Historical events are common hooks on which to hang a board game. Aside obviously from war games simulating actual battles, you can expect somewhere to find a board game themed around almost every major event in history. Darien Apocalypse is unusual because it is predicated on a historical event that was significant but which very few outside Scotland will ever have heard of.
Although, with the Stuart accession, Scotland and England shared a common crown (James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603), it would be more than a century before the Act of Union created a United Kingdom. Through the 17th Century, Scotland was a separate nation seeking to maintain its own independent economic prosperity. The Darien scheme was an ambitious plan hatched in the 1690s to establish a colony of Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama (on the Gulf of Darien). The plan was to establish profitable colonial trade based on a land route linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The money raised to fund the scheme reportedly amounted to a fifth of Scotland’s wealth. The scheme was beset by disasters and it failed dismally. Its failure threw Scotland into ruinous debt and precipitated the 1707 political and customs union with England.
Ragnar Brothers’ Darien Apocalypse doesn’t attempt to seriously simulate these events but it represents an abstracted picture of Scotland’s bold if reckless plan. It does so drawing on the ‘Quantum Game’ concept that the company pioneered with their previous game Nina & Pinta (which was themed around Columbus’ discovery of the New World). In Darien Apocalypse, players all start off in Scotland, but they are able to set sail for and explore the Panama region in each of four distinct and separate parallel universes.
Each of the four representations of Panama is divided into 20 hexes. At the start of the game, these all have a random hex terrain tile placed on them faced down. During the course of play, players will be exploring and exploiting the terrain across all four parallel worlds, erecting and upgrading buildings and importing goods back to Scotland.
As you’d expect, players are jockeying for position and each is seeking to amass the most victory points. This game, however, replicates the ill fortune of the Scottish expedition by imposing its own existential threat. On each of the game’s 12 turns, a card is turned over to represent the ravages of one or more of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, Death, War and Famine. Depending on the card, one, two or three of the Horsemen will be directed to specified quantum realities (confusingly identified in this game by compass directions). Worlds affected by a Horseman will that turn be in ‘Chaos’ meaning that none of the players can take any actions there. They will also put out ‘shadows’ which will have a further negative effect (unleashing a ‘calamity’) as the game progresses. It is this ‘Chaos’ mechanic that nudges players from just focusing on a single world: you’ll find you need to have a presence in all four quantum universes in order to ensure the Horsemen don’t freeze you out.
Working with your opponents to overcome your Enemies
The Horsemen mechanic introduces elements of co-operative play into Darien Apocalypse as players may find that they need to work together to fend off mutually damaging calamities and to prevent the Horsemen galloping ahead of them all on the scoring track. In fact the game can be played either competitively or as a fully co-operative game. Though it caters for up to four players, it can also be played as a solitaire game. It’s good that Darien Apocalypse offers this flexibility.
Game play itself is not overly complex; indeed, it’s more straightforward than the game play of its predecessor Nina & Pinta. The active player each turn has available to them the number of actions set out on the Apocalypse card that directed the Horsemen. That will be 5, 6 or 7 actions. In that turn, all other players are also given actions which can be used to mirror an action taken by the active player (referred to in the rules as the ‘first player’). In each case, the other players will have three fewer actions than the active ‘first’ player.
Actions are spent to embark your Scotsmen meeples onto ships, sail from or back to Scotland, move your Scots to explore Panama, erect or upgrade a building, trade (collect goods cubes that can be sold when returned to Scotland), sell goods in Scotland, and pray (attempt to remove from a world the ‘shadows’ of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Players improve their chance of achieving the die roll needed to remove ‘shadows’ by spending silver, and it is that is mostly likely to turn out to be a co-operative venture even in an otherwise fully competitive game.
Some small disappointments
So there’s a fair amount going on in Darien Apocalypse. There’s also the novelty that, if you’re like me, you’ll have come to expect from a Ragnar Brothers game. However, it’s not all plain sailing. The rules cover everything but are not as clear as they could be. They could be improved through fuller and more illustrated exemplification, especially underlining actions that are counter-intuitive. For example, players may not immediately realise that they can embark their Scots onto any ships, not just their own. In fact, when mirroring the active player’s actions, you are more likely to want to embark onto the active player’s ship than place meeples on your own because piggybacking in this way is the only way to benefit from the active player’s sail action. You also need to realise that mirroring the actions of the ‘first player’ to very best effect is essential to success in this game; after all the game is over in just 12 turns – which, in a four-player game means only three turns each as the active player.
The layout of the rules make Darien Apocalypse seem more complicated than it really is. There are other issues too. Once you’ve got over the rules overhead, you have to get to grips with an annoyingly fiddly set up. You have 80 hex tiles to shuffle and meticulously lay out on the board before you can start play. You also have to fend with some terribly fiddly components. The wooden Horsemen of the Apocalypse look good and there’s nothing wrong with the little Scotsmen meeples but the player mats are rather thin and the coin tokens are astonishingly small: the value 1 silver coins are only a centimetre in diameter. You’ll realise how tiny that is when you see that you are being expected to play with tokens that appear to be no bigger than the bits you punch out to throw away when, for example, making up the dials for use in the average FFG game.
In any game you’ll only ever use 12 of the 36 Apocalypse cards so this isn’t a game-breaker but you may notice that one of the cards is misprinted so that the distribution of the Horsemen and the locations they turn up at are not entirely even. I’m not a fan of stickers at the best of times but it’s quite a serious printing error in this game to find that the stickers to go onto wooden disks have been pre-cut too large to fit on the disk without an overhang. In this situation, the stickers are bound to peel off no matter how much care you take in applying them. And because they are circular, it is no easy task to trim the stickers. I daresay you could find a coin or similar circular template slightly smaller than the disk, put it on each sticker and trace round it with a very sharp modelling knife, but that is more than can be reasonably be expected of the average game buyer.
So, with this warts and all, criticism of the components, is this game worth buying? Actually, yet it is. There are some very interesting mechanics in Darien Apocalypse that transcend the game’s niggling flaws. It’s an interesting and very playable game that, even allowing for the set up, can be comfortably completed in less time than the 2 hours specified on the box. As it is, it scores 6/10, but we’d be upping that score if the game’s production values were higher.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.