strategies. Each area of scoring (your deck, the laws, the high school) can be very rewarding, but space is limited and competition is fierce. You have to adapt everything you do to work around other people. You can predict your opponent's strategies and edge them off of key plays, but you need to prioritize your own stuff.

Recommendations

This game plays best with 3 or 4. Two player is significantly less interesting since you can't specialize - you end up fighting your opponent in every district, leading to a back-and-forth feeling that minimizes the interesting puzzle aspects. It's not a bad game at that count, but there's better choices for two player games.

Thoughts

I find myself enjoying non-traditional worker placement games more and more. The mechanic is good, but just putting meeples on a space to get some reward is getting thin. This game shakes it up in a great way. Giving each worker personality and giving you a variable, but predictable stable of workers means that you can't just fall back into old faithful strategies each game. The placement spots are very competitive, and good decisions are rewarded while bad are punished. There's no particular catchup mechanisms, but the games are short enough that if one player dominates then you can just play again. During play the uncertainty of the Wax Kingdom will make it so the end scoring will definitely shake things up, and you don't get the sense that it's predetermined midway through.

That being said, it's still a Euro game in its heart. The fact each player gets their own individual market means you'll never lock an opponent out of an entire strategy by grabbing a key card, but it also means that you don't have wild, game-changing cards that only show up once in a blue moon. Advantages are incremental - good play rewards you, it doesn't end the game outright. This is a very strategic game that rewards repeat plays and good game knowledge. The scoring structure is fairly opaque until you're done your first playthrough - it takes time to calibrate about what each action is worth and how much resources you should devote to winning something. It's a game for core gamers.

Final Verdict


For anyone who loves dark themes, good game design, strategic games that don't overload people on complexity, and a lot of interaction then this is a wonderful game that you should add to your collection.
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Eric Vogel
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Thanks for the review Amber
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