At around the midway point of my first game, a disembodied but slightly urgent voice began whispering in my ear. You could be playing The Voyages of Marco Polo, it said. I sat back in my chair, and considered the validity of these playful murmurings. I mean sometimes that voice is unerringly accurate – Marco is a great game and Blade Runner 2049 was certainly lacking a Rutger Hauer moment. But then again it’s also been trying to hype me up for the new Assassin’s Creed game, so what the hell does it really know, am I right?
This was Thursday last week. I’ve since played Spice Road just short of a dozen times, which raises the question – either I’m a sado-masochist or something changed. Some may argue there’s a decent case for the former, but in this instance it truly is a case of first impressions not lasting. What happened?
The simply answer? I forgot how satisfying Sudoku can be. That’s essentially what Spice Road is, the gratification of solving a puzzle, distilled from extraneous distractions such as theme or narrative. I mean heck, even the designer has now famously described the game as a ‘soulless cube-pusher’ and he’s not wrong. Only here’s the thing, I don’t typically enjoy Sudoku, so how has Spice Road managed to settle in my mind like that pop song I’d never publicly admit to liking?
I’m not going to mention theme at all, though I realise this impacts upon the number of Dune puns I can work into this review, because it really is completely irrelevant. Spice Road is building an engine to convert cubes into points, and whilst it certainly helps that it’s a pretty engine to look at, a generous dollop of colour on the table, the game lives and dies by the strength of that engine.
The road to success is built upon two decks of cards, the Merchant deck and the Points deck. All players begin with two starter Merchant cards which encapsulate the major archetypes – getting cubes and converting cubes within the grand hierarchy of Cubes, which is to say that Yellow leads to Red leads to Green leads to Brown (or Turmeric to Saffron to Cardamom to Cinnamon, if you’re so inclined). And as you’d imagine, Points cards can be purchased using the stock of cubes you’re building up over time, the higher value cards requiring higher valued cubes. The end game is triggered once a player buys their 5th Points card (6th card if 2 or 3 players) which means only the players who have not acted that round will get a last action
One of your two starter cards allows you to claim two yellow cubes from the supply, and there’s undeniably something very satisfying about nurturing those two cubes into a veritable Animal Farm where certain cubes are more equal than others. Grabbing that five cinnamon 20 point card before anyone else never gets old. But in this instance, the early bird isn’t always the smartest, and so the first aspect of Spice Road that fired up my synapses is the introduction of the gold and silver tokens. You see, there are always 5 Points cards up for grabs, but the leftmost card has a stack of gold tokens above it – any card purchased in that slot gets a bonus gold token worth an additional 5 points, and the same for the next slot with silver tokens worth 1 point. And because cards move to the left when a spot opens, like a tantalizing conveyor belt, that 20 point cinnamon card might actually be worth 23 points if you wait a little longer. And since players can all see each others cubes, you can deduce your chances fairly quickly.
That first Market card is free and allows you to Create one cube of cinnamon. In an actual game, it’s unlikely that card would have gotten that far without being snatched up.
But how do you convert two yellow cubes into five brown ones? The Merchant row always has six cards available, as I mentioned earlier falling either into the Create, Upgrade or Trade categories. Create cards simply allows you to take the indicated cube(s) from the supply whilst the Upgrade cards convert cubes according to the hierarchy. So for example the Upgrade 2 allows you to either upgrade two cubes to the next level (so 2 yellows to 2 reds) or upgrade one cube two levels (so 1 yellow to 1 green). Lastly, the Trade cards will have you trading the indicated cubes, so 2 yellow for 1 green or 3 yellow to 1 red and 1 green.
You may surmise that Create cards are the most valuable since they require no exchange, and to a degree you would be correct, but there aren’t very many of them in the deck and if you wait too long for one to appear before getting your engine going, well let’s just say you won’t exactly be in pole position. Complicating matters that one step further, is that cards in the Merchant row aren’t free. Well except for the oldest card which is always free. So if you want the newest card to appear, you have to put one cube on each preceding card before you can claim it. Any cubes on Merchant cards become added incentive, so you’re quite often in the position where you’ll snatch one up not because it’s valuable to your engine, but because it has three yellow cubes on it.
To follow on from my pop song reference earlier, part of what constitutes a great pop song is pacing. There’s a reason most pop songs are around the three minute mark – by design they require constant repetition in digestible segments. And Spice Road wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without a similar sense of pacing. You can only ever perform a single action on your turn – play a card from hand to activate the Merchant ability, acquire a Merchant card, claim a point card or rest to take back all played cards into your hand. The Spice Road is clearly an exhausting journey, because you will be resting. A lot. What that single action means is that the game has a great flow, turns move quickly and you can comfortably get a 5 player game done in 40 minutes.
Your caravan can hold up to 10 spice cubes. No Spice hoarding for you!
This does all sound very much like a rather solitaire experience though, does it not? Spice Road is an odd one in this regard – there isn’t any direct player interaction, and yet it requires keeping a beady eye on what your opponents are up to, as well as potentially selecting certain cards as a means of prevention rather than direct benefit to yourself. And as mentioned earlier, the bonus point coins often lead to a game of virtual chicken – who’s going to blink first?
One would also think that given the limited toolset, games would unfold in a regular manner. And while this is true to a degree, I was genuinely surprised how each game of Spice Road felt different to the last. Since there are fewer Create cards than the other types, you’ll often have a game that starts with no Create cards in the Merchant row at all. This makes planning a little tougher since it’s hard to say when a Create card may make an appearance and what cube it will create, and instinctively most players will play and replay their starting hands to generate sufficient cubes to make more expensive purchases. And if you make smart decisions, you can actually do very well with only a few Merchant cards in hand – what often happens when players get a little too eager on stocking up on Merchant cards, is that they lose themselves in a trading loop, exchanging cubes for other cubes without identifying when it becomes sub-optimal to do so.
But while there is a variety to be had in the play experience, I do harbour concerns as to longevity. As with most puzzles, there are certain approaches that will be more successful than others and with repeat plays under your belt solving the puzzle may become less and less rewarding. The quick pacing may help to mitigate this, and if you find the same person keeps winning in your group I’d encourage you to minimise time between turns to shorten the length of time they have to do the mental gymnastics. Although I do think this is one of those games that tends to click better with some, to the point that they can almost autopilot their way through. Personally, I enjoyed that calming sense of not having to overthink every move and instinctively knowing which is the better decision to make.
As you may have noticed from the pictures, our review copy of Spice Road came with a mat that sells separately. I’m not usually a big proponent of needing extras, but the mat does add value to the overall experience not just aesthetically, but with the constant sliding of cards it’s just a more pleasurable experience. The only issues is that you’re unlikely to find it locally, but if you do find that Spice Road is going to see a lot of play, it’s definitely worth considering an import.
Luck is also of moderate concern, especially for a game that seeks to reward the best engine builder. Since certain Merchant cards are objectively more valuable regardless of the game state, if a new one flips just after you’ve spent a number of cubes to buy what was at the time a good card, it’s easy to feel hard done by. And the same is true for the Points cards. I’ve won at least two games because a new card flipped into the Points row and I happened to have exactly the right cubes to snatch it up. Because the end game trigger can prevent you from one last turn, buying consecutive cards and ensuring you are the trigger can be incredibly powerful. Personally, I don’t see luck as being a major issue since you need to have played well to be in a position to take advantage of good fortune – it’s not as if a player who hasn’t been making great decisions will suddenly be in a winning position because a good card flips for them.
Now also seems like the perfect time to point out that Spice Road is actually the first in a trilogy of games. The subsequent releases are designed with the same template in mind, with a focus on being able to combine two or even all three titles to inject greater complexity. It’s difficult to assess this aspect, but if Emerson Matsuuchi manages to pull it off, a series that plays as fantastic, quick playing lighter Euros that can be smashed together to offer a weightier experience has the making of genius. It’s also important to note that these expansions are only scheduled for 2018 and 2019, but even if Spice Road does grow stale over multiple plays it’s certainly a good reason to consider keeping it in your collection.
Century: Spice Road is a hit, just to state it clearly if there was any doubt up until now. It plays brilliantly at all counts, although at two players you do have a tad more Market choice. The key factor in the lighter two player games is always how much do we want to immediately play the game again, and Spice Road’s quick pace and natural focus on competitive play are a most vociferous yes to that question. As a gateway game it’s equally superb, the rules are on one double-sided page for a reason. Quick setup, quick explanation, easy to understand and with no take-that element which often makes a rookie gamer shift uncomfortably in their chair, I would happily bring this along to any meet-up.
I enjoyed Century: Spice Road far more than I anticipated, and every person I’ve played it with has expressed tremendous satisfaction in the experience. And I managed to avoid comparing it to Splendor for 2000 words! Why are you still reading? Go check it out!
With thanks to Solarpop Distributors for the review copy