The world is ending and mankind has finally invested in polar research. Teams of scientists are heading to Antarctica to mine for resources that will save humanity. (Or make a tidy profit for their benefactors, but we don’t talk about that.) Your team will be trying to control the most real estate, conduct research, and build structures to extract those precious resources. The person who does the most to save humanity wins the game. (This person is also known as the person who profits the most but, again, we don’t talk about that.)
How It Plays
Antarctica is an area control/resource majority game. In order to win, your scientists are going to have to control whole sections of Antarctica, build research stations and other buildings, and conduct the most/best research to leap ahead of your opponents. In the wilds of Antarctica, it’s every scientist for himself.
During setup, each player places ships of their color on the board in an order dictated by the number of players. Ships placement dictates who takes actions and when, so placement is important. The board is also seeded with starting buildings that players can activate during their turns.
Turns are governed by the sun which moves counter-clockwise (you’re in the southern hemisphere, remember) from area to area around the board. When the sun lands in an area, the player who has the first ship in line in that area takes a turn.
Before you can do anything, you must first move your ship to another area on the board and place it on the first unoccupied space in the new area. Then you may take one action or you may do nothing. Here’s a high-level overview of the actions:
Build a Building: You may build a building in your new area if you meet the requirements stated on the building card and the area does not already have a building of the kind you want to build. Once complete, move the building and its associated scientists into that area of the board.
Build a Ship: If your new area has a shipyard and you have ships available in your supply, you can build a new ship. Place it last in line in the area with the sun (the area you just left). You may not use your new ship on the current turn. You must wait until the sun returns to that area.
Recruit Scientists: If your new area has a camp, you can move scientists from your reserve to your supply. You can only recruit a number equal to the number of ships and scientists you already have in that area.
Advance on a Research Track: If there is a research center in your new area, you can advance your cube on the corresponding research track on the board. If you land on or pass a space with a symbol, you trigger an action. If it’s a red symbol, only you can take the action. If it’s a blue symbol, each player takes the action, beginning with the player who triggered it and moving counter-clockwise. Blue spaces can only be triggered once per game while red spaces trigger every time a player passes or lands on that space.
At any time during your turn you can move one cube or ship from the available resources space into the discarded resource space. In return, you can move one scientist from the reserve to your supply.
After a player completes their turn, the player whose ship is second in line may take a turn only if they played an icebreaker card on their ship during a previous turn. If this does not apply, the sun moves on to the next area on the board and the player whose ship is first in line there takes a turn. (Even if it is the same player who just completed a turn.) The ships in the previous area all slide up one space in line so that the player who was second will be first the next time the sun comes around and the player who was third will now be second.
The game ends immediately when a player places their last scientist on the board and/or a player builds the last building. Points are tallied and the winner is the player with the most points. Points are awarded in the following categories. (Note that if you have no pieces/cards/resources in a given category or area, you cannot score for that category/area.)
Area Scoring: You will score each area on the game board one by one, going counterclockwise. Players are first ranked based on the number of scientists they have in the area. The player with the most scientists receives a point for each building and each scientist (of all colors) in the area, plus one additional point. The second player receives one point per scientist of the first player, the third player receives one victory point per scientist of the second player, and so on.
Research Track Scoring: Tracks are scored one by one, using the numbers on the track to tally how much each cube is worth. The player whose cube is furthest ahead on the track receives the total of all points of all cubes on the track. The second player receives what the first player’s cube is worth, the third player receives what the second player’s cube is worth, and so on.
Building Card Scoring. Only building cards with asterisks on them are scored. The player with the most such cards receives points equal to the total of all player’s asterisked cards. The player with the second most receives points equal to the total of the first player’s cards, and so on.
Resource Scoring: The player who discarded the most resources receives points equal to the total of all discarded resources. The second player receives points equal to the total that the first player discarded, the third receives points equal to what the second player discarded, and so on.
Is There Anything New Under the Sun?
The star mechanic of Antarctica is the sun. (See what I did there?) The thematic idea here is that the sun warms the area and frees one ship from the ice each time it comes around, making that ship capable of sailing to another area and taking actions. This is a really cool way to determine turn order. If your ship is first in line when the sun comes to your area, you get to take an action. If you’re second, you’ll only get to go if you played an icebreaker card on that ship in a prior turn. If you’re third in line, you’ll just have to wait. The next time the sun comes around, the player who was next in line has moved up to first and so on.
Each time your ship is freed, you must move it to another area. If you’re clever and things break your way, you can set yourself up to get multiple turns in a row by positioning your ships so that you’re first in line in multiple, consecutive areas. This can be a great way to rack up points quickly. The whole sun moves/ship moves/take action/ships move up in line mechanic was something I hadn’t seen before so I loved the uniqueness of it.
Unfortunately, the sun is really the highlight of the game, theme-wise. Despite the box description, there is no real sense of impending doom. There’s no feeling that you’re racing to make discoveries and mine resources that will save humanity. You’re simply trying to place the most stuff in each area and grab as many points as you can. Whether it benefits humanity has nothing to do with it.
However, the game description alludes to a more subversive theme, which is that these researchers aren’t really in Antarctica for research at all. Instead, they’re down there purely to gain the most profit for their investors. (But it’s better PR to call it “research.”) In that sense, Antarctica’s theme works a bit better. The game feels dry and mercenary, like other players are simply in your way while you try to take everything that you possibly can.
This isn’t uncommon in area control games. The difference here is that instead of moving into an area and battling for control through combat, you’re trying to gain control by having the largest volume of “stuff” in the area. You’re also trying to grab points from the research tracks and take advantage of the available extra actions. Smart players would sell their own mothers to advance up those tracks. You want to do whatever you have to to in order to hit all of the scoring majorities. And if that means screwing somebody over, then so be it.
The fact that this game feels more like its alternate theme isn’t a bad thing. You just need to understand going in that this is going to feel less like a rescue mission and more like a trip through the nastier parts of capitalism. And it will get nasty. If you have players who don’t like feeling like everyone else is out to get them (and who can’t/won’t reciprocate), then this isn’t the game for you. You have to grab what you can get when you can get it. Greed is good and Gordon Gekko would be right at home in this game.
Another plus is that Antarctica is pretty easy to learn just by playing through a few turns. And that’s in spite of a rulebook that reminds me more of an IRS tax form than a rulebook. The font and layout feel institutional and it does not flow well. Some things are not directly stated but have to be pieced together from various sections or through experience. With the references to “See Box A,” or ” See Box C” and the stiff language, I felt like I was doing my taxes.
And when it comes time to score, that may be exactly how you feel. Scoring feels needlessly complicated. The idea that the player who has the majority in a scoring category gets everybody’s points while the next player gets the points of only the player in front of them works, but it’s wonky and time consuming. I’ve played many area control/majority games where the scoring is much simpler, yet still effective. I’m at a loss as to why this method was chosen. It doesn’t feel thematic. It feels like accounting.
It’s also punishing. To win, you’re going to need to come in first in at least one category and be close to the top in the others. There’s no way to win by just being “good enough” in all categories because the winner of each category gets so many points. And while the game scales well play-wise at all player counts, the scoring feels odd no matter how many people are playing.
With two, one player takes all the points and the other player automatically gets the second place points. I find that this makes the two player game particularly mean. Barring something weird, you pretty much have to win at least two categories to have a chance. This leads to a very aggressive game where each player tries to grab everything they possibly can. There’s no way to slow someone down except by wresting a category from the other person, and that’s not always possible. It’s “either/or,” point-wise, and while it works, it’s frustrating at times.
At higher player counts, it’s still an aggressive game but at least you have a chance to hurt another player and save yourself. If you see that someone is dominating a category or two, you can do whatever you need to do to push them down to third or fourth and take the most points for yourself (or at least gain more than they do). Other players may join with you and try to position themselves above the leader. There’s more room to maneuver because there’s a broader range of points available. Maybe you can’t win the category, but if you can just finish above the guy who won that other category, maybe you have a chance.
Obviously, this is the crux of the strategy in the game. You have to know when you can/should try to take down a majority and when you need to let it go. How much can you safely expend trying to take an area and at what point are you just adding more points to your opponent’s total? Still, with no catch up mechanism and no hidden scoring, it’s too easy to know whether or not you have a chance to win by mid-game and it’s frustrating to know you’re doomed. I had more than one person throw in the towel mid-way through and just go through the motions when it became apparent that there was no way to win. Inexperienced players and players who aren’t good at seeing majorities develop are at a distinct disadvantage.
It’s also a game that needlessly feeds the AP-prone. Because of the way turn order works, it’s tempting to spend a lot of time trying to plan ahead and line up the perfect ship placements so that you can chain together a lot of actions. This is a valid strategy, but it’s difficult to execute. The board changes a lot between turns so it’s almost impossible to plan ahead and have it work out. Sure, you can look ahead and hope, but counting on something to pan out is a recipe for disaster. You’re better off just trying to make the most of what’s available when your turn comes around. Unfortunately, AP-prone players aren’t satisfied with this and will spend way too much time pondering all the permutations, dragging the game down for everyone else. The game dangles a carrot and the AP-prone bite it hard.
All of this may make it seem like I hated the game. Not true. I didn’t hate it, but it’s not going to be one of my favorites, either. I liked the sun mechanic and I liked the decisions you get to make. I like the tension that the game generates. Between only being allowed one action per turn (unless you can create a chain) and needing to know when it’s worth it to take down a majority and when you should let it go, you have a fair amount to consider and do. And I did enjoy seeing the board build and grow as we went along, although near the end it became impossibly overcrowded and stuff was everywhere and difficult to see.
In the end, though, I just felt like I didn’t need to play Antarctica again. As good as it looks on the table, the actual gameplay just didn’t match it. Yes, there are interesting things to do and the turn order is cool, but the scoring is convoluted, the game is pretty mean, the theme is dry, and it’s hard to plan ahead because the board state changes so much between turns. Other than the sun, there just isn’t anything new here that most euro fans haven’t seen before.
Antarctica isn’t a bad game. Everything works and it scales well. It’s not broken in any way and it’s easy to learn and play. It can act as a middle step for gamers looking to transition from light to heavier euros, or even a family game with older kids and experienced gamers. If you get a group that can play it swiftly without giving in to the AP monster and who can all tolerate the meanness, it can be pretty fun. This is particularly true if you’re new to euros and don’t have the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.
Generally, though, I would rate it as a “try before you buy.” Some people are going to love it. They’re going to love the theme and the aggressiveness of the game. They’re going to enjoy the scoring. They’re going to find plenty of value in a mid-weight euro that looks great on the table. I’m not that person, but you may be. So I do recommend trying it, just be aware that it’s not for everyone and you need the right group to bring out its best side.
iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Argentum Verlag and Passport Game Studios for giving us a copy of Antarctica to review.