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Take your epic! – The Colonists Review

How on earth does a reviewer attempt to get to grips with The Colonists?  This is the soi-disant Epic Strategy Game, one that promises (or threatens) a play time of up to four hours but, heavens be thanked, come laden with introductory scenarios and options for shorter games.  Astonishingly for a game of this heft and weight (and the box is both hefty and weighty) The Colonists appears to be to debut published design from its creator Tim Puls.  It is nothing if not ambitious, but many a game has come to grief on the rocks of its own aspirations in the past, so how is this going to shape up, especially as it appears to have designs on those Rosenberg big boxes and on civilisation games at the same time?  Can it really be done?

The Colonists Board Game

It says epic, and it certainly is.

Epic or bloated?  Let’s find out!

The box feels familiar from the start, thanks to the artwork by Klemens Franz, placing The Colonists in the same artistic milieu as all those Rosenberg boxes and other heavy-hitting Euros such as Grand Austria Hotel.  It gives the impression of welcoming a new relative into a familiar family, and promises quality, thanks to Franz’s association with other star designers and designs.  Opening the box reveals a veritable mountain of cardboard to be punched and three rule books to be navigated – yes, we are in A Feast For Odin territory here, and while I did not time myself, I reckon that it took a similar amount of time to punch and sort all those tokens.

What The Colonists attempts to provide is a massive civ-buildingish experience over four ages, nestled in a comforting Euro wrapper.  Or it’s a massive Euro experience in a civ-buildingish wrapper, but still taking those four ages.  Thankfully and wisely there are multiple options for shorter games, including three introductory scenarios (the first of which is very helpfully annotated in one of the rule books), and the option to play just a single age on its own, or even to “save” the game at the end of any age and come back to it at a different point.  This flexibility is one of the strong points of The Colonists, and means that the threatened four-or-more-hour game will only occur if and when players are ready for it.  In the meantime players can savour what the box has to offer within an hour or even less – it is a clever touch, and means that interested gamers could invest in a game of this price without fearing that they will never ever get it to the table.

The Colonists Board Game

Thank heavens for the introductory game.

Pick up and play?  Not far from it!

Actually, the basics of the game are pretty easy to teach as well.  Working your way through the three introductory scenarios of The Colonists is a great way to become conversant with the core mechanism of the game without the bells and whistles of the full experience, and most Euro players will be up to speed in very little time.  Players have their own board, containing their buildings and their workers and holding their goods, and there is also a central expanding tableau, made up of hexagonal tiles, that represents the various places in the village.  Each player visits three of these tiles in their turn – markets, lumberjacks, the normal kind of thing – twice per game year, and the era (and possibly the game) ends after five years.  There are some restrictions on movement, and the potential to do a little bit of blocking for money,  but it is interference rather than intrusion, especially at lower player counts.  That conversion thing of starting with farmers and turning them into citizens, or paying two wood and one gold to upgrade some kind of building is here, and players will go about the business of developing their little empires in the usual manner.

The Colonists Board Game

There are some great dabs of humour around.

Once The Colonists’ players get past the introductory games and into the proper experience, however, it really begins to branch out.  And I mean really branch out.  Various colonies become available, diplomats, different goods and buildings appear in later eras, maintenance costs start to take their toll and so on and so on.  Yet again, though, it is worth mentioning that players can approach this full experience age by age, so you might play Age I a few times, and then gravitate to a two-age game, and only attempt the full epic story as and when you are ready for it.  When you do get to that full-on game, though, be warned that it can really have the potential to drag you in for the long run as eventually your shabby farms spawn casinos and guilds, and your peasant stock become the finest civilisation on the table.

The Colonists Board Game

The central board has hex appeal.

Four ages not enough?  There may be more to come!

For what has the potential to be a very difficult game to teach the rule book for The Colonists is also commendably clear.  Icons helpfully indicate text that refers only to specific ages and colonies so it is easy to find the information that is most important and crucially there is an index as well, saving time when inevitably players will have to check some small detail.  There is also the ominous IV+ marking, indicating that future expansions might take this game into even further ages.  Nuclear power?  Space race?  Brexit?  Trump?  Who knows?

The Colonists Board Game

Scoring through the ages…and the ominous IV+ icon.

I must admit that I was nervous when I first received The Colonists for review.  Four hour games are certainly not regular visitors to our table, so this was a real risk, but I have been hugely impressed by the flexibility of the game, and how it manages to incorporate multiple experiences in a single box.  Fancy a quick resource conversion Euro with more than enough to think about but without confusing new players?  Go for the medium introductory scenario.  Want to explore what the main game has to offer but without being overwhelmed?  Age I it is.  Have a bunch of hardcore gamers looking for a day’s gritty gaming that you could conceivably pack up and continue the following weekend?  Go for the full four-age epic and save it after Age II.

The Colonists Board Game

A variety of colony cards keeps the game fresh.

A winner?  I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check!

I do have some hefty reservations about The Colonists however.  Firstly it has some serious downtime, even with two players, and in a four-player game you could probably fit in a couple of sessions of Agricola before your turn comes round again.  At the full player count you will have to wait for nine other decisions to be made before your turn swings around, and because there’s not a huge amount of wiggle room in the game as those decisions need to be taken carefully.  Be prepared for some long waits in the Grand Austria Hotel tradition.  Secondly, there is not a whole amount of true interaction in this game and while that is not a problem on its own, it can make for a rather plateau-like emotional experience over a long period of time.  There’s no thrill of the chase as in Star Wars: Rebellion, no cut and thrust and teetering on the edge of disaster as in Twilight Struggle – instead your colonists go steadily about their business and you may or may not be keeping up with the other players.  There is a little bit of blocking going on, but not much, and a space is never out-of-bounds, merely more expensive.  I would also be interested to know if Tim Puls set out to create an epic game, or whether his design simply accrued more and more detail and ambition until somebody at the publishers said “You know, we need to warn people what they are getting into – we’d better say something like ‘Epic’ on the box.”

The Colonists Board Game

Buildings slowly get more powerful.

There is much that is impressive about The Colonists.  For a debut published design it exudes quality from all of its cardboard pores, and has an ease of play that keeps back-and-forthing to the rules to an absolute minimum.  The iconography is usually clear and easy to understand, the player aids are helpful and that flexibility of experience is great (sorry to keep going on about it, but it is!).  A Feast For Odin does its thing and does it brilliantly, but when you sit down to play that game you sit down to play a six round version or a seven round version, but that is the only real flexibility.  The Colonists offers multiple experiences in the same box and means that serious gamers can part with their well-earned cash for this in the expectation that they are going to get some decent value for money out of it.

Fire, ice or lukewarm water?  Like rather than love!

At the end of our plays we ended up liking The Colonists rather than loving it, and I just cannot shake the feeling that the exchange rate of three or more plays of Agricola to one of The Colonists is always going to come down in favour of Rosenberg’s farming magnum opus.  ‘Gric is just so tight and lean next to the sprawl of The Colonists, like a sports car next to some wafty double bed on wheels.  There’s some lovely humour in The Colonists and it is an amiable companion, but big is not always beautiful, and I think my preferred option would always be a single-era game.  On those rare occasions when I have a spare player in the house and time for an epic I’m going to be using those opportunities to play something more emotionally gripping.

The Colonists Board Game

The market changes each year.

Undoubtedly the two-player four-age game is where it’s at with The Colonists, and it will be weighed against other monster games such as Through The Ages: A New Story Of Civilization, but it also goes up against many shorter Euros in its introductory and shorter variants and comes out of it smelling more or less like roses, even if a player’s move will often come down to a sequence of buy some of this, change it to some of that, build one of those.  It is all curiously passive as you gain a point here and a point there without ever feeling particularly pressured (one of my fellow players even said “we’ve been avoiding calling it boring, but that’s what it is”).

Don’t like converting?  You’re unlikely to be converted!

If you despise those Rosenbergesque convertathons then you are unlikely to enjoy The Colonists, but those who love their big boxes full of clay, wood, ore and the like will find themselves pretty close hog heaven.  By any standards The Colonists has laid down a serious marker, but for it to be a debut design is impressive, even if I simply cannot recommend it for more than two players and feel that it lacks the sharpness of many of its gaming equivalents.

I’m interested to see whether Puls’ next design will be a refinement of this kind of system, or whether it will be something completely different, whether he will do a Rosenberg or a Chvatil.  If you are only into war and dexterity games then obviously this will be of no interest to you whatsoever, but if you like your heavy Euros then this is going to be something you need to check out at some point.  It has strong love-it-or-loathe-it potential, and what you think may well be the result of where you dive in, but if you do what the game itself recommends and work your way through the introductory games then The Colonists really has the potential to drag you in.

The Colonists Board Game

Managing your storage is critical for success.

Ambitious and daring!  But worth keeping?

For all that, it is an expensive and risky investment and could well end up gathering dust on many shelves, so I cannot recommend it unreservedly, especially as it lacks the kind of excitement needed to make such a hefty time commitment worthwhile.  As a flexible two-player experience, though, it works effectively enough, but I would be hard pushed to give it more than 7 out of 10 overall, despite its lofty ambitions.  Bigger is not always necessarily better, and The Colonists will be moving out of my collection very soon, making it Rosenberg 3 – Puls 0 thus far, but it is nevertheless an impressive statement of intent.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.