Spice It Up: Century Eastern Wonders

A few years ago, I traveled to Italy with my family. On the advice of Rick Steves (well, not personally from him, but from his books and videos), we traveled west to Ostia Antica. I walked spellbound along the narrow streets of this long deserted town, meandering through the reconstructed structures, and imagined life in this bustling port town estimated at nearly 100,000 people at its height in the 3rd century.

Wandering around the ruined city, I crossed the threshold of buildings that in some cases were nearly 2300 years old. Here in Louisiana, we get excited to visit a 200 year old house off of Magazine Street, so the idea that I can stroll through a building ten times that old seems very foreign to me. And then I walked into what obviously was the remains of an old pub: there was a sign on the wall that had goblets and grapes on it, with a bar in front. The sign was not in latin, it was in pictographs, and according to our guide, that was because the port town welcomed sailors from all over the Mediterranean who may not be able to read the local language.

That thought stayed with me as we left the main part of the town and walked over to the new city. Ostia spreads itself out along the sandy beaches of Mar Tirreno, the Tyrrhenian Sea. We found a walking pier, and strolled out as far as we could above the waters. All of the sights and smells and sounds that I had experienced that morning coalesced into a thought, as I dipped my toes into the cold, cold waters lapping up to the dock.

My seventh great-grandfather was born in Genoa, about 300 miles north of where we were, but died in The New World. As far as I know, I was the first one of his direct line to return to the sea to touch it with my hands and feet. When he left the port of Genoa, sometime about 75 years prior to the American Revolution, to move to Canada, did he ever expect any of his progeny to return? How brave did you have to be in the 18th century to step onto seafaring boats and set out for a destination so far from home, knowing you will never return?

I’ll never know the answers to these questions. But what I can do is play board games that explore the concept of moving people and goods all around the world, hoping to recreate the same sense of wonder that my great-grandfather must have had when he set sail. I’ll be honest, there isn’t a pick-up-and-deliver game that has delivered on that promise for me yet (See my review of Scorpius Freighter for probably my favorite game of the genre, and it turns the mechanic on its head.)

Do you like pick up and deliver games? Does your game group yearn for another chance to shuttle goods around a colorful board for points in as few moves as possible? Then, Spice up your game night with Century: Eastern Wonders.

Century: Eastern Wonders is a game published by Plan B Games and designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. You will remember Emerson from so many other games (Specter Ops, Reef, etc.) but importantly for here, he also designed Century: Spice Road. Century: Eastern Wonders is the second in the Century trilogy, and each game is designed to be played not only separately, but you can also play them in a linked game. Century: Eastern Wonders is designed for up to four gamers, and takes about 45 minutes to play.  Plan B Games was kind enough to provide the Gumbo with a review copy.

PRESENTATION:

Century: Eastern Wonders has absolutely gorgeous art from one of the top artists doing euro games these days, Chris Quilliams, artist in residence at Plan B Games (think Azul and Coimbra). It comes with four player boards, and a whole slew of tiles to make up the main game board. Of course, every tile and the player boards themselves are covered in cool art. (I’ve seen pictures of the game mat, and while it is not necessary to play the game, if you are a fan of Chris Quilliams’ art, you have to check it out.)

As is pretty typical of a Plan B release, the production is top notch. The game comes with chunky wooden bits representing the four spices that you will be trading. Each player also has a ton of wooden pieces in each of their colors. And of course, the tiles and bonus markers are all made of good thick cardboard. The iconography is simple and easy to understand, and all in all this is a great production.

Plus, the insert is great, as is pretty typical of Plan B releases. And this time, unlike Coimbra’s insert (which is wild and wonderful to look at), this insert is actually functional for its intended purpose.

If there is a quibble, I’ve heard on podcasts that players with color blindness will be turned off by the palette of colors available in the game, so be careful if that is an issue for your game group. Our color blind player in our group took one look and said “no thanks!”

GAMEPLAY:

If you have ever played any pick up and deliver game, then you know the basics of this game. Each player will explore the randomly built world, consisting of places to get spice and places to trade spice in for points. The game is themed around the building of trading routes in an area of the world called the Spice Islands. The four spices, represented by colored blocks, are each different in value, and are spread out around the map.

Have you played Century: Spice Roads? Well, Emerson Matsuuchi has taken the “get a card and trade for spices and trade that card for points” mechanism into more of a spatial puzzle. Stare at the map long enough, and you begin to see the patterns that emerge. Starting with one colored resource on one tile, you will soon see routes that will allow you to deliver that resource for even more, and then trade those in for even more resources. Eventually, you will have enough in your meager storage unit on the ship to geaux to the harbor and exchange your cargo for points.

The game works fairly simply. On her turn, a player will move her ship (you can move as far as you are willing to part with extra cubes, because only the first movement space is free.) If you land on a spot occupied by another player, you may have to give up a spice to land there. Next, a player has a choice: you can build a market, which then allows you to trade goods, or you can just harvest, which allows you to get some low level spice.

There is a bit of engine building in the game. Each player has a set number of outposts that can be used to build markets. If you build enough of them, the game rewards you in the form of bonus tiles. The tiles are not over-powered; instead, they grant players small rewards like points or better still offer a chance to upgrade your low level spices, increase the size of your storage capacity on the ship, or let you move farther and more cheaply. Stack enough of these, and your trips around the world get quicker and more powerful, and soon someone will have delivered four contracts triggering the end of the game.

I do not personally own Century: Spice Road (although we have a number of copies in the Krewe de Gumbo), but the box even comes with rules to mix the two first games in the trilogy into something Plan B calls “From Sand to Sea”. That will have to wait for another review.

BUT IS IT FUN?

At the start of the review, I admitted that pick-up-and-deliver isn’t my favorite mechanism in a board game. But it may be that I’m not interested in long games that feature this as a tool in the game, and Mint Delivery was a little underwhelming (although a nice little game in a nice package that is easily portable.)

Century: Eastern Wonders is closer to what I am looking for. The game plays quickly — our first play was a little under an hour, but our plays have been running about 35-40 minutes per play since then, even with new players.

There is so much that appeals to me in Century: Eastern Wonders — the artwork, the breezy game play, the deliciously juicy decisions on building your routes for the most efficient turn over of spices and the choice of bonus tiles — but it is more fair to say that these “should” appeal to me. Just like Century: Spice Road, some of the game feels a little “been there, done that” before to me. I’m not sure that there is enough unique elements in the game to stand out among other games in this genre.

On the other hand, I don’t buy games just for me. I play most of the gaming (reviews or not) with the Krewe de Gumbo on our weekly game nights, but I also play with family a lot. My wife really enjoyed this game, which actually elevates my enjoyment, too.

Plus, I brought it to the Emerald Coast on a recent summer vacation and it was a huge hit with my casual gaming crowd. We played it a couple of times (along with a record number of Dragon Castle plays). These were gamers that have played most of the familiar hobby games, but do not have a deep appreciation for multiple games in one genre, and in fact, this was probably their first experience with a pick up type of game. Once we got through the rules, you could see the lights go up as they got excited each time they pulled off a nice combo, or a bonus tile they had received earlier helped them make a delivery faster. As soon as we finished, they were both talking about getting copies to bring home with them.

All that is to say that while I still haven’t found the perfect pick up and deliver game, among the ones I’ve played, Century: Eastern Wonders is a solid entry in that genre. It’s fun, but not an outstandingly unique game. I do like the quick learning curve, and the portability, and especially the visual appeal it has on my game table. Shorter than Wasteland Express Delivery Service, a little less confrontational than Black Fleet, a lot less crunchy than Oracle at Delphi (although the straight euro mechanics in that one), but I’ve yet to play Merchants of Venus so can’t talk about that one yet. (Hey, if I missed a good pick up and deliver game that you think I should play, hit me up on Twitter or leave a comment below).

I’m not a big fan of the rule book — or should I say “rule sheet”. For such an otherwise amazing production, the rule sheet is crowded, with a tiny type face and some of the illustrations are unusually small and hard to read. A nice rule book like Reef has would do this game so much more justice. And for a game with a ton of tiles and harbors, I kind of wish there were a few more because I can see myself wanting more variation, especially in the contract phase of the game.

The best things I can recommend to you about Century: Eastern Wonders is that it looks great on the table, is very easy to teach, and has enough variability in the game set up that I can see myself getting a few more plays of this without it getting stale. Plus, if you are like me, and you love those “one hour wonder” style games, this should be right in your wheelhouse. If you aren’t a pick up and deliver fan, stay away, because the engine building part is tiny enough that it won’t overcome what you do not like about that genre. This does make a great gateway+ pick up/deliver game if you don’t have one in your collection.

If you play it, and are a fan, then check out WEDS and Black Fleet. Oracle is more of a racing game, but I love how you can upgrade your boards in that one, so check that out too.

Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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