Bonum Aenigma: Codex Naturalis review

Most of the time, I figure out the “why” of the board game in front of me right away. Why’d someone design this game? Oh, it’s because they always wanted to pretend to be a vintner or shoot pirates or collect cats without fear of judgment from your neighbors.

And then Bombyx and Luma Games sent us a copy of Codex (in some language versions, it’s “Codis”) Naturalis, a four player puzzler designed by Thomas Dupont with art from Maxime Morin (who also did Next Station London, you will recall — that’s two art styles that couldn’t be even more far apart!)

Right away, Jerod and I set up the game and then tried to figure out what is going on. What are we doing, and why did the designer make another engine building game? Before I dive into that, perhaps I should give you a quick overview. Lest you think that turned us off about the game, here’s a teaser — there is a plot twist in here.

The Codex Naturalis is a secret manuscript which lists the species of the four kingdoms that live in the primary forests. I didn’t make that up, I’m reading it to you directly from the back of the box, dear reader. Although I did not geaux through all 260000 results from my Google search, I am fairly confident that the Codis Naturalis did not exist before this board game.

The game is tiny, and consists just of some counters, a tiny little game board, and two-ish decks of cards. The cards are the standard Fantasy Flight / mini-euro style cards, but rotated 90 degrees. The cards have “corners” that are either empty — meaning you can add more cards on top of the corners to build out your tableau — or they are filled with different symbols (meaning they have one of seven different scoring / engine symbols.)

One deck of forty resource cards is all about getting one or more of four different resources: red mushrooms, blue wolf heads, green leaves and purple butterflies. The symbols are located in one or more boxes found only on the corners of the card — unless you flip the card over. If you do that, the symbol is in the middle of the cards surrounded by four open spaces to connect other cards.

Deliciously juicy decision number one: do I take the multiple symbols which might restrict my ability to add more cards (since I can only place cards down on an empty space next to the main part of the card? Or do I flip it over to take the one resource but lock that resource in for the rest of the game since the symbol cannot be covered by other card.

So, yep, you can see that Codex Naturalis is at heart an engine building game, setting up later turns where you have plenty of leaves or forest symbols to score objective points. Once we figured that out, that the designers were trying to put together an engine builder that requires you to balance your engine building with a spatial element of covering up the very resources that might keep your engine humming is a daunting but delicious task. How to build the engine, and then when to run it effectively.

And that’s the basis of the other deck. In that one, there are forty Gold cards that represent the points you can score once you deem it the right time to rev up the engine. The card might let you score one point for every feature or potion or scroll you find uncovered in your community of cards (these are three other symbols you can find besides the mushrooms and leaves and foxes and butterflies. Or maybe scoring two points per side that the card you play connects at the same time. Either way — it’s juicy decision number two coming right at you. Do you grab resources OR DO YOU GRAB SCORING CARDS — I mean, you cannot win if you don’t score, right?

I almost forgot. The game does give you a little boost, with two tiny decks. One deck is starter cards. Each player will grab one random starter card with symbols already inlaid. Oh yeah, juicy decision number three is whether to take the card as is with all four symbols on corners that could eventually be covered up OR FLIP IT OVER and take one or two permanent symbols. Why???

And I cannot forget the sixteen objective cards. Each player has access to a community of two public objectives — collecting resources for points or having weird geometric and color designs with the cards. But, of course, there’s one tiny little juicy decision to make — the game gives you two PRIVATE objectives, and YOU MUST CHOOSE ONE.

For such a small game, that’s a lot of juicy decision. I know, I know. But that is what makes this little game so dang addictive. It feels so good when you are on a roll — every scoring card you draft perfectly aligns with the engine you built and gives you boosts on the objectives, too. Or, you cannot get anything started, can’t fulfil your own objectives with terrible moves early or late in the game. Either way, it feels like you have a lot of control over the scoring and engine even if there is a lot of randomness and luck in the game. The best games do that. They disguise the luck for skill, and Codex Naturalis straddles that line perfectly.

If you want to try out the game before you buy it, head over to Board Game Arena where there is an excellent implementation. But the game has a small price and a small footprint. Grab a copy, stuff it in your game bag, and spend a half-hour with your friends puzzling it up. You won’t regret it if you do!

Until next time, lasissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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