‘What can I do you fer?’
‘Um yeah, I’m looking to build a factory. I’m going to need 3 crates of wood and 3 crates of clay then I’ll be on my way.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not gonna be possible. We only got 2 crates of wood.’
‘But I’m pretty sure I saw another crate in the warehouse. Can’t you just go over and get it?’
‘You must be new here. This is storage. Not warehouse. If you wanted something from warehouse you shoulda talked to warehouse earlier. So what you see here, is what ya got. If you need something and it ain’t here, well, you’d better do a better job at plannin’ next time. Them’s the rules. It’s how things work around here. No way around it. It’s the same for you as it is for all The Colonists.’
How it Plays
The Epic Strategy Game. It’s emblazoned on the front of the box like a badge of honor. Or perhaps it’s a warning. With a self reported playing time of up to 4 hours, The Colonists isn’t shy to let you know that you’re in for a long night of gaming. But worry not. For a game that aims to steal away your evening, it’s relatively easy to learn and play. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not ‘My First Board Game’ material, but it’s not as intimidating as eight pounds of cardboard might initially suggest.
You are charged with growing and nurturing your fledgling colony. You’ll gain points for the buildings you construct, coins you collect and the colonists you employ. There is a main board made up of hexes with action spaces and a personal community board for each player. On your community board you’ll arrange the buildings you’ve constructed and store the resources you collect.
The game is divided into 4 eras, each of which is further divided into 5 years, which is further divided into half-years. Each half-year, players will carry out 3 actions in turn order. An action means moving your Steward on the main board to an adjacent space and carrying out its associated action. These actions usually involve collecting resources or spending resources in order to construct buildings. If there is an opponent’s Steward on an action space, you must pay them some amount of resources dictated by the current era in order to move onto it. Optionally, you can move your Steward to any market on the board. This may be useful if you want to move quickly across the board or if there is nothing useful to do in the adjacent spaces.
At the end of the year, the starting player will add three more action spaces to the board. In this way the actions available to you will increase as the game goes on. Additionally, if you have any colonists working in your buildings, you’ll need to feed them and your production buildings will generate goods.
There are some more nuances to the rules and how exactly some of the actions spaces work, but for the most part, that’s a good overview of how the game plays out. Different eras will introduce new and generally more powerful action spaces. Costs and strengths of buildings will likewise grow as the game progresses. There is, however, one concept that deserves explaining: Storage.
You begin the game with a limited number of storage spaces and an even more limited amount of warehouse spaces. When you collect resources, they must go into one of these spots on your community board. If you have no more room, tough luck, to the garbage they go. Most importantly, when using resources to construct resources you can only expend what you currently have in storage. You’re free to move resources between storage and the warehouse before carrying out your action, but once you start the action you’ve locked everything in.
The Colonists can be intimidating. The box is large. The play time is lengthy. And its physical footprint on the table is deep. But hopefully the above overview will lessen your apprehensions. It really is an approachable game. If you’ve played and learned any mildly complicated strategy game in the past, you’ll have no trouble getting a grip on The Colonists. The greatest impediment to enjoyment is the length of time it take to get through a complete game. Personally, I’ve never been bothered or put off by activities that take a long time. I’ll gladly sit down to watch a 3+ hour movie or tackle a 1,000+ page novel. Similarly, I’m not put off by a game that will take an entire afternoon to tackle. What I have little patience for is when game is not entertaining over entire play time. A 1 hour game can feel long if it’s boring and a 6 hour game can fly right by if everyone is engaged. Board games are an opportunity for me to wrestle with systems in addition to spending time with the people I care about. I like board games and I like the people I play with. Why wouldn’t I want to spend a lot of time doing both?
Unfortunately, the realities of everyday life can get in the way of a 4 hour gaming session and The Colonists tries to accommodate your hectic schedule in a few ways. A full game consists of playing through 4 full eras, but if you need a quick hit of cardboard shuffling, you can opt to play as few as 1 era. You can even start in later eras if you’re not in the mood for fiddling around in the lowly first era. You can even “save” your sessions between eras so that you can put the game away and pick it up later. But I’ll be frank. The Colonists is at its best when you play a complete game in a single session. There are too many compromises when saving between eras and you lose some of the game narrative when starting in later eras.
There’s a strange trend to try and get large scope ideas into shorter and shorter play times. People’s ears perk up when you mention there’s a new 4X game that plays in only 90 minutes. But there are some ideas that require lots of time to develop and shine. Take SimCity as an example, a city building computer game that has you starting with a empty plot of land and a bit of cash. It’s your job as mayor to develop this bit of rock into a bustling metropolis. You’ll start off with some modest homes and mom & pop shops and eventually make your way to high rise apartments and football stadiums. Each step along the way was met with different challenges that apply to the city of that particular size. Whether it’s trying to raise capital to lay down infrastructure that you know your city will need in the future or dealing with the traffic that comes once you’ve attracted 1 million people, each stage of the process has it’s own story to tell. These stories taken one at a time are fine and well, but layered upon each other give the game a grander importance. Later entries in the SimCity series allowed you take over real life cities like Paris or New York, but they never grabbed me like the campaign mode. Sure I could play around with late game buildings and technologies, but they weren’t my cities. I didn’t understand them like I would if I have poured my heart into its very inception. And so it is with The Colonists.
Each era is a chapter in the grand narrative. There are ebbs and flows, different demands and problems arise and require your attention. In the first era, you struggle to build a few farms because your storage is constrained. You eek out the resources required to build a storage house and breathe a sigh of relief. Now you can get some real work done. You fill your newly constructed storage house with wood and clay and start building some woodcutter’s houses maybe even a pub or two. The era ends. Your storage problems are a thing of the past. Now you realize you have no more colonists to man the buildings so you grow your workforce. You build some farms, a couple of flats and everything’s fine. Era 3. Space is a little tight, but you’ll worry about that later. For now, you have to worry about feeding your colonists. Not only that, these newer buildings need even more resources and your old storage houses aren’t quite cutting it anymore. Time for an upgrade. And what’s this? Iron ore? Era 4 already?! You’re colony’s bursting at the seams. Real estate is at premium. Now these merchants are asking you for new jackets and double portions of food. “Maybe if you didn’t eat so much I wouldn’t have to get you a new jacket every year,” you think to yourself. And so it goes.
This is your colony. You’ve built this. You were there since the beginning, when there was just a couple of farms, tools and some wood. You nurtured it to what it is now. Full of apartments and tailors, libraries and stables. Each one placed by your very hands, paid for through your own efforts. It wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t there from the beginning and it becomes a loose thread if you don’t see it through to the end of all eras. Each era informs the next. They fold into each other like a good story does. They stand alone, sure, but like reading a single chapter in a novel, they aren’t wholly fulfilling on their own. They act to serve the greater purpose. In actuality, you don’t accomplish much on a single turn or a single year or even a single era. It’s a game of inches. Slowly you build and plan. Your minor accomplishments serve to make more minor accomplishments more achievable. It’s only when you come to the end of the 4th era that you realize the scope of what you’ve done. Like climbing a mountain, every step of the journey is important but only once you’ve reached the top can you look down and see your accomplishment sprawled before you.
But is it fun? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Yes. It is fun. It’s fun enough to earn its epic play time. It’s fun enough to keep me coming back for more. What’s so fun about it? That’s a question whose answer will depend on what you enjoy in a game. There’s no single element in The Colonists the jumps out to me and calls for attention. Rather, its blend of spices that have been stirred together to make a flavorful, fulfilling stew.
I’ve said it before, my absolute favorite thing in all of board gaming is a sense of growth and progress. It’s standing away from the table at game’s end and soaking in the visual representation of the game that just transpired. By the End of the Colonists, you’ll have a community board filled with buildings, wooden colonists of various colors, coins and resources. It was all placed with purpose, with a plan in mind. It might not have been a victorious effort, but you are responsible for everything that made it into your community and there’s pride in that. It’s quite a sight to behold.
It’s also probably where I felt the strongest desire for more. I wish there were some sort of spatial consideration to be had when constructing and placing buildings. You can place a building anywhere that you have room on your board, but it doesn’t have any impact where. I tended to keep similar types of buildings grouped together simply for ease of identification, but it made no mechanical difference. I would have loved to have some sort of benefit or restrictions to keep in mind when placing my buildings. Would people really like to live next to an iron mine? Wouldn’t it make sense for the pubs and theaters to be close to one another? I’m sure it was considered in the design process and I can definitely see how it would make an already long game even longer, but I can’t shake that feeling that there’s something missing. Anyways, let’s dive further into what’s there instead of what isn’t.
The Colonists is a game of booms and busts, ebbs and flows. You’ll be faced with a challenge, overcome it and be met with another. There are smaller arcs of accomplishment within the larger confines of the game as a whole. It serves to keep you engaged throughout the experience, doling out bursts of endorphins periodically to keep you going. You might find yourself producing more resources than you can feasibly store, leading to inefficiencies and waste. But once you solve your storage problem, you burst forward, unshackled by your past restraints and construct all the buildings you were hoping for.
While on the subject of storage, you’ll find yourself managing it often throughout the game. It can be likened to a hand limit in many other games. You can always do something, but you can usually do more when you raise that limit. I wasn’t particularly fascinated by the system, but neither was I annoyed by it. It’s there and must be dealt with. What is fascinating is how you use the resources you have in said storage.
There are a couple dozen different buildings in the game and they fall into three broad categories: housing, production and other. Housing and production are standard enough. You need places for your colonists to live and you need resources in order to build. It’s the other buildings that spice things up. There are factories that increase your production. Libraries that let you draw better cards. Oh yeah, there are cards. If you take the Librarian action, you’ll draw cards into your hand which can be played later for some pretty nifty bonuses. But back to the buildings, there are stables which let you move more than one space on the main board. And then there are embassies.
In every game there are number of foreign colonies in play which can radically change your play style if you increase your diplomatic relations with them. On the main board is a Diplomat space that allows you to build an embassy to any of the available foreign colonies. If you build an embassy to the Altruists Colony, for example, you get a choice of free resources every year. Isn’t that nice? If you make friends with the Storekeeper Colony, you’ll have extra room in your storage and warehouse. Not bad! You can have embassies to multiple colonies and increase your relations with them every era for even better benefits.
It’s these other buildings and foreign colonies that give each game of The Colonists its character. Each session becomes distinct as you mix and match your approaches with different combinations of embassies. Maybe you’ll forgo manual labor and take advantage of the Industrialist Colony’s ability to refine raw resources and attract more valuable merchant colonists to your community. Or maybe you’ll rely on the Altruist colony to provide you resources to fund the construction of pubs and theaters in order to rake in the cash? Will these ideas work? I have no idea. Truth be told, I’ve proven to be pretty poor at the game, but I’m having no less fun figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
There’s a lot in The Colonists and a lot to like. Experimenting with different strategies and foreign colony abilities is fun enough on its own to warrant a recommendation. But the fact that it works together with a grand colony simulation is not only impressive, it’s a whole lot of fun. And yet, I can’t help wanting more. I want the feeling of creating my little village on the grid rather than just have my community board be a layout for my work. And as crazy as it might sound, I want more eras. By the end of the 4th era, you get a lot done, but the resources and buildings you have at your disposal aren’t entirely new. They’re minor escalations of what came before. Hunting Lodges give way to Hunting Grounds, which are just an increase in the amount of food produced. Pubs give way to Theaters, which just give more coins. I want full on food production plants and shopping malls. I want trains and oil derricks. I suppose those are being saved for the expansions. I guess I’ll just have fun playing what’s here until they come along.
Review copy provided by Mayfair Games.