Floating on an island in the sky sounds like heaven, and the beautiful steampunk contraptions around only add to the appeal. You’re used to the constant hum of machines doing your work for you.
But unfortunately, Noria isn’t heaven, as much as it looks like it. How do you know? Politicians abound in Noria, and the only way to make your humble endeavor succeed is to grease their palms–constantly. Still, with a little knowledge and a lot of resources, you can turn lazy circles in the sky…once you’ve mined enough mycelium to retire.
How It Works
Noria is a “wheel-building” action selection and stock manipulation game for two to four players. Players are industrialists in the booming fantasy world of Noria competing for prestige by contributing to the four great projects of Norian society. The player with the most points wins.
To begin, each player receives an action wheel, a knowledge token, and two resources of their choice and starts with one representative on one of the four project tracks on the main game board. The player places three more representatives in the cave under the project tracks and one representative (their ambassador) on the floating island on the side of the board. The prices for wheel upgrades are assigned, a round marker is placed on each of the round spaces dependent on the number of players, and one player becomes the start player. The game begins.
At the start of each round, the round marker is removed. Each round is played in four phases. In the first phase, in turn order, players may pay knowledge to influence their wheels, either rotating their wheels or swapping action discs on their wheels.
The second phase is the action phase, where the meat of the game takes place. In turn order, each player may activate at most three adjacent discs, one from each level of their wheel. Actions are fairly simple. Players may collect one of the three resources, spend resources to buy new action discs or move their representatives on the progress tracks, travel to new islands to increase their resource output or build factories, and fill their factories with goods or upgrade discs on their wheels (allowing for additional actions).
Once all players have taken their actions, players may, in turn order, engage in politics. Players may spend knowledge to influence the worth of the progress tracks. For a certain amount of knowledge, players increase the value of one progress track and limit the potential value of another. (This gets more expensive over the course of the game.)
Finally, players rotate all their wheels one turn and collect any knowledge they’re due.
The game lasts a set number of rounds. At the end of those rounds, players multiply their position on each project track by the value of that track and calculate their domination (farthest track up) and division (the highest rung reached by their lowest representative) and sum the total. The player with the most points wins.
A Wheel within a Wheel
See that beautiful floating island on the cover? See that dragon-wing TIE fighter? See that delicious steampunk setting? Put them out of your mind, first thing. Noria is very much a mechanics-first design, with the setting providing little more than pretty window dressings. Now that you know that, we can begin.
Noria, while not reflecting its steampunk setting in more than its artwork, can perhaps best be illustrated by what steampunk accomplishes. By imagining modern-day contraptions in an early-industrial setting, technology becomes more visibly mechanical. It’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine: a lot of moving parts to ultimately accomplish what, in the modern world, is a simple or even mundane task. Noria feels very steampunky in this way: it takes players a lot of behind-the-scenes or below-the-surface work to score any points. And how you feel about this one aspect of Noria will probably drive the rest of your opinion.
In Noria, there is a single method to score points: advance your representatives along the four project tracks, and make sure the tracks where your representatives are highest are worth lots of points. Yet to accomplish this fairly straightforward task, you need to get action discs to explore islands to get more ships in order to produce resources in order to manufacture goods in order to move up tracks. And that’s only one of the forking paths. You also explore to place factories to have goods to manufacture and to produce knowledge, which allows you to coerce the politicians and finagle your wheel to do what you want. And thus the circle is complete.
This is a lot of steps, and they’re all interconnected, as in the best Euro games. But where Noria seems a little different is that whereas in other games you might get mini rewards along the way, here all your spinning cogs only matter if you manage to move the needle on the four project tracks. Everything else matters only insofar as it advances your ends there.
Thankfully, even with a single scoring system, the other parts of the game are interesting. The game is right to lead with the interesting mechanism of the action wheel, which is unquestionably the star of the show. Having essentially three nested rondels dictating what actions are available is fascinating. There’s the top wheel, which gives you whatever action you put there every other turn; the middle wheel, which goes around fairly quickly, but actions come and go in a flash; and the slow, plodding bottom wheel, where actions take a long time to come around but also stick around a while before cycling out. Deciding where to place each disc is interesting, and I’ve seen many configurations work; there’s no golden decision. That also means I’m consistently surprised when I’m in the soup of my own brewing. My play-for-the-moment decision to put this action at that spot for one particular turn seemed like a great idea at the time, but it’s less great when it hamstrings me later on as the wheel spins and I get the actions I placed on the wheel, right where I placed them. With a little foresight, at least you’ll probably have some knowledge to spin things the way you want it.
But knowledge is a sparse and necessary commodity, and while it can get you out of a jam on your wheel, you really need it to make your investments worth anything at the end of the game. Each track is only worth points when you engage in “politics,” which are just as nasty in Noria as they have become in our world. Taking a politics action allows you to cover up a low-scoring position on a project track you like–effectively increasing its value–while simultaneously tossing a cube from another track, limiting its scoring potential. This is powerful and devious, but what makes it most interesting to me is just how speculative it is. The early game is really the time when it is most ideal to do these politics actions, because they only go up in price as the game progresses. But players are least likely to have advanced on any of these tracks early on, so setting the value forecasts your moves and shows the other players which tracks might be worthwhile for them to pursue. And getting to a track first increases the costs for everyone else who wants to advance. I really like this speculation aspect of the scoring, although I will say that it has thrown off most of the people I’ve taught it to.
And the reason is because in my experience, most players, when they are learning a game, tend to play from their gut. They do actions that make them feel good, that offer them some kind of immediate reward and feedback. They like having six obsidian ships and swimming through black rocks like Scrooge McDuck through his money bin every time they activate the obsidian disc. They like putting more discs on their wheel, or being able to visit multiple islands in a turn. They like to feel clever spinning their wheels into position. You’ll notice, however, that while all of these things are necessary for eventually moving on tracks and scoring points, they don’t do this in themselves. Play a Stefan Feld game, and by doing what’s intuitive, you’ll score points along the way without even meaning to. Here, scoring points must be a conscious choice, and the politics phase–which is necessary for protecting your “investments” along the tracks–is easy to let fall by the wayside because it doesn’t feel immediately rewarding. Rather, you’re “wasting” resources you’d rather spend now in order to reap a future return.
So while the rules of Noria aren’t super complex and none of the individual actions is hard to understand on its own, I would still call this a fairly heavy game, mostly because it’s a little difficult to see how all the cogs are slotted into the machine until you’ve played a couple of times. Even then, it’s easy for the gears to shift out of place or to grind to a halt. While the game is simpler than it looks, and once you understand what you’re doing fairly quick to play, there is certainly a learning curve that players must overcome.
One aspect of the game I’m less keen on is the start player marker, which remains with a single player the whole game rather than being passed. Someone associated with the development of the game commented on Board Game Geek that the start player position didn’t seem to impact end-game scores, and while that may be true, there’s certainly the perception of advantage during the game. In one game, for example, I was the start player, and I removed the last politician cube from the scoring track that the next player in line would have moved down. You could argue that he could have (and probably should have) moved it down before this turn, but that’s small consolation to a player who consistently sees me as being one turn ahead of him every time he wants to do something that I do (like progressing on one of the tracks, moving to the island he wanted to move to, and so on–all of which now makes it more expensive for him). In the grand scheme, it probably didn’t matter that I went first, but that perception of privilege was hard for him to shake. To me, it seems like passing the start player marker might be a good house rule to implement. (I at least plan to do this in future games.) While it may not significantly impact scores, I think it will reduce the potential for sour grapes.
Let me be clear before I offer some critique: I like Noria. I will gladly play if someone is enthusiastic to break it out. However, I don’t love Noria, and it’s not one I’m likely to suggest often.
Noria is a very mechanical game. The setting is beautifully illustrated, yet while there’s backstory to explain the mechanisms, the backstory doesn’t really help players to engage. Heavy mechanics-driven games without an engrossing narrative don’t bother me. Trajan, for example, is one of my favorite games, and it similarly could be accused of lumping mechanisms together with little thematic integration.
In fact, Trajan is the game I keep coming back to when I think of Noria: why do I only like Noria but love Trajan? They feel very similar in some ways. I think, for me, it comes down to the interest of the central mechanism. The wheels are interesting in Noria; the mancala is captivating in Trajan. I can see some of the difference between the two games in how I think about downtime. When other players are taking their turns in Noria, I’m a little restless for them to finish because I’m ready to make my next move. While it can be difficult to fully understand the repercussions of the nested wheels several rounds away, it’s easy to predict at least your next turn, and there’s not a lot that other players can do to disrupt your plans from one turn to the next. (I don’t mean that Noria is multiplayer solitaire–other players can make actions cost extra and can affect the value of the different scoring conditions–but it feels at home in the modern wave of Euro games, where the mechanisms provide the interest more than the other players.) Contrast this with Trajan, where I feel like I could stare at the central wheel with its six bowls all day, plotting my next several moves. I make myself play Trajan more quickly than I might choose to do if I were playing alone, so when other players are taking a while on their turns, similarly coming to grips with their puzzles, I don’t mind the extra time to think about mine. Trajan is similarly a “personal player board” kind of game, where each player focuses more on their area than the central board, but it’s easier for players to get in each other’s way in Trajan, so even if you do find less to ponder on your board, other players’ turns are more engaging. I also come back to the scoring: even if you are playing Trajan badly (and boy, have I been in that camp), you are still scoring points. You can still feel good about what you’re doing. Every action could be accompanied by mobile games’ ka-ching! sound. (Of course, points are kept track of during the game, so you’ll know if you’re falling short of the other players; for me, this is a goad to try new things.) In Noria, it is very easy to do what’s fun in the game and find out you haven’t scored any points. This makes it especially rough on newcomers and even on experienced players who have made a mistake.
That being said, I think there are players who will love Noria. If your group plays quickly, Noria can be finished in a snap, and the ROI of learning and playing is higher if you are able to pack this into a short time period. (My group has some AP, and even with a rules explanation and new players, we finished a little under two hours.) It certainly has prettier window dressings than Trajan, and the core puzzle of the game is interesting, again, especially if players move quickly. The idea of nested rondels is fascinating, and that aspect of Noria is well executed. As I already mentioned, I’m not crazy about the single scoring system, but if you like a fairly rigid system of stocks and speculation and don’t mind a somewhat punishing and unforgiving end game, you probably won’t mind that aspect of Noria, so the other components of the game are likely to shine all the more.
The physical build quality of Noria is very nice. All of the pieces are well illustrated and on thick cardboard. I initially wasn’t crazy about the cardboard resources, but they work well in practice, and they probably are superior to cubes in this instance. The wheels work flawlessly, as they need to in a game that features them so prominently. The discs are hard to stack on the board in piles as the instructions say to do, but that’s a minor gripe–small piles work fine, or I use a small Plano organizer for this task. I’m not a fan of the tiny round marker divots, but these are a small annoyance–you only have to deal with them at setup and at the start of each round. There’s a lot of stuff in this box, and there are even advanced variants for players to try if they tire of the basic game. I’ve played the game at all player counts, and it scales pretty well, although as with most stocks games, I think the stock market interaction is more interesting with more players at the table. Downtime is the only issue, but this is the kind of game that can be played snappy if the other players are up to it, and if that happens, the game can last closer to the 90-minute range. The game includes some backstory on the setting of Noria. For me, none of this helped with learning the game or internalizing its rules. I probably would have preferred a more drab (but recognizable) setting; still, a lot of care has been spent on the visuals, and they are nice. Each island and factory is individually illustrated, which is unnecessary but a pleasant touch.
Noria is definitely at home in the modern Euro game movement, with intricate interlocking systems that much like the visible gears in Noria are fun to puzzle through. Players who like novel, interesting mechanical puzzles are likely to enjoy this one if they can get past the barrier of the single scoring condition. For me, while I like Noria, I prefer more classic Euro games with more player interactions, or I prefer mechanical puzzles that offer more dynamic scoring opportunities. I won’t turn down another flight in Noria, but I’m more likely to set my sights higher.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing a copy of Noria for review.