Designed by: Tim Puls
Published by: Lookout Games
Review copy provided free of charge by Esdevium games.
At the start of the year I made a resolution to review some heavier, deeper boardgames during 2017. Having played through all four eras of The Colonists in a single sitting, though, I’m beginning to regret that decision. This is no small game; in comes in a sizable box that doesn’t have any form of insert, just a whole lot of cardboard tokens and a pile of plastic bags to store it all in. The whole thing weighs over 3KG, takes up most of an average kitchen table and playing through the entire game can take up to eight hours. And oh man does it make my head hurt.
Yup. Let’s talk about The Colonists.
As its name suggests you’re put in charge of developing a thriving colony across a total of four eras, which can in fact take anything up to about eight hours to complete if you want to go through all of them, although naturally once you become familiar with the systems that time can drop to around six hours. It’s the only boardgame I’ve ever played where the rulebook suggests a save system that lets you pick back up later on. Indeed, I’d say that most people will likely use the rulebooks suggestions for starting off in an era of your choice and then play for an era or two before stopping. If nothing else do it for your damn sanity!
The game kicks off with a bunch of basic starting hex tiles arranged around two markets, areas you can jump back to as a move whenever you like but we’ll come back to those later on. These various hexes are the places where you can take actions like getting wood or clay, or turning that wood and clay into planks and bricks. They are also where you’ll build the various things that make up your own player board colony, like farms, hunting lodges, pubs, factories, ore mines and much, much more. The key to this hex board is that you don’t just place your worker (a steward) wherever you like to take an action, rather the steward must be moved around, with each move costing one of your three “turns”. At the
The key to this hex board is that you don’t just place your worker (a steward) wherever you like to take an action, rather the steward must be moved around, with each move costing one of your three “turns”. At the start your steward can only move one space at a time, and whatever space you land on that action MUST be performed. That means if you move to a construction hex for a farm, for example, you have to pay the resources and put a farm on your board. If you don’t have the needed resources you simply can’t move to that space/ It’s a fascinating twist on the standard worker-placement mechanic, turning it into a case of worker-movement that forces you to think numerous turns in advance, planning out the various paths needed to pick up resources and get to the tile you want. I found it fascinating trying to plan out my long-term strategies on this board, especially when wanting to place something like a flat which is an upgrade of existing farm so you need to pick up the resources for the farm first, build it, get the next batch of resources and upgrade to the flat.
At the start the board isn’t huge so navigating around and figuring out a plan isn’t too taxing on the ‘ol brain, but throughout each era twelve new hexes will be added to the board, massively expanding the available options and creating the elaborate maze you see above. By the time you get to end of the game the board is a huge thing that offers up loads and loads of choices. The biggest problem The Colonists will likely ever face is the dreaded disease known as Analysis Paralysis, a rare and potentially deadly condition that leaves players paralyzed due to their brain going into overdrive to figure out the most efficient moves possible.
The game is split into a series of eras, which are in turn split into years which are then split into half years. Each half year consists of players doing their three turns before shifting the marker to the next half year and repeating the process, meaning you have six turns across a year. At the end of every year your colony will produce any goods it can based upon what buildings you have and the citizens currently employed in them, but more importantly you also need to feed the various workers. Now, at first this isn’t even an issue because you’ll be working primarily with farmers who sustain themselves, but as you progress you’ll start using the yellow citizens as well who require feeding if they are put to work, and eventually the red merchants will become useful as well and they need even more food than citizens, plus clothing too because they’re just greedy.
The end of a year also signifies that it’s time to add three new hexes to the board, with the whoever has the first player token getting to choose where they are placed. Placement is vital because as we’ve already discussed you need to be able to move around these hexes, so sticking a bunch of construction spaces in a group can be dangerous as it could come very close to locking you out of a specific building until you can move your steward more than one hex at a time or until you have enough resources to throw at building stuff you may not even need.
You’ll also need to reveal a new market card at the end of the year which dictates what you can do on those spaces. As mentioned before you can teleport straight to any market square you wish on your turn. Furthermore, market tiles are the only ones which ignore the rule stating that you cannot end on the same tile you began on. You’ll be able to trade in resources for points on these markets, grab some free stuff like wood or clothing or something else, or build. The point is regardless of the choices you have at the market there is always something you can do, even if it’s just grabbing the free resource and then discarding them. This creates a safe space for you to leap back to whenever, ensuring that it’s impossible for a player to ever get stuck in the hex maze.
Being able to leap back to a market is also important for avoiding the fee. You see, it’s perfectly valid to enter a hex occupied by another player to take the corresponding action, but doing so means you have to pay that person a fee in resources as dictated by the current era. This can be strategically important, especially early on with a smaller board and a player who has unlocked a second steward. A well-placed steward can make an opponent hesitate when taking an action, either forcing them to change plans or to pay you. Either way it’s a win for you in what is one of the game’s very few moments of actual player interaction.
Yes, one of the game’s potential pitfalls depending on the type of person you are is the lack of meaningful interaction between players. Since you’re all constructing your own personal colony and no action can be truly blocked like in Agricola or other worker-placement games there can be a powerful sense of isolation with The Colonists. Sure, you can glance across the table to see what everyone is up to but ultimately their plans don’t affect your own. Even if you’re both doing the same thing there’s no reason to switch strategies. Sometimes when playing with my entirely imaginary girlfriend we’d look up after hours of playing and reach across the table, but never quite make it…we’d just quietly go back to building our little colonies, accepting our new lives of loneliness.
Other things that need to be considered while playing are the improvement cards that can be picked up via a special hex or through a few other words. These need to be played by visiting the developer, but can offer up a lot of things like a stack of resources, a slightly cheaper building option or even permanent improvements to your colony that not only offer handy abilities but are worth a few extra points, too. I did note, though, that improvements became less useful as the game went on, their value diminishing as you move through the first few eras.
Then there are other colonies that you can set up diplomatic relationships with by building and upgrading embassies. Four of these colony cards will be picked at random at the start of the game with a fifth being introduced later on, and each of them grant special bonuses for being friendly toward, like a second steward, the ability to swap resources or special pawns that get added to the board and that can be moved around by either player. They can be surprisingly important, and picking one or two early on to focus on can really help lay the foundations for your future plans. I was particularly fond of one that let me ignore any hex’s action in favor of taking a resource, making it much easier to move around to where I needed to be.
Once you’ve progressed through five years the era changes, which means introducing a new stack of hexes offering up newer, more advanced options for building and converting resources. Many of these new buildings replace existing ones. New improvements and market cards also get added into the mix. In other words this already sizable and thoughtful game becomes even bigger and more liable to make parts of your brain turn into a strange ooze.
The early game is all about getting basic production of goods set up for the later eras so that you don’t constantly have to waste time picking them up from the hexes. Once you’ve Storage is also incredibly important since you begin with a measly four spaces to store things, which isn’t anywhere near enough for what you’ll be needing to pack away. A little leeway is provided by the fact that production buildings have a buffer, which is to say they can store one batch of produced goods, although to actually use them you first need to move them into storage.
Without playing through the later eras or possibly even the entirety of the game at least once or twice, though, it’s obviously difficult to build towards what you need correctly, so there’s certainly a bit of a learning curve that stems from figuring out what resources will be most required in the later eras. In short The Colonists does come down to raw effeciency, sometimes at the cost of actual strategic thinking. It’s a game best played, then, by two people who are quite experienced with it. I say two people because with more the downtime can become quite tiresome.
Once the later eras arrive it feels as though the game is hitting its stride proper as your early foundations let you begin focusing your strategy a tad more. I think it’s fair to say that, at least in my experience, most people are doing the same thing in era one and two, establishing more storage and getting basic production needs sorted out. Of course playing a shorter version of the the game changes this as obviously the decreased time means you’ve got to begin pushing for points much faster.
So that’s all fine and dandy, but how do you actually win the damn game? Well, money, because as we all know money is truly the goal of existence (sarcasm alert.) Interestingly, though, cash is purely for keeping track of points and is never spent, a slight thematic drop when you’re building a colony and visiting markets. I would have quite liked to have been able to spend money to do certain things, with the tradeoff obviously being that you’re giving up points to do it. At the end of the game it’s simply a case of taking the hard-earned dollars on your board and adding them to the value of your buildings and any currently employed workers. Whoever has the most moolah wins. Simple.
A small problem is that in early eras buildings that produce cash – namely the pub and theater – feel too powerful. In later eras their usefulness isn’t quite so pronounced over some of the expensive buildings that are worth a lot of points, but even then having a couple is almost a requirement for staying competitive. Over the course of a long game their production can provide a substantial boost to your end-game score.
The Colonists is a difficult game for me to render a definitive opinion on because I find myself quite unsure about it. On the one hand I love the turn-to-turn puzzle that moving the stewards around creates, and I do enjoy building an effective engine that can pump out the resources needed to win. The problem for me lies within the game’s length and the fact that I can’t seem to find a solid starting point. To play through all four eras is a hugely time-consuming process and one I’m no hurry to do again as the gameplay just doesn’t hold my attention for that long. It claims to be an epic strategy game, but it doesn’t feel very epic as you’re just doing the same thing for six to eight hours. For
The problem for me lies within the game’s length and the fact that I can’t seem to find a solid starting point. To play through all four eras is a hugely time-consuming process and one I’m no hurry to do again as the gameplay just doesn’t hold my attention for that long. It claims to be an epic strategy game, but it doesn’t feel very epic as you’re just doing the same thing for six to eight hours. For some this will be the game’s biggest appeal, but for me it’s a weakness. Meanwhile opting to start in the first era and play through to the end of the second one or even the third feels like the game ends just as your engine is just getting into its stride proper. Begin in a later era and the sense of progression isn’t quite there. My eventual sweet spot was playing era two and three with two players as this kept the playtime reasonable while still having space to build up and get our engines ticking over semi-properly.
So how can I bring all of this together into a semi-comprehensible opinion? I like it. I don’t love it, but I like it. It’s going to appeal to a very specific audience and I can’t say I’m necessarily in that audience, as when it comes to my friends two hours or maybe three at most is the limit. I really enjoy figuring out the best paths to take, both in terms of overall strategy and just finding my way around the board. And yet I struggle to see myself coming back to this again in a hurry.