[TT] Hyperborea

At Gen Con, we learned to play Hyperborea from one of the developers, which is one of the glories of Gen Con. As I type this, it is soon to be published in the US but not quite there; it may be available by the Tuesday this appears. It is recommended but costly ($90) and very strongly a gamer game.

The game is one of territorial control and resource acquisition with a bag-building mechanic in place of the increasingly common deck-building mechanic. That is, each player has a bag of colored cubes, and you power your abilities by drawing and spending them. A large part of your strategy is what cubes you add to your bag.

The six colors align with movement, combat, troop acquisition, getting more cubes, victory points, and researching new abilities. In the end, almost everything is worth victory points. Based on that, you have many options to customize your strategy. Some players will focus on territorial control, using purple to get troops, green to position them, and red to kill their enemies. Some players will focus on the long game, using orange to get more cubes and blue to get more ways to use those cubes. Some players will bunker down, spam yellow, and quietly build victory points directly while everyone else is fighting in the middle of the map.

I played two quick games, and I rather liked it. The long game would probably be more of my style, which means I am recommending it after playing it with a handicap.

The potentially marring factor, to my mind, is the randomization in the ruins. The center tiles of the map are randomized at the start of the game; good good, that is like laying out your Settlers of Catan map. Some tiles (in home lands and hidden center areas) have ruins, and you get a random bonus for exploring them. That sort of uncontrolled randomness is contrary to the game’s larger themes of strategy and managing probability. One could treat ruin rewards as another unknown to which to react, like the center tiles, but those are revealed before you enter them (known opportunities to manage). In just two games, I saw significant impact on players whose ruin rewards fit their strategies or were mostly useless, or better versus worse. This happens on a lesser scale with the central tiles, where maybe the one tile that would really help you is a mountain and a forest away, but almost everyone takes a ruin on turn one or two, so it means that some starting positions are randomly better than others. I enjoy asymmetric games (and the colors’ starting points are slightly asymmetric), but it must be balanced asymmetry (although the random chances are even, and some people like uncontrolled randomness). It adds some exciting gambles to the late game, but it also creates uncontrolled randomness where the same action might be worth multiple victory points or nearly nothing based on factors outside the players’ control. And we have said elsewhere that putting distance between players’ decisions and outcomes undermines fun. (And the two games I played were won by one point and by a tie-breaker, so tiny random differences matter.)

But I do not want to end on a long, negative paragraph. The randomness will matter less when not playing the “quick game” version, and I would be happy with it if it were more “managed probability” than “a shot in the dark,” so there might be an easy rule hack (draw two, pick one?). If that is the biggest downside in the game, it is not much of a proud nail.

Bonus points to the game for coming with plenty of little plastic bags for its many small pieces. It is a small thing that makes the game more manageable. So few games do it that I bring a packs of them to any nerd gathering and give them away to anyone whose tokens are muddled.

: Zubon