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Review: Spyrium

3

Spyrium box cover

In an alternate historical reality, the discovery of a new supermaterial called spyrium changes the face of England as miners, entrepreneurs, professors, and bureaucrats seek to harness its properties and carve their own empires out of Mother England.

In our reality, players place workers and take actions in a grid of cards to earn victory points. But the way they do it is novel and fresh!

How It Works

Spyrium is a worker-placement/engine-building game for two to five players. Players are entrepreneurs in a steampunk setting trying to harness the new and valuable spyrium deposits that have been discovered. The player with the most points is the winner.

Here is a game set up for five players. The board tracks the score, the future and active event, the residence track, and which phase each player is in. The 3x3 grid is the market, where players will place their workers to activate cards.
Here is a game set up for five players. The board tracks the score, the future and active event, the residence track, and which phase each player is in. The 3×3 grid is the market, where players will place their workers to activate cards.

At the start of the game, each player receives three workers, two spyrium crystals, and eight money as well as a start card/player aid. Each player starts on the 2 space of the residence track, and a 3×3 grid of cards is laid on the table to form the market. One player receives the first player card. The event deck is shuffled and placed face up on the future events stack, and the first event card is moved to the active event spot.

Spyrium is played over six rounds, and each round has two phases: placement and activation. The catch is that each player may enter the activation phase whenever they wish (but may not move back to the placement phase once in the activation phase).

Each player receives a start card, two spyrium, eight money, and three workers at the start of the game. Techniques are placed to the left of the start card, and buildings are played to the right. Players have to pay extra to play building cards to clear a lot for them.
Each player receives a start card, two spyrium, eight money, and three workers at the start of the game. Techniques are placed to the left of the start card, and buildings are played to the right. Players have to pay extra to play building cards to clear a lot for them.

During the placement phase, players have three choices on their turns. They may either place a worker between any two cards in the market (must be between cards), activate this round’s event, or move into the activation phase.

In the activation phase, players have three choices. They may take back a worker, either to activate one of the cards the worker is between or to gain money based on the workers still around the card. They may activate the round’s event if they haven’t already done so. They may also activate one of their buildings. Once all of their workers are returned from the market, if players have nothing more they wish to do, they may pass.

There are three types of cards: characters, techniques, and buildings.
There are three types of cards: characters, techniques, and buildings.

There are three types of cards that can be activated in the market. No matter which card is activated, a player must always pay one money extra to activate a card for each meeple around the card (friendly or otherwise). Blue cards are buildings–they provide some benefit to only the player who activates (builds) them. (Additionally, a player must pay extra to construct buildings to clear a lot for them, though players can earn a discount if they build over previous buildings.) Green technique cards grant the player who patents them a rule-breaking ability for the remainder of the game. And character cards remain in the market and may be activated multiple times for their special ability. (Some have a limited number of uses, represented by tokens on the card.)

When players reach 8 and 20 points, they may choose a reward–either an extra worker or 5 money. Whichever reward they don’t choose at 8 is their reward when they reach 20 points.

Each game has three rounds of A cards, two rounds of B cards, and one round of C cards. With the exception of round C, players will not see every card.
Each game has three rounds of A cards, two rounds of B cards, and one round of C cards. With the exception of C cards, players will not see every card in these decks.

At the end of a round, any cards remaining in the market are discarded, and a new 3×3 grid is laid out. Each player receives the amount of money indicated by their place on the residence track, the first player card passes to the left, and a new round begins. The game follows six rounds, three rounds in step A, two rounds in step B, and one round in step C, with cards getting better (and more expensive) as the game progresses. After six rounds, the player with the most points is the winner.

Steam-Powered, or Just Hot Air?

First off, let’s talk about theme: if you are considering getting this game just because it’s steampunk, you will be sorely disappointed. The artwork is nice and somewhat steampunky, but it has little bearing on the way the game plays. Even the buildings are named only in the rulebook (presumably to make the game language independent) , so there’s no need for pesky steampunk monikers to get in the way during gameplay. In fact, the game would work just as well (perhaps even better) centered in the industrial revolution with coal as the magic resource. All this to say, don’t get this game if all you’re looking for is an immersive steampunk experience.

No card names appear on the cards in Spyrium, but there is a very thematic description of them in the rules...
No card names appear on the cards in Spyrium, but there is a very thematic description of them in the rules…

But that aside, if you like economic or worker placement games, do get Spyrium. I lobbied for Spyrium in our 2013 Game of the Year awards and chose it as my game that got away, so it’s pretty obvious that I think this game is great. But allow me now to tell you why.

Worker placement games are not my favorites. Worker placement has become popular as a mechanism for good reason: it instills competition for game resources and rewards, it is fairly intuitive to understand, and it provides a natural flow for game rounds. The problem is, it’s also, in many cases, terribly boring. Don’t get me wrong: I like some games with worker placement. But worker placement in and of itself isn’t a mechanism that excites me. But you know what does excite me? Economics! (This is the part where you all leave me, quietly, to my spreadsheet.) And Spyrium, while being a worker placement game, uses its worker placement in a novel way to serve the greater good of the game’s economy.

That technique card is a hot commodity in this market. If yellow buys the card now, she will have to pay five extra cash. Or if yellow retrieves her worker, she can get five money.
That technique card is a hot commodity in this market. If yellow buys the card now, she will have to pay five extra cash. Or if yellow retrieves her worker, she can get five money.

Each placement in Spyrium is, in essence, a bid. You’re bidding on one of the two cards the worker borders. And in fact, you may be bidding on neither of them: you might simply be making the card more expensive for another player, or trying to cash in on the card that everyone wants. The coolest thing about this placement is that the multiplicity of options means your opponents won’t always know what you’re up to. Yes, if you’ve patented the sweet technique that gives you extra points for using factories, you might be more interested in that factory card than the one that moves you further along the residence track, but again, this isn’t always obvious. It also means that unlike most worker placement games, your placement doesn’t guarantee you anything–your placement only matters in the activation phase.

The others side of this is that each placement is fluid. Even if you place in a spot for one card, you might decide mid-round to use that worker for something else. Maybe you need money, or you recognize that you really do need that other card, and badly. Everything in Spyrium has a price, and where you place your workers helps determine it. And because cash is so tight in the game (especially in the first several rounds), it behooves players to get in each other’s way–not just to drive up the price of cards for them but also because the most lucrative money-making schemes involve leeching off others’ placements. The system is fluid and engaging. It’s genius, and it ramps up player interaction in a genre that is often accused of fostering multiplayer solitaire.

Spyrium. This is what it's all about, folks. The game may not be great thematically, but I love handling these bits.
Spyrium. This is what it’s all about, folks. The game may not be great thematically, but I love handling these bits.

Spyrium bears some resemblance to The Speicherstadt, a worker placement auction game by Stefan Feld. I like The Speicherstadt’s auction system, but the game itself feels almost too mechanical, too bland. The most interesting aspect of the game is the placement, and everything else is just pushing players back to the interesting placement phases. I liked the bones of The Speicherstadt but not the flesh. Spyrium takes the skeleton of Speicherstadt and makes it into a full and engaging game, one in which the placement is still probably the most interesting part, but the game as a whole is interesting, and there are more considerations to make for each placement.

Another aspect that I love about Spyrium is the timing. Each round has two phases, but players need not enter the second phase at the same time. Cards cannot be activated in phase 1, but players may not place more workers in phase 2. There’s a delicate balance here, especially if you see a card you want. You can enter phase 2 before other players have finished placing their workers in the market, preempting your opponents and activating a card from under them, but doing so may prevent you from using all your workers in a round. Sometimes this is worth it, for example, if there  is a particularly juicy technique in the market, or if you’ll use those other workers in your buildings anyway. And sometimes it’s worth it to enter phase 2 last because having all of your workers in the market can net you a lot of stuff in a single round. There is also some neat back-and-forth in the timing. In every game I’ve played, new players have asked, “Can I pass and leave my workers in the market?” (Just to drive up the prices for other players.) But no, you can’t do this. In order to pass, all of a player’s pieces must be removed. You can get around this, however, by spending your turns activating buildings or the round’s event, removing workers at the last possible second. The timing decisions in the game lead to a fascinating game of chicken, and I love trying to maneuver my workers in such a way as to block my opponents while opening opportunities for myself. And of course, there is the timing involved in pacing your score. At 8 and 20 points, you get either a new worker or five money. Both choices are very tempting early in the game, and players must consider when they think they can pass the next milestone in order to claim their second benefit.

Players receive a benefit at 8 points and a different benefit at 20 points. Which will you take and when?
Players receive a benefit at 8 points and a different benefit at 20 points. Which will you take and when?

Spyrium has a lot of variety in it from game to game. Even though the cards that will come out in each game are largely the same (although there are some unused cards in the A and B deck), the order they come out is not, and the order is important to the game. More than the order, the position of the cards is important. Each placement is a dilemma: this card or that. (Or even a trilemma: this card, that card, or cash?) Too many good cards in close proximity can drive the costs up for everybody, and with limited workers, you will likely be unable to do everything you want to do. Similarly, there are seven event cards included in the game, and only six happen in each game, and the order differs from game to game. Events can be powerful at the right time, and some are more effective in either the early or the late game, so this setup affects individual games differently.

There is also variety in that the game plays differently with each number of players. Spyrium accommodates two to five players, and in my opinion it does a great job at this. There are no fixes to the game dependent on number of players; the game mostly fixes itself. In a two-player game, there’s less money to be had (fewer workers to get coin from), but the cards are also cheaper (there are fewer workers driving up the price). Conversely, in a five player game, everything is expensive, but there are also more opportunities for earning money. In low or high player count games, players will always want more cards than they are able to purchase, and the fun of the game is in managing resources, so it doesn’t make much difference how many are at the table. More players at the table does, however, open up more strategies and paths to victory in the game. For example, I once won a five-player game without buying a single factory. Instead, I climbed quickly up the residence track and then kept choosing to score my level rather than advancing. What made this strategy possible was the character cards with chips on them. In a five-player game, there were more opportunities to advance and score (four on each card), and my opponents were too busy in other areas of the market to stop me; in a two-player game, there is only one opportunity per card. I think the sweet spot for the game is the three- to four-player range (the perfect downtime to competition ratio), but I would by no means reject a game outside this range.

The final round of Spyrium always contains these nine cards, but they still come out in a different order, and placement matters.
The final round of Spyrium always contains these nine cards, but they still come out in a different order, and placement matters.

The components in Spyrium are very nice. The cards are on nice linen stock, the spyrium crystals are great, and the player pieces are serviceable. What recommends itself most in the components is the box. This game is a full-sized experience in a small-footprint box. Not microgame small, but the box is the same size as (but thinner than) Carcassonne and Race for the Galaxy. And the price point reflects it. It’s not uncommon to find the game for $25 or less, and at that price, if you like what you see, it’s a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, the playtime does not reflect the game’s small size. Spyrium is a thinky game. It’s brain-burning at times because resources within the game are so scarce and because a miscalculation can be costly. Money is tight, and players must really consider how best to make their resources stretch. Despite this, the game moves along at a decent pace. There’s always something for other players to consider on each player’s turn, and each player may take only one action per turn, which keeps the game moving briskly. But there are enough calculations to be made in the game that I despair of this one ever becoming a lunchtime favorite. I’ve gotten the two-player game down to 75 minutes (and that includes teaching time), but adding more players slows the game down. I can imagine getting the three-player game down to an hour with experienced players, but this one will likely have to remain a game night title for the time being.

These event cards appear in a random order each game. Can you use them to their full advantage?
These event cards appear in a random order each game. Can you use them to their full advantage?

I don’t have much to say against Spyrium. I mentioned that the steampunk theme doesn’t add anything to the game, but it doesn’t detract (or distract) either. The main problem I have with Spyrium isn’t a problem with the game at all, only others’ perception of it. Namely, the game doesn’t usually make a good first impression. Part of the problem is that the game, while using some mechanics familiar from other games, combines them in a completely new and fresh way. The game makes sense, and it flows well once you know what you’re doing, but it’s not at all intuitive. Some parts are intuitive: you need spyrium to refine in the factories, obvs. But what may not be intuitive is that you need to place your workers in such a way that they will both buy the stuff you need and generate the money you need to buy the stuff. Players get a small allowance at the start of each round dependent on their position on the residence track, but they’ll need to earn more money through clever placement in the market. Also, for new players, I’ve noticed that the technique cards, despite my consistent warnings not to undervalue them, are far undervalued. “Why would I buy that,” the rationale goes, “when I can get something that will produce something for me and give me an immediate benefit?” I mentioned that the worker placement in Spyrium is like bidding, making Spyrium somewhat of an auction game. And like other auction games, there is a large experience gap between the new player (who has no idea how to assign value to the cards available) and the expert who is more in tune with which cards are good. I try to mitigate this by encouraging new players toward cards that will be good for them, but I feel like Cassandra of old: doomed to tell the truth and never be heeded. Spyrium, for this reason, has left a bad taste in players’ mouths on the first play and plays best with players of similar skill. Heck, my first game, I was steamrolled by the teacher because I didn’t plan my last turn very well. I left the table thinking, That was okay–what next? But Spyrium grew in my mind after I had finished playing, and I couldn’t wait to play again.

One of my favorite aspects of Spyrium: its small footprint! This game is in a smaller box than Race for the Galaxy, yet it has a much bigger, meatier game's feel to it. Very portable, and also fairly inexpensive for a major board game release.
One of my favorite aspects of Spyrium: its small footprint! This game is in a smaller box than Race for the Galaxy, yet it has a much bigger, meatier game’s feel to it. Very portable, and also fairly inexpensive for a major board game release.

And that’s where I am now. This is a game that I consistently can’t wait to play again. But, due to the bad-impression point above and that the game doesn’t fit comfortably into a lunch hour, it’s a game that I do have to wait to play, which is a shame. Spyrium is a fun and tight economic game that uses worker placement in a fresh way. It’s cheap and small enough that it doesn’t take up a lot of space (either on your shelf or your table), but the small box belies the meaty economic game within. I love this game, and at the moment it is my favorite worker placement game (because it’s kind of an auction game in disguise, and boy, do I love auctions). Just don’t expect to be swept away in the theme.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • A thinky economic game that moves along at a decent clip
  • Fascinating decisions with lots of factors to consider
  • Novel use of worker placement to simulate supply and demand
  • Good components at an excellent price point; a great value

Cons:

  • The experience gap between new and experienced players is wide
  • Thematic integration is...weak
  • Game can be brain-burning, leading to analysis paralysis in some players
9.0 Excellent

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

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Great review! It’s always nice to hear someone speak highly of Spyrium as I feel it is largely being overlooked at the moment (and I don’t expect that to change). I was very surprised that having Attia’s name associated with this game didn’t bring it more attention. I could definitely see the bad-impression point that you mentioned being a big factor in this since it seems those who like Spyrium like it a lot. I’m in the like it a lot camp.

    Also, I went into several stages of denial and shock at the mention of worker placement being boring. But speaking of clever worker placement games that have an auction element, how about Keyflower? I know, it’s much longer and heavier than your ideal middleweight euro and certainly won’t fit into a lunch hour but man is it clever. The cool twist is that your workers double as currency for bidding (or perhaps your money doubles as workers?) so you have to decide between bidding on something or actually using that worker.

    • Thanks! I’m bummed this one is flying under the radar too (most notably in the Golden Geek nominations–almost all my ponies are out of the race).

      I almost didn’t admit the worker placement thing (I’m losing cred!). I’d really love to try Keyflower, but I don’t have the group for it, unfortunately. It’s hard enough to get Spyrium played. Thankfully, there’s also Board Game Arena, although I still prefer the tactile nature of the physical game.

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