The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Embark
Tasty Minstrel Games, or TMG, is probably best known for its series of mid-weight Euros that it gives the “Deluxified” treatment, such as Orleans, Yokohama, Crusaders and Gentes. But beyond that flagship line, they release a lot of other titles. One line of theirs, including Harbour, Thief’s Market, Harvest, and their latest offering, Embark, all share the same thematic fantasy world. Although these games have had five different artists doing the artwork for them -- with Embark’s being done by Robert Gonzales and Matt Paquette -- they maintain the same cartoonish style. Each game is designed by a different designer -- Scott Almes, Dave Chalker, Trey Chambers, and now Philip duBarry with Embark, respectively -- but they all feature certain unifying traits. The most notable, beyond the shared universe and art style, is that they all fit tons of stuff into rather small boxes, and that they are all highly interactive in unique ways.
Embark, which plays two to five players in about fifteen minutes per player, is highly reminiscent of two earlier designs. The first, due to the similarities in placing cubes on boats and shipping them to score points, is 2016 Spiel des Jahres nominee Imhotep. While Imhotep has more of a slow burn, as you only place one cube per turn and wait to see how things develop, Embark is more frenetic, as everyone blasts out all of their cubes simultaneously. The way that is done, simultaneously behind player screens, is a call back to an earlier Philip duBarry design, Revolution!, of which Embark is likely an iterative evolution.
Embark plays over six rounds, with each round having four phases. The first phase is the allocation phase. Each round, in this phase, every player gets five cubes, representing voyagers, to assign secretly to their respective player boards. All players simultaneously place as many cubes as they like onto each of the available spaces -- the amount of which scales to twice the player count -- which will determine which of the boats each voyager is heading toward.
The players then remove their player screens, revealing their player boards, and begin the boarding phase, in turn order. The basic objective is to place voyager cubes onto desirable boat spaces on boats that will ship to the islands that turn. The spaces on the boats represent different jobs -- Colonists, Explorers, Miners, Captains, and Warriors. Each scores a different way, and the Warriors add a nice layer of interaction and tactical planning.
Boats that are not filled do not sail to the islands, and those voyagers cannot gather resources or score points that round. Additionally, once a boat is full, any additional voyager cubes allocated to that boat head to the pub -- an area on each of the player boards -- instead of to the boats, making them available to allocate the following turn. While it is not a great feeling losing any voyager cubes for the turn, getting more to use the next round makes it feel less punishing, and functions a nice catch-up mechanism.
The third stage of each round is the landing stage, where the voyager cubes from the boats that sailed are placed onto the corresponding areas on their respective islands.
Groups of four Colonists will build a farm worth fifteen points, and can score additional points via an area majority bonus at the end of the game.
Explorers will score one point every round, and can unlock special unique island bonuses.
Miners will collect ore each round until the mine they are assigned to runs out. Players get a bonus for collecting ore, which ramps up from 3 points for 1-4 ore to 45 points for 15+ ore.
Captains can be used as any of the above three jobs, making them a valuable wild card in chaotic situations.
Warriors will displace other previously placed voyagers, sending them to their owner’s pub. However, if there are no other voyagers to displace, they are returned to their own pub. These voyagers have the most direct and confrontational player interaction in the game, with the possible exception of some of the talent cards.
The final stage is the island stage, where intra-game scoring takes place, and the first player token moves to the next player.
While that is not a complete rules breakdown, it should give a good idea of the game’s flow. One other aspect worth mentioning is the Talent cards, which give each player a game-breaking ability. Some of the abilities allow you to add additional voyager cubes to boats, or move them to different boats, or score additional bonus points at the end of the game. This can help to give players some direction at the beginning of the game, and also adds to the game’s variability. However, as with a lot of game-breaking unique player powers, the balance of these cards is questionable.
Embark is a game that benefits from the chaos of having more people playing it. The tension of the hidden deployments, the frenzied rush to secure the choice spaces on the boats, and the fact that a good deal of the game’s scoring is through area majorities and resource acquisition, are simply more rewarding with a full table of players. At lower player counts, the game still functions, but it begins to lose its tension. At two players, the game feels much too binary, with the choices becoming more obvious as it shifts to an optimization exercise. While this may seem like overly negative, there are many, many games that play well at lower player counts, especially at two players, and few games that improve as you add more players. Where most strategy games begin to stall out as downtime exponentiates per player added, Embark basks in the added interactivity, and its simultaneous deployment phases keeps its downtime at a minimum.
Pros: The gameplay shines at higher player counts, up to its five player upper limit, and does not suffer from excessive downtime at higher player counts. The game’s theme works well with the game’s various mechanisms, making the gameplay intuitive and easy to pick up. The Warrior job increased the level of interaction and strategy of placing the voyager cubes. The game packs a lot of content into a fairly small box. The artwork is cute, and thematically matches the previous games in the line.
Cons: The game doesn’t excel with two players. Some of the talent cards felt significantly stronger than others, but this is at least partially offset as they are drafted at the beginning of the game with two more talent cards available than the number of players in the game. The graphic design could have been improved slightly -- for example, the blue Explorer icon not matching its corresponding square color, which was yellow, unlike all of the other jobs, threw players off every time I played.
One other negative criticism I had has already been resolved by a rules clarification from the developer. With the rules as written, in the late rounds of the game, the spaces for Miners and Explorers filled up and there was no direction as to what to do with them. Hence, we sent them back to the pub, as is done with Warriors that cannot be used. This let a lot of the air out of the end game, as too many spaces on the boats became useless and undesirable. However, in researching for my review, I discovered this post on BGG from Tasty Minstrel developer Seth Jaffee, reading in part:
The rules do not say what to do with a voyager in a miner berth if the mines on that island are full.
The rules DO say what a warrior without a target is returned to your pub. So it makes sense that you'd also return a miner with no place to go. Playing that way will work, but it makes miner berths in the late game a little disappointing.
In fact, when the mines are full, miners are supposed to be placed as explorers or colonists instead. So when all the mines on an island are full, the miner berths can be treated like captain berths!
This makes them more desirable, and makes the game a little more fun.
The same goes for explorers once the exploration track on an island is full (they can become miners or colonists instead).
Playing this way leads to a much more engaging end game, as players can use those spaces to try to gain area majority with added Colonists. So, playing using this errata, which I highly recommend, solves my end game criticism entirely.
In conclusion, I enjoy Embark most with four-to-five players at the table, especially with friends that enjoy a bit of take-that and backstabbing, as we chaotically jostle for position on islands that don’t have enough room for all of us, and try to use our game-breaking talent cards to their greatest effect, and to the detriment of each other.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Embark from the publisher.