One of the things that surprised me when I got into board gaming was just how many gamers are also book lovers. The gaming world is full of readers, writers, editors, and librarians. I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked. Gamers like to use their brains and reading is an extension of that skill. (Plus, you gotta read all those rule books if you want to play, so you can’t be word-phobic and be a board gamer.)
Anyway, I’ve always felt that there is a dearth of book-related board games out there. Sure, there’s Paperback, The Big Book of Madness, Bring Your Own Book and a few others, but as a whole, books are overlooked. When I saw a game that has you competing for the position of Grand Librarian in your gnomish village, I knew I had to try it. The question is: Is Ex Libris the game for book lovers, or are you better off just reading a book?
How It Plays
Ex Libris is a worker placement/set collection hybrid that also manages to include a spatial element in the gameplay. You’d think that this might be one mechanism too many, but it all works well together.
In Ex Libris, you are trying to win the coveted position of Grand Librarian. This position is awarded to the person with the best library. To win the job, you’ll have to send yourself and your assistants out into the world to source the finest books. Once you’ve got them, you have to shelve them in order, create strong bookshelves to hold them, and make sure you feature prominent works and avoid banned books. Plus, you want a variety of books to cater to all readers!
When the Official Inspector comes to judge your creation, she’ll award you points for excellence and dock you points for your shortcomings. The player with the most points wins the job.
So how does this work? Rather than describe the game step by step with all of the tiny rules and exceptions which would get tedious, I think this game is best explained in narrative form, as if you were really a librarian seeking this new job. The game is about books after all, so let me tell you a story.
The rules of this job competition are spelled out in advance. Before you begin acquiring books, you’ll be told which books are preferred by the patrons (the prominent works) and which books have been banned. You’ll also be given a secret category that your library should feature. (This keeps the competitors on their toes, trying to suss out what the others are after and maybe sabotage them a little bit.) The more books in that category you can get on your shelves, the more points you will score.
Then you’ll assume your librarian identity and be given your personal library tile. You might be the Mummy in charge of the Crypt of Accursed Knowledge, the Gelatinous Cube in charge of the Dungeon of Deep Thought, the Snowman in charge of the Igloo of Information, or any of the other available libraries/librarians.
In addition to your main librarian (called a special assistant in the game), you’ve got a team of two standard assistants working for you. All of you will venture to the available locations in search of books. (Cards are books in the game, and these cards are what you will be shelving and using to build your amazing library.) Every round, you’ll place your assistants on locations and take the resulting actions.
Locations allow you gain new cards, discard cards, swap cards, shelve cards, move your assistants around after you’ve placed them, and other abilities. New locations appear as the game progresses, so you’ll always have new places to explore and abilities to exploit. You can also choose to visit your own library, which always gives you the ability to draw or shelve a card.
Your special assistant has a unique ability that enables you to break some rules of the game when it visits a location. This may mean that you can move already shelved books around, steal a card from another player, gain extra actions, prevent others from visiting that location, gain extra cards, or any of a host of other special abilities.
Your regular assistants don’t have any special abilities. They’re just schlubs working for a paycheck. They can only take the action of their chosen location, or your own library.
Of course, it’s not nearly so simple. There will be times you won’t be able to visit your desired location because someone else is already there. Even if you do make it to the location, there are some where gambling or auctions are involved, so you may not gain the books you want. If you’re not the first to hit a location, someone else may get there before you and snatch the card(s) you want.
That’s the beauty of shopping for rare books. You have to decide which ones you want most and hurry to those places to get them, while deciding which others you can hope to snatch up later.
Once you’ve got your books, you’ve got to shelve them. During the game you’ll have to balance using your actions to get more books against using some actions to shelve them. An un-shelved book left in your hand at the end of the game is worth nothing.
Shelving is tricky. You can’t just shove stuff onto shelves willy-nilly and hope to impress the Inspector. Your bookshelves cannot be taller than three cards high, out of deference to short visitors. You may only place cards orthogonally next to already shelved cards, never diagonally. Neatness counts. There are other things to aim for when shelving books, and those are noted below.
When the Inspector shows up (for some reason I keep picturing Professor Umbridge in this role saying, “Hem, hem,” as she goes through the checklist on her clipboard), she’s going to evaluate your library on seven criteria:
- Alphabetical Order. Patrons expect to be able to find things easily. Are your books in ABC and numerical order according to the gnomish version of the Dewey Decimal System used in the game? Any cards not shelved in order are flipped over and this will impact some of your other scoring opportunities.
- Categorical Tally. Your patrons will expect a variety of titles, not just a hundred copies of the latest bestseller. How many books do you have in each of the six categories? Each book is worth one point.
- Shelf Stability. Safety first. We can’t have shelves falling on patrons. How many books do you have in your largest rectangle of books, including the bottom row? Rectangles must be at least 2×2 to qualify and each book in that rectangle is worth a point. (Note that you can’t have a rectangle that does not sit on a “full” bottom row below it. There’s no support if there are gaps, so even if you’ve got a nice rectangle going above, it won’t score if the bottom row can’t fully support it.)
- Prominent Works Award. Remember those prominent works that your patrons expect to see featured in your library? The player with the most books in the assigned “Prominent Works” category gets a 15 point bonus. Second place gets 9 points, and third place gets 4 points.
- Banned Books Penalties. You weren’t supposed to include those banned books, but sometimes they sneak in or you just had to shove one in to make a stable shelf. The Inspector will notice. Each book you have in the assigned “Banned” category costs you one point.
- Categorical Variety. The Inspector figures out in which category you have the least amount of books and then multiplies the number of books in that category times three. Sure, you want your library to have plenty of the sought after works, but you also want something for everyone!
- Your Library’s Secret Focus. At the beginning of the game, you were given a category to focus on. How did you do? Every book you have in that category is worth two points.
Umbridge — I mean the Inspector — adds up all the points and awards the job of Grand Librarian to the player with the most points. Hooray!
Do You Want to Check This One Out or Ban it From Your Collection?
As I mentioned above, this game had my interest at the words, “Books” and “Library.” Still, it’s what’s inside the box and what happens on the table that matter. It’s like judging a book by its cover. The cover might be awesome, but the tale within might be a horrible, cliched mess. So was Ex Libris a case of a great cover hiding a terrible game, or is the entire package worthy of attention?
I know you shouldn’t spoil a book by giving away the end, but here’s the end of this review. I really enjoyed Ex Libris! In fact, it ended up surpassing my expectations. (Maybe because I wanted to like it so much when it was announced, I tried to keep my hopes to a minimum to avoid bitter disappointment. Been burned too many times…)
Let’s start with the obvious attractant, the theme. It is carried out very well here. There are twelve different librarians/libraries and each has a unique “personality” and ability. You get interesting meeples to represent the special assistants, the coolest of which is the gelatinous cube. The dry-erase clipboard for final scoring is also a bit of thematic genius. You can really see the inspector standing in your library ticking off the good and the bad. Plus, it’s much nicer than score pads that run out and have to be repurchased/printed.
But the real winners are the book cards. There are over 500 in the game and every one features a unique set of books with funny titles. The designer/publisher could have just slapped books on cards with no titles and it would have served the same purpose, but they took the time to make an actual library. And I do feel a bit like I’m shelving books, especially when using the letter/number/category system employed in the game to represent a sort of scaled down Dewey Decimal system.
While Ex Libris is set in a fantasy universe, I don’t think it’s as likely to turn off fantasy-haters as some other games. Here you’re not crawling through a dungeon, or engaging in combat. There are no orcs or demons. It’s more like Harry Potter-level fantasy with wizards and odd creatures. And they’re cute and funny, not violent or scary. Anyone who likes books will probably find the theme engaging. If they also like fantasy, so much the better.
Yeah, yeah, so it looks great. But how does it play? The first thing to note is that this is not a heavy worker placement game a la Vinhos or Keyflower. Complexity-wise it’s more on par with Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep. If something in that vein is too light for you, then Ex Libris might not be a good choice.
However, if you’re in the market for a light/mid-weight game, Ex Libris is a solid choice. It’s not quite a gateway game, but someone determined to learn it should be able to figure it out, even with no exposure to hobby games. It may look a little complex and intimidating to some, but it’s easy to learn.
The rules are well presented and break everything down into easily digestible steps. The things you do in the game align with the theme, so everything is fairly intuitive. The only hitch in learning the game is that the location and library tiles have tiny white print on colorful backgrounds and they can be difficult to read. Until you memorize which tile offers which special ability, there’s a lot of flipping back and forth in the rules. Otherwise you’re picking up tiles or climbing around the table to read them.
The rules also include variants for beginners and those who want longer games, as well as solo play. There is also a variant that removes all of tiles that allow you to mess with opponents so you can play a friendly game. There isn’t much screwage in the regular game, but for those who want none, that is an option.
What impressed me about the game was how it managed to do several things at once without ending up a muddled mess. The primary mechanism is worker placement. You’re placing your assistants on locations and then taking the benefits of those locations. But you’re using those locations to power your set collection efforts. Which locations have the cards you need for your library, and how will you prioritize getting them?
And you can’t just be worried about getting cards. You have to use some of your actions/locations to shelve your books. Un-shelved books do nothing for you at game’s end, so you’ve got to use some of your actions to put them in your library. You have to strike the right balance to do well.
Arranging your library is the third part of the game, and it’s a delicious spatial puzzle. Not only should your books be in ABC order, they also need to be arranged so that your shelves are stable. Sometimes you have to shelve a book out of order (or throw in a banned book) just to get stable shelves. You have to evaluate when taking an unfavorable point hit with an out of place book might lead to a greater advantage later.
All this going on means that there are lots of ways you can score and create a path to victory. You can focus on your personal objective, or try to cram in as many prominent works as possible. You can try to build a huge rectangle of books, or go for as many categories as possible. No matter what you choose, though, you shouldn’t neglect a scoring area entirely because an opponent may just hammer you by grabbing all those points.
Astute players will watch their opponents and try to figure out their plans. If you can figure out which categories your opponents are focusing on, you can try to deny them cards by getting to them first. Or, you can invoke some of the special abilities that allow you to bump opponents off of a location, steal cards, or force them to discard cards. As I said above, there aren’t a ton of ways to mess with your opponents, but there are a few and wise players will take advantage.
I was also pleased with the game-to-game variability of Ex Libris. There are twelve different libraries/librarians, each with a different ability. Each game will play differently depending on which one you get. There are also eighteen different locations which come out randomly each game. Adding to your worries: When a choice location does show up, it may not stay in the game.
There is a mechanic where, after each round, only the lowest numbered location is moved to the “permanent locations” that stay for the remainder of the game. The others are discarded. Not only do you have to decide which locations to visit, you have to take into account which ones you may only get one shot at. (Ah, what a tangled web of decisions this game weaves.)
Finally, there’s just the way this game makes me feel. I love playing it. These days I’m always looking for games that provide a solid (but not overwhelming) amount of decision making in under an hour-ish. Once everyone gets the hang of it, you can finish a two player game in 30-45 minutes. (And this game plays very well at two player, which isn’t something you can always say about worker placement. It scales well at all counts, but extra points go to the great 2p experience.)
The decisions are numerous and meaty and I never feel like I’m being pushed in a certain direction by the game. There is some luck of the draw involved and a certain amount of making the best of what you get, however. The cards come out randomly, as do the locations. You can never count on a specific thing being there when you want it. Still, that small amount of luck feels right in a game that’s family-friendly and just a bit beyond gateway status.
The bottom line is that, for me, Ex Libris manages to feel somewhat unique. The combination of worker placement, set collection, and puzzle solving scratches all of my happy gaming areas, but doesn’t linger so long on any one area that it starts to chafe.
Of course, as with anything, there are some negatives. I’ve mentioned the tiny print and the little bit of luck (which isn’t really a negative to me, but I know that some people abhor the tiniest whiff of luck so I have to mention it).
The other drawback to the game itself is that scoring is kind of a pain in the rump. That dry erase board is neat, but checking off and tallying all of the areas in which you can score gets a bit tedious, particularly with more players. It’s not a deal breaker, but in a game that feels and plays so breezily, the fact that scoring grinds things to a halt is sort of a drag. (Still, you can liven things up if you make the scorer act like an Inspector and get all pompous when doing the scoring.)
Lastly, there is my personal peeve and that’s with the banned books. As a reader and an author, I hate the idea of book banning and censorship. Ex Libris has a banned books category and you lose points for including them in your library. I’m not certain I like the lesson this teaches, which is that banned books are somehow unworthy and censorship is okay. I know it’s all in good fun here and it’s just my personal sensitivity and bias, but it bugs me. It may not bug you, and it doesn’t bug me enough not to love the game in every other respect. It’s just one small thing that grates on me and since I know a lot of readers and writers will play this, I wanted to lay it out there.
So that’s the story. Ex Libris is a fun, lighthearted job interview for the position of Grand Librarian that manages to combine several mechanisms into a smooth playing thing of beauty. If you’re looking for a light to medium game, or possibly something you can use to introduce the basics of worker placement, I don’t think you can go wrong here. And for book lovers, writers, editors, and other bookworms, it’s an easy choice.