Until two years ago, a friend of mine visited Walt Disney World about 20-25 times a year. That fact naturally begets a lot of incredulous looks from friends when I share it, and I half expect a Times Square scrolling headline on their forehead: “Florida Man Forgets There Are Only 52 Weekends In A Year and Spends Half That Time at a Theme Park”.
But usually, an interesting discussion centered on the “why” and not the “how” emerges. Why would someone spend that much time in a commercialized place such as WDW? Why wait in a Disney queue in the hot Florida sun when you could be playing board games?
The answer is simple, and the succinct George Leigh Mallory said it best: Because it is there.
Theme parks have called to me in my earliest memories. My father, before he pretended that he hated visiting the House of Mouse as a running family gag, took us to an idyllic (not) Kissimmee motel and then an even more idyllic (not) KOA campsite the summer after it first opened in 1972 and again in 1977. Yes, kids, we went to WDW before Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain; heck, even EPCOT Center and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom weren’t anything more day dreams in the mind of the Imagineers. More to the point, we went before those colossal achievements were built and we still had fun.
A fan of the magic of the cinema, are you? For 105 minutes, we moviegoers collectively forget that we are sitting on foldable metal-and-molton chairs, and instead, pretend we are actually visiting the world of the Potter or the Skywalker or the Dr. Jones. (Unless, of course, the movie is Electric Dreams, and then, we just walk out of the Queen Cinema during the second reel.)
A good theme park promises, and sometimes even delivers, that same experience. The best of the breed reveal scenes that stick with your memory long after the helium in the Mouse ear shaped balloons escapes: the twinkling lights of the city of London below us in Peter Pan, the first time you feel the heartbeat of the Banshee on Avatar Flight of Passage, or the dusty, cobwebbed entrance to The Twilight Tower of Terror. These are experiences and attractions and adventures, not rides or spinners or (gasp!) roller coasters. Never is wasted the time spent at a quiet bar next to the Polynesian pool chatting about those experiences, or people watching as the sun rays disappear and the tiki torches of the lagoon flicker in the darkness of another glorious spring Florida evening.
Processing the reasons why allegedly grown up adults would spend half their life gliding to and from the Magic Kingdom on the legendary Mark VIs is a wonderful segue into Meeple Land, the new tile laying game from Blue Orange Games. (Note: Blue Orange provided us with a review copy, and also makes one of our top games of all time, New York 1901, the very first game we ever reviewed on Board Game Gumbo).
Sounds like a good review is on the way. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, cher reader. Every good E ticket has a few twists and surprises, right?
Meeple Land is a 2020 release from Blue Orange Games, designed by Cyrille Allard and Frédéric Guérard, with art from Tomasz Larek. It is designed for two to four players, and plays in under an hour even with set up, especially after your first play. The game is a four round exercise in building the most profitable amusement park, and attracting the residents of nearby Meeple Town to bus over to your park versus the other players’ parks and stay awhile.
Cue the advertisements: “Hey meeples, make meeplicious family memories on the Meepleway Meeple Mover, and enjoy some meeple shaped ice cream while you are here?”
Blue Orange is known for excellent productions, and this is no exception. The tiles are thick and sturdy, the meeples are colorful, and the rule book is a joy to review and understand. I like some of the little touches in the game — the plastic rook looking pieces that hold up the welcome sign to the parks is a nice, but utterly unnecessary part, that adds some physicality to the display.
Side note and distraction #1: the use of buses in Meeple Land instead of monorails to deposit meeples is a grave error in my book. It should’ve been a monorail! It should have been the Meeple Land Monorail just for the alliterative touch!
Back to the production. Some of the members of the Krewe were not very happy with the box cover, saying it looked more like those “in game app purchase” games we see on Facebook advertising. Even better, one of the Krewe compared it to the YouTube thumbnails that all of the young kids are posting on their favorite game review videos. You know the ones.
I disagree (well, not with that last comment.) This is a family weight game, and the box cover perfectly captures that vibe plus is just a teensy bit of a sneaky homage to the colors and graphics of the old Roller Coaster Tycoon boxes, in my opinion. It works.
Meeple Land plays pretty much how you would expect an amusement park themed tile-laying game would play. Players each start with one lonely grid of eligible land, just waiting for nervous dads and screaming daughters to traverse on their way to the Spider or the Wild Mouse or the Pirate flume rides.
They are assigned a little bit of bonus money at the start of each round, a decreasing amount that actually goes all the way down to zero in the last round. The money will hopefully be well spent by each player as they take turns buying attractions to put in their park, things like roller coasters and swinging boat rides.
Collecting more and varied rides can earn big bonuses at the end of the game, but each ride can also be attractive to the four different meeple groups that inhabit Meeple Town: blue and green meeples, the day trippers who are worth less points and spend less money each round, and the yellow and pink meeples, those highly critical sneaux globe collecting annual passholders, that not only spend twice as much money each round and give twice as many points at the end of the game, but let’s face it, are the lifeblood of any Meeple Land bulletin board community.
They can also purchase gift shops and fountains and other displays that complement the amusement park attractions. Maybe the pirate ship ride wants blue and yellow patrons, but will pay bonuses to the yellow guests if the ship’s tile is directly adjacent to a hot dog stand, for instance. (Don’t we all secretly want to see T’Jean struggle with the foot long chili cheese coney right after getting off of that vomitraction?)
At the end of each round, the buses arrive as they are chosen in order by the first players to pass each round. The buses deposit meeples ready to spend money in the parks, and players will have a little while to move meeples around to score the most points each round, and earn more money for the next round of purchases.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
To be an E-Ticket attraction at any Disney amusement park, we typically look for a few common traits. (And yes, dear reader, I realize that the last of the e-ticket requirements ended years ago, but those tickets in my drawer are still monete communis at the parks.)
- Whiz bang revolutionary technology like at the Tiki Room;
- Stunning audioanimattronics like at Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln;
- Big, giant sets like 20,000 Leagues or the Haunted Mansion;
- Sights, smells, and sounds that envelop the guest as they glide along a water covered track like Pirates, with its cannons blasting over your boat and the jangly sounds of a rum-soaked pirate parading through a burning city.
Is Meeple Land an E-Ticket board game? Not based on the above. But I don’t think MM. Allard and Guerard intended it to be. Let’s focus on what good things Meeple Land brings to the table.
First, it is easy to teach. Walking through the first round step by step will board even the most novice family gamer safely on their doom buggy before the safety bar comes down. An easy transfer to a clear rules set to playing with my family makes me smile.
Second, the focus of the game is on quick and easy decisions on which tiles to purchase each round. Players need to build efficiently. They need the ride tiles that will match the meeples they think will be available on the bus, and need to keep taking turns laying out those tiles to score points. Sounds easy, right?
But, there’s a bit of a push your luck aspect — how many turns can you take before your Uncle Walt takes the first rest, and gets to pick the very bus you wanted. Getting stuck with a bunch of fat cat rich pink and yellow meeples is terrible if they have nothing to do but mill around the entrance. I’ve been that family — you’ve seen ‘em on your visit, or god forbid, you were that family, too — the ones standing at the hub or under the train station looking at the WDW map for the very first time on July 2 at 9:30 am with most of the queues stuffed as full as my Uncle Landy’s boudin right before Mardi Gras.
Don’t be that family. Keep your eyes out on your fellow players, making sure you now what meeples need to go where, and make sure you get the right meeples into your park. It is critical that you match them up with concession tiles that can generate income for your next turn. For us, that was an opportunity for story time as we made up elaborate tales of why a particular ride needed a particular concession next to it. Plus, since the designers were smart enough to let us move meeples anywhere we want, anytime we wanted up until scoring, it was super easy to tell those stories while you moved the meeples around, and it created this little burst of kinetic energy in the parks.
And what about those walkway decisions? Another favorite of mine, because it recalls my favorite Walt Disney story. Told on opening day in 1955 that people were walking through some of the landscaping to get to the queue for a particular ride, Walt told maintenance that his guests knew better than they did — so build a walkway! In Meeple Land, players have to connect the tiles through walkways, because every dead end costs you points and may even block you from building in that sector without purchasing yet another entrance.
Honestly, the whole connecting the walkway thing was my least favorite aspect of Meeple Land, because there’s plenty enough in the game trying to get all of the different attractions (you get a big bonus if you can get a nice variety of rides in your park PLUS maximum the income on each tile. But I’m not a game designer. I do not have the first idea how one would fix the broken bit of the game if NO ONE had to worry about dead ends in the parks, I guess this is the uncomfortable trade off.
I guess the fact that you have to invest in rides and concessions to attract meeples and build a little bit of an engine might look like an economic game and might turn away some people. Meeple Land isn’t a stock manipulation game like Stockpile, but it does bring an introduction to economics and efficiency that almost feels like one. Heavy investment in the early rounds with attractions that fit well with the meeples you have and are inviting into your park should pay large dividends each round. It’s Engine Building without being Overwhelming for new gamers.
Call it a family weight introduction to good ol’ American style capitalism.
In other years, Meeple Land would not be able to rise above a slew of good games that would crowd one like this out of the sunlight and send it back into the utilidors. But, not 2020. In 2020, we have plenty of room for good games, and Meeple Land — though not as good as New York 1901 — is still a solid tile laying game that has an economic engine building aspect that many if not most tile layers don’t have.
It is certainly light years above the disappointingly flat Unfair, and has an equal place in my collection with Steam Park, because that game has robots and a baby Yoda sized dose of real-time. I’m frankly looking forward to even more plays of Meeple Land as winter extends our long nights here in Louisiana. It’s an easy D*ticket experience in a year full of Bs and Cs.