Back in 1983, three teenage boys in Grand Mamou who were looking for a new video game experience for the Commodore 64 stumbled upon Dragonriders of Pern. Designed by Jim Connelly of Epyx Games, it was different from other space and shoot-em-up games. It had negotiation. It had action. But most of all, it had a theme tied to the book series of the same name by Anne McAffrey.
That series of books, centered around dragon riding heroes on the planet Pern who battle the “Thread”, a deadly micro alien organism attacking the planet, was a huge seller and a big influence on F&SF reading teenagers in the 1980s.
The graphics in the electronic game about Pern were rudimentary, the game play was admittedly unusual for the day, but the theme was just cool. It was a chance to be the leader of the “weyr” (dragon hold) and build alliances with other weyrs to save the planet.
So, any time a board game company publishes a board game with dragons as a theme, it inevitably harkens me back to those books and that game. Obviously, game play and graphic design have come a long way since then, but is there any game out there that can recreate that feeling?
NSKN created a sensation about a year ago with a Kickstarter for a dragon based game called Simurgh as well as its expansion. We finally got a copy of the game and have played it a few times recently. Although we agreed that we have not played the game enough to give a final rating, we have played it enough to know what we like and what we don’t like about Simurgh. Spoiler alert — if you are looking for negotiations among the great houses as you ally yourself against The Evil, better try to find a copy of Dragonriders of Pern and an old C-64 instead.
Simurgh is a worker placement, action tile laying game from NSKN Legendary Games (NSKN Games) in 2015. The game was designed by Pierluca Zizzi, and is built around the legend of families raising dragons and training dragon riders to beat back the forces of Evil. The game has three levels in length, and the average game takes about an hour to play.
Simurgh looks on the surface to be your standard worker placement fare, but there are some definitely unusual twists. Players, who control one of five different dragon rearing houses, start with a dragon rider meeple and a spearman meeple, called collectively “vassals.” The players use the vassals (and they can train more with the right resources) to develop resources, buy action tiles (where the majority of resources can be generated), explore the “wilds” and work on long term objectives like training real dragons and scoring big end game points.
The twist is two fold — first, the vassals can either be placed or taken back into the player’s hand, but you can’t do both on the same turn. The second twist is that the board contains relatively few juicy actions at the start, because most of the research, production, exploring, and technology actions are on tiles that you must buy and play. Anytime a tile is filled to the brim with vassals, or is emptied, that tile moves to the “chronicle” — which is one of the end game conditions. In a medium length game, we play to 11 tiles. (The other end game is when the objective tiles — either four or five spaces, depending upon player count — fills up.)
Here is where Simurgh gets really interesting. NSKN put in a lot of work bringing the game to its fans, and the material choices are — well, different to say the least. First, you have the beautiful laser cut acrylic vassals, which are unlike anything I have ever seen. They stand out from your usually blob of wood and are easily distinguishable. There’s even plenty of wooden tokens representing two of the resources, and then strangely, wooden blocks representing two more of the resources, and then strangely again, cardboard tokens representing the remaining resources. Strange choices, indeed, but at least they are all good quality.
Next, there is the tile and board art. The artists, Enggar Adirasa, Agnieszka Kopera, and Odysseas Stamoglou, knocked it out of the park with their depictions of the city, the dragons themselves, and the artwork all over the box. You can tell that a lot of heart and time were spent fleshing out the visual aspects of this beautiful world.
Unfortunately, that same desire to cram more artwork on the board than the Vatican has on its museum walls can go overboard. In this case, the board and artwork on the cards are so chock full of dragon goodness that it can be very overwhelming. Plus, the artwork is in some ways inconsistent. While having great looking dragons is a plus, some of them are very hard to distinguish on their respective dragon cards, which makes it very difficult to choose your dragon. Plus the artwork on the board and cards might be fine as decorations on a twelve year old’s room, but the fonts are way too small and the iconography far less than intuitive.
I have played two five player games so far, and unfortunately, both plays were hampered by the very obtuse rule set given in the game. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we spent 30% of our time in the game looking up the rules and diving into BGG to get the answers to some very specific questions. The rule book is in serious need of revision, editing and glossification.
Yes, but how did the game play? I loved the gameplay, ignoring for a second the confusion about the terms and turns and play. There are so many juicy decisions to be made. Do I start by increasing my team of vassals? Do I choose to go exploring or build tiles, or recruit more dragons? Am I resource hound, or will I do my work on other people’s tiles? All of these create tensions, especially as the timer to the end of the game keeps tick, tick, ticking away.
I think Bradly from the Krewe de Gumbo said it best:
It actually has a very interesting mechanic for a worker placement. Essentially the players are responsible for putting out the resource generating tiles. Most of the initial tiles are resource spending ones. And then if too many people se those player placed tiles, or if no one is one them, they go away. So a lot of the game is timing — keeping tiles out that others place (by placing vassals on them), and then waiting to put out your own tiles when no one can use them.
Couple of quick comments from the Krewe before I share my final thoughts:
Carlos: Cool theme and artwork, but a complete hot mess to see what’s going on; sitting from the other side of the table from the tiles is ridiculous
Bryan: Board is pretty, but too busy and hard to read
Dave: Funny name, board is way too messy
BJ: I like Simurgh a lot, but the rules are terrible and the icons are just not intuitive. NKSN needs to bring the #CarlosGraphicDesignHammer to the board and tiles
Bradly: Simurgh is good, not great; the board is needlessly busy and the rules stink
With only a couple of plays, it is too early to tell where Simurgh stands in the pantheon of board games played in the last few years. As Dustin always says (who has yet to play the game by the way), a game has to be great to stand out. The good news is that Simurgh has interesting mechanics, beautiful artwork, and has lots of juicy decisions and tension but can still be wrapped up in about an hour. That makes it more likely that it will come back to the table, and I think Simurgh deserves that. I can’t help feeling that there is so much under the hood in this game that can be explored. I am ready to watch these dragons soar again.
Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!