What's Eric Playing? #144: Gearworks [Preview]
Full disclosure: A preview copy of Gearworks was provided by Piecekeeper Games. Some art and gameplay may change between now and release, as this is a preview copy of a currently unreleased game.
Steampunk! It’s a thing a lot of people like. Thematically, it seeks to answer the question “what would happen if we just powered everything with hot water and old-timey gears and such?” If you’re looking to answer that question for yourself, look no further than Gearworks, the latest Kickstarter from Piecekeeper Games. In it, you play as rival tinkerers trying to fix various doodads and gizmos in a workshop. Will you be able to demonstrate your expertise? Or are your hopes of winning going to evaporate?
Setup isn’t too bad. First thing to do is give each player a player aid / player color card:
Next, the easiest thing to do is to lay out the Gears:
- 2 players: Use A – D and 1 – 4 to create a 4 x 4 grid.
- 3 – 4 players: Use A – E and 1 – 4 to create a 5 x 4 grid.
Now, add three parts of each letter and number near their corresponding gears:
In a two-player game, as you’d guess, you won’t need to use E. You can just put that back in the box.
Now, shuffle the Gear Cards:
Gears cards are how you’ll tinker with the various machines at your disposal. Deal each player five, and then add four starting cards to the board, like so:
- 2 players: A2, B1, C4, D3
- 3 – 4 players: A2, B1, D4, E3
That should give you a nice spread. Now, each player should get a Contraption card:
These are the various machines you’re trying to repair. They’re all fantastic and I love them individually. Either way, give every player a spark token, as well:
These have a variety of uses, which I will detail … later. Once you’ve done that, you should be all ready to start!
Gearworks is played over three rounds, with a round ending when all players consecutively pass. On your turn, you must play a card or pass, but you may take additional free actions by spending sparks. Let’s talk about playing a card:
When you play a card, you place a card from your hand into the grid, following valid placement rules:
- Each column may only have one of each color. This means that if there’s already a blue gear in E, you cannot play more blue gears in E.
- Each row must be increasing, the same value, or decreasing, from left to right. This means that every card must be greater than, the same as, or less than the cards adjacent to them. Generally, you want to use the arrows on the card to have the row point towards the highest value. This means that you might need to flip the cards around occasionally. To that end, 3 -> 4 -> 4 -> 5-> 7 is valid, but 1 -> 3 -> 2 -> 6 -> 7 is not, as the row increases, then decreases, which is not allowed.
When you play a card, you turn the gear with that column’s letter or the row’s number such that your player color is pointing towards the column or row, respectively. This indicates that you control that column or row. Additionally, you may also be able to gain a Spark:
- There must be more than one card in the row and column that you played in. This basically just means that you can’t gain a spark on the first turn of a round.
- Your placed card’s value must be the sum or difference of the four cards closest to it, horizontally or vertically. This is a bit hard to understand, so let me show with an example:
As you can see, the closest cards to the blue 8 are the silver 5, the brown 5, and the brown 3. Since 8 = 5 + 3, you can take a spark from the supply as a bonus, if you had just played the blue 8.
You may only have 5 sparks at a time. I’ll repeat this a few times.
There are also free actions you may take before, after, or instead of playing a card, provided you have sparks or cards to spend:
- Discard 2 gear cards to gain 1 spark. Again, you cannot have more than 5 sparks, so, don’t do this if you already have 5.
- Spend 1 spark to draw 1 gear card. You cannot have more than 8 gear cards in your hand, either.
- Spend 2 sparks to draw 1 contraption card. Not much to say about this.
- Spend 2 sparks to replace 1 gear card. This requires a bit more explanation. On your turn, you may replace a gear card by spending 2 sparks. This means that you can play a card from your hand on top of another gear card on the grid, following normal placement rules. This might give you the opportunity to play more cards later. One important note — this counts as playing a card, unlike the other actions. You cannot play another card on the turn you take this action. It ends your turn. Also, you cannot gain sparks from this placement.
If you cannot do anything, you can pass. Once you pass, you’re done for the round unless you spend 1 spark to re-join. That said, if all players pass consecutively before you get a chance to re-enter, the round ends without you getting a chance to re-join. Be careful!
Once all players have passed consecutively, the round ends. Each player takes a part for every row or column they control. When you do, flip the gear over so it’s on its blank side, to prep for the next round.
Now for an important (but slightly nuanced) part: You may use the parts you obtained this round to build any Contraption cards in your hand. If you play both parts onto the card, it’s considered completely built, and if you can only play one part onto the card, it’s considered partially built. If you can’t or don’t want to build a contraption from the parts you gained this round, they get set aside. You cannot use these set-aside parts to build contraptions in subsequent rounds. You can, however, keep contraption cards in your hand for later, especially if you think your odds of completing it are better in a later round. The set-aside parts will be worth (fewer) points at the end of the game, compared to built contraptions.
To end the round, count how many parts each player has. Whichever player has the most points is Parts Leader. (Break ties with sparks and then remaining gear cards.) That player will play first, and players with fewer parts can gain sparks:
- Parts Leader has 1 more part than you: You gain 0 sparks. Sorry.
- Parts Leader has 2 more parts than you: You gain 1 spark.
- Parts Leader has 3 more parts than you: You gain 2 sparks.
- Parts Leader has 4+ more parts than you: You gain 3 sparks. You can’t gain more sparks than that from this.
Note, again, that you can only have 5 sparks. Any more sparks that you would gain get wasted, so spend them on gear cards or contraptions or something.
Reset the grid and any discarded cards, and then deal each player 5 more cards to prepare for the next round, unless that would give a player more than 8 cards in hand. If that were to happen, just deal them fewer cards. Add cards to the grid as you did at the start of the game, and you’re ready to go!
The game ends after three rounds. At that point, calculate each player’s score:
- 9 points: Finished contraptions.
- 4 points: Partially built contraptions.
- 2 points: Extra gears.
- 1 point: Extra spark tokens.
The player with the most points wins!
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
The most obvious difference is the grid shift at two players, but I think there’s a slight tendency to suffer the Third Player Problem (one player just ends up being a mild spoiler), but I’d still need to try it a few times at 3 to make sure. My personal preferenec for this game is 4 players — there’s a lot of chaotic contention, you’re barely able to get the parts you need, and overall it’s pretty fast-paced.
- Don’t be the first Parts Leader. Once you do, it’s hard to go back from being Parts Leader (according to how I’ve interpreted the rules), which means you’re almost stuck going first for the rest of the game (in 2- / 3-player games). Focus instead on getting contraptions and cards to set yourself up for success in later rounds, especially if you can get a bunch of sparks. That said, don’t collect more contraptions than you can complete.
- It’s okay to break a row. If you play two 1s at the end of each row, now nobody can play anything but 1s there. That’s going to make people’s lives difficult. Or, better yet, force a player to replace a gear card and spend two of their sparks. That’s always even better for you.
- Try to keep two pocket sparks. This lets you replace a card in a pinch if you really need to. One will let you draw an extra card, but if you’ve already got the cards that will work, then go for the replacement.
- Try to go out last. If you pass last, you have the best opportunity to take as many rows as you want. That said, you don’t want to take all of them, if you can avoid it — it just gives other players more sparks and a better chance to build more contraptions later.
- Completing rows and columns is a pretty safe thing to do. If you can complete a row or a column, no more cards can be placed there without replacing, so you’ll basically guarantee yourself that part. Just watch out for players with two or more sparks…
- Saving contraptions is good, but don’t save them all for last. You will not be able to finish them all in the last round, especially if you have an overlap. Try to fully complete them, yeah, but partially completing them still doubles the value of one of your parts, which is pretty great.
- Hoarding cards isn’t bad, either. Just watch out for that hand limit, obviously, but keeping extra cards gives you more options.
- Don’t forget that spark tokens are worth points. Don’t agonize too much over whether or not to spend them, but they’re not worthless, either.
- Try to get sparks on every play. The math makes the game a bit more annoying to calculate, but it’s worth shooting for if you can get the sparks.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- Nice, consistent theme. It’s a fun bit of steampunk-ness and collecting parts to build contraptions is a really endearing concept. The theme also feels well-integrated into the gameplay, which is nice.
- Great art. Especially on the contraption cards. Those are my favorite. They’re everything you could love about steampunk and they’ve got the nice “sketched” look to them, which really works.
- It’s got a nice bit of puzzle to it. A few people have compared it to Sagrada, likely due to its Sudoku-y nature. More cards and less variance, though. I’d love to see what a solo mode of this game could look like, as that might be a big draw for people who like solo puzzlers.
- Small footprint. This is a game you could probably take with you pretty easily, though the box is a decent size.
- The point values are pretty well-balanced. The incentive structure for this game makes a lot of sense, and that’s always nice.
- Rotating the gears is occasionally frustrating. I think this is more because I had the longest arms and so I was the only player rotating gears, one game, so a lot of my time was spent doing that. This might not be a widely-experienced problem.
- Having gears and gear cards be different things makes the game a tiny bit tougher to explain. I can’t really think of a fix for it, but there it is. I wouldn’t say it causes too many problems, though.
- The rulebook / rules are a bit missable / difficult to parse, at times. My main complaint is that the hand limit / spark limit are in two small grey boxes that aren’t really within the flow of reading the rules. It’s also a bit difficult to figure out exactly when you gain sparks, and most players mess up the contraption building rules a few times in their first game, as it’s not super clear to new players why you can’t use parts you’ve already collected to build a contraption. All those things combined could use a bit of smoothing, but it’s eventually consistent.
- Causes some analysis paralysis. I think it’s the Sudoku-y nature of it, but this game will grind to a halt with slower players, so you should be mindful of who you play with. It’s got a similar problem to Sagrada in that strict placement rules kind of lend themselves to overthinking. Don’t be afraid to shoo players along if they’re taking too long.
- You can get into some really bad situations if you’re not careful / unlucky. The fix for this is discarding cards to get sparks, but there are some rounds where you’re just kind of … out. This isn’t a big deal on its own, but combined with slow players you might hit points where you can’t really do much other than watch other people not be able to decide what to do on their turn. A timer would fix this. A cute steampunky timer would help a lot, honestly. That said, drawing two contraptions in the last round that overlap on some part (in that they both require the same part to be built) is kind of a bummer, as that renders at least one impossible to complete. Try to avoid that, if you can.
OVERALL: 7.25 / 10
Overall, Gearworks is pretty solid! You’re going to see it appeal a lot to people who enjoy puzzle games with a sort-of aggressive element, as your plays essentially block other players. That said, it’s difficult to tell when you should block another player, so it’s hard to play with the intent to actually mess someone up with any plan beyond “I don’t want them to get that many parts”. It’s kind of hard to be mad at someone for that (it doesn’t really feel personal), so I’m willing to give it a pass. Either way, my main concern is just that, as with most puzzley games, there is some tendency to slip towards lengthy turns with players that overthink, but, just add a timer! That should solve it nicely. If this seems like a puzzle you want to solve, check it out when it lands on Kickstarter!