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Build it up again – Unearth Review

Despite what the title may suggest, Unearth is not a game about Mars, so we can all at least be thankful that a whole week has gone by without some Martian caper materialising in cardboard.  Instead, in a Race For The Galaxy sized box we have a game that allows up to four players to control a small band of Delvers as they attempt to reconstruct the ruins of some planet or other – an Un-earth, maybe.  We have been here thematically before, of course, in games like the lovely Blue Moon City (never leaving my collection, so don’t ask!), but it is still a relatively refreshing idea in a gaming world awash with Cthulhu, Renaissance traders and Mars.

Unearth Board Game

Quirky and individual art from the outset.

Mine, all mine!  The art has a craft!

Probably the first thing you will notice about Unearth is the fetching and individual art, something that I am told has a certain Minecraft feel about it, all edges and angles and small squares, like pixels used to be in the old days.  It is there on the outside of the box and continues almost everywhere you might care to look.  The colours are all also slightly washed out, almost as though you cannot tell whether Unearth happened in the very distant past or is instead set in some far-off future.  It is not bold and bright, but it is strongly individual, so plus points for that choice.

Unearth Board Game

The box insert works well.

Unearth’s artistic vision continues inside the box, the dice, cards and hexes all conforming to that style, unifying the design concept.  The dice sparkle slightly in the right light, and come in different sizes – one is four-sided, one is eight-sided and three are four standard six-siders – , representing your tribe of five Delvers.  These shadowy folk appear on the small Delver cards that allow players to manipulate their die rolls, and their heads correspond to the shapes of the dice.  Pictures of them appear elsewhere, a small detail, but again indicative of attention to coherent design, and at least it reinforces what the dice are attempting to represent.

Unearth Board Game

The Delver cards – their characters come right through.

What’s it all about?  Ruins, wonders and stones!

In addition to the Delver cards Unearth’s box contains large Ruin cards along with Wonder cards whose size is somewhere in the middle.  The small hex tokens with pictures represent the Wonders themselves, while the coloured hexes represent stones and go into the bag at the start of the game.  These tokens are quite small and light and can move around on a slippery surface, so players will need to be careful not to get too enthusiastic as they build up their stones and monuments, as we shall see later.

To set up the game Ruins and Wonders are dealt onto the table according to the number of players, and each player receives two Delver cards and one Ruin card which remains hidden.  The Ruins on the table each receive a certain number of stones, plucked at random from the bag, and then it is time for the Delvers to go to work, as represented by each player’s set of five dice.

Unearth Board Game

They may look like dice to you and me, but these are actually your Delvers.

Low for stones, high for ruins?  That’s how I roll!

The turn structure is simple to understand.  Unearth gives a player the option of playing as many Delver cards as they wish, or none at all if preferred, and then a player must choose a card and roll one of their dice to activate a Delver.  It is all very straightforward – indicate a card and roll a die.  Rolling high increases a player’s chance of taking that card once the Ruin is complete, while rolling a 1, 2 or 3 at any stage, including when playing Delver cards, nets a player one of the stones, either from the indicated Ruin or at random from the bag.

Ruins have two numbers printed on them – the lower one shows how many randomly drawn stones go onto the card when it is first placed, while the upper one displays the total that needs to be visible on that Ruin’s dice in order for the card to be claimed.  Once that total is hit the card is claimed by the player whose die was showing the highest number, with ties broken in favour of the die with the largest number of sides.  Other players with dice on the card draw stones as a consolation prize.

Unearth Board Game

Roll high to win the ruin, roll low to grab a stone.

Some interesting decisions!  Some dull moments…

This claiming mechanisms makes for some interesting choices.  Rolling your four-sided die means that you are more likely to claim a stone and keep a Ruin in play, while going for the eight-sider means that you might be able to close out the card and whisk it away from under the nose of somebody else with three dice on the card.  While admittedly a completely valid tactic, this can be very annoying when another player does it to you.

As with any game that relies so heavily on dice rolls Unearth suffers, naturally, from the vicissitudes of the random number gods.  There will inevitably be patches when players keep rolling 1, 2 or 3, and those moments can descend into tedium as cards remain unclaimed, stones get drawn and the game drags to a near-halt.  Eventually somebody may then snaffle the Ruin with their eight-sider, as described above, but they could also roll a 1, and round we go again…

Unearth Board Game

Named Wonders can bring special abilities.

Change your luck?  Get delving!

Thankfully the Delver cards are there precisely to allow players to massage Unearth’s dice rolls to their advantage.  Some of these, such as A New Discovery or Forlorn, will alter dice already on a Ruin, while others such as Ancestral Claim or Expedition have an effect on the roll a player makes in the Excavation Phase of their turn.  Nicely, the Delvers pictured on these cards are actually carrying out the action described, and their personality comes through in each illustration.  Again, this is a small touch but it all goes to entice a player more fully into this particular gaming world.

Luck of the dice aside, the game fans out in two directions, because players will gain points by collecting sets of Ruins, either all of the same colour or of five different colours, but they will also score points for building Wonders.  When Unearth gifts a player a stone in compensation for a low roll, it gets added to that player’s tableau, and completing a hexagon of stones with a gap in the middle means that said gap gets filled with a Wonder.  The type of Wonder varies according to the colour of the stones, and being able to build one of the Named Wonders will grant a player a special ability or even an end-game scoring bonus.  Points are therefore just lying around here and there and waiting to be picked up.

Unearth Board Game

Build a ring of stone to claim a Wonder.

Want a Wonder?  Build a stone circle!

While the Wonders are an interesting addition to Unearth, they have always felt like an add-on to the card-based play for me.  Players will most often be attempting to gain cards, and the Wonders feel like something that one is pushed into claiming as a reward for rolling low.  Or a punishment, maybe.  They certainly should not be ignored during a game, especially because building at least three Wonders nets a five point bonus, and each Wonder also comes with its own treat, but they feel like a side dish rather than the main course.

Normally I would mention the rule book earlier in a review, but I need to mention it here because it is at this point – mid-game – that most players will find the need to rely upon it.  The Delver cards in particular have text that, while clear in and of itself, may often be fuzzy around the edges of the application of that same text.  When the instructions tell you to play a card and then roll a die, there can be considerable confusion about the order in which things happen, when stones are given out, and so on.  There is an FAQ at the end of the book, but there are so few types of Delver card in the deck that a clear explanation of each and every one would have been very useful.  Other than that the rules are fairly well explained, with pictorial examples to the side of the text.

Unearth Board Game

Scoring is easily done.

End of age?  Can be a whimper, not a bang!

The game continues until all the Ruins have been claimed, and the end of the game is signalled by the appearance of the appropriately monickered End Of Age card.  This lurks at the bottom of the deck of Ruins and is revealed as the final card, and each of these End Of Age cards (only one of the five is selected per game) comes with a different ability.  Some of these are fine and dandy, but we found the City of Ash to be distinctly curious, as ownership of it deducts 5 points from that player’s total.  As the game does not finish until the last Ruin is claimed, we all sat around trying desperately not to win this final card, aware that ownership of it could cost a win, but that without it being claimed the game could go on into the early hours.  Once more this felt like a good idea added onto the game for the sake of being there.

Unearth definitely feels frothy and light, a little like the foam on the top of your gaming cappuccino, and the mechanisms are interesting, but there are limited decisions to be made, meaning that the game sits at the lighter end of the gaming spectrum, and fulfils its role most satisfactorily either as an opener or a closer on a gaming evening, or as something for a shorter gaming stint.  To continue the coffee analogy, players who want something stronger and with greater depth of flavour will need to secure their caffeine fix elsewhere.  That does not mean that Unearth is bad at all, just that it is satisfyingly average, averagely satisfying, or perhaps just a little above that, enough to make it a pleasant diversion without necessarily finding its way to the centre of a collection.

Unearth Board Game

The design idea continues on the bag of stones.

Frothy and light…but lacking bite!

Unearth has many positive points.  The art is individual, which is a pleasure to find in today’s saturated gaming market, and the mechanisms work together in the game in a way that more or less makes thematic sense.  Despite being positively disposed towards the game, though, I found that the playing of it placed it firmly in the medium-filler category, but without enough individuality to make it stand out from the crowd.  The dice rolling, set collection and tile laying are all things that gamers have seen before, of course, and they make some kind of thematic sense, but Unearth left me with the distinct impression of a set of mechanisms in search of a much meatier and involving game.  In other words – and this may well not make much sense – it felt overmechanised.

I would love to have given Unearth a higher mark for the qualities it possesses, but cannot legitimately give it more than a 6 out of 10.  For gamers with children or those who like to dabble in the shallower ends of the gaming pool Unearth will provide an interesting if occasional diversion, but those with heavier tastes or looking for post-delving treasure will not find this a necessary addition to their collections.

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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.