Seize The Change: Carpe Diem Review

So many board games come out each year. We play somewhere between 200-300 new games each year, and even that number seems like just a teaspoon in a barrel of Barq’s root beer.

One could be forgiven for thinking that we may have a “fear of missing out” around these parts. But strangely enough, I rarely ever get FOMO. I play plenty of games, and eventually I will get to all of the ones I really want to play.

No, my fear is about those multitudes of games that I play each year only once, and the play left me…frankly, a bit cold. Maybe I was distracted during the demo at a convention, or the game followed an awesome game my brain was still buzzing about, or maybe it just didn’t click with me that day.

That’s what I fear the most as a reviewer, that somehow I passed on a game or did not want to cover a game because of that first play, when just a little bit more invested time would have paid off in bitcardboard.

Cue up my recent experience with the hit Disney+ show, WandaVision. My wife checked out after five minutes of episode one, and I actually turned it off around the 15 minute mark and went play a board game instead. But something was bothering me in the back of my brain. A few hours later, I went back to episode one and started watching and holy cow — no spoilers here — just watching one more minute of episode one got me hooked in deep.

Are there any board games out there that I wish that I would have spent just a little more time playing, that could have given me more thrills in discovery? Are there any “WandaVision” holes in my gaming experience?

I think I found just such a game.

Back at BGG CON a few years ago, I attended a demo of Carpe Diem, a new Stefan Feld game all about thematically moving your piece around a board, grabbing tiles, adding fish and leaves to your player area, and scoring cards at the end of each round.

(Tongue firmly held in cheek).

To say I was underwhelmed by the theme and the look is an understatement, and I moved on from the game without any pause. Then, Steve and Verla and I discovered it on one of the licensed online gaming sites, and I tried it again, but the bland colors and the game play jumbled up in my brain like a warm bowl of oatmeal. For me at least, it was a big yawn.

And then, I participated in the Rolling Dice and Taking Names Gladiators In An Arena tourney, sponsored by Ravensburger, who along with Alea was publishing the English language edition of Carpe Diem.

The kind folks there sent us a review copy of the new new edition of the game, complete with new artwork, a new box cover, tweaking to the rules, and vibrant new colors. I felt my heart skip just a beat, because I like Feld games (in some cases, like Castles of Burgundy, i like them a LOT), I absolutely love tile laying games, and I am usually willing to give a game a second chance.

Is Carpe Diem the new WandaVision? Let’s seize the box and find out.

GAMEPLAY:

Carpe Diem is a 2018 tile laying game for one to four players that looks intimidating but is actually very easy to set up and play. Players are supposedly rich patricians in ancient Rome, but like most of Feld’s best work, this is really a themeless euro about maximizing tile combinations, special bonuses from the tiles, and scoring cards each round. Ameritrash-only players review spoiler: this is probably not the right game for you.

Each turn, players will move their patrician around a wheel to pick from a group of up to four types of tiles, using resources to skip around if they really need to grab one they need for their player board. The player board is a big grid, which has a simple rule of placing the tile you draft next to a tile you have already placed on the board. If the tile covers certain spots, a player will move ahead in the end of the round scoring turn order, which is very key.

The played tile consists of one or two building parts, and these buildings will either by itself or by connecting and completing other tiles give the player one time bonuses: resources, moving up in turn order, coins, or even the ability to grab a finishing tile from a special market. The completed buildings can even throw in a few bonus points at the end of the game if it matches certain requirements on the player’s boards.

Once all tiles are grabbed, players proceed to scoring. In turn order, players place two discs on a separate area comprised of random cards showing end round goals. It could be something like having three completed bakeries, or scoring points for every vineyard and lake on your board. The card could give you resources to complete other cards, or just straight victory points. There are a ton of scoring cards, so each game plays out differently in that regard.

After four rounds, the days are up and the person with the most points wins. Let’s not forget to score the fountain cards, which are secret end game scoring that you can get by placing…drum roll….fountains on the board.

PRODUCTION:

When I first saw the new edition, I have to admit that I was impressed. This is exactly what I want out of my puzzly little euros. First, the box cover is absolutely and astoundingly beautiful. It is a dead simple white marble box that pulled me back five years to a trip to the Roman Forum and the steps on Capitoline Hill. Slide open the box, and the colors jump at you right away. In the previous edition, the different tiles all seemed to run into shades of brown and green and purple and red that were so close together as to be impossible to distinguish at first glance.

Now? Every tile seems almost supersaturated with color, and there is tiny little artwork on every area trying to distinguish each from the next. The wooden resource pieces are colorful as well (not sure if that were true in the original edition) and the cards are thick and well made. Plus, there is a typically good Ravensburger / Alea rule book, with lots of clear examples and the Queen style summary of each action on the right side for easy reference.

All in all, the production team at Ravensburger clearly heard the complaints on BGG and elsewhere, took them to heart, and made Carpe Diem into a lovely little production.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Before I get to the fun, we first have to talk about the okra in the room, and that’s the changes that Ravensburger made to freshen up the look of Carpe Diem. The changes in the production are exactly why Carpe Diem came to the Gumbo. I never owned the original game, but saw it at BGG Con, and the production harkened back to the early Castles of Burgundy look. Sure that was acceptable for hobby board gaming when CoB came out in 2011, but ten years in this industry feels more like 50 in terms of production value. I like both classic euro games and stuff that makes that look amazing. I like the fact that Sagrada and Azul and Reef are basically soulless euro puzzle games but dressed up so much as to warrant special places on people’s shelves, or that gasp of joy that friends not in the hobby get when they see what’s inside.

Carpe Diem did not need that, except for the fact that it did. A 45 – 60 minute euro with bland art, washed out colors, and frankly speaking, palette issues that affect even those without color blindness like me, is just not thick enough in today’s hobby world. A game like this can — and should — shine and stand out.

I think back to A Fistful of Meeples from designer Jonny Pac. Sure, it is basically a little puzzly rondel with slight nods to the Wild West motif, but it is the production value that makes the game something to dive into. The tiny little meeples, the western town, the art by The Mico, all of it allows you to wipe off of the veneer of This Is A Cardboard Game to get to the heart of what the game is about.

The new production in Carpe Diem does the same thing. I don’t want to be worried about whether something is purple or brown and misplaying my production for a scoring card, something we do ALL OF THE TIME on the online version. Get out of the way, let me do my puzzling, and let the game engine sing — that should be the goal of every thinky and puzzly euro.

But back to the main question, is the game any fun? Just as I suspected, all Carpe Diem needed was a second chance, but I will give you a caveat. Regular readers of the Gumbo know that I am a sucker for a well designed, elegant tile laying game. There’s something about fitting those pieces together, whether they are polyominoes from Uwe and Chenier, or hexagonal pieces like in Castles of Burgundy or Calico, or any other shape that juices me up.

But even there, I am heading down the wrong trail, because placing tiles on a player board is really not what has made Carpe Diem attractive to me as a game experience. Sure, some of it feels very familiar as you are going to play tile pieces, connect buildings, and get bonuses like in Castles of Burgundy. But Carpe Diem asks a silent question and answers it in the same breath: what if Feld loved the yellow buildings in CoB so much (the end game scoring tiles) that he wanted to throw some jet fuel into the mix and see how fast he could get this pocket rocket to geaux? That’s what Carpe Diem feels like, Feld’s brainstorm to focus just on the scoring tiles and force players to make all of their decisions based on the “knowledge” tiles from Burgundy.

In my second play, and every play since then, that is where I found the beauty of Carpe Diem to be. I’m feeling a mix of anxiety and anticipation, with thoughts of “how can I fit this cool building on my board” to “it is late in the round, can I still make my scoring card work?” running wild in my head. That, dear reader, is a puzzle that my brain laps up like a cold glass of chocolate milk after a bike ride.

Knowing when to build your little “engine” (really a misnomer, since nothing appears to build up, so let’s just call them bonuses instead) with your buildings, and knowing when to back off to grab scoring cards or a solo building or two to ensure that you are first in line to grab that sweet seven point scoring card feels like inside knowledge in a secret club. I feel clever when I pull off a cool two card combo in the late rounds, even if I am not winning the game.

There are always downsides of course. The scoring cards themselves are not really as intuitive to score as one would hope, and for some reason, represent a significant hurdle for most new players. Even with all of the color vibrancy, I still have some quibbles about some of the tile artwork (especially the vineyard) that could have made the tiles stand out even more without sacrificing beauty. (How to do that is beyond my talents, I am just certain it could be done!) And, there is just enough luck that some rounds it will seem like there was not much more that you could do to have a better turn, but luck can be mitigated by your actions to grab bread and coins, and move ahead on the first-in-turn-order track.

Even with these negatives, my wife and I have enjoyed every one of our two player plays. The first game is, as The Name Father always says, just ‘the first pancake off the griddle’. Every game since then has been rewarding as the funky end round scoring becomes part of the DNA of the game, and I can concentrate on exactly how I want to build out my board this game.

Gamers looking for a Pantheon sized amount of player interaction will be slightly disappointed, although I suspect someone checking out a Feld game with a marble cover is not exactly looking for that type of game. Carpe Diem is more like the Trevi Fountain, four gamers splashing around in the same water, where the interaction is not involving the Roman Legion battling against the Visagoths, but instead, the red player using a bread token they saved up from last round to jump ahead to grab the one tile that the green player needed to grab one of the building closures.

Covid-19 caveat: I have only played the higher player counts online with friends using the old edition in its online format, but I have had plenty of plays of those in conjunction with the two player live plays of the new edition.

CONCLUSION:

Carpe Diem is smart yet clunky, elegant but just a little bit ornery, and rewards multiple plays like not many one hour wonders do. It is most certainly not one of Stefan Feld’s best designs, but it certainly is much better than I gave it credit for after a quick demo at BGG Con and from my initial plays online. Carpe Diem’s new fresh edition not only looks amazing on the table, but combines a tile laying puzzle with end game scoring cards that feels different each time we play.

Cheers to watching more than 15 minutes of WandaVision. Cheers to giving Cheers a second season. And three cheers to Ravensburger for rescuing a bland looking little euro and turning it into a thinky one hour wonder (at least for two players!) that will class up your gaming table.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

–BJ from Board Game Gumbo

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