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Review: Century: Spice Road

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Century Spice Road - Box
All pictures in this review are courtesy of Jennifer.

They say variety is the spice of life. But for you, spice is the spice of life. (You’re very literal.)

As a spice trader along the spice road, you’ll do anything you can to make a deal. Wheeling and dealing is your MO. Sure, you’ll trade those lesser spices for cinnamon, only to turn around and trade that cinnamon for even more lesser spices than you started with. It’s all about seeing the world and fulfilling contracts just a little bit faster and better than your competitors. It’s why you became a spice trader in the first place.

That and proximity to the sea. It’s a great time to be a trader in the Mediterranean.

How It Works

Century: Spice Road is an engine-building resource-conversion game for two to five players. Players are spice merchants along the spice road, seeking to produce and trade the spices necessary to fulfill contracts. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Century Spice Road - Start Cards & Spices
Each player starts with the same two cards: a production card and an upgrade card. The spice bowls are placed within reach of the players.

To begin, place the four bowls of spices in ascending value order on the table (yellow, red, green, and brown). Each player receives a caravan card and a starting hand of a production card and an upgrade card. The contracts are shuffled, and five cards are placed face-up next to the deck. Next, the merchant cards are shuffled, and six cards are placed face-up next to the deck. Gold coins are placed over the contract card farthest from the deck, and silver coins are placed over the contract card second farthest from the deck. The player with the starting caravan card will begin the game, and each player receives spice cubes according to seating order.

On a turn, a player must do one of four actions:

  1. Play a card from hand
  2. Take a merchant card from the row
  3. Claim a point card
  4. Take all played merchant cards back into the hand

Merchant cards come in three varieties: production cards, which give the player spices; upgrade cards, which allow a player to upgrade lower-value spices into higher-value ones; and trade cards, which allow a player to trade the indicated spices for a different batch of spices. Production and upgrade cards are performed once; trade cards can be used as many times as the player discards the indicated spices.

Players may take new merchant cards from the row. The card farthest from the deck is free. For every card a player skips over to take a card closer to the deck, the player must place a spice cube on the skipped card. The cards closest to the deck slide down to fill in holes, and a new card is revealed.

Century Spice Road - Scoring Cards
Contract cards are where players will score the bulk of their points.

To claim a contract card, a player discards the spices indicated on the card and takes the card. If the card is one of the two farthest from the deck, the player also gets a coin, worth points at the end of the game.

The game ends whenever a player claims their fifth (or sixth in a two- or three-player game) contract card. The players play out the round so everyone gets the same number of turns. Players add the points on their completed contract cards, the points from their coins, and points for non-yellow spices, and whoever has the most points is the winner.

The Spice Must Flow

Century: Spice Road is the kind of game that should be dry but isn’t. It’s the kind of game that should feel samey but doesn’t. It’s the kind of game that will probably drive players interested in thematic integration crazy, but I love it.

I think what makes Century: Spice Road so enjoyable is the flow. The underlying game is interesting, but before anything else, you need to know that the game moves along so smoothly and seamlessly that the pace itself is a draw.

Century Spice Road - Player Cards
The caravan cards are nice but are essentially a dumping ground for cubes. There is also a starting player symbol on one of the cards.

Of course, a game with no decisions can also breeze by. What makes Century so much fun is the puzzle. The game is similar, in some ways, to much longer Euro games, where players collect one resource, trade it for another, trade it for another, and turn it in for points. Even though the conversions here could be anything–I don’t really feel like a spice merchant, and the included cubes do not exactly draw players into the theme–the conversions are interesting because they are not straightforward. Aside from each player’s initial upgrade card and one more in the merchant deck, most of the game is in trading cubes for other cubes, and the trades are often roundabout. You might trade lots of yellow cubes at once for a few more valuable cubes, or you might trade lots of yellow cubes for lots of red cubes. You might trade a brown cube for two green or a brown for several yellow and red. There is variety in the merchant deck, and the game is about finding and exploiting combos that work for you. It’s lovely when you compile a hand of cards that work perfectly together, jumping from one thing to the next effortlessly.

But Century isn’t necessarily a game that allows you to hit the same levers again and again. The game revolves around contract cards, and it’s a race, so while you might, for example, be able to get brown cubes easily, if the cards you’re going for don’t require brown cubes, it can throw off what you’re doing, forcing you either to be less efficient or to collect more merchant cards. Similarly, if another player is putting pressure on you by saving up to collect the same card as you, you might turn in cubes before you’re ready, throwing off the precision of your machine. It’s adapting to these moments of ruined efficiency that differentiate Century and make it exciting rather than a simple Euro exercise. While player interaction isn’t super high in this game (by necessity: low player interaction is what allows the flow I praised at the outset), it’s not nonexistent: players have to monitor what the other people at the table are doing and adjust their plans accordingly.

Century Spice Road - Money
Coins are worth points at the end of the game, and they can make certain contracts more lucrative than they might otherwise be. Gold coins are worth 3 points; silver coins are worth 1 point.

Part of this monitoring is noticing what cards players choose from the market. Players can only execute conversions they have in their hand, and it’s open information which cards players choose from the market. The tricky bit is that because the cubes and conversions have so little thematic tie, it can be hard to remember exactly what another player has. To me, this is a draw: Century could easily bog down in calculation if players had a perfect handle on what each other player is doing. Since this isn’t usually the case, the flow is maintained.

I like the card row system, where players are rewarded for choosing the “oldest” card. Players receive bonus points for choosing the oldest contract, and they pay nothing (and often receive bonus spices) for choosing the first card in the market. I like that getting the perfect card for a player’s engine will often cost them something, and while having the perfect card is obviously a boon, sometimes the hit in liquid spices isn’t worth the risk. So again, players have to adapt and often have to choose opportunity over perfection.

Century Spice Road - Merchants
The merchant cards in Century: Spice Road. This art, again, looks nice, but there aren’t many more illustrations than what is shown here, which seems like a missed opportunity.

And that’s one of the better points of this game. The decisions are real and are simple enough to keep the flow of the game going but opaque enough that they feel important. When do you decide to switch from taking cards in the merchant market to using those cards to get the spices you need for contracts? You can set up the perfect hand for late-game efficiency, but if another player is able to get what they need using only a few cards, you will likely have waited too long. But it’s hard to quantify what “waiting too long” is. Even having played several games of Century now, it’s hard for me to gauge. This is a fun wrinkle of the puzzle. There are also trade-offs in which contracts to go for. There are lots of low-scoring contracts that aren’t worth much, and you might be able to get more points if they’re in the coin-earning slots. The question is, is quantity or quality better? I’ve seen players win by rushing the end game, fulfilling mostly smaller contracts, and I’ve seen players who look like they’re behind because they have only a few contracts win because their contracts were worth a lot of points. Again, it’s tricky to know which strategy to pursue, or which combinations to take. I like this, as it’s an optimization puzzle that anyone can play. Skill helps, and it matters, but the decisions are opaque enough (and the rules simple enough) that a new player shouldn’t feel completely left out.

Century is the kind of game, too, that new players are likely to enjoy. The rules are super simple and easily digestible–all the rules with illustrated examples fit on a single double-sided card–and as gameplay ramps up, players feel more and more clever for what they’re doing. And there’s something to do each turn, making each turn engaging (and it’s your turn often enough that it’s easy to overlook the low, indirect player interaction). Scoring is kept secret, so new players probably won’t be fully aware of it if they’re losing badly.

Century Spice Road - Everything
All the components. Okay, it does look pretty nice on the table, even without the playmat (sold separately).

I enjoy Century: Spice Road a lot. As long as the game moves at a brisk pace, it is a delight to play. However, in one game deliberate players made the game more of a slog. With each player able to perform only one action per turn, it’s fairly easy to plan out what you want to do, and since the only thing other players can do to you is take cards that you wanted before you get them, there’s not a whole lot that changes in the landscape before it’s your turn again. It’s easy to put together a plan and execute it. Some players, though, still wanted to examine their options every time play came to them, moving Century from the cool breezes of the Mediterranean to the stifling desert heat of the Sahara. This seems entirely a player problem (to me, the game does not induce analysis paralysis), but it’s something I did encounter, and you might as well. I still haven’t played a game that lasted more than sixty minutes, even with teaching, but it’s much more tolerable when the game maintains its steady flow.

Century also has the strange quality of looking utterly samey on paper. The game, while fully randomized before each play (different contracts, different merchant cards available), doesn’t feel all that different from one play to the next. It’s the same kind of puzzle each game, and while it’s fun to play when you’re at the table, it’s not likely to produce moments that you’ll remember for ages to come. Even for Reiner Knizia’s Ra, a game that many regard as themeless, I can recall some of my more epic games, like the time I drew the flood tile I needed at the eleventh hour to steal the win. Or the time someone gambled on a short round and Ra tiles just. weren’t. drawn. I guess what I’m saying is that while Century flows well and it’s fun, but it’s not exactly memorable from one session to the next. That’s not necessarily a knock against it–Splendor is similarly unmemorable from one session to the next, and many think Dominion is the same (I disagree)–but it is something to be aware of. If you prize narrative arc in your board gaming–well, what are you doing anywhere near this game? If you’re looking for a game that performs well every time it hits the table, though, this is it. It has a similar addictive quality to Splendor and Dominion, even if it also relies more on puzzly gameplay than player interaction to achieve this interest.

Century Spice Road - Insert
The insert has a place for everything…except sleeves.

The components in Century are good, but perhaps not as lavish as they appear on first examination. The insert that holds everything nicely in place is just big enough for the components as they come in the game, but not large enough to handle sleeved cards (a bummer for this sleever). The card art, which appears nice and lavish, is indeed pretty, but there are so few art pieces in the game that it’s a little baffling why the cards are as large as they are. I like the nice, large cards, but the amount of necessary information on the cards is minuscule, and for the amount of space devoted to illustrations, it’s strange that so many of them use identical art. It’s also puzzling that for a game set in the 15th century (according to the side of the box), the art appears to depict ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. (I don’t know if the art is a holdover from when the game was called Caravan, but it doesn’t seem to match the announced setting.) The colored cubes aren’t an issue to me, and I suppose they will allow the different games in the series to combine to move through different settings seamlessly, but they are difficult to tell apart. I warned one colorblind player before we began that the game might be difficult for him. He examined the cubes beforehand and said he would be fine, but he did struggle as we played to differentiate the different colors. I do think the metal coins are a nice touch, and I love the inclusion of bowls in the game. Despite the few missteps or puzzling decisions, I’m overall pleased with what comes in the package. I’ve played the game with three, four, and five players, and I’ve liked it at all those counts. I imagine this would be a decent two-player game, but I haven’t played with that number, so I can’t speak to that.

When I first read the rules for Century: Spice Road, I sold it to my friends as “Concordia meets Splendor meets Uwe Rosenberg-style resource conversions,” and I don’t think I was too off the mark in that initial description. If that kind of description excites you, you will probably like Century. Despite having a dry theme and a similar puzzle each game, it’s compelling to find combinations of cards and cubes that work for you and to fulfill contracts before the competition. Century won’t be for everyone, and I’m not sure how long the addictive flavor will hold, but if you like quick, Euroy optimization puzzles, Century: Spice Road is a good avenue to take.

  • Rating 9.0
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 7
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Summary

Pros:

Smooth gameplay and simple rules
Simple yet opaque decisions mean it's hard to optimize this optimization puzzle
Large cards, storage bowls, and metal coins are a great touch.

Cons:

Not a lot to make the game memorable from one session to the next
There aren't many different art pieces in the game

9.0 Spice, Spice Baby

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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