It’s a Library!
People know that in all places except for adult movies, librarians are generally the most boring people on the planet. Alright, I know that is definitely a gross generalisation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t true.
So, why on earth would I actively seek out Ex Libris; a game about being a gnomish librarian? Good question! I assure you it’s not because of actively finding out whether gnomish librarians are more wild than human ones.
Let me elaborate a little. I have a nasty habit of getting the same kind of games around the same time. I’ll have binges of deck-builders or set collection games and for some odd reason, my Essen haul consisted of more worker placement games than anything else, and Ex Libris was one of said Worker Placement games. But, I had a sneaking suspicion that Ex Libris might well be something special.
With this in mind, having the same genre of game is definitely not always a bad thing so long as I’m able to space out playing of them long enough so that it doesn’t get stale.
Fresh Worker Gnomes
As I’ve alluded to already, Ex Libris is a worker placement game where up to 4 gnomes are competing to have the best library to take over after the Grand Librarian has died and they can curry favour by collecting the most amount of books of a certain type, keeping their personal libraries in the neatest order and also by focusing on a Master Mind-esque specialist subject.
Ex Libris, despite being a worker placement game, takes the “playbook” for WP games and throws it out of the window. Then, it goes to stomp on it for good measure.
Not all Gnomes are Equal
First things first, you need to decide on which budding new Grand Librarian you’re going to be, and this is the first place where Ex Libris starts to shine out from some of its opponents. Instead of just picking which character you’d like to be, there’s a draft which takes place. Once you have chosen your first to last players, the last player gets first dibs on the characters (and special abilities) to choose from. Then comes in tactics 101; they get to choose their own player, but also discard one of the others. Play continues in this fashion until everyone has chosen a character.
This can ramp up the tension before the game has even begun. Every player plays favourites in games and if your fellow players become aware of this then you’re likely to see your favourite minion thrown out in the first draft. Whilst this can be awkward for you not having the character you want, it does teach a valuable lesson in being able to adapt.
Each character has 2 “normal” gnome workers which go and out and do their bidding, but each character also has a special worker which has special effects which they can use. For example, if you pick “The Dungeon of Deep Thought” this also comes with The Gelatinous Cube worker which has a very helpful special ability. If another player goes to the same worker space as you, they either have to give you one of their library cards or let you draw another library card and shelve it should you wish (more on this a little later). Or, you could choose the “Igloo of Information” which comes with a Snowman worker. The snowman stops other people being able to visit the worker space they’re on, so as you can see, straight off of the bat, Ex Libris is not the kind of game for low conflict gaming groups. These are also just two of the eight specialist workers that you can choose too.
Bored of boards
A lot of worker placement games are well known for having a ridiculous sized board, but there’s an interesting twist to how Ex Libris deals with this. There’s a main town board where the permanent worker spots are eventually held, but all of the worker placement spots are randomly drawn on each turn. The exception being the first turn where you always need to draw the Diviners Hut (the good old “steal the first player marker” spot).
The way that Ex Libris deals with permanence (because having a pretty random game every time could get a little annoying – that is after all why you choose your gaming group carefully) is that all of the placement spots are numbered, and the lowest numbered spot drawn on each turn gets put onto the market board to be used in subsequent turns, becoming a permanent feature in the market. Clever thinking!
Personally, I thought that this was a really great feature, as some spaces all players will know are only going to be one use affairs; available for one turn only, so this heats up the competition at the beginning of every turn when working out what is going to benefit you and your friends most.
Back on the shelf
So, now that the placement part of Ex Libris has now been explained, I’d best try and explain collecting and shelving books as this is also an integral part of the game.
When Ex Libris is started, there will be tomes which are chosen and placed on the board to give each player something to aim for. You will have “prominent works”, “banned books” and also each player will receive a type of book for their library focus.
The six categories of books are Corrupted Codices, Fantastical Fictions, Historic Volumes, Monster Manuals, Reference Texts and Spells and Potions.
The prominent works will net you quite a large end-game bonus if you have the most at the end. It’s 15 points for having the most, 9 points for second place, and 4 points for third place. Banned books will actually cause you to lose points at the end, and your library focus will score you 2 points for each book you have.
Obviously, given the large amount of points at the end of the game for all of these bonuses, then you need to be vigilant on shelving your books when they’re collected. This is something else you need to think about while playing Ex Libris; as if you didn’t have enough to think about already!
When shelving a book, there are more things to think about. You need to make sure that your shelf is stable, so you can only place book cards adjacent to the cards you have already placed. You also need to remember that all of your books need to be in alphabetical order as when you’re being inspected at the end, as if you’re a good librarian it’d be no good having books all over the place, since nobody will be able to find them! I thought it was a nice little bit of theme thrown in.
All of the book cards also have a letter and a number in the top left corner showing where in the alphabet the books are, but also how many other cards are in the same letter collection. This can help trying to get all of your cards in order on the shelves. For example, there are 10 “S” cards but only 2 “Z” cards.
Ex Libris or Ex-Game Shelf?
So that is how you set up and start playing Ex Libris, but is it a good game?
There are some things which really need a mention before I can score Ex Libris. The first thing that really needs a mention is that it’s painfully clear that someone put lots and lots of effort into really small details. They have given each book a funny title, but have still managed to keep it in theme with the type of book it is. There’s a Corrupted Codice called “Whatever you do, don’t read this title aloud” and a Historic Volume called “Grumpy Old Fuddy Duddies”. So, with this level of detail, it’s worth remembering that there are 152 books cards which have at least a few books on each shelf. So, there had to have been lots of sitting around tables and head-scratching to come up with all of these, and I think the makers of Ex Libris need a nod from me for that.
Second thing which really needs a mention, is how streamlined the game feels to play. I imagine that there was a lot of playtesting and refinement which went into Ex Libris before it was unleashed upon the world and it’s smoother than a baby’s bum to play through. It feels like it was well put together and is a much better game for it. The multitude of things which you have going on at all times with the set collection, as well as placement and hand management by making sure that your shelves are all in the way they’re meant to be is quite a challenge, but an ultimately satisfying one.
A point I’d like to raise though, is something that was mentioned by one of my gaming group when they played for the first time. Ex Libris looks bright, and fun and almost gateway game-ish; but it’s not. There’s nothing too simple or friendly about it. Ex Libris is cutthroat, and if one of your group could be swayed away from conflict then this is not the game for them. Ex Libris is somewhat of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in this respect.
I’m usually pretty harsh when it comes to downsides to my review games, but I only have one main one that I can think of with Ex Libris and it is really small… and that’s the issue. The first player marker is just half a milky white glass pebble. That’s it. It’s just a bit sucky. It’s not an issue so much though since I have lots of other things which I frequently use for first player markers, but it just seems like an odd oversight since so much thought went into the rest of the game.
All of the components are of a top notch quality and the fact that all of the special workers are shapes as they should be is a great touch taking the component quality from good, to great.
Also, the rulebook is easy to use, and has a breakdown of all of the uses of both the worker spots and each character to choose at the beginning of the game, so there’s even more Ex Libris kudos due for this.
Scores on the doors (or maybe shelves?) for Ex Libris? 9 out of 10. It’s so well done that there’s not a lot of negativity to throw around. The fact that there’s so much replay in the game also helps to give it a warm spot on my own library shelf.
Now I’m off to go and make some noise in a library!
The following two tabs change content below.
I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.