Adam Porter
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With thanks to BGG user redsimon for use of image

When The Mines of Zavandor, a precursor to The Gnomes of Zavandor, cropped up in an online bargain bin recently, the artwork, mechanics and handful of reviews were enough to make me take a chance on it, and I was delighted I did. The Mines of Zavandor is a fabulous set-collecting, auction game, with great artwork by Klemens Franz, lots of positive player interaction, and a great puzzley element to it; easy to explain, and a lot of fun. I was delighted to have discovered an under-rated gem. Even more recently, The Gnomes of Zavandor arrived in the discount section of an online store and, even though it had a different designer, the beautiful artwork, economic-engine mechanics, and memories of its solid precursor, drove me to press the "Buy" button despite recent plans to cut back on board-game purchases. My recent review of artist Klemens Franz (who illustrated this game) had whetted my appetite too much; I was unable to resist.

I suspect that not many people will have experienced either title, so it may be a little redundant to compare Gnomes to its predecessor. So, instead I'll briefly tell you a little about them both. Zavandor is a fantasy setting which seems to revolve around a capitalist economy based on trading in gems - sapphires, rubies, mystical gems etc. An even earlier game (published 2006) in the series, The Scepter of Zavandor seems to have picked up more of a following than these later titles, and although the gameplay is different, the central economy is the same. Gnomes and Mines sit very happily as a pair, not just because they share box-size, art-style, and setting, but also because they both feature medium-light gameplay, based around manipulation of an economic engine, to achieve victory points. Mines centres around a simple auction mechanic; Gnomes uses a mechanic more reminiscent of the stocks-and-shares titles such as Hab und Gut or Mercurius. Both Zavandor titles allow you to buy upgrade cards which improve your buying power, make your economic engine more efficient, or just give you straight-forward victory points. Player interaction is limited in both games. In Mines, the auction involves blind bidding rather than competing, and a rather lukewarm trading phase; in Gnomes, one player's actions will drive prices up (or down) for another player and a few cards allow players to charge others for privileges, but interaction is similarly muted to the earlier title.

EARLY PLAYS DISCLAIMER: This review comes with a disclaimer. It is based on only a handful of plays of the game. There are currently no reviews on the BGG forum and I know how useful it is to purchasers to have reviews to base their purchase decisions on, as well as for publishers to gain more exposure for their games, so I have decided to offer this opinion in the full knowledge that any further reviews by other users will be more authoritative due to a greater level of experience with the game.



With thanks to BGG user Marcel P for use of image


Very Brief Summary of the Rules

The game has two central boards. The first is a grid with markers indicating the current price of each of the gem types, and also indicating whether the price is going to go up or down next turn. Gems can be bought (or sold) for cash in the first phase of each turn. Buying gems makes them more valuable in subsequent turns; selling them reduces their value, and this is reflected on the grid. These gems can be used to buy tiles from the second board, a star-shaped arena featuring "mining rights" tiles positioned randomly around it. The position on the board indicates the cost to purchase these mining rights; the cost will be a mixed selection of coloured gems. At the end of each turn, players gain new gems according to the mining rights they have acquired and this affects the central economy, generally reducing the value of the relevant gems when they are purchased for hard cash, in future rounds.

The initial phase of the game involves buying gems, selling gems, taking gold, trading with the central supply, and purchasing cards and tokens (with gems rather than cash). The items available for purchase include equipment improving your efficiency, jewels providing victory points, and mining rights.

The second phase of the turn involves mining for new gems. Each player takes the gems they are allowed according to their mining rights.

At the end of each turn, the market values are adjusted according to the actions which have occurred; the price of the available equipment is discounted (this rule is optional); and another area of the star-shaped board becomes accessible with more mining-rights available to purchase in the next round.

The game continues until one player has reached a victory-point target, dependent on the number of players in the game. Victory points are achieved by purchasing mining-rights, equipment, and most significantly (but also most expensively) jewellry.



With thanks to BGG user diddle74 for use of image


Components

The boards are thick and sturdy - the star-shaped board is clever in its design, allowing for a random distribution of tokens with varying costs. The grid board is plain and functional, as is always the case in these investment-style games. The artwork on the cards is great, as is always the case in games illustrated by Franz. His trademark style comes through once again, with cartoony, but not crass or comical, images which really help to set the scene. The equipment cards are particularly notable, featuring weird and wonderful contraptions constructed by the gnomes to aid their gem-mining. Where other games have paper bank-notes, or cardboard coins, here we have cash illustrated on mini-European size cards, a suitably sturdy and efficient alternative. Gems are similarly depicted, again with some lovely illustrations. The larger purchases (equipment/jewellery) and trader cards are the bigger standard-European size. I am not usually one to complain of over-production - I love aesthetically pleasing games - but the inclusion of a massive free-standing cardboard Gnome for use as a starting-player marker seems a little unnecessary, especially since a more modest token is also provided as an alternative. What is more irritating about this is that the game is lacking player aids, which are essential (and were available as promos on release), and a way of keeping track of spent actions - both would have been a better use of budget for the publishers than the giant Gnome.



With thanks to BGG user Marcel P for use of image


The box is the same height and width as a standard book-shelf game like Agricola or Thurn und Taxis, but it isn't as deep, meaning it takes up less space on the shelf - a welcome feature. The rulebook is clear and easy to follow, except for one fairly major rule which is ambiguous as to whether it happens once per game (before turn two), or every turn (from turn two onwards). A quick glance at the BGG forum indicates an official ruling in favour of the once-per-game interpretation.

How well does the theme hold up?

I always find investment-style stocks-and-shares titles rather thematic. You are essentially doing exactly what the fiction claims you are doing: speculating on trends in an economic market. This game throws a fantasy setting into the mix, which isn't ever fully realised. We see no other fantasy creatures, beyond the title's gnomes, and there is no depiction of landscape or habitat. However, the artwork does lift the game, and creates a nice atmosphere - the afore-mentioned "equipment" upgrades are well-themed, and have a quirky sort of logic to their associated actions.

Complexity

Other similar titles I have played focus solely on the investment-mechanics, with varying degrees of complexity. Here, the investment grid and it's associated fluctuations are very simple indeed. The complexity comes from the wealth of other items available for purchase, each which will help you in a different manner. It is not easy to make your business efficient - you know you are failing when you have to take the bail-yourself-out-option of taking 4 gold from the bank, instead of taking an action which will genuinely enhance your economic-engine. There is certainly depth in the strategic choices here. I don't think this game is hard to explain, but it does take a few turns to sink into place.

The Luck factor

When purchasing mining rights, you can either take a tile without knowing what colour gem it will provide you with each turn, or you can check before taking it, at the cost of 1 gold. This allows players to mitigate chance decisions, if they so wish. The only other luck in the game is in what cards are drawn to fill up the market-place (equipment/jewellery) but these are available to all players, so luck cannot overly harm one individual.

Number of players

One nice feature of this game, compared to stocks-and-shares titles such as Hab und Gut, and Mercurius, is that it can be played very enjoyably with two players. There is enough affecting the market each turn, that prices will fluctuate even at this player count. In fact, on the basis of early plays only, I think this game may be more enjoyable with smaller numbers. There are a lot of choices available on your turn, and slower players could cause the game to drag - not such a problem at lower player-counts.

Will my non-gamer partner enjoy it?

It is quite a brain-burner. A non-gamer would have to be open to quite a degree of strategic thinking to take on this game. The artwork is lovely, and will make it appealing to all players. Even the fantasy setting, which in may games can put off non-gamers due to connotations of geekiness, is appealing in this title. The gnomes are more reminiscent of leprechauns than dwarfs; more fairy-tale than Middle-Earth. The game-length is not a huge barrier though. Once the rules are understood, a game shouldn't last more than an hour with two players; perhaps a little more with bigger player-counts.



With thanks to BGG user yzemaze for use of image


What other games is it like?

So far we have mentioned Mines of Zavandor, with which it shares theme, art-style, economic-engine building, and depth of gameplay. I have also mentioned Hab und Gut and Mercurius a few times. These are two pure stocks-and-shares games with simple mechanics, but lots of strategic and tactical decisions. The mechanic utilised in the Gnomes market-place is deconstructed and explored thoroughly in those two titles and fans of the mechanic who wish to look a little deeper, should consider these games. Hab und Gut is the lightest of the three games, and easiest to learn. Mercurius offers deeper more serious gameplay, but is not as unwieldy as Gnomes of Zavandor, with its large amount of choices each turn. Gnomes also differs from these two titles because the winning condition is a victory-point target, rather than winning by having the most money at game-end. For my reviews of these titles follow these links:

Hab und Gut: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/855419/europhile-reviews-hav...
Mercurius: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/878967/europhile-reviews-a-f...

Other stock market games, which I have not played but might be worth a look are:

Black Friday
Buy Low Sell High

Some of the deck-building games have similar pacing to this title. Early purchases are to gain basic resources. Mid-game, equipment is bought to increase efficiency, and increase buying power. Towards the endgame a race ensues to purchase the high-cost, high-reward, victory point cards which will win you the game. If this aspect appeals, games like Dominion or Copycat are worth a look, as well as tableau-building games like San Juan or St Petersburg.

Copycat: http://boardgamegeek.com/article/10379504#10379504

About the designer

In my recent reviews, I have tried to give a brief introduction to the designers of the games. In this instance, this is a little hard, because Torsten Landsvogt has only three other games listed on BGG as his own designs, and I have played none of them. Before the Wind is his highest rated title. Published in 2007, it is a shipping game with heavy player interaction apparently based largely around extortion.


Torsten Landsvogt in 2009, with thanks to BGG user Ceryon for use of image


Most well-known for his frequent collaboration with Uwe Rosenberg, Klemens Franzthe illustrator is more prolific. The cartoon aesthetic of many of Franz's games makes them immediately recognisable as his. While cartoony, the games are not comical. What this art-style does is tells us that these games are accessible. They are not dry. They are not complex simulations. They are a light-hearted representation of a setting or situation, and are to be treated as such.


Klemens Franz in 2009, with thanks to Uwe Rosenberg for use of image.



A selection of Franz titles on a games-shelf.


For more information about Franz, see my review: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/915116/europhile-reviews-wha...

Positives:

- Good component quality
- Excellent artwork
- Nice setting (although not really fully realised)
- Good strategic choices available
- Clever mechanics controlling the manipulation of the central market

Negatives:

- Not much player interaction
- Wealth of choices can make it unwieldy
- Requires a lot of focus, which could cause slow players to make the game drag
- Not truly thematic (although it is atmospheric).
- Minor point: It's really hard to keep track of how many actions have been used on each round. Some sort of tracking system would have helped!

Is it a keeper?

I think so. I really like these sort of games. It has a lot of what I love in Hab und Gut, but throws a whole load of other stuff I love into the mix too - the engine-building stuff. It makes an excellent pairing with The Mines of Zavandor - they look great on the shelf together - but more significantly, it takes the economic engine aspects of that game, and puts a new twist on it. I enjoy the familiarity without feeling like it's simply a re-run. I also like finding games which no-one is talking about, and promoting them to friends in the real world, and online. This is another such find, and I would encourage others to seek it out.

See my other reviews at http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/146115/europhile-reviews-a...
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Hanno Girke
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Adam78 wrote:

Klemens Franz in 2009, with thanks to Uwe Rosenberg for use of image.


This is not the Uwe Rosenberg you're looking for. ninja

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Felix Lastname
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Yes but Uwe did in fact upload it.
Credit where credit is due.
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Phil Hannay
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Great review. I got this (and Mines) at Christmas, and got my first game in (3-player) last night.

Your point about the lack of player aids and action counters is spot on. I've nothing against the giant Gnome (other than his feet falling off), but it's slightly annoying that the space was used for that instead of something more useful!

I think the action aids and action markers of Terra Mystica are what I'm looking for in this game. I may have to just use poker chips or something to mark actions.
 
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