Saturday, November 17, 2018

Board Game Review: Jorvik

For a few years, the Dork Spouse and I lived in the city of York in the United Kingdom. I very much miss living there; that city is (in my opinion) the most beautiful city in the world. It has an ancient history; it was originally founded in 72 CE as a military outpost by the Roman Empire. It grew to an important trading centre, and when the Romans withdrew from the area in 410 CE, the city (known at that time as Eboracum) was claimed by the Anglo-Saxons, who renamed it Eaforwic. During the Scandinavian invasions, it became a vital holding in the Norsemen's territory. The name was corrupted into their tongue as Jorvik. Following the Norman invasion, the city came to be the second most important city in all of England, with the name being further corrupted into York.

Given that I am so fond of the city and its history and heritage, when I discovered that there was a game based on the Viking era of the city's past, I knew I had to have a copy. And now I am going to review that game for you. This is my review of Jórvík, by Stefan Feld, published by Eggertspiele and Stronghold Games.

Let's start off by looking at the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Medium
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Jórvík

Players take on the role of clan leaders at the height of the city's prominence during the tenth century. They are trying to gain glory for their clan through a variety of means: trade, Viking journeys, combat, and others. By jockeying for position, they fight to take control of valuable commodities, or at least deny them to their opponents.

The game uses an interesting combination of worker placement and bidding. I've heard it described as a 'bullying' mechanism, but I'm not sure I agree that that's an accurate description. Here's how it works:

The game board, with a game in progress. The board has two sections: on the top, two rows of huts serve as places for cards. The top row has only one card, with a yellow meeple on it. The bottom row has three cards, with no meeples. The bottom half of the board has a row of huts, four of which have cards on them. In front of each hut is a path divided into spaces leading up to the hut. The path leading to the first hut is empty. There is a single green meeple on the path to the second hut. The third hut has both a green and a white meeple on the path. The fourth hut has a yellow meeple on its path. The cards have artwork representing Viking warriors, crafters, traders, and sailing ships. The cards representing ships have one to three wooden cubes of different colours on them. In the corner of the board is a space for the deck of cards, and another space holding several additional coloured wooden cubes. Along the edge of the board is a scoring track, with a green, white, and yellow disc at various points along it. On the table near the board are a stack of tokens representing coins and a player's board with some unused meeples and a variety of cards around it.

The game can be played in two modes: Karl and Jarl (these two terms are ranks within the old Scandinavian hierarchy system). In Karl mode, the board is not fully unfolded; only the bottom half is visible. A few cards with more advanced mechanics are removed from the deck. In Jarl mode, the board is fully open, so both the top and the bottom half can be used. The full deck is shuffled together.

The bottom half is fairly straightforward: some cards are dealt onto the spaces (the exact number depends on how many players there are). Players can then place their meeples on the spaces in front of the cards. After all meeples have been placed, players get to try to purchase those cards using the coin tokens they receive throughout the game.

This is where things get tricky, because turn order is determined by where the meeples are. You start with the card closest to the deck. Whichever colour meeple is at the front of the queue gets the first chance to buy that card. If you do buy the card, any meeples behind you are simply returned to their owners. If not, then you take your meeple back to your supply, and the next meeple in the queue has a chance to buy the card. If no meeples remain, either because everyone passed or because nobody placed a meeple there to begin with, the card is simply discarded.

But the meeples in these queues are important for another reason as well: the number of meeples in the queue determines the price of the card. So if there's already a meeple in the queue for a card you want, not only does adding one of your meeples to that queue give you a chance to buy the card if the other player chooses not to, but it increases the price for that player.

So for example, in the photo above, the second card has a single green meeple in the queue. The green player will have a chance to buy that card, which will cost a single coin, because there's only one meeple in the queue. The third card, on the other hand, has two meeples in the queue. The green meeple is first, so the green player gets the first chance to buy the card. If the green player does buy the card, it will cost two coins, because there are two meeples in the queue. 

However, if the green player passes, it becomes the white player's turn to buy the card. And now that the green player has passed and removed the green meeple from the queue, the card will only cost one coin, since there's now only one meeple in that queue.

After all cards in the bottom row have been purchased or discarded, it's time to look at the other half of the board (assuming you're playing in Jarl mode). These work a little differently. When a player chooses to place a meeple in this area, that card is moved from the middle row to the top row, and that player's meeple is placed on the card. In the photo above, the yellow player has claimed the card in the top row, which has the yellow meeple on it. The other three cards still in the middle row have not yet been claimed.

When time comes to purchase these cards, the only player who may buy a card is the player whose meeple is on that card. The cost is still determined by the number of meeples in the queue; right now, that card will cost the yellow player one coin. But if another card is claimed and moved to that row before the purchasing phase begins, the cost for the yellow player will increase to two coins. If two more cards are claimed during the placement phase, the first card's cost will increase to three coins. If all of the cards are claimed before the purchasing phase starts, the yellow player will have to pay four coins to buy that first card.

Thus, the cards available in the top half of the board become a different sort of balancing act. Instead of battling to see who will purchase the card, you lay claim directly to a card. But now you have to decide if you want to claim a card early, so no one else can have it, risking a higher price; or to wait until other cards have been claimed so your card won't be so expensive, but risking someone else claiming it before you do.

The Cards

So now that you've purchased all these cards, what do they do?

There are several types of cards. In Karl mode, you will find:
  • Ship Cards. When a Ship Card is drawn, you must draw a number of goods cubes from the bag to see what items the ship is carrying. Whoever buys this card gets to distribute the goods on that ship to his artisans, traders, and stores.
  • Artisan Cards. Each Artisan Card requires a specific set of goods cubes. When you acquire goods cubes (normally through purchasing Ship Cards), you may place the appropriate cubes on an Artisan Card. If all of the necessary cubes have been assigned to the Artisan Card at the end of the game, it is worth a certain number of victory points.
  • Trader Cards. Each Trader Card allows you to trade a good cube of a specific type for a single coin.
  • Feast Cards. These cards are worth victory points, but the total number of points you get from your Feast Cards increases the more of them you have. Thus, a single Feast Card is worth two points, but if you have two Feast Cards, they are worth a total of five points, and three Feast Cards are worth nine points, and so on.
  • Journey Cards. These cards are worth victory points, with the exact value being listed on the card.
  • Skald Cards. These cards are worth a number of victory points based on how many cards of a certain type you have. For example, one Skald Card is worth one point for each Ship Card you have at the end of the game, and another is worth one point for each coin you have at the end of the game.
  • Building Cards. These cards have a number of different effects. One example is the card that grants you a bonus coin each turn. Another is the card that gives you four extra spaces to store unused goods cubes.
  • Warrior Cards. These cards grant you military strength, which is used during the Attack of the Picts (more on this in a moment).
Some of the cards of the types listed above have a + symbol, indicating that they are not to be used in Karl mode. These are added to the deck when playing in Jarl mode. Additionally, there are a few other card types that are used in Jarl mode that are not found in Karl mode:
  • Oracle Cards. These cards allow you to 'burn' a goods cube (that is, remove it from the game) in exchange for two victory points.
  • Loki Cards: A player may use a Loki Card to affect other players in some way. For example, one Loki Card allows you to steal a goods cube from one of another player's unfinished Artisan Cards. Another Loki Card allows you to steal one coin from each other player.
  • Defender Cards. These cards increase the effectiveness of your Warrior Cards in some way. For example, one card doubles the strength of a single Warrior Card. Another allows you to score double victory points from winning an Attack of the Picts (see below).
So, in essence, players are using a worker placement mechanic to bid on these various cards, which will score them points (or at least grant them resources to work on scoring points) in some way.

Play Order in Jórvík

Each turn occurs in four phases:
  1. Supply Phase. The player with the starting player token deals cards from the deck to the appropriate spaces on the board.
  2. Demand Phase. Starting with the player who has the starting player token, players take turns placing their meeples on the board to determine bidding order and card cost.
  3. Buying Phase. Using the meeples placed in the Demand Phase, players either purchase cards, or pass on purchasing the cards and take the meeple from the queue back to their supply.
  4. Loading Phase. Players distribute goods cubes that they may have acquired during the Buying Phase, and activate any effects that they are able to use (such as Oracle Cards).
After the Loading Phase, each player gains income (one coin in Karl mode, and two coins in Jarl mode, but you get an additional coin on any round in which you did not purchase any cards), the starting player token passes to the left, and a new round begins.

However, there are four 'Attack of the Picts' cards in the deck as well. If such a card is drawn during the Supply Phase, the game is paused as players determine the outcome of the attack. When this happens, the player with the most strength from Warrior Cards (modified by Defender Cards, if appropriate) gains a number of victory points (1 for the first Attack of the Picts card, 2 for the second, and so on). Additionally, the player with the least strength from Warrior Cards loses an equal number of points.

Game End

The deck is organised such that the last card is always the fourth Attack of the Picts card. Once the deck is exhausted and this card is resolved, players total up the victory points from their cards. The player with the highest point total is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Jórvík

I really enjoyed this game. I was a bit wary after reading some of the reviews on Board Game Geek. I was a little hesitant to buy it after reading those reviews; but between the theme (based as it is on a city that I love and miss) and the incredible deal (I bought it on Cool Stuff Inc. when they were having a special that basically marked it down to something like 75% off), I had to at least give it a try. However, once I played the game (and I've played it a few times now with different groups of people), I found that it's actually quite fun. It has the subtle 'screw you' element without being a complete dick that I find pleasant in a number of games. In my opinion, the screwage factor is perfectly balanced to make the game really enjoyable.

I was a little disappointed that the theme was not quite as salient as I would have liked. I didn't feel immersed in the Scandinavian era of York history. Still, if that's the biggest complaint I have, we're doing pretty well.

Although to be fair, the biggest complaint I have is actually that the box is way too big for the components. There is a lot of wasted space in this game. And worse, the rulebook is a very awkward size, such that there's no possible way to lay it flat. It will always be sagging at a curve in the box, no matter how you pack it up.

But that's still a fairly minor complaint.

So all that's left is to look at the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It ends decisively.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
All six! Nice!

Although I will mention that it might take a couple of rounds for people to get the hang of the bidding/worker placement mechanic. It's very simple once you've done it a couple of times, but it's a pretty different system than most other games out there, so although it's fairly simple to explain, it can be kind of hard to understand at first. So let's put an asterisk on that one.

Anyway, that's my review. I think it's a lot of fun, though obviously not everyone will like it. Fortunately, everyone I've played it with so far has really enjoyed it! So that's nice!

As always, decide for yourself if you want to try this game. And whatever you decide, I ask only that you remember to

Game on!

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