|Century: Eastern Wonders (2018)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.12]
I’m not as much of a fan of Century: Spice Road as Mrs Meeple. She basically wrestled the game out of my hands when it came time to review it, insisting that it deserved a more generous treatment than I might have planned to give it. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s definitely a good game and I do enjoy it on occasion. It’s just… it wasn’t good enough to survive the crucible of repeat plays that Mrs Meeple put it through. To be fair, there are few games I can think of that would survive such repeated and aggressive repetition. Mrs Meeple put Spice Road through a play regime that didn’t resemble game night so much as a torture test carried out by someone compensating at work for a bad home life.
Maybe I’d best not pull too hard on that particular rhetorical thread.
Over the long term that exposed a lot of the cracks in the design of Spice Road. it just felt far too algorithmic for me – a game where I felt an AI would get more out of it than I did. Our review stands regardless – the Official MLU view of a game is that of its reviewer, not of the site editor. I’m just laying this out here because otherwise this review of Century: Eastern Wonders is going to raise some questions regarding this text and that rating. They’re not quite going to line up. I’m hoping you don’t need to read the original review to make sense of this one, but just in case – maybe you’d best go check it out.
Within Eastern Wonders we take the role of spice traders during the age of exploration, sailing our merchantmen trade-ships through wonderous lands to collect the rich and exotic spices that may be found there. Part of our job is to build up the infrastructure of trade throughout the region, and we’ll do that by buying and building outposts on the market tiles upon which we land. Those tiles permit us to perform trade actions, alchemically turning combinations of spices into different and presumably more useful combinations of spices. Wherever we are we can make an attempt to harvest spices, and those spices serve as the fuel that will enable our economic successes. We harvest when we need, and then parlay the results of that into ever more valuable consignments for our cargo hold.
Ports at the corners of the map demand certain shipments of spices, and it’s up to us to provide them before anyone else. Once we’ve met a request, a port closes to demands for a bit until another port demand has been successfully delivered. New demands cycle into contention as others are claimed, and it’s only occasionally that you’re in a particularly good position to meet them. Making money (points) in Eastern Wonders is not really an act of anticipating demand – it’s not like Merchants and Marauders where every step of a journey can be meticiously planned in advance. Instead it’s one of reacting rapidly to opportunities and assessing those against the spatial logic puzzle the randomly generated map has laid out for you. It gives you all the pieces of a wondrously effective spice-manipulation engine and then scatters them to wind for you to piece together on your own time.
Spice Road gives you a river of cards that you swim up and claim. Once you have those cards they’re yours to exploit. You build a bespoke engine of conversions, turning saffron into cinnamon through the most efficient use of the cards you have purchased. What you have in Spice Road is an engine that is unique to you and the only cost that goes along with resetting all your options is a simple rest action. You’d play cards until you ran out of good ones, rest, and then continue full speed towards your goal.
Here’s where we encounter the first thing I really like about Eastern Wonders. It adds a spatial cost to the execution of an engine that really elevates it into a higher design tier. You can move one tile per turn for free, but every subsequent tile costs a cube of spice that gets left on the tiles you pass over. When someone lands there, it’s free for them to collect. The puzzle here is more interesting because it has so many more parts to optimise as a result of this movement mechanism. You need to arrive at a port ahead of everyone else, with the hold of spices required, with the means to continue on to the next port. You’re constantly working within a variation of the Iron Triangle for every bounty you seek. Minimum number of conversions, minimum spice cost, or minimum number of turns. Pick any two.
Eastern Wonders binds the physical geography of the board so deeply into the puzzle of spice manipulation that it creates something quite special. You’re not building an engine here, not really. Instead you’re building complementary trade routes that will intersect and run aside the trade routes of your opponents. It’s all fine and well to have an outpost on the perfect tile – the thing is, you need to get to it in order to use it and maybe you’ve got better options elsewhere given the state of the game. Maybe your best option is a quick, dirty and expensive hack rather than the elegant option that minimises your costs. After all, the winner is the one that gets to market – a hold of spices is worth nothing without a buyer and you’re all competing to get to those buyers first.
Eastern Wonders gives you a number of other ways to tweak the experience further. Every time you build an outpost you take it from your player board and you give yourself bonuses for completing columns. Columns of outposts are placed based on the trade symbol present on the market tile, and as a result you’ll sometimes find yourself aiming for otherwise uninteresting parts of the map purely because you’re looking for a powerup. These let you claim larger numbers of spices from harvesting, move farther for free, more casually upgrade cubes, or even increase the size of your hold. Often the solution to your optimisation problem lies in making the puzzle easier and this is the main mechanism you have available to pull that off.
It’s all enjoyable satisfying, and to my mind it’s because it has an almost perfectly designed decision tree at its core. The consequences for everything you do are incredibly finely balanced – sometimes your entire game pivots on the availability of a single cube. Everything might go up in the air because someone dropped a cube of cheap ginger on an adjacent tile while they hurried off somewhere else. Part of what made Spice Road so compelling was the way the end-game tended to become a sprint finish – that inevitably what decided it in most situations was who was the first to claim the card that ended the game. That’s equally important here and it gives all your decisions a pleasing amount of heft. There’s permanence to everything you do. That means consequence is threaded through the map like a physical representation of your own regrets.
I like that a lot, and the marriage of that to the map is primarily for me what makes Eastern Wonders a game that’s more fun than Spice Road. It manages to invest the algorithms of its optimisation with a fair degree of uncertainty and you violently change the fitness landscape for everyone with each decision you make. It genuinely feels like a game where intuition is important in securing the best opportunities – where gut feeling is sometimes the best guide for your ship through the waterways and market opportunities of a new and unpredictable world economy. I never really got that from Spice Road because you’d end up with a set of core cards that you could reliably and predictably harness without anything as sordid as indecision getting in the way. If you suddenly needed cinnamon then your cinnamon cards were there for you. In Eastern Wonders, your suddenly vital cloves outpost might be all the way on the other side of the map. While it’s still a game heavily based on the idea of optimisation, it forces you to do this within a framework of improvisation. You do the best you can with the tools you have available. This isn’t A* – this is the A-Team. It’s not machine learning – it’s Macgyver.
One of the most interesting promises that the Century series made from the start was that the games were designed to mesh together. You’d be able to take Spice Road and merge it into Eastern Wonders to make a third game, called From Sand to Sea, that was equally distinctive and fun. I’m pleased to say that evidence so far is that this idea is handled well and with surprising elegance. I had anticipated a Frankenstein’s monster of weirdly grinding meat and erratically firing synapses – a gross parody of a game stitched together from the offcuts of its donors. That’s not the case at all.
When you bang Eastern Wonders together with Spice Road, you end up with a kind of blend of both. You build up a hand of cards that are unique to you and combine their opportunities with the market tiles on the board. It absolutely does work, and well, but to my mind you just end up diluting the better aspects of Eastern Wonders with some of the worst aspects of Spice Road. I think From Sand to Sea is better than Spice Road, but I also think it’s worse than Eastern Wonders itself. While From Sand to Sea is only okay I do think it shows that the philosophy behind the Century series is actually perfectly sound. It changes the emphasis and level of abstraction of both to create something that gives you a new and interesting flavour. Essentially it gives you two paths to success and then lets you wander both freely while skipping between them as necessary. For me though the easy reliability of the cards means that it de-emphasises the elements I like most from the map. The cards are also replacements for some of the upgrade opportunities you get from the outposts and that means you have fewer reasons to worry about their placement. When playing From Sand to Sea I rarely felt there was much benefit to moving anywhere and that’s a terrible problem in a game that otherwise so perfectly expresses the unpredictable value of proximity.
While the interconnecting games are one of the major selling points of the (soon to be) trilogy, it’s clear to me at least that this stands strongest without it and that’s how I’m going to choose to score it in the end. Think of From Sand to Sea as a quirky little variant that you get as a bonus, or as something to add a little more logistical puzzling to Spice Road. It’s otherwise a dilution of the best new elements Eastern Wonders brings to the table – the increased player interaction, the knowability of the map, the availability of upgrades, and the powerful incentives to be in the right place at the right time.
All this said, Eastern Wonders suffers a few problems that are common to games like this. The theme, while appropriate for the game, is still so cliché as to be practically a copy and paste job from about a thousand other titles in the BGG archives. It takes a while to set up and often becomes so visually busy towards the end of play that it starts to look like a magic eye puzzle. Downtime becomes an escalating problem as the turns goes by and the noose of the end-game starts to tighten. It reaches its apotheosis when everyone knows there’s maybe five turns left before someone claims the last tile. At that point every single decision needs to be assessed from a lot of different directions and then everyone else needs to reassess again when the decision is made. Occasionally luck is the main determination of victory because every so often the perfect request at a convenient port just flops into your lap out of nowhere. In a game where the winner is almost certain to be the one that gained the most tiles, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Sure, you get points for placing outposts but you’ll all be doing that anyway as a by-product of normal play. The way to bet it is that the point advantage of having an extra tile is too much to safely discount.
I definitely enjoy Eastern Wonders more than Spice Road and I’d recommend the former over the latter even if the site ratings tell a different story. What’s harder to do though is recommend it over other games, and increasingly that’s what a new title needs to enable. Games these days need passionate advocates for anyone to take notice, and Eastern Wonders isn’t a game that really inspires that for me. It’s a game that exists in my collection because nothing has yet replaced it, and that’s a precarious position in which to be. Taken on its own, independent of the competition, I’m happy to endorse it as a great game. The problem is – no game is independent of its competition. There are equally well-designed games out there that are considerably more exciting to play and consequentially easier to get excited about. All I can really say is that I bet you won’t regret adding Century: Eastern Wonders to your collection if that is something you choose to do.