Spice it up with Tapestry

Imagine playing a game that dramatically takes you from rubbing two sticks against each other to start the world’s first fire, all the way to exploring the outer reaches of the solar system. Imagine a game that gives you the thrill of discovering uncharted lands and interacting — sometimes in a friendly fashion, sometimes toppling other’s castles and keeps — with other civilizations as you explore. Imagine doing all of that in under two hours.

Wouldn’t that game be grand! That’s a lot to promise, though, and frankly I’m not quite sure any game with a suggested two hour length could deliver those experiences.  But how close can we come to that ideal?

Does your game group like their engine building euro games flavored with a civilization theme? Well, spice it up with Tapestry from Stonemaier Games.

Tapestry is a 2019 release designed by Jamey Stegmaier with art by Andrew Bosley and sculpts by Rom Brown. This civilization themed game plays from one to five players in about an hour and a half to two hours. Our first game clocked in a little over two hours, but subsequent plays have been right on target. Note: Stonemaier Games was kind enough to provide us with a review copy of the game.

Players take on the role of civilization builders, each assigned their choice of one of sixteen different civs with clever names like Inventors or Merrymakers. Over the course of five ages (four full turns), players will spend resources to explore a central map, conquer neighboring territories, upgrade their civilizations, and build out their capital city with the included landmark buildings. The player who scores the most points after completing the fifth age wins.

PRESENTATION:

Stonemaier Games did not skimp on the production value in this release. Every retail edition of Tapestry looks like your typically overproduced Kickstarter game with every stretch goal thrown in. The box is substantial, with a cover that really intrigues me — it appears to be the entrance to a beautiful city with people marching in holding gorgeous tapestries honoring their leaders and victories.

Inside, all of the major amenities we come to expect in Kickstarter projects are in there, even though this was not a Kickstarter funded release. The game comes with a large plastic insert with cover that holds all of the unique landmark buildings that are probably the most well known part of the game, as well as the rest of the game bits. Speaking of those landmark buildings, each is a fully formed plastic representation of the building, pre-painted in bright colors. That’s right, there are no included grey plastic sculpts that await the promise of a paint-and-wash treatment that, at least in my household, never comes.

Each player is given a unique player mat and color complete with a full assortment of resources tokens, scoring and track cubes in their color, colored outposts (which are used to claim territories on the game board) and four different complete sets of “buildings” for their player mat. These houses represent a player’s ability to upgrade their personal mat for military, technology, exploration and science buildings. The little buildings may be my favorite part of the presentation, because they are made of that chunky, tactile rubberized plastic that feels like heavy duty quality game bits. (Yes, my friend Jason Dinger will probably throw them away and hand-carve wooden replacements, but to each his own.)

The player mats and cards are also unique in that they have been treated with a finish that almost feels like fine sandpaper. The texture is not only satisfying to the touch, but it also helps to prevent the pieces from sliding around on the cardstock. The cards in particular come in two flavors: oversized civilization cards that depict the civ and all of its special bonuses with fun art; and smaller tapestry and technology cards. The tapestry cards represent either bonuses for your civilization (either one time or ongoing through an era) or some of the them can be used as “traps” to stop a civ from attacking one of your outposts.

The game comes with a very large double sided game board, with unusual but pleasant to look at rounded corners. (The double sides are for different player counts.) The game board depicts not only the entire “world” of Tapestry, with some spaces already filled in, including the very important center tile. The board also has reminders about some scoring bonuses and lays out four different tracks for each civilization to upgrade during the course of the game.  For some reason, and this is probably just expectations versus reality, the game board and its art just don’t feel up to Stonemaier’s past offerings. There are some artistic touches on the tiles related to land features that are a little confusing, the artwork seems to be purposefully chosen to represent a softer, blander color scheme, which is just not as attractive in my mind as what I expected from the cover of the game.

My other quibble has already been mentioned by plenty of other reviewers. As much as I like blinging out a game, and I especially love the way Stonemaier overproduces every game, for the first time ever I have questioned myself on going overboard on production vis-a-vis the landmark buildings. A tiny part of me wishes that they were tiles instead of actual buildings. I’ll explain more later, but the buildings are used to fill up your capital city, so the footprint of each building is important. Yet, it is hard even for experienced players to judge that feature just looking at the building. And many of the buildings look very much alike, so it is not easy to distinguish them.

A game like NY1901 is fun placing the giant legendary buildings that I own, but that is more for the end game and to create a cool visual when playing. I’m just not convinced yet that we needed giant sculpts of every single building, and I am definitely not convinced that the buildings make the game easier to play. Spoiler alert: if you play the Nomads, however, placing the giant landmark buildings out on the game board and on your player board not only creates a sense of kinetic energy in the game, but also looks cool, too.

Nitpicks aside, Tapestry a gorgeous production from Stonemaier.  The game is not cheap, but you really feel like you are getting more than your money’s worth when you open up the box and see everything inside.  I’m a huge fan of the textures on the cards and player mats, and I really enjoy the individual game pieces.    Even if I am not a fan of the color scheme of the game board and landmark buildings, I have to be honest and say that they are far and away much better produced than games in this genre that I own.

GAMEPLAY:

Tapestry is relatively simple to teach and play. Players will take turns advancing their marking cubes on each of four tracks: science, technology, military and exploration. The tracks are clearly marked on the edges of the large game board, and color coded for ease.

To advance one of their markers, players will have to pay resources to do so, but in general, will receive benefits tied to each track. For instance, moving up one on the exploration track may give you the ability to “scout” for more tiles to place on the center board. The further you move up the track, the more expensive the move becomes.

Getting to the end of the track can be important, as the last few steps can give insanely powerful rewards. For example, players could explore space, or get a whole new civilization, or move up a bunch on other tracks all at the same time.

Sometimes, moving up on the tracks gives you other rewards. Players may earn the right to remove buildings off of their own track on their player board, and place those buildings in their capital city. The capital city is a small side board consisting of a unique terrain feature (like mountains or wetlands) that must be shaped and built into a vibrant capital city. In essence, this is almost a separate mini-game where players can earn additional points or resources.

When a player runs out of resources, or is just ready to move on, inside of a normal action turn, a player can choose to take an income turn. In fact, the very first turn of the game, since players have no resources to start, is an income turn, and the game will end once all players have taken four more income turns (signifying moving through the four full ages of the game after the initial start.) During an income turn, players will get resources, additional exploration tiles, get more and play more tapestry cards, and perhaps even score some points depending on how far they have opened up their own player board advancement tracks. Once a player has taken a fifth income turn, the game is over for that player.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

First off, I should note that I am a fan of many of Stonemaier Games releases. Viticulture is one of my top games of all time (we recently reviewed the Rhine Valley expansion cards), and Scythe is in my top ten. I’m more than a little meh on the “Between Two…” series, but my wife and I both really enjoy Wingspan. Second, I should note that I’m a big fan of the premise of the game. Civilization building games are attractive to me, but I am generally turned off if the game promises a length of more than two hours. I love the idea of finding a great civ game that plays in under two hours. Finally, I will admit it — I am a visual gamer, and I love the idea of playing with toys during a game. Moving the little buildings around, sliding the unique plastic resources, and handling the giant civ cards, all that trips the happy wires in my brain.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the game. This is a tale of an emerging game for me. To be honest, my first play was underwhelming. We played a three player game, and I tried to do a little of everything on each track to test out the mechanics. That is not only not an ideal way to play, but since you never get very far on any of the tracks, ideally a not very fun way to play. The magic of Tapestry is in its ability to make you feel clever when you combine moves to get powerful bonuses, and staying far down on the tracks is simply not very fun.

I also was a little perplexed by what felt the disjointed nature of the various parts of the games. It almost felt like three separate games, between the player board, the main game board, and the spatial puzzle of the capital board.  I worried publicly on Gumbo Live! that Tapestry may be a game whose sum is not as much as the whole of its parts.

And then we played the game some more, and quickly, my opinion changed with each play. I begin to see that the best part of the game is in the unique civilizations and some of the crazy moves they allow you to make in the game. I’m a fan of Cosmic Encounter, and while Tapestry has almost nothing in common with the game, the one area that it does share is that almost every civilization in Tapestry has an ability that has the potential to be really exploited. Finding that exploit and utilizating that exploit is immensely satisfying, even if it is not strong enough for the win. That’s really unusual in my opinion. (I said “almost every civ”, but maybe every civ has it and I’m just not smart enough to find all the exploits.)

I have especially liked watching or playing the straight-forward civs, the ones where with a glance, a player can see what the strategy is from the build and work towards it immediately. Par example, the nomads want to use the player buildings to spread out far and wide across the map, gaining lots of territory and scoring big points from conquering. Within that strategy, the nomads have to figure out if they will use the buildings for more resources, extending their turns, or to “backfill” their position to maintain control. Simple, streamlined, straightforward and fun.

In each of my games, the civilizations have played so wildly different, that I remember remarking in my last game that none of my plays feels the same. I’ve had games where a few players rushed through the ages, scoring lots of points in completely different ways. I’ve had plays where each player has tons of resources and extends the turns over and over, battling each other for the end track bonuses everywhere on the board. I’ve had plays where there’s lots of player interaction on the game board, and one where we ignored each other for the entire game.

Playing the game almost feels like watching a movie with the same actors and the same basic plot but with no script attached — the actors are free to improvise the entire time giving you wildly different results each time you watch. That’s Tapestry in a nutshell for me. The game’s storyline and ebb & flow will be totally dictated by the civ cards that are drawn and chosen, as well as the tapestry cards that come out. If you are okay with your strategy game seasoned with a spicy bit of chaos, then Tapestry may be for you.

SUMMARY:

Pros:

  • Gorgeous art
  • Amazing production
  • Love the tactile feel of the individual player buildings
  • Lots of opportunities for powerful combos
  • Short, easy to read rule book
  • Easy to teach game play with lots of online resources for game teaching
  • Solid engine building
  • Incongruous outcomes are fun — your civ could struggle making paper clips but send nomads into space

Cons:

  • Some people may not like that you can send nomads into space but not know how to use a paper clip
  • Landmark buildings are big, bulky, time consuming to put up and store, and don’t give good visual clues to their footprint;
  • This is more of a civ “theme” game than a “civ building” game

If you are a fan of engine building games, there’s a good chance that this game will appeal to you. If you are a fan of blinging your games, you may be disappointed, because I’m not sure what else you will be able to do to the game! For me, Tapestry fulfills what I need from a civilization themed engine building game. I like the game length, there is just enough player interactivity to make it interesting without turning into a battle royale or area control game. Each time I play a different civ, a dichotomy inside me emerges — I want to play that civ again to do it better, but I’m intrigued to play other civs to see how unique they are. Any game that gets me thinking about game play between games is a winner in my book.

The inevitable question that everyone asks each other is where does this stack up in the pantheon of Stonemaier Games. For me, Viticulture and Scythe are still tops, but Tapestry is right up there with Wingspan in my tastes. I would choose it over Euphoria or Between Two any day.

If you like civ games that play in short periods, you could also check out The Golden Ages. I have not played with the expansion, but I hear good things about what it does to increase the replayability of that game. For something with a lot more depth, Patrick Hillier recommended Advanced Civilization, the 1991 civ game from Avalon Hill, but any game clocking in at six to eight hours with a BGG weight of 3.67 is likely never going to be played in my house anytime soon.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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