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Review: Artificium

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Artificium - Components

Flowcharts, they’re one of man’s greatest inventions. Right up there with venn diagrams. Imagine a game where your player board is a flowchart and the cards that you play move things around that flowchart. Hopefully I’ve successfully lured in all you flowchart lovers without scaring off everyone else. Did I mention that you get to micromanage a city?

How It Plays

Ruling a city can be hard work. You’re in the tavern enjoying a night off when one of the local knights comes up to you and complains that the swordsmith hasn’t gotten him that finely crafted sword that he requested. Come to find out that the swordsmith is waiting on the coal and metal that he needs from other local manufacturers. It seems like you need to micromanage everything in this town.

In Artificium you’ll be doing just that. The cards in your hand represent locations around town that either produce goods, refine them into other ones, or provide them to brave adventurers. You’ll start the game with a hand of cards, 5 coins in your treasury, and no resources as indicated on your personal board. Each round starts with an option to swap cards with a public market but we’ll jump right into playing your cards and visit the market at a later point. Since you’re new around here I’ll help you out by giving you a particularly nice starting hand.

Artificium - Starting Hand

At the bottom of your board are the two most basic resources: wood and wheat. You’ll often want to start off by producing either of these to get your production chain started. Fortunately you have a sawmill, playing this card will provide you with two wood.

Artificium - Turn 1

Any time you successfully play a building card you will also get the number of points indicated on the card. Buildings that are further along in the production chain will reward more points. In this case the sawmill provides you with 1 point.

Now that you have some wood you can move along to your next stop, the Charcoal Burner’s House. They’ll gladly take your wood and provide you with some coal.

Artificium - Turn 2

You’ll notice that since this was a more advanced step in the production chain it rewards you with 2 points.

Sometimes a building will require a resource that you don’t have. Your next stop is at the Mill & Bakery which will produce food if you provide them with wheat. Not to worry, you have connections all over town that can get you some wheat for the right price. On your way to the Mill you make a quick stop to pick up some wheat for 2 coins. Best not to show up empty handed. Everyone’s happy and you walk away with some food and more points.

Artificium - Turn 3

Time to venture even further up the production chain. Food is essential to accessing the third tier, with it you can stop off at the Crystal Mine and feed some hungry workers in exchange for a crystal.

Artificium - Turn 4

The highest tier of production is so specialized that it requires two resources, coal and a corresponding third tier good. You can use that crystal you just picked up along with your coal to obtain a potion from the Laboratory (and a hearty 5 points).

Artificium - Turn 5

Later on you’ll be able to take that potion to the Wizard’s Tower to seek the aid of a local wizard. For now you’ve played out your hand and it’s time to head home and call it a day.

Now that you’ve seen how you’ll be playing your cards we can revisit the flow of the round. After receiving your hand of five cards a Market of six cards will be dealt face up. In turn order players have the option to exchange a card from their hand with a card from the market (or ditch their hand and get a new one). This will continue until all players have passed but each trade after the first one will cost 2 coins. Once all players are done trading with the market everyone simultaneously selects a card from their hand to play. Cards are then revealed and executed if able. As explained above you always have the option to buy any resources that you need to successfully execute a card. However, if you don’t have enough money you can gather the necessary funds by selling other resources. Along with buildings there are also special action cards that will resolve before the building cards. Actions range from productive benefits such as collecting money or taking back a card from play to hindering your opponents by stealing their cards or resources.

The scoring track also provides an additional way to gain resources. At certain point intervals there are resources indicated on the board and passing these spots will provide the resource.

Artificium - Score Board
The scoreboard – someone send a knight after blue!

At the very top tier are two characters that will consume several resources along with a coin in exchange for a powerful action and a significant chunk of points. Wizards allow you to draw 5 cards and then discard 3 from your hand, letting you play additional cards on the round that they were hired. Knights attack your opposition by letting you pick an opponent to lose 4 points.

Once four rounds have been completed the game ends and all players sell any resources they have left on their boards. Every 4 coins adds one point to your final score and the player with the highest score is crowned king of the micromanagers.

Production Chain or Micromanaging Pain

I played Artificium for the first time at an Asmodee preview event during Gen Con last year. In a room full of heavy hitters and hotly anticipated games Artificium managed to stand out to me. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t heard of it before but I stepped away from my first play incredibly impressed. It’s not necessarily that Artificium was doing something really novel but rather that the design seemed so elegant. I was enamored. In the following months I waited eagerly to get another chance to play in order to see if the game could live up to what I had experienced in my first encounter. I’m happy to say that it did indeed meet my lofty expectations.

Streamlining Resource Management

What initially caught my attention in Artificium was the streamlining of resource conversion into something dead simple and easy to grasp. I love resource conversion as a mechanic but one of my biggest complaints is often how hard it can be to learn a game’s production chain. More expansive chains provide players with meatier decisions but impose a learning curve that can create a significant barrier to entry. Artificium gets around this problem by printing the whole production chain on the individual player boards. Helping you visualize the process solves many problems at the same time. First off you can easily see how goods convert from one tier to the next, in effect this is showing you what options the building cards in the game provide. Second, it lets you quickly see if you have the resources necessary to execute a card. All the information is in one place and it’s incredibly accessible and easy to visualize. The information itself is organized very well. The board is symmetrical and all tiers except for the second function in the same manner. The second tier is unique in that each good has a specific function in providing stepping stones to the other tiers (food for the third, coal for the fourth, and beer for hiring characters).

This extends to ease of teaching. The rulebook is four pages of which only two are used to explain the rules. The flow of the game is as simple as pick a card, resolve it, repeat. The action cards and characters are just about the only thing that players may not pick up on right away but their effects are simple and referenced on the back of the rules. The gameplay is also fast due to the card selection and execution being simultaneous (aside from actions). Because of this it scales well to more players and only threatens to drag during the market draft while players are still learning.

Another innovation that Artificium offers is rewarding players for the production process not just the end result. Every time you play a building card to produce or convert goods you get points. There is no wasted effort in this system, as long as you are successfully executing your cards you are compensated for it even if you never end up using the goods you produced. Yet the reward structure still encourages players to work their way up to the highest tiers as you’d expect.

Artificium - Player Board
Your flowchart, I mean kingdom, awaits

Breaking the Production Chain

Artificium hinges on the concept of setting up a chain of cards that can be executed in sequence. Ideally you’d be able to play every card in your hand and it’s rewarding to do so especially when the cards fuel each other. There are two areas where this chain can be broken and the results can be jarring and off putting. Right from the start of the game you are faced with the first offender, luck of the draw. Your friend could be dealt a perfect hand while you get a bunch of high tier cards or ones that don’t chain together. You’ll be faced with this again at the beginning of every round as you are dealt a completely new hand. Fortunately you have several options to work around bad cards. There’s the market where you can trade out cards (or get a new hand) in an effort to create chains. Likewise you can buy goods to fill in the gaps when the cards you need don’t show up. Both of these options require you to spend money and obviously you would rather be dealt a coherent hand in the first place so that you don’t need to spend your money. I’ll come back to why I think this system still manages to work in a little bit.

The worse offender is the nasty action cards. Two of the cards offer additional flexibility, either getting money or being able to play a card from your hand a second time. But the other two are far less productive and center around interfering with your opponent. Stealing is an effective way to hamper people’s plans but in Artificium it can be downright devastating. When you set up a chain of cards that all rely on the previous one things can grind to a halt. Suddenly goods that you just produced are stolen or a card in the middle of your chain is taken. There are two ways of looking at this.

On one hand the game encourages you to create and execute chains. Your board makes it easy to see how goods will move along the production path. It’s fun and rewarding to play your cards in sequence. It seems as though most people want to plan out their turn without having to consider what could go wrong. In contrast to that you’re given the ability to break chains. Within this mindset it doesn’t seem right and feels unnatural. If you want certainty and planning then the action cards will definitely sour your experience.

On the other hand everyone knows that these cards exist. If you set up a chain where each card relies on the previous one then you are taking a risk in doing so. You know your chain can be broken so if you decide to go forward with such an approach then you either need to provide yourself with some flexibility for when things go wrong (having money on hand) or be willing to end your turn early. This is the camp that I fall into. Artificium is a game of uncertainty, flexibility, and calculated risks. If you don’t like the nasty action cards then you’re free to remove them but I think you’d be better off playing another game as I will shortly explain why I think they’re necessary.

Artificium - Actions
The actions cards, some nasty

Luck and Catching a Runaway Leader

As I mentioned above Artificium has an element of luck inherent in being dealt a new hand of cards each round. You are given ways to mitigate bad luck but that often requires you to spend money. If you are lucky enough to get the perfect cards and can play them without anyone interfering with your plans then you will score more points while spending less money. This becomes even more pronounced if players are fortunate enough to quickly hire a wizard who lets you draw and play even more cards which could lead to hiring even more wizards. If you were simply dealt a hand of cards and played them out as best you could then whoever was lucky enough to hire the most wizards would likely end up winning every time. Fortunately there are several ways to catch a runaway leader which changes the dynamic of the game greatly. This is where I’ll circle back to the necessity of the theft cards. Being able to single out a player to hinder can balance the luck factor. I use the word can because this requires players to pay attention to who’s winning and pick on them. In addition to the action cards there is also the wizard’s counterpart, the knight. Without a doubt the knight is in the game to prevent a player from getting too far ahead. I’ve seen a player chain multiple wizards in a single turn and then go on to lose when they got pilled on by every single knight after that. This creates a dynamic that exists in many area control games. You often want to appear as if you are losing but set yourself up to surge ahead when it matters. That could mean not playing out your entire hand every time or drafting from the market to set yourself up better for future rounds.

Artificium - Characters
Heroes for hire – all they need is beer, money, and a weapon

The Final Word on Artificium

Artificium takes resource conversion and streamlines it better than any game that I have played. The design, in particular the player board, allows players to easily visualize the production chain from beginning to end. It’s an elegant and brilliant concept. The card driven system keeps decisions focused and simultaneous play leads to little down time. As a result it’s easy to teach and quick to play. There’s a luck factor that can be mitigated through drafting and buying resources as well as the ability to interfere with the leaders.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing us with a review copy of Artificium.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Perfectly streamlined resource management
  • Player boards make production chain easy to visualize
  • Easy to teach and quick playing with little downtime
  • Rewards process rather than end result
  • Several ways to mitigate luck and plan around uncertainty

Cons

  • Nasty action cards break production chains, can be very punishing
  • Players can be penalized for doing well
  • High level of uncertainty and risk
  • Doesn't scale as well when learning due to draft phase
8 Very Good

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

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