Review: Province

By Kelsey Rinella 08 Sep 2014 0
Owen Faraday and the Rondels will be opening for Pink Floyd on their next tour. I like rondels. They may be hard to theme, but they offer interesting decisions and they sound like 50s backup singers.

Province is a two-player micro-euro board game for iOS with a familiar lineage: basically, Agricola and Le Havre had a baby (though it does have Imperial's nose. Le Havre is sure that's just an anomaly). A lot of people saw a euro playable in under five minutes as quite a promising niche, with over 6,000 backers on the Kickstarter campaign* together raising almost ten times the asking price. Most of the games I know which are reliably playable in that time frame seem unable to accommodate strategy of any kind. Enter Province, with a bit of swagger.

The basic gameplay cycle is to move workers one place clockwise on a pie chart that lists a sequence of actions -- this is known in board gaming argot as a rondel. Actions generate labor or money, then use these resources to build buildings which make resource generation more efficient or flexible (and give you one or two victory points, if you build them before your opponent). Each game includes a stack of five goals selected randomly from nine options, which also offer a victory point bounty. The game ends when this stack is exhausted, a player builds seven buildings, or there are no more victory points to be gained from building. It's simple, meaningful, small, and feels like a knock-down, drag-out fight in the backseat of a car. Or as we call it in my family, "driving to grandma's house".

Two turntables and a microphone. Five of the nine goals. This is where it's at.

Brief games necessarily constrain the number of choices available, which means it can be very difficult to come back from a poor decision against a skilled opponent. The usual line about unforgiving games is that they reward skill better than games with more randomness or a stronger catch-up mechanism. Province adds to that the ability to play many games quickly, so feedback is immediate and skill development is more accessible than in similar games. Unfortunately, the one AI level provides little challenge--the strategy of simply focusing on the available goal proved dominant in my experience. The restriction to only local multiplayer also narrows the opportunities to enjoy Province, though, admittedly, the brevity of the games means face-to-face play is much more accessible than it would be with its competitors. One could easily get a few games in while waiting for dinner at a restaurant.

To illustrate the flow of the game, a recent example: the game started with the "own two two-VP buildings" goal. That's unusually difficult to achieve, so the game is relatively advanced by the time it comes up. I started off buying the Camp for an extra worker, and then spent a turn grinding labor into money (since labor goes away at the end of the turn, but money can accumulate). That left me able to buy a Mill for bonus labor, and I turned that into a Village (my first two-VP building) and another extra worker. From there, I was making lots of money but was a little short of labor, so I bought the Lender and then the Bank as my quickest path to that first goal. With any strategy other than pure focus on the goals, that would seem questionable, because the Bank especially tends to exacerbate the overproduction of money. But because it was so late in the game, I had already satisfied the condition for the next goal, the third was a tie, and the fourth (grind labor into money twice in a turn) and fifth (have three workers on the same space of the rondel at the end of the turn) were easily satisfied on my next turn. By simply focusing on the goals, I beat the AI 9-4, despite having a starting goal which ought to make pursuing that strategy difficult.

Province has few enough moving parts that there's no need for slide-out trays of extra information; everything's visible all the time. It's not quite perfect; the use of the harbor building isn't explained well in the tutorial, and the asymmetrical display of the player scores and resources is a minor irritation, but it meets expectations for board game adaptations, and even has the much-loved undo feature.

Played purely against the AI, Province grows stale very quickly. The theme certainly adds little of interest, and a game this simple can't do a very good job of simulating anything, anyway. It's the deepest game I've played in such a short time, and was so engaging while I was learning it that I actually had difficulty remembering to take screenshots. But whether you'll be in a position to appreciate that for long depends entirely on the availability of a physical partner. I didn't mean that to sound like anyone who doesn't buy this game has no friends, but if you're wondering whether you'll get much use out of it, I sympathize. Let's just say I'm probably not your ideal model of social behavior.


* One of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign was free access to the app, which developer Laboratory has decided to execute by dropping the price to free for a weekend sometime within the next few weeks. Having noticed that in my research for this review, I'm conflicted about whether I ought to have mentioned it. If you'd like to leave a comment with your thoughts, they would interest me. It's a surprisingly complex issue.

Province was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: Province

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