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Review: Epoch: Early Inventors

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Yes, you have fire at your disposal, but very little else. You’ve gathered your clan together and amassed a stockpile of food. And now what? Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and if you ever hope to force the landscape to submit to your will, necessity will need to be a fertile mother. It’s time to turn your dreams into reality, explore the landscape, and shamelessly borrow your rivals’ best ideas on your way to the history books. They may not remember the inventor, but with any luck, they will remember your inventions.

How It Works

Epoch: Early Inventors is an exploration and resource-management/conversion game for one to four players. Players are clan leaders of tribes in early Europe trying to create inventions to ease life and gain status. The player with the most status at the end of the game wins.

Epoch set up for a solitaire game. Yes, it’s a bit of a table hog.

To begin, players determine whether they want to play a short game or an extended game. Players set up the starting invention tiles around the two central village tiles, then create another ring of face-down tiles, and add four quadrants of tiles to the outside. An offering site is placed in each quadrant, and status tokens are placed on all the face-down tiles.

On a turn, each player may do any or all of the following: take one action, develop one tile, make one offering, and perform free actions.

The main action players can take involves either collecting resources (gathering food, hunting, butchering, or working to get raw materials) or exploring tiles adjacent to their clan leader (turning them face-up and collecting status).

Each tile represents a potential invention, and on each turn, a player may develop the tile they’re standing on or an adjacent tile, paying the indicated resources, placing their hut on the tile, and collecting the invention tile, which will help future actions in the game.

The available inventions in Epoch. Each is individually printed with its own shape and size. That makes it tough to store them (and none of these are identified by title), but it’s undeniably cool to have these in front of you during the game.

If the player is adjacent to an offering site, the player may pay the indicated resources to place their disc on the site. This automatically turns all tiles in the quadrant face-up. Offerings are worth end-game status.

Free actions include things like moving (which costs food dependent on the terrain type) or using inventions to convert raw materials into processed goods.

A player may pay another player 1 status in order to use another player’s inventions as if they were their own for that turn. Players are limited in what they can carry to their caravan mat and any inventions they have; any excess must be left behind when they move.

The player aids are…large. And dense.

The game end is triggered whenever either all of the tiles have been explored, a single player has made two offerings, or a single player has developed eight inventions. Once this is done, players finish the round and play three more rounds.

Players count their loose status markers, the status offered by any inventions they’ve developed, the status conferred by offering sites, and a bonus for how many offerings they’ve completed. The player with the most status wins.

Rise of the Ancients

When most people think of board games, if they aren’t thinking of Monopoly or Clue, they think of long lists of arcane rules, of corner cases of dos and don’ts, of lots of pieces set up and all-day marathons. Basically, they think of The Cones of Dunshire.

The map at the start of the game. All of that status goes to the players who explore.

Epoch: Early inventors, at least on its surface and even though it lacks the random chance of typical American-style games, still has a whiff of The Cones of Dunshire about it. The giant player aids are filled with actions you can take and ways to modify those actions, the rulebook is thick and densely written, and every action has its own cost. It’s a tough game to keep straight in your head, and at least the learning of the game bears some of the frustrations of the stereotypical hobby games of yore. But while Epoch is, indeed, frustrating to learn, if you can push past the individual trees and reach the forest, it’s a surprisingly compelling resource conversion game with a satisfying technology progression. And it’s not nearly as complex as it looks.

This game is positively STUFFED with cardboard…with no real way to sort it. Three dollars at Dollar Tree tamed this box.

But let’s begin with the frustration, because that’s likely to be your first experience with Epoch. This frustration begins with the components. The Epoch box is stacked nearly floor to sealing with thick cardboard components. So far, so good, right? Well, yes and no. The game includes tons and tons of cardboard components with no included way to sort them. I was able to shove most of the resources into storage boxes from Dollar Tree, so I was able to overcome at least some of the frustration, but it’s not a good impression when you’ve punched all the cardboard and realize there’s nowhere to put it.

My inventions mid-game. The other side of these gives specifics of how they work. Neither side identifies these by name.

But that’s a logistics issue, and once it’s solved, it’s mostly in the past. Fine. What is more of a usability issue is that each invention comes on its own individually sized and shaped piece of cardboard, so it’s hard to group these together, and there’s no great solution to keep them from floating free in the box. There are four copies of each invention, even though it’s only possible for two of each invention to be present in any given game. But worse for the usability of the game, none of these inventions bear a title on them. Each of the hex tiles in the game (which represent inventions that players can develop) identifies the invention by name and not by icon; each of the inventions identifies itself by icon and not by name. In order to find the correct piece of cardboard, players must look at one of the mammoth player aids (of which there are two for a four-player game). While this is frustrating, I will admit that having unique pieces for each invention does feel more special than, say, just tracking these inventions on a sheet, even though the latter solution would be much better from a gameplay standpoint. And a few games in, it’s easy enough to remember or tell which invention is which.

One final gripe about the components: the rules offer an extended game (which is the only way to play solitaire), yet there aren’t enough status tokens included with the game to set up the extended game. The designer has indicated that this was a publishing error and has released a small tweak to setup–essentially, each player begins the game with 5 status instead of 2. This is a mostly adequate solution (players are likely to explore early in the game, which will give players 1-status markers to spend), but it would have been better, at least for the early game, if more markers were included.

The map halfway through a game of Epoch.

Okay! I’ve got the cathartic frustrations about the components out of the way. The rest of the components are quite nice. The cardboard is thick and well printed, the wooden pieces are hefty and have a good shape, and the art, while dark, is still visible and pleasant. Some of the resources–namely, flint and stone–can be hard to tell apart, but it’s easy enough to distinguish them once everything’s sorted.

Before we can get to the gameplay, we need to talk about the rulebook, which is its own source of frustration. The frustration here is that the game outsources a lot of key information to the included player aids, making learning the game a bit of a chore. You have to switch back and forth between the two to get an idea of what’s going on, and the rulebook is already the width and height of a standard square game box, double that if you are reading the rules opened like a book. Before you even begin to play the game, the rules are a table hog.

The rulebook and player aids (which are necessary to learning the game) are enormous. This is not an easy game to read the rules while in bed.

Okay, fine: learning the rules is a frustrating experience. But once that’s done, now can we talk about the game? Is it any good? Yes, finally. Let’s talk about the gameplay.

The gameplay in Epoch is pretty interesting, and it gets more interesting the more familiar you become with the system. The main reason for this is what you would expect from its prehistoric setting: scarcity. It is simply difficult to get everything done that you want or need to get done.

The resources in Epoch. The raw materials are squares; the processed goods are circles.

One of the main tension points in the game is the one action players can take on their turn. Initially, when you look at the reference sheet, it seems like you get to do a lot of things each turn. You mean I can move, convert raw materials, develop inventions, and make an offering each turn in addition to taking one action? What’s the problem here?

The problem is that everything you do in Epoch costs resources, and while you can essentially spend resources for free, the limited actions are almost all resource-gathering actions. You want to move? You need food. And if you spend your turn gathering food, you won’t be able to gain the raw materials necessary to develop inventions. Maybe you want to hunt, which will give you food and resources. That’s a good plan, except then you need to spend a turn butchering the deer to get both. And if you want to explore in order to see what new inventions lay to hand, that will prevent you from doing the other actions. The game is in some ways a race–the clock runs as long as players want it to; you just need to be in the lead when it ends–but it’s always a game of efficiency. You want to use each limited action as well as you can since you only get to do one each turn.

The map at the end of the game. The huts indicate which inventions were made this game.

And this introduces another tension point in the game: players can share inventions. This seems so peaceful, but make no mistake–the game is competitive, and if you want to use someone else’s inventions, you have to pay homage to them to the tune of your status (read: points). So players are torn: do they give away their points to be more efficient, hoping to gain even more points later, or do they do things inefficiently in order to avoid benefiting their opponents?

My inventions at the end of the game. Impressive!

This leads to still another tension in the game: which inventions to develop. Now, granted, in some ways, the inventions you’ll develop are limited to the kind of resources you have, which are determined by the kind of tiles you’re on and surrounded by, but players have to weigh which inventions are worth chasing. Should they make unique inventions that other players want, thus collecting status with every use? Or should they develop the inventions that are helpful to their own strategies, maybe even copying other players’ inventions to avoid paying status? There’s likely to be some combination of each required in each game, and knowing which way to take can be hard to determine.

In fact, that’s one of the strengths of Epoch. With so many invention tiles, and with the expansive map set up the way it is, it’s impossible to find a killer combo that will be available in each game. Players are limited in what inventions they can develop by the tiles they can move to, and even then, if another player develops an invention first, you’re out of luck. While there may be optimum combos that players can chase, it’s unlikely that the same combos will persist from game to game.

And understanding the technology progression in Epoch gets deeper the more you play. At first, inventing rope making or casting bronze or tanning feels like a waste–you want cooler inventions that get you stuff right now, that make your work more efficient or let you travel using less food. But as you play, you recognize that costs are cheaper when you use processed resources, and making offerings is generally more efficient with processed goods. You can spend your time hunting and then butchering deer, but that’s inefficient, and while it’s necessary at the start of the game to make your inventions out of antlers and skins, it’s much faster to use bronze and leather. The game offers three modes–the first game, standard game, and extended game–and this is a good progression to ease players into the game. The first game setup eliminates some of the errors that players might make in the standard game, of choosing “cool” inventions over immediately useful ones, by stipulating what inventions players begin with. I think my favorite way to play is the “standard game,” where players choose which two of five possible inventions they will start the game with, although there is something to the extended game, starting with nothing and having to forge your own path in unexplored territory.

Among Epoch’s strongest selling points is its thematic ties. No, this isn’t an American-style game of skill checks and dice rolling, but the different types of terrain yield different resources, cost different amounts of food to traverse, and allow the development of different inventions. The inventions themselves cost thematic resources. The game is all about growing stronger and stronger as a clan, garnering status by scratching your living from the cold, hard earth just a little better than the rival clans in the area.

The carrier board acts as a dashboard for each player and also limits what resources can be moved from place to place.

Now, the historical detail provided in Epoch (explained in a long appendix to the rules) can at times bog the game down in simulation territory. Looking at the gigantic player aid at the start of your first game, it’s easy to feel overcome by the weight of a thousand small details. Each terrain costs a different amount of food to traverse and produces different raw materials, meaning it’s necessary to frequently check the included player aids. Further, each action can be aided by certain inventions, and it’s a lot to keep track of–you need to know what your inventions do but also the inventions of your opponents, and there are lots of different choices available. This does get easier the more you play–I’ve played seven times, with one and two players, and after the first three or so plays, the player aid became just an occasional reference–but it does take some investment before you make it to this point. The historical detail the game provides is interesting, but for my taste, I generally prefer a more approachable game.

Epoch is rich but complex, and that will necessarily limit its audience. Your likelihood to enjoy Epoch comes down to a few factors: 1) How much do you enjoy the rich theme of the game? 2) How willing are you to invest in learning the rules to get to the fun of the game? And 3) How often are you likely to play it? If you’re invested in the theme, or if you seldom buy games and have a group that tends to play the same games over and over again, you’re likely to get your mileage out of Epoch, and any effort spent learning the game will pay off. If you could take or leave the theme or tend to flit from game to game, Epoch probably isn’t for you. There is an interesting game here, but it’s probably not worth the effort to get to if you will play only occasionally. Basically, Epoch is a game that has obviously been carefully and lovingly designed, but not with the current hobbyist gaming glut in mind.

My inventions in another game. Each game requires often a wildly different approach.

In my review of Gaia Project (which I rate a 10), I pointed out that a friend of mine said that the return on investment for learning the game wasn’t worth it. And for him it wasn’t–he played it once and isn’t likely to play it again. For me, though, it’s a game whose intricacies I enjoy, and I do play it fairly frequently. While I like Epoch and the idea of collecting resources and developing inventions in a harsh environment is an interesting one, it’s not a game that has fully captivated me, so I’m not likely to play it often enough to retain the rules. Because of the complexity, I’ll have to, in a sense, “re-learn” the game each time, and for that investment, I’m likely to play something with fewer costs.

I’m more likely to play the solitaire game more often than the multiplayer game, mostly because even though it uses a dummy player, the upkeep for this player is quite simple and it avoids the learning curve issue. It’s a fun solitaire game, although you may have to find ways to increase the difficulty (for example, by purposely moving the dummy player to take higher-status paths or by using the carrying board with fewer spaces). This is surprisingly compelling because it’s satisfying to build from nothing to have six to ten inventions, making every action more powerful. But viewed against games like Agricola and Terraforming Mars–both of which are excellent solitaire games, are simpler to learn, and are kinder to players who return to them after a hiatus and both of which offer similar resource management and conversion puzzles–it’s a little harder to recommend Epoch merely for solitaire play.

So that’s where I land on Epoch: Early Inventors. It’s a fun game with a well realized theme and, once you’ve learned the game, excellent components, but one whose learning curve is steep enough that if it isn’t likely to be a prized game in your collection, it’s probably not worth making the investment to learn. For me, I would be happy to play it anytime with others who already know the rules; I’m less enthusiastic about teaching new players unless I know they’ll commit to playing multiple times.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing us with a copy of Epoch to review.

  • Rating: 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Rich setting and immersive gameplay
Strong historical ties
Thick cardboard and nice build quality to components
Lots of variety provided by different game options and which inventions are available to you

Cons:

Steep learning curve and complex gameplay
Usability concerns with the components
Not enough player aids

7.0 Dense but Satisfying

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

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