THE NINTH WORLD: A Skillbuilding Game for Numenera review

A few years back, my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit Grand Canyon National Park. This was the opening weekend after COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted at the National Parks, and not surprisingly, we had the place nearly to ourselves. That’s a far cry from my memories of visiting the Park with my family as a young pre-teen, where we mingled with thousands of fellow hikers exploring the gorgeous canyon. Heck, in 2020, there weren’t even any buses running and they let us drive right up to the parking lots near the South Kaibob Trail.

I had done the same trip with my son’s troop three years before. On that trip, we had planned to do a little day hike on the South Kaibob Trail down to Ooh Ahh Point. When we got there, we marveled at the sheer immensity of it all, and then trudged our way back up to the waiting buses. I had mixed feelings. What’s beyond that Point?

Before the 2020 trip, my wife and I had gotten a tip from brother, David, to go past Ooh Ahh Point and keep walking. So we did. What a difference! Yes, you lose a little of the grandeur of seeing the Canyon splayed out in both directions, the passage of time visibly writ large across the sedimentary rocks. But this time, at Cedar Point, we felt so much more a part of the Canyon. We were inside looking around, not outside looking in. Again, we turned back before reaching the river, but someday we’ll make it past Skeleton Point all the way to the Colorado and dip our toes into the great masterpiece carver.

“Explore deeper” and “go past the surface” — these are well worn tropes in life, but they are so apropos. As it turns out, my adventure with The Ninth World: A Skillbuilding Game for Numenera, designed by Paul Peterson, Bryan Radakovich, and Mike Selinker, opened up in a very similar fashion to our adventures in the Grand Canyon.

The first time I tried The Ninth World was with my usual playing partner, Jerod. We tried a two player competitive game, fumbling through the rules and trying to understand the strategy of upgrading our characters while taking on monsters and quests and scoring points. It was a little disorienting, and the rulebook sadly left a lot to be desired. All of the information was there, but it was organized in a way that made it difficult to see the big picture.

Plus, the game just screamed for some kind of cheat sheet that was better than the one that was included in the game, which basically laid out the order of phases of the game without giving you much of a reminder as to how they worked. That makes for lots of downtime, diving back and forth through the pages.

But since then, I’ve played the game a half dozen times with the solo rules, and each time, I have gotten more and more hooked on the gameplay. I can see why Mike Selinker, who signed the game for Lone Shark Games, fell in love with the RPG from Monte Cook Games and wanted it to come to life in the board game.

What is The Ninth World? The name says it all: instead of a deck builder, it’s a skill building game in a fantasy world called Numenera. Each player takes on the role of a Hero, with two unique skills out of the five that are available: Focus, Combat, Charm, Tinker, and Scout. We are exploring the breadth of Numenera through five (or nine, for a longer game) locations, in order to save our home town from the ravages of the beasts from the Wilderness.

If it sounds a little too Ameritrashy for your Euro sensibilities, not to worry. The Ninth World is a good blend of the two styles of play. Sure, there’s a fair amount of dice rolling, mainly when cards you claim through combat or skills have effects that need to be randomly determined. All of the special skills and characters and locations give you a hint of the flavor of the RPG without being too over the top. There’s even a little player interaction with the blind bidding of the skills during each phase of the game.

At the same time, there’s lots of Euro goodness — the game essentially is about managing the skill points your hero generates each round to earn victory points (called ‘valor’) in an efficient way. You can’t get more euro-y than that.

There are two modes: competitive, where players go up against each other over the course of game to see who can score the most points; and cooperative (either multi- or solo) where you try to save the town which has an ever increasing threat marker before the end of the game. I’m really enjoying the solo mode, because I’m admittedly a slow learner when it comes to scanning cards and looking for synergies, and by playing by myself, I can take all the time I want to plot.

Speaking of the cards, the game comes with an almost never ending supply of stuff. The town deck has lots of friendly green ‘cypher’ cards (think magical incantations come alive) that you use your Tinker skills to acquire, which generally give you round to round or immediate special boons like bonus skills or re-rolls on the dice or even upgrading your skills into stronger versions of themselves. But it also contains red lower level monster cards and yellow quest cards that must be defeated or completed. All of these cards are important, because you can’t seem to win without having a good stable of cyphers or nearly complete quests to get tons of points and bonuses.

The wilderness deck is where the heart of the game is, however, especially in the solo game. The deck contains mostly the same type of cards (plus some interesting treasure cards that give you immediate bonuses). Players can Scout for cards there, and mark the ones that they want to work on. Unfortunately, it’s a tough choice, because in each phase of the game, you can only either play in Town or in the Wilderness, but not in both locations (unless a card power says otherwise).

Those Wilderness cards can hurt you in other ways, too. If you don’t claim the cards, each of the different types can really mess up your plans. The green cyphers add points to the threat level at the end of the round, making it harder to complete your goal before the rounds are over. The yellow quests add additional cards to the Wilderness tableau, ramping up the difficulty and most especially the tension in the game. And finally, the red monster cards will do damage to your town, permanently shrinking your available Town locations by one.

I mentioned the “phases” of the game, and this is the best part and trickiest part and most frustrating part of the game and the rules. The Ninth World really is not very difficult to understand once you get the hang of it, and there’s a game chart on the back of the player aid that is essential (but not developed enough for my tastes).

Players start each round with Scout phase, where you will mark cards you want to play later by ‘bidding’ scout points (or add more Wilderness cards if you don’t like what you have been dealt), with whoever bidding higher getting first pick of the available cards to mark and using those points during that round (or getting valor points with the leftovers). Obviously having the Scout skill card is handy, but it’s only worth one bid point, so you will have to use other cards (the game gives you two different skills plus three generic skills which you can play for one solitary skill point). Put a pin in that for now to learn how this gets boosted.

Next up is the Tinker phase. Now, players get to claim those cool green Cyphers. You definitely want to get some, because the Cypher’s powers are pretty useful. Many of them are situational, however, but trying to draft Cyphers that play well together is the key to the game. Charming quests are next, and the quests are pretty straightforward. Get points by completing the quests which are also pretty situational — for instance, the quest may require you to claim monsters, but each time you do, you get more points until the quest is completed.

The Combat phase comes immediately after, where players will ‘attack’ monsters that they have marked earlier by using Combat points. These can give you tons of points, but in almost every case, the monster will do some damage to you, normally consisting of getting a wound card to replace one of your hero’s special bonus powers. Ouch.

Finally, we come to the Focus phase. Remember I told you to put a pin on this part? We’ve arrived. The Focus is where I struggle the most with strategy because there are two competing desires here. Since the game is called “skillbuilding”, spending Focus points to upgrade each of your five skills is important. But do you upgrade one of the base generic skills to a specific one? Or bump up your existing Combat 1 to a Combat 2 (giving you two skill points but only when in Combat mode)? Do you spread out the building each round to get five skills all to the first upgrade which gives you five bonus Valor Points? That seems pretty reasonable. But in the short game you only have five rounds, and in all games you can only upgrade Focus once per round (unless an action says otherwise), so if you focus on the five points, all of your skill cards will remain pretty, pretty, pretty weak.

I’ve been winning about 40-50% of the time, mainly focusing on growing my Focus skill and upgrading whatever base skill I have that works well with my special powers and the cards that come out of the Wilderness and Town decks that I claim. That would probably translate to a pretty poor outcome if I started playing competitively again, I’m sure.

There is a lot to like in The Ninth World. I like the art and the setting, there’s lots of different representations of people and places, and the five round game can be played in about a half-hour, meaning a solo night of a couple of hours lets you get a bunch of games in. The ability to set it up and play again quickly is really important here, because there is so much content in this little tower shaped box. I’ve played with a bunch of the characters, but have yet to explore them all — even though in the solo game you get a Hero to play, and get three Allies who you use for their skill points (and not much else). There are so many different locations too, and tons of Town and Wilderness cards, that every game feels a little bit unique in the way the town gets attacked.

I wish the box came in a more standard set up. Sure, it’s nice the way they integrated a roll out point chart, and the organization in the box is well done, but I like my normal sized boxes on the shelf. And the rule book just needed another pass through to make the game as relatively easy to play as it really is. The problem is that in each phase there are one to two little interesting rules twists and they are generally not intuitive. That makes for diving back into the rule book a lot, and it’s just not really organized for that. I wish that there was a simple little flow chart in the box which walked you down through the final turn.

But I must say. I’m glad I got past the Ooh Ahh Point of The Ninth World, those first three or four games where I was flexing my brain muscles and trying to get the rules straight. As flashy as those first plays were, the depth of this game is revealed when you play it rapidly and in successive plays. Once the fiddliness melts away as you become much more experienced with the game phase flow, you can really start to think about the combos you need from the cards that are in the able to score points.

I’ve got the bug to get back to Arizona to see the River. And I’ve definitely got the envie to dive back into The Seventh World for a competitive game or three. Hmm. With this sized box, which admittedly would fit perfectly in the corner of my travel bag, I might be able to do both.

Now where did I put those hiking boots…

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

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

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