Review: Glass Road11 Mar 2016 1
I imagine it’s good to be Uwe Rosenberg at the moment. I mean, there are very few who have never heard of the designer of classics such as Agricola, Caverna, Ora et Labora, and Le Havre, a few of which have made the jump to the digital realm, and quite successfully so. Even my mom has heard of him, and she only plays Rummikub. That’s a lot of fame for a game designer whose games tend to be sprawling epic affairs with a myriad of little details, themes, plots and subplots which can go for hours on end.
Like the recently released Patchwork, Glass Road is not as much of a behemoth as those aforementioned games. It’s definitely lighter, mainly because of its more limited scope. It focuses on the so-called Glass Route in southern Bavaria and its rich history of glassmaking. Nowadays it’s a 250 km long scenic route winding its way through the Bavarian Forest with plenty of stops along the way where you can learn all about the manufacturing process of this luxury good. There are several museums or you can visit the workshops and see the glassmakers, refiners and cutters in action for yourself. It’s a tradition that goes back at least 700 years; which is exactly what Glass Road tries to represent: the very beginnings of the production process along the Bavarian Glasstraβe.
I can see a few of you nodding off, so let’s close our history books and tourist guides, take out our tablets and move on to the good stuff. I’d never played the boardgame version of Glass Road myself, so this digital offering was my first experience with it and the tutorial seemed like a good place to start. Although it took me through a short game and told me exactly what to do and where to press, it left me nearly as clueless as I’d been before. It explained the actions but not much about the concepts or mechanisms behind them, so I decided to do what every able-bodied aspiring glass blower would do in this situation and check for a playthrough video online. Thankfully, Rahdo delivered, and five minutes later I understood the flow of the game and the basic core mechanisms. This is not a difficult game to understand, but it takes a while to master, and discovering all the nuances is really the fun part of the whole process.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with its gameplay, here’s a quick rundown. Each player has a landscape board, representing your stretch of the Glass Road. At the beginning of the game, this board is filled with natural features, such as forests, ponds, groves and pits. There’s also limited space to place some buildings and you can clear forests and other features to construct more buildings during the game. On the left side of the board is the Glass Road itself, with three preconstructed buildings (which can be upgraded) that will give you victory points at the end of the game.
Each player also has a deck of 15 cards. This deck is the same for everyone and represent specialists who will help you gather resources, build buildings and might give you other bonuses. Here you’ll find builders who can construct buildings, charcoal burners who’ll turn wood into charcoal, slash-and-burn farmers who can clear forests and turn them into other resources, and many others. Each of these specialists has two abilities printed on their cards and if you’re lucky you can use both of them to further your cause. More on that in a bit.
In the center of the play area are twelve buildings all players can choose from. These come in three categories: Processing Buildings immediately give you resources and can be used any number of times during the game, Immediate Buildings will have a one time effect and are pretty much useless thereafter and Bonus Buildings give you bonus victory points at the end of the game. These buildings are available to all players and are randomized at the start of each new game.
The game itself is played out over a series of building phases. At the start of each phase, the players choose five of their specialists cards. These cards are the ones that will be used during this particular round and represent your goals for this phase. This is where things get interesting. As each player in turn reveals a card, the other players check if they had chosen the same specialist from their own deck (remember, this deck is the same for each player). If no one else has chosen that same card then you’re in luck, because you get to use both of its abilities. But in case another player has chosen the same card, he or she has to reveal that card as well, and both players can only play one of that specialist’s two abilities, thereby effectively losing an action that turn.
This allows for some interesting planning strategies. Looking at your opponents’ board, the trick is to infer their strategy and choose a card you think they will also play, thereby thwarting their plans or intentions. The opposite is also true, you have to try to choose cards you think no one else will play to get their full effect. This is always a balancing act and you need to pay close attention to what your opponents are up to.
Once a specialist card is played (some of them are free to play and for some you have to pay a small cost, usually food) its ability comes into effect. They typically provide you with raw materials (of which there are many in the game, the most important being bricks and glass) but can also build buildings or convert raw materials into others. And this brings us to the second interesting gameplay mechanism: the production wheels. There are two, one for the production of brickworks and another for glassworks. These wheels are similar to the ones we’ve seen in another of Rosenberg’s games, Ora et Labora. They track your raw materials and food and work in such a manner that every time you have surplus materials the wheel rotates and produces either glass or bricks and at the same time diminishes all of your materials by the same amount. This happens automatically and sometimes works to your advantage and at other times causes unforeseen and unintended shortages. I personally like this mechanism, as it brings an additional layer of complexity and possibilities to a game which isn’t shy of strategic options to begin with.
A game round ends as soon as one player has played all of his or her cards, no matter if other players still have cards in their hands. It is therefore vital to get as much done in any given round as possible, taking full advantage of your specialists’ abilities. Between rounds you regroup, reconsider your strategies, and pick 5 new specialists for the next round, carefully balancing your own goals with trying to guess your opponents’ intentions for the coming phase. At the end of all building rounds (usually four, but it depends on the mode you’re playing) all victory points are calculated and the winner is declared. The only way to get victory points is through the construction of buildings though, so part of your focus should be geared toward that. And that’s pretty much it. Easy huh? (Actually there’s quite a lot more to it, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this review.)
Reviews of digital versions of existing boardgames are always a bit tricky. Should I be reviewing the game itself, or rather the adaptation of that game to the digital realm? In this case, I tried to do a bit of both. My guess is that at least some of you have never had the chance to play the cardboard version of Glass Road, so I figured a bit more info on how the game is played would be welcome. I have to say, after having played for a while now, I continue to learn new things and to make connections I hadn’t made before, or to try out different strategies. The game isn’t huge like other Rosenberg offerings but comprises a surprising amount of depth that I’ve enjoyed discovering. The game has several modes, including solo play, pass-and-play, two different levels of AI and an online mode (which I haven’t been able to test sadly, not sure if it’s a bug or there just wasn’t anybody online) so there’s quite a lot of content to keep you busy.
The conversion from cardboard to digital hasn’t been a completely smooth one, though. It’s a slow game, by which I’m not talking so much about game length (most of my games took about half an hour to finish) but more about its pace. The AI takes a while to do its stuff--adjusting the game speed in the options menu doesn’t really speed things up--but a larger problem is that the touch controls aren’t very responsive. It sometimes takes a second or more for your input to be recognized, especially when placing buildings and selecting abilities. Not a very big deal and easily fixed in an update, but still, you have to be prepared to take your time when playing this game.
Something I would like to see added is a breakdown of the final scores. When the game is done you’re presented with the final scores but I’d like to be able to see where my points came from. This is especially important as during the game it’s a bit hard to figure out how you’re doing compared to your opponents. Since victory points are awarded at the end, you generally don’t know if you’re winning or losing and by how much. There are other things that could be improved as well, some small and others a little bit bigger. Some cards and buildings on the overhead map look fuzzy, there are some small grammatical mistakes in the in-game text and the link to download a PDF of the rulebook doesn’t work. There is no in-game save function, and although the game has only crashed once on me, I can see this being an issue for some. Another thing to consider is that it’s currently only playable in portrait mode and although the UI is quite intuitive, it sometimes feels a bit crammed. It’s specifically designed for tablets, although they are working on a universal version. None of these things have been a deal breaker for me personally, but they should be mentioned.
All things considered, I quite like it. It’s not overly complicated to learn (it’s actually quite easy to pick up) but presents the player with a wealth of gameplay options and possibilities and allows for multiple strategies to win. It’s definitely not for everyone though, and it remains to be seen whether it stays on my iPad for a while or not, but so far it’s been a good ride.
Played on an iPad Air 2