In the six years following the birth of deck building there have been many attempts to create something truly new and innovative in the shadow of the game that started it all, Dominion. The newest attempt to offer a fresh take on deck building is bag building which saw not one but three releases in 2014. Hyperborea was the first to hit the scene back during Gen Con with a hefty slew of miniatures and euro aesthetics. Seriously, that’s one big box.
How It Plays
The Theme – Rebuilding a Devastated Land
As heir to the Emerald Kingdom you’ve been raised in a harsh land. Centuries ago there was a catastrophe that brought devastation and ruin to every corner of the world. In the middle of it all stands the remains of the Hyperborean city sealed in by a mystical bubble. Around this ominous symbol of destruction are six rival realms trying desperately to survive on what little is left.
The day has finally arrived, the council of elders insist that you should step up and become the new Emerald King. Just as you take your place in the holy forest news arrives that the age old bubble has collapsed. The ruined city of Hyperborea, all of its treasures and mysteries, lies unimpeded at the edge of your kingdom. Surely the other five realms have their own plans for this sacred land, its your responsibility to explore the city before the feuding factions bring destruction to this sacred place. You must act quickly, seek guidance from the elders and send your swiftest scouts into the harsh unknown.
The Gameplay – Running Your Kingdom
Note: I’ll be using some different terminology than in the rulebook for thematic immersion and ease of explaination
The elders have gather to advise you in how to explore the new land and advance your kingdom. Ultimately the final decisions are in your hands. Each adviser (cube) has an associated color that indicates what course of action they are suggesting.
Exploration advisers (Green) seek to uncover the mysteries of the ancient Hyperborean city. They allow you to move your units around the map into territory containing cities and ruins. Once a unit is in a hex containing either of those features they may activate the city and take an indicated action or explore a ruins and gain an artifact that may be used immediately or at a later time. Moving through different types of terrain can prove difficult and requires additional effort to navigate into or out of.
During your exploration you’ll come across weary ghosts and dangerous units from other factions that are vying for control of the land. Warfare advisers (Red) aim to cleanse the ancient spirits and opposing factions from your path. They allow you to attack other units and claim them as spoils of battle.
In order to properly utilize the surrounding area you’re going to need reinforcements. Growth advisers (Purple) offer additional troops to secure territory and expand across the board. New units are placed on the outskirts but they don’t have far to go in order to aid in the ongoing conflict.
While some are out scouting and securing the new land others are staying home and making sure your kingdom is running smoothly. Progress advisers (Orange) guide your development in the different areas of society. Each specialty (color) has a track that can be progressed along until enough development has been made to gain one or, upon reaching the end of the track, two additional advisers (cubes).
No society can truly prosper without wealth. Trade advisers (Yellow) will help you gain riches in the form of gems. In spite of the rush to explore and settle the Hyperborean city the mighty gem is still the most reliable way to prove your kingdom’s might.
The cornerstone of any society are the great minds that push for innovation and progression. Science advisers (Blue) unlock the secrets of newly discovered technologies. These technologies give you more options for how your advisers can aid your efforts and give you more powerful or efficient actions.
Your initial counsel of advisers will contain one of each color plus an additional one of your choosing. Here’s where the bag part of bag building comes in. Take these cubes and put them in your bag, each turn you’ll be drawing three of them to use. After you have your cubes ready for the current round you can place them on various actions on your personal kingdom board. Actions require two or more cubes of specific colors before they can be activated. Once their requirements are met then you immediately carry out the indicated action. The cubes stay on this action to indicate that it has been taken.
Once your bag is empty then a reset is performed and all the cubes will go back into the bag. At this time any units on the board that were tasked with activating cities or exploring ruins return to a ready state and may once again move, attack, or explore further cities and ruins. Once a unit interacts with a city or ruins then they will be stuck doing so until the next reset.
The goal of every kingdom is to prove excellence is one or more areas of society: accumulation of wealth (12 gems), advancement in the science (five technologies), and deployment of a formidable army (all figures on board). Once a set number of these conditions, based on the game length, have been met then all players have one final turn before the game ends. Kingdoms are then compared by adding up points in several different areas: gems, spoils of battle, total cubes, technologies, and control of territory. The player that scored the most points claims the Hyperborean city for their faction!
Seeking The Holy Grail!
On the surface Hyperborea appears to take on the challenge of finally uniting gamers of all persuasions with a hybrid of rich theme, interaction, and ruthless efficiency. Could this be the grail game that brings everyone happily together at the same table? We’ll see how successful it is in that aim by tackling this review from two very different perspectives.
Bag Building a Better Game
Every so often a game comes along that is so enthralling, clever, and engaging that I can’t stop thinking about it long after the game has ended. For me it usually has to do with innovative mechanics that open up new possibilities and ways to approach board games. I’m a euro gamer through and through so the games that captivate me tend to do so because of these mechanics and how smoothly they are integrated together. In 2013 there were two such titles: Keyflower with the workers as currency auction mechanic and Ginkgopolis with its organic card drafting that mirrored the development of a city. Coming back to the game at hand, Hyperborea was last year’s standout of the same caliber (and at least one other Dragon Slayer agrees with me).
The Promise of Crossover Appeal
For all my talk about loving mechanics and the cold calculated strategy at the core of most euros I’m still a sucker for rich and engaging game experiences. Two areas that euros tend to lack which go a long way towards engaging players are theme and interaction. The challenge in creating a hybrid game (one that can appeal to many player types) is integrating the mechanics deeply into the theme. Players should be able to make strategic decisions in part by following a thematic course of action. In other words, decisions and optimal moves should make sense thematically and feel natural instead of cold and calculated. This is, in a sense, playing from the gut (but not entirely without any strategic guidance). Interaction and luck are useful tools in achieving this by loosening player control and introducing some chaos that must be reacted to, thus naturally creating excitement. However, those can be tough elements to introduce into a game about efficiently executing a strategy.
Hyperborea is a civilization building game with a rich backstory, beautiful art and components, and the feeling of a grand conflict. It can certainly give off the impression that there’s an immersive experience contained within. What you actually get out of the game though has more to do with your perspective in approaching it. At its core Hyperborea is, without a doubt, a euro game.The goal is to get the most points and even though there are more interactive ways to achieved this end its very much about efficient execution. Learning the game system is critical to success and will hand the victory to players who want to think and plan over those that want to immerse themselves in the world. This is why I mentioned that a lot is riding on how you approach this game. If you have a group that simply wants to explore and experience the thematic offering then you’ll have more success in achieving an immersive session. I generally play to explore game mechanics not to explore game worlds so I’ll move on.
I’d categorize Hyperborea as what I refer to as Euro+. This is a game which is deeply rooted in mechanics but brings in theme and/or interaction as strong secondary elements. What this generally means for theme is that things tends to get abstracted in order to keep the focus on efficient play. You’re playing with concepts more often than digging deep into the nitty gritty details. In Hyperborea you get to oversee a kingdom and make decision about how it develops but your control is somewhat limited by the bag-building and cube placement mechanics.
As far as interaction goes the execution tends to offer players more control by mitigating luck. Specifically, combat is deterministic which means that you can perfectly calculate the outcome though the timing is often still unknown. You never roll any dice to represent the uncertainty of battle. This plays out more like area control (especially pertaining to end of game scoring) than a battleground.
One excellent attempt to reach both camps is made by adding optional asymmetrical play through racial abilities and starting tiles. This provides some flavor and specialization for people that want those things at the risk of unbalance (such as the more easily abusable blue draw engine). If that prospect bothers you and you’d rather stick with the evenly balanced symmetrical start then you can easily leave them out and still have plenty of variation between games.
So what’s my conclusion on the matter of crossover potential? I will say that Hyperborea is not the long sought after game that will accommodate and entertain gamers of every type at the same table. It’s likely to work with groups that approach the game from the same perspective but I believe it will shine among strategic gamers that want a richer experience than your typical euro. This is perfect for me and I’ll be spending the rest of this review exploring what the game has to offer from this perspective.
The Innovation of Bag-Building
The big attention grabber when talking about Hyperborea is the bag-building mechanic. Is it the next evolution in the (deck/chip/dice)-building family? Is it even anything like deck building? It certainly bears resemblance to deck building in that you are customizing a pool (in this case containing cubes) which is randomly drawn from until it is empty at which point you replenish and start over. Like deck building you are limited by your draws but the system as a whole ends up being much more flexible because you can still plan around being able to use everything in your bag (assuming you remember what’s in it). You could figure out exactly where you’re going to place your cubes if you want, then it’s merely a matter of the order that you get to execute those actions. Fortunately that’s not often how things shake out, you’re often better off taking a tactical approach in response to how the board and other civilizations develop. Comparatively it’s less luck dependent than deck building because your planning and execution are split up across multiple turns. This means you’re not waiting for the cards to align in a single turn in order to pull off the perfect combo. I’ve found this to be a great innovation of deck-building. It doesn’t replace or invalidate the genre but instead provides a new system to learn and explore. And believe me, there’s plenty to explore here.
You may have notice that there are several other releases from last year that coincidentally utilized bag-building (Orleans and King’s Pouch). They appeared in rapid succession such that there wasn’t a clear originator of the mechanic as was the case with Dominion and deck building. Each game utilizes bag-building in a different way so rather than praise Hyperborea for birthing the mechanic I’d like to take a look at how it shines within the context of the game.
The Integration of Mechanics
One of my favorite things about Hyperborea is how well the information is organized. This goes a long way towards quickly and clearly presenting choices to the players. The catch is that there’s a bit of a learning curve before things start to run smoothly. I would say this doesn’t take much more than a couple of games assuming players are actively trying to learn the system. This is due to the clever color system and the layout of the player boards.
The color system associates each color in the game with a given action. Upon drawing your cubes for the next turn you’ll be presented with a general idea of which corresponding actions they grant. For instance, drawing a green cube grants you the option to move. You may not be able to complete a move action on that turn but you’ll at least be able to set yourself up to do it at a later point (unless you’ve already activated all such actions). The multi-color placements helps prevent this system from being too rigidly defined. If you don’t draw the exact colors that you need you still have some flexibility in which actions can be activated. It’s generally better to pursue actions that don’t use multi-color placement but as a draw back their activation is more draw dependent.
To help reinforce this concept the player boards are separated into two groups. The left side of the board (green, red, purple) is associated with actions on the board (external). The right side (orange, yellow, blue) corresponds with developing your civilization (internal). You have a pretty clear choice of which aspect to focus on (external vs internal) by where you place more of your cubes. I’ve yet to see a single side/focus dominate the majority of games so it seems you truly have the freedom to chose without the game pushing you towards one optimal strategy.
Once you have learned this system a richer game starts to present itself. Rather than bag-building being the core mechanic I’d say it’s more about resource/action management. As I said before, you know exactly what resources (cubes) you’re going to be able to use you just don’t know the order that you’re going to get them. You can plan ahead and stall for several turns before completing multiple actions all at once. Or you can make slow and steady progress as you evaluate the effectiveness of your immediate options. The urgency of the central board makes this choice interesting. Since you are interacting on the board your actions will directly impact how the other players plan out their placement. This effect is intensified as you near the end of the game and need to evaluate how much you can realistically achieve given the relative time left.
I’ll reiterate that Hyperborea is more than just a bag-builder. There are a lot of moving pieces at play and the bag-building mechanic elegantly ties everything together. The system as a whole takes some getting used to but once it clicks you’ll be presented with a lot of meaningful decisions in a relatively quick package.
The Final Word on Hyperborea
Hyperborea has done a brilliant job of introducing an innovative new mechanic, bag-building. But rather than being defined and limited by this mechanic it has gone on to integrate it seamlessly within a broader game context. The color system and player board make choices clear and quick once you’ve gotten a couple games under your belt. While it may not be the grail game that unites euro gamers alongside their ameritrash brethren it does offer a healthy dose of theme and interaction to stand out from your typical euro.
Hyper Fun or Hyper Boring?
I want to state right up front: This game will not go down as one of my all-time favorites, but that does not mean that it’s a bad game. It ended up being not to my taste, but I can see why my teammates chose it as our Game of the Year. I fully supported that decision. It is gorgeous with high production values, does a lot of things very well, and it is innovative. In the end, though, it left me with mixed feelings.
Ultimately, I think my dislikes outweighed the likes. Admittedly, some of my dislikes are intangibles and matters of personal taste. My dislikes certainly won’t apply to everyone, so you’ll really have to judge Hyperborea for yourself. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that it falls into my, “Will play if asked, but wouldn’t choose it personally,” category.
Why? When I saw this game I didn’t think, “Cold, boring Euro as I usually do when confronted with a lot of cubes.” I thought, “Look at those minis!” And I saw the art on the technology cards and was excited about the world and abilities represented on them. Unlike Andrew, I’m not a generally a fan of heavy Euros, so I had great hopes that this one would rise above my prejudices. The art and components were certainly a step in the right direction, but after that it kind of fell flat.
I think that part of the problem was the bag building mechanic. It is innovative and interesting and I can see where fans of deck builders will love it. I’m not a big deck builder fan, though, and this mechanic did little to change my mind. I’ve never enjoyed the idea of pulling things from my deck (or bag, in this case) and not knowing for sure what I’m going to get. Sure, I have some idea of the probability of getting a certain thing, but I can’t know for sure. After trying several deck builders, I think my problem is that I prefer games where I can either know everything or nothing. Give me complete information and control, or give me total randomness. Probability isn’t my thing (and any math teacher I ever had would attest to that).
Yet I can see where some will really enjoy the decisions presented by this mechanic. What do you do if you don’t pull what you need? Can you make something out of nothing? Which actions do you take to make sure you have what you want in your bag? How do you maximize your efficiency to keep your bag from getting cluttered with waste? These are not decisions I enjoy, but many people do.
In the end, I think what wounded Hyperborea for me was that I never felt like I was building a civilization, or fighting my opponents. For all that it looked like there should be an awesome, fantasy world theme here, I felt like I was playing an abstract game. Granted, it was a gorgeous abstract game, but I felt like a lot of the great art and minis went to waste. They could have been anything. The special abilities felt kind of same-y to me. No one race really stood out as one I wanted to play over any other, or even that different from the others. The combat was not the “roll a die or draw a card” and see what happens type of combat that I enjoy. Nothing happens during combat other than you say, “I have enough points to take you out, so I do.” You can look at another player’s board and know that, if they target you, they are going to be successful. There’s no suspense or sense of agency in the combat. It was all kind of dry feeling, where I was hoping for epic.
That aside, there are a lot of things to like about this game. First is the ability to adjust the game length. There are three options: Short, medium, and long games. Unlike many heavier Euro games, you can still get in a game even if you’ve got a small window of time. For those of us with a short attention span or not a lot of time, it’s nice to have a game that scales like this. And, if you’re not loving it but have chosen the shorter game, then it’s not going to be a three hour affair with no way out as it would be with some Euros.
I also liked that things keep moving (unless you are playing with severely AP prone players). Since you draw your cubes for your next turn at the end of your current turn, you can be planning ahead while others make their moves. You may have to make some adjustments to your plan as others take their turns and the board changes, but you can get a solid idea of what you’re going to do before your turn comes around. This prevents a lot of downtime and keeps you engaged even when it’s not your turn. AP prone players and those who must optimize everything to the fullest, though, will wait until their turn to do any sort of thinking. Prepare for some pain if you’re playing with these kinds of people, but if everyone can commit to moving along as best they can, it’s not so bad.
Finally, I really appreciate the fact that there are a lot of ways to score points. When I’m playing civ games, I like to have a lot of choices as to how I build that civilization. If the only way to victory is through combat, I get turned off. After all, very few civilizations are ever built solely on a great army. Hyperborea gives you some choices. Granted, I think you have an easier time of it if you are really into combat, but there are other ways to win.
I just want to add one more thought about why I, personally, didn’t care for the game. At first glance Hyperborea looks like a relative of games like Clash of Cultures with lots of theme and more toward the Ameritrash end of the spectrum. But it is less like those and more of a Euro engine optimization puzzle, albeit one with minis. I think this is where a lot of people will go wrong with the game, and what happened to me. They’ll buy it expecting dice based combat, player interaction, and loads of special abilities, only to find more of a puzzle solving experience. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the game. There’s not. It’s just that you can’t judge it by its looks. My first preference would be something more like Clash of Cultures, but that doesn’t make Hyperborea better or worse. Just different.
For some, though, the difference between the appearance and the actual game will be viewed as a strength. First of all, it makes for a good compromise game. If you bring it out with a mixed group of Euro lovers and Ameritrash lovers, chances are that everyone will find something redeeming about it. (Not to say that they’ll love it, but that they may not outright hate every aspect of it as they would with a full blown Euro or Ameritrash game.) It’s also got a lot going on under that surface gloss. Whereas some games are obvious and their mechanics match their gloss in terms of being flashy, this one has more under the hood that will take you multiple plays to figure out and maximize. Both hardcore and casual gamers should be able to get into this, in at least a limited way. The simple rules, shorter playtime, and good looks mean that you might have an easier time getting the casuals to play, but the deeper strategy will draw in the hardcore gamers.
iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Asmodee for providing a copy of Hyperborea for review.