Civilization doesn’t just happen. Before a society can enjoy the fruits of progress, foundations must be laid. The work to be accomplished is legion. Resources must be mined and committed. Plans conceived and executed. It takes trailblazing, innovation, and standing on the shoulders of giants. You need people, ideas, courage, leaders, blood, sweat, and tears. Most of all you need…Builders!
How it Plays
In The Builders: Middle Ages, players aren’t so much an actual builder with their own two hands as they are a contractor or foreman. Your job is to organize the workers who are doing the building. Not as in trade unions, mind you. That comes later in the sequel, The Builders: Chicago. Here, you’ll recruit hired hands from a pool of laborers and assign them to complete selected projects to earn money and points. Efficiently assigning your workers is the name of the game. Stuff like matching the right skill sets with the right jobs, maintaining an accident-free site, and keeping your workers from harassing the local Mademoiselles passing by.
The Builders has three components: building cards, worker cards, and coins. That’s it. One of those newfangled micro games? Well, maybe. Anyway, buildings require various combinations of resources (stone, wood, knowledge, and tile), earning victory points and money once completed. The grander the project, the more prestige and cash awarded. Workers provide those resources and come in four categories – apprentice, laborer, craftsman, or master. Workers with a greater skill set provide more resources, but require higher wages when assigned to a project.
Essentially, The Builders is a game of hand management, with card drafting and an action point allowance system. To begin the game, you receive a random apprentice and 10 coins. Then 5 building projects are laid out, along with 5 workers. Each round you receive a minimum of three action points with which to select a building, recruit a worker, assign a worker, or take money.
For the first two options – choosing a project or recruiting a worker – simply take a card from one of the two rows and immediately replace it with the top card from the appropriate deck. Buildings are placed construction side up in front of you. Workers are added to your available pool. You can start as many projects or recruit as many workers as you like, although each selection costs one action point.
You can also pay a worker’s wages and assign him to an incomplete building. That cost will be from 2-5 coins depending on his skill level, as indicated at the card’s upper right. You can assign any number of workers to separate projects for one action point each. However, if you assign a second laborer to the same building during the same turn, it costs an additional action.
In column format along the left side of the worker card is a list of the game’s resources and how much of each type that worker can contribute towards construction. Meanwhile, this same column is present on the right side of each building card’s unfinished side, listing the quantity and type of material necessary for its completion. Therefore, as you lay workers beside a building card, you conveniently match up these two columns to help track its progress. As soon as a workforce’s aggregate total resources meet a building’s requirements, that project is completed. Collect a number of coins indicated by that building, flip it over to its finished side, and return those workers to your labor pool for immediate use.
The final action available is to take money. You can collect 1 coin for one action, 3 for two, or 6 if you’d like to spend all three of your actions to pad your purse. This money is free and clear with no strings attached, not some shady loan. That comes in another future sequel, The Builders: Atlantic City. Alternately, if you’re feeling a little restricted and would like to do more on your turn, you can pay for extra actions. Each additional action point over that of your allotted three costs 5 coins. You can take actions until your heart’s content – or to your bank account’s limit!
The game ends during the round in which one player or more first earns 17 points. That round continues until every player has had an equal number of turns. Then everyone adds up the value of their completed projects and adds a point for every 10 coins they possess. Whoever has the most points is The Builders: Winner.
Consider the Zebra. As Marty on Madagascar always said, they never know who they really are – whether they’re black with white stripes, or white with black stripes. The Builders: Middle Ages presents a similar quandary. And please don’t go mucking up my analogy with any scientific explanation about African equids. If you feel the urge, just go play The Builders: Animal Nomenclature.
But back to this small-tin game. It has resources, but it’s not resource management. It has workers, but it’s not worker placement. You play to a tableau, but it’s not tableau-building. You construct buildings, but it’s not a city-builder. It’s very straight-forward and refreshingly quick, but feels meatier than a toss-about filler.
To be sure, The Builders is still a lighter game. If you want it to sound grander, I suppose you could call it by its French name, Les Bâtisseurs: Moyen-Âge, which sounds really cool (unless, perhaps, you already speak that language every day). However, the design doesn’t need to be flashy or ostentatious. It works well precisely because it strips away the chaff to get at the kernel of a hand management game.
Again, efficiency is key. It doesn’t take long for some one to reach the 17 point end-game trigger. Therefore, you need to utilize as few workers as possible to quickly finish projects. Now you can start as many buildings and/or recruit as many workers as you want. There are no penalties for unfinished designs or a surplus of laborers. However, taking buildings and workers uses up an action point. So grabbing a variety of workers in some shotgun spread just to cover all your bases may be too time consuming. Plus an abundant workforce will tempt you to spread them amongst multiple projects, thus diluting their effectiveness. Instead you need to figure out how best to concentrate workers who specialize more in certain resource types and quantities, and then try to select buildings with requirements matching those that you have available.
One aspect that can prove a bit deceiving is the lure of higher skilled workers. It may be tempting to recruit lots of masters because they supply 5 resources apiece. However, you’ll often find that using one’s 3 stone to work on that Church ends up squandering his 2 wood. This especially hurts when having to pay 5 coins for the misuse. Such waste may be appropriate for a future sequel, The Builders: Washington, D.C., but here such unthriftiness can wreak havoc on your beeline to 17 points.
The Builders doesn’t have a lot of variability, because individual buildings don’t give any special benefits, as might a tableau-builder or a building activation design. There is one small exception – Machines. These are selected and constructed just like buildings and are even worth between 1-2 victory points. However, instead of earning coins upon completion, they instead provide a certain number of a specific resource. You can use this machine like a worker for the remainder of the game. For the cost of one action, you simply assign the machine to a project, just as you would a worker, except you don’t need to pay any wages. These are helpful to have, but don’t go overboard. The free labor is appealing, but concentrating heavily on that route can leave you lacking overall.
The need to balance a small, but effective, workforce creates an interesting tension. You want to do the most with the least, which is always a rewarding puzzle when successfully solved. Calculating that equation can take more time than you’d imagine – certainly more than other designs of similar weight. It’s not really “analysis paralysis,” because it never brings the game crashing to a standstill. After all, there are only so many cards available at one time. However, you might be surprised at how much you carefully scrutinize those choices.
Randomness can still play a small part – the game is card-based, after all. However, as those cards are replaced in the selection rows immediately after being chosen, you always have five options in each category. Plus there is typically a good balance in the spread of resources through the worker types. More often than not, you’re able to take at least one useful worker or worthwhile building when desired. Scanning your options and analyzing how best to synergize new picks with your current stock is what makes this sort of a “thinking man’s filler.”
If you’re completely averse to “multi-player” solitaire, The Builders may not be in your wheelhouse. It has no player interaction. There may be some competition for a preferred building and/or worker as another player can nab a card before you. This can add a bit to the tension. But again, as cards are immediately refreshed, you always have 5 buildings and 5 workers available to choose from so you can generally work with something. It would be nice to implement a form of building activation as a means to create some interaction. Alas, that would add complexity, fiddliness, and time, whereas the game is designed to suppress all three of those elements. As such, just know there is no way to directly affect opponents.
As such, the game favors 4-player sessions a little more. It scales just fine with less. However, there is tighter competition for favorable buildings and/or workers. Or at least, that is, there’s a greater chance that an opponent will take a card that you want. The “race” for 17 points is also a little more tense with more players. Even though you have little control over hampering other players, you’ll still be keeping any eye on their (open) progress. With four players, you feel the rush a bit more acutely.
The components are good. The game comes in a small, square tin now accustomed to a number of Asmodee titles, such as in the Timeline and Cardline series. The rules are compact, clear, and concise. The cards are of durable stock and the small plastic coins are a wonderful touch (and from one of my favorite games, Magnifico, I might add!). However, what really stands out here is the artwork. Personally, I think it’s colorful and very expressive, worthy of a sequel, The Builders: Louvre. Some may think it a little too cartoonish, but it is definitely catching. One day I’ll do my list of “Games To Be Framed,” and this one will be on it.
The Builders: Middle Ages has all of a filler’s favorable attributes. It is easy to learn, plays intuitively, economizes components, scales well, is inexpensive, portable, and finishes in 30 minutes or less. Perhaps other than requiring a larger footprint than usual, it works very well as a lunchtime or travel game. Yet, it brings more to the table. By randomizing resources versus building requirements, and allowing several actions on a given turn, the design creates a puzzle-like experience deeper than appears at first blush, which requires a bit more planning than the average filler. As such, The Builders: Middle Ages is an accessible and sophisticated filler that plays quickly and offers a light, fun, and eye-catching challenge.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing a review copy of The Builders: Middle Ages.