Board games are often escapes from reality. Sometimes they can make reality more real and brutal (think games like Pandemic and Letters from Whitechapel for examples of such things). Other times, games don't necessarily escape reality but create whole new ones.

Spyrium is such an alternate reality, a steampunk-styled world where Victorian England has changed overnight thanks to the wonderful discovery of a new element in the ground. But beyond the amazing story, Spyrium itself is a fantastic game formed around a somewhat common mechnic (worker placement) that is tweaked to turn the game into something completely different. Combine that with the fact that is one of the tightest games out there, only giving six rounds to determine a winner, and Spyrium is a quick, fun play that can't really be described as light.

It's (alternate) reality check time, as we talk about Spyrium.

Game: Spyrium
Players: 2 to 5
Gametime: 45 minutes
Designer: William Attia (France)
Key Mechanics: Worker Placement, Card Drafting

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Story: In Victorian-era England, a new element, called spyrium, has been discovered. This element has amazing physical properties. Whatever they are must be pretty fucking awesome, because pretty much the entire industrial field of Britain has changed overnight, faster than you can say "cronut", to focus on the mining and processing of spyrium. As the head of a new spyrium-processing congolomerate, it's your objective to build the best mix of working housing, mining and process facilities, with the help of discovered technologies along the way, to best utilize spyrium.

What do you do?: Each player starts off with the same resources: 3 workers, 8 pounds sterling of money, and 2 crystals of spyrium. The central board consists of a scoring track, the phase indicator, housing track and event card piles (yes, these will all be explained). Then there are the three decks of period cards - A, B and C. One player is designated to be the first player to go in the first round, the three piles of event cards are shuffled and placed face-down, the pile of event cards is shuffled and placed face-up in it's appropriate location on the central board.

To set up the first round, the top 9 cards from the A deck are dealt face-up in a 3x3 grid, leaving enough space between each card to place workers. The top card of the event deck is placed next to the event deck, indicating it is the active event for the round. Now, you're ready to go.

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Going around the table, each player takes turns undertaking one action. Which actions are available to you depends on whether you are in Phase 1 or Phase 2 of the round.

During Phase 1, your options are:

  • Place a worker: You place a worker by putting one of the them between any two cards on the grid. By doing so, you're declaring that you're giving yourself the option to buy either one of these cards during Phase 2.
  • Use the active event: Whatever event from the event deck is currently active, you do it. You're allowed to use an event only once per round. These event are always benefical, you might be able to trade spyium for cash, or cash for victory points, or buy an extra worker, get something for free, things like that.
  • Move over to Phase 2: Once you decide you're done with putting workers on the grid, you can bump over to beginning Phase 2 of your turn. Once you start Phase 2, you can't go back to Phase 1.

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So, that brings up Phase 2. What happens there?

  • Remove a worker: You take one of the workers you placed on the grid during Phase 1 and take them back off. Now, there are options here. First option is that you can receive money. You pick one of the cards you worker was adjacent to, and you receive one pound for every other worker still adjacent to that card. Your second option is to activate one of the cards. Depending on the card, you either receive a beneift or purchase the card, remove it from the board, and place it in front of you, creating your own personal company neighborhood. These cards have a price listed in its upper right corner. In addition, you must pay one extra pound for every other worker still adjacent to the card. There's also a potential cost associated with where you place it in your neighborhood.
  • Use the active event: Same as in Phase 1.
  • Activate a card in your neighborhood: Some cards have an "activation" feature. By activating cards (you do it by doing a "tapping" action, sort of like Magic if you've played that before), you can gain extra spyrium or victory points. Some cards also allow you to gain more resources or spyrium if you can place an unused worker on the card when you activate it.

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It's important to talk about a couple of things here. First, the types of cards that are going to be out on the grid. There are building cards, people cards, and technology cards.

  • Building cards are fairly obvious: They're a building you buy and place in your neighborhood. But there are different types of buildings: Mines produce spyrium, factories/labs/universties utilize spyrium and/or workers to grant you victory points, while residence and tenaments earn you end-game points, extra workers, or allow you to act on the residence track.
  • Person cards can't be taken off the board, but either give you things for free (spryium, money, victory points) or allow you to trade in money or spyrium for victory points.
  • Technology cards are interesting. You buy them just like buildings, but they also grant you various special abilities during the game. You might get to build up you neighborhood at a reduced cost, or active a card more than once. Things like that.

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The other key element of the game to touch on is the residence track. There are five spots on the track, numbered 2,3,4,5 and 7. All players start off the game on 2. Each time they play a card or action that allows them to act on the residence track, they receive the option to either advance to the next spot on the residence track or score the number of victory points equal to the number of their current spot. In addition, at the start of each round, each player receives the number of pounds equal to their current position on the residence track.

The game lasts for six rounds. Deck A is used for rounds 1 through 3, Deck B is used for rounds 4 and 5, Deck C is used for Round 6.

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How to taste sweet, sweet victory: After the end of the sixth round, players look over the victory accumulated during the game, in addition to end-of-game victory points received from the various buildings constructed in the neighborhoods and technologies acquired. The player with the most points wins.

So, what makes this game awesome?

  • Variability. Unlike a lot of worker placement games that have a set board, Spyrium's resource collection is card-driven and can create games that vary wildly. In addition is the token feature: Some cards don't have a set value or amount of resources they provide, blindly-drawn tokens are placed on them to determine these values.
  • Tightness. With only six rounds of play, it's impossible to max out your abilities. So players have to pick and choose early on whether they are going to specialize in the housing track or spyrium production or getting a lot of workers and then figure out how to best maximize that strategy through the rest of the game.
  • Gut-checks. Spyrium has a lot of these. In particular, Phase 1 of a round essentially becomes a giant game of chicken. If you place fewer workers and start Phase 2 quickly, you can get first crack at getting a card or scoring a few quick pounds. But, if you wait longer, you can possibly gain even more money and have more options of cards to purchase.
  • Theme. The game is interesting in that it mixes this gritty, industrial, alt-reality feel with brightly-colored meeples and spyrium crystals in a color I can only describe a Flubber green.

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Other ways to play: Spyrium is available for free online play at Board Game Arena. Highly recommended.

Board Games With OB, is somewhat profane feature where OregonBeast gets a board game he likes and briefly explains how to play it and hopes you would be interested in playing it, too. Because board games are fucking awesome.

Previous Board Games With OB:[Takenoko] [Snake Oil] [Tsuro] [Dixit] [The Resistance] [Hey, That's My Fish!] [Ticket To Ride] [Survive: Escape From Atlantis] [Castle Panic] [Small World] [Qwirkle] [Elder Sign] [Carcassonne] [Jaipur] [Tokaido] [Blokus] [Puerto Rico] [Love Letter] [Can't Stop] [The Red Dragon Inn] [Dominion] [King of Tokyo] [Pandemic]

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Images via BoardGameGeek