The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Spires
Spires is a small-box card game that plays in 20-30 minutes and features elements of set collection and trick taking. It was designed by TC Petty III and published by Nevermore Games in 2017 after successfully funding on Kickstarter in November of 2016.
The goal of the game is simple -- score the most points by building towers of six different colors. However, any tower with more than three cards in it will be penalized instead of earning victory points. Like the King's decree on the box states, "Build towers high, but not too high." This deceptively simple goal creates a situation where different cards are better for certain players at different points in the game, and players may not want to take any cards at all, or intentionally try to give more cards to their opponents.
The game is played with a deck of cards made up of spire cards, architect cards, and scroll cards. The deck is shuffled, each player is dealt a hand of five cards, and given one card to start their tableau. Then one card is dealt to each of the markets (there are three markets in a three or four player game, two markets in a two player game). Each player then simultaneously chooses which market they will bid on. If a player is uncontested, they take the card from that market and add it to their tableau. However, if two players or more select the same market, there is a competition for that card. This is where the element of trick taking comes into play, as players then must each use a card from their hand to vie for the market card. The suit of the card in the market row is the trump for that competition, and an architect of that suit is the highest card. The winner of the competition takes the card from that market, as well as all the cards played in the competition, and adds them all to their tableau. The market and players hands are then refilled, and another round begins, and this is repeated until the deck runs out.
There are a few additional elements that create more interesting decisions. First, some of the spire cards have guild symbols on them. There are three symbols -- crowns, swords, and quills -- and whoever has the most of each symbol gets additional victory points at the end of the game, 20 points for crowns, 15 for swords, and 10 for quills. Second, there are scroll cards that are worth victory points, or give players special actions, that will come out in the market. Since these do not count against the height of your towers, and some will allow you to remove cards from a tower, these can become highly contested cards.
This can create goals that are at odds with one another, such as situations where you’d like to take a card with a guild symbol on it, but you already have two of that color spire, so if you are challenged, you wouldn’t want to play that color as trump and risk taking back two more spires of that color and busting. So instead, you realize that if you are challenged, you can toss out a losing card that will make your opponent go over three on one of their spires instead. However, you may still want to take the symbol and bust on one of your spires, as the majority of the symbols can swing a game considerably.
There is constant juggling between taking spires to get points, and taking cards with guild symbols for majorities, while trying not busting any of your towers. This, of course, occurs while simultaneously paying attention to how the cards in your hand can best help you, how you can best sabotage your opponents, and how much of the deck remains. These elements combine to create a great decision space that is worth exploring in depth, and makes players feel clever when they succeed in executing well. Of course, other players can (and will) be ruined in the process, but the short playtime helps alleviate any long lasting frustrations with failure.
I’ve found I enjoy the game more the higher the player count is. Spires is okay with two, but I wouldn’t suggest it with other options around. It’s very good with three, which designer TC Petty III noted is his preferred player count. But I think it really excels at four, because there are still only three market cards at four players, which guarantees there will be at least one competition every round.
Pros: Spires packs a lot of card game into a small box, with a small price point to match. Beautiful --simple yet elegant -- artwork that does not distract from the gameplay. Fans of trick-taking games will appreciate the game, and there is much more than just the trick-taking element to the game to keep players interested. The game also features a solo variant, giving it more versatility.
Cons: There can be some confusion between the color-coded iconography of the guild symbols and the colors of the spires. The oversized first player token seems excessive, but is apparently a hallmark of Nevermore Games. The game is not very compelling at two players.
Overall, Spires is an impressive design in that it feels unique in a market recently (and not so recently) flooded with trick-taking games, as there is much more to the game than that singular mechanism. It is definitely a game that rewards repeat plays, and since it is easy to teach and plays in 20-30 minutes, it is not a hard game to get to the table.
For more thoughts on Spires, check out Geek-Craft’s First Impressions - Spires.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Spires from the publisher. TC Petty III is a member of Punchboard Media as a co-host of The State of Games podcast.