|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.92]
|Adrian Adamescu and Daryl Andrews
We currently exist in a climate where the likely success of a Kickstarter pitch is measured as much in sheer tonnage as it is in game quality. Nowadays if you aren’t including enough plastic miniatures to field a WH40k brigade you may as well simply throw your hat out into the street in the hope sheer random benevolence gets your project funded. It’s nice then to see an elegant game like Sagrada emerge victoriously from the brutal Capitalist crucible of crowdfunding. It escapes that slaughterhouse with its purity intact and its design unsullied. It’s astonishing really that something so precise and so delicate could even survive, much less escape, with the requested funds in its cartoony swag bag. Sagrada is only a nice dice-drafting game of stained glass panels and the curiously intricate windows that are created from them. It’s a whimsical and gentle idea that takes form as a genuinely satisfying game experience that is almost unimaginable as a representative of the Kickstarter zeitgeist.
Part of the appeal of Sagrada, it must be said, is to be found in the gloriously colourful dice that you’ll use to fashion your creations. It always feels nice to roll a big handful of these and Sagrada gives you opportunities aplenty to do exactly that. Over the course of the game’s ten rounds you’ll draw a Smarties tube worth of technicolour dice from the bag, roll them into a shared pool of succulent choices, and then each of you will pick your favourites from what’s on offer before happily pouring them into your waiting mouth.
The player that rolled the dice picks one to begin with, then everyone else in player order, and then again in reverse player order. At the end of the round you’ll all have taken two dice and any that are left over will go to track the progress through the game. More than that, some of those dice might cycle back into play later on depending on the special tools that might be available. As such they sit there, giving you wistful glances and knowing winks. ‘You can have us’, they whisper, ‘If you’re lucky’. That’s not always going to be an option, but sometimes… well. The presence of a row of attractive dice showing their well-formed pips of exactly the right hue can be intoxicating.
It’s clear the designers of Sagrada know how to tickle the tactility-appreciating pleasure centres of the human brain. They double down on those gentle caresses by giving each player a window frame that comes complete with sockets into which you’ll gently slot the dice you collect. You roll some dice. It feels good. You pick up a die that precisely does what you want it to do. That feels gooood. Then you tenderly nestle that perfect dice into your window frame until you feel the comforting resistance of it being secured in place. That feels very, very good.
Each player is going to be working with a different pattern, and one of the cleverer things that’s been done here is to make it so the frames permit you to slide a specific window schematic into place. There are a fair number of these and they all have different arrangements of differing difficulty and complexity. Again, this is a celebration of the physicality of gaming that borders on the erotic.
Everything you do in Sagrada reflects the exquisite sensuality that is implicit in the act of creating and appreciating the stained-glass windows with which you’re working. It’s gently meditative and prompts low-key but meaningful deliberation of the many choices you have in front of you. At least – of the many choice you have to begin with.
The patterns you have in your window are what determines the dice you’ll initially be seeking. Coloured squares dictate that only a die of that colour can be slotted in place. Numbered squares… well, yes. They determine the number of pips a die must be showing in order for it to be valid. The white squares permit you to place anything, but that’s less freeing than you might think.
The problem you have to deal with here is that Sagrada builds its engine around one incredibly simple but unbelievably restrictive philosophy. No two dies that are orthogonally adjacent may match on either colour or on number of pips. If they ever do, you need to start dismantling your window until its configuration is legal. That’s an act of self-sabotage roughly approximate to beating your car into scrap with a sledgehammer just because you got a flat tyre. It seems like a reasonable rule until you start to live with it. Sagrada is a seductive game – it opens itself up to you and invites you in before it wraps its loving arms around your neck and starts applying increasingly greater force to the embrace. It gestures towards your window frames and says ‘Look at the possibilities, look at the dice I have arranged for you. Doesn’t it feel nice to create something beautiful?’. And it does. It feels nice. It’ll keep feeling nice until it crushes the breath out of you.
And yes, those possibilities open up dramatically as you take your first tentative steps towards your colourful masterworks. You don’t realise what’s happening though, at least not the first time you play. Every time you place a die in the window-frame, your options constrict. Six or seven turns into the game and what seemed like the gentle nestle of a silk scarf around your neck turns into the coarse bite of a worn rope noose.
The trap here is that the scoring in Sagrada works on four levels. The first is your private objective, and that will be the face value of the dice of a particular colour you threaded through your window. You’re incentivised towards those colours because they are easy, uncontroversial points. The second level is the public objectives, and these get randomly dealt out to the table. You’re all sharing those, and they’re going to set a different context on your experience because they tend to be much more lucrative.
The third level is through the careful saving of your favour tokens, which are a currency you get based on how difficult your window is to complete. You get a point for each one you have left over at the end of the game, but you can also use them to make use of the tools that get dealt out randomly for the table to use. The first person to use a tool takes a favour token and places it on the card. Everyone else from that point on needs two favour tokens to use the power associated. And you’ll want to, because these are useful abilities and they offer the only way you can manage the often perverse vindictiveness of randomness that’s a core feature of the game.
The fourth scoring though is punitive – every unfilled socket on your window loses you a point at the end. That’s not much, but the combination of the other three scoring rules means that it’ll happen more often than you like. There are ten rounds. You’ll draft a maximum of twenty dice. Do you know how many slots you have? That’s right, you have twenty. Do you know how hard it’s going to be to place dice towards the end of the game? That’s right, borderline impossible.
‘Why couldn’t you have rolled a three? You’re useless’, you’ll mutter at the person making the roll. They in turn are staring at the dice in the pool as if being offered a choice between a kick in the junk or a bite of a turd sandwich. Those dice that were once so deliciously tempting are now deliberately mocking. Sure, you thought it was a good idea to put those two blue sixes surrounding a five socket, but now the only choices you’ve got are blue fives and you’re screwed. That purple two would have been perfect, except look at what some jackass did earlier – put a purple one die in a socket that means you can’t use any of the dice that are in the pool. You look at your favour tokens – not enough to use a tool because some bastard used them earlier when they didn’t even need it. So there you go – two empty slots in your stained glass window that give it all the aesthetic appeal of a gap toothed snarl. Still, only two points of damage right?
Wrong, because you also ruined two rows and two columns and as a result you basically lost the chance to score on either of them from the public objectives. It’s not your fault though – you were doing the best dice work you could with the tools you had, and there was nothing you could have done better…
… except there’s always something you could have done better and we both know it.
Those favour tokens are worth their largest values earlier in the game when they are least useful. You don’t need the tools in the first few rounds because everything seems to be going swimmingly. However, at the end of the game when the tools are their most important your tokens have also likely undergone a dramatical devaluing because other people have been more proactive in spending them. Just when you find yourself in greatest need of the assistance of the tools you find you can no longer fund their employment. Argh.
That’s your own fault though, really – you were the one that thought you could do it alone. I mean, look at what you’ve been doing with those dice. It doesn’t look like you’ve given any thought at all to what’s been going on. Look, you placed a blue die on an open square when it was right next to a blue square. What were you thinking? Oh, you weren’t thinking. I guess I can sympathize with that. You spend so much time focused on the puzzle of placing the dice you have in front of you now that you often lose sight of the bigger pattern you’re following. You should be thinking about the dice that might be coming next. By the time you’ve realised the hole you’ve dug for yourself, it’s too late. Your fate is in the hands of the gods of chance now.
That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to fail. You lick your lips and hope. You see another playing rolling the purple three you desperately need only for them to go ‘Oh, thank God’ and pluck it off the table and into their own board. Those are dark moments. You’ll know hate in those moments because in Sagrada a pilfered dice is not simply a case of forcing you to go down a suboptimal route. It’s a case of basically stealing away the only option you had. Not the only one you ever had, but the only one your silly decisions earlier left for you at this precise intersection of dice and time. You’re not just constructing a window here, you’re also willfully weaving the net that’s eventually going to entangle you. Sometimes you even see what you’re doing but you can’t stop. All foreknowledge gives you in Sagrada is the existential dread of absurdity. Camus would have approved.
Sagrada has a narrative arc, and I wouldn’t have expected that from a game about slotting dice into sockets. It is so unassuming and inviting to begin with. It is so cruel and restrictive at the end. While the rolling of the dice certainly has to take a fair share of the blame for the mistakes you’ll end up making they only ever tell part of the story of your failure. You’ll come away from playing this realising one thing – it was no accident Sagrada emerged safely from the Kickstarter arena. It had a viciously huge knife held behind its back the whole time. Like glass itself, Sagrada has an edge sharp enough to draw blood if you’re not careful when handling it. It’s a beautiful design.
But for all of that, I still leave my sessions of Sagrada feeling – well, a touch unfulfilled. Not to the point I think Sagrada is anything short of a great game but to the point that I think it could have been more still. There’s a kind of ineffable sense of something missing within Sagrada – an empty socket in the window frame of its own design. It feels like a misalignment where two panes of glass have been expertly fashioned in isolation but don’t actually fit properly when brought together.
You spend so much of your time in Sagrada focused on the pattern of the window you create but your actual score is largely independent of your eventual accomplishments. The public objectives keep the game spicy and interesting but in the process they also strip away a layer of verisimilitude. You can think of the public objectives as being something akin to the prevailing fashions and preferences of the day, and it’s rarely the case that the window you choose to create is incompatible with any combination. Problematically though you never really feel as if the artistic merit, such as it is, of your window is ever really properly rewarded. It’s possible to win Sagrada handily with the laziest possible completion of the easiest possible window and that seems curiously at odds with the underlying theme. Stained glass windows are things of beauty and majesty and the scoring at the end feels completely decoupled from that.
I’m not saying that any individual player board of Sagrada is likely to be more aesthetically impressive than any other – these are still, in the end, dice working together to create a kind of low-budget pixel art representation of famous works of devotional glasswork. I just feel that fully completing a complicated pattern feels more satisfying, and represents more genuine skill, than meeting the maximum scoring requirement of the public objectives within the constraints that a window represents.
That’s especially true considering what it is you’re actually doing here – you’re navigating the vagaries and cruelties of chance to work within tight constraints to create compelling dice combinations. The favour tokens you get to begin with help give you some reward for choosing more difficult patterns. It doesn’t in any way feel like that is commensurate with the work you need to do to pull it all together. In all cases where I’ve tried it, choosing the easier pattern is the optimal way to achieve higher scores and that has a pretty substantial impact on how I feel once the final accounting has been done.
But leaving aside that criticism, Sagrada is a game that is stunningly intuitive, satisfying to play and beautiful to look at. I’ve played it a lot since I got it – including many, many sessions of the very satisfying solo variant. I’ve occasionally sat down and played four windows by myself just for the sheer joy of engaging with the game systems. Even in writing this review all I really want to do is set it up and play it once more. That’s about as solid an endorsement I can hope to give of a game.