Greetings fellow gamers! I’m a friend of MeepleTown regular Derek, and he has kindly given me the opportunity to write up a review for Asmodee’s The Builders: Middle Ages. Following our first playtest of the game, I thought it had great potential, so I’ve since been roping in friends, family, and colleagues to put it to the test in 2, 3, and 4-player configurations. Since this is my first review, to share my findings I’m going to borrow Derek’s scoring criteria, which are as follows:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: The Builders is a compact game, and comes in an attractive metal tin similar to Asmodee’s Timeline series. I’ve discovered that one of the perks of a compact game being in a tin versus a box is that it travels exceptionally well…I can fearlessly toss it into a backpack or suitcase without worrying about it getting crushed or dumping its contents in transit.
Inside the tin you get a deck of cards (workers), a second deck of slightly heavier tile-sized cards (buildings), plastic coins, and a rules insert. All of the cards feature full art on both sides. Despite a typo on the insert (there are 42 building cards, not 47) all components were accounted for. The only nit-pick I really have is that I felt a reusable bag of some kind should have been included for the coins, which otherwise are just stored loose. Altogether, while the MSRP of $18 is a bit higher than I expected just from the outward size of the package, I feel the quality of the artwork and components are a good value.
Accessibility: While it very much plays and feels like a “full sized” game, this one is quite streamlined and relatively simple to learn. Each player gets three actions on his or her turn, and can use those actions to draft worker cards, draft building cards, assign collected workers to buildings, or collect money from the bank. It doesn’t cost anything to draft the cards, but whenever you assign a worker you control to a building you control, you have to pay him the ‘salary’ printed on his card. Workers provide some combination of the four resources necessary to complete a building, represented graphically on both cards by tally marks. Once you have enough workers assigned to complete a building, you flip the building card over, earn money and victory points as printed on the card, and return your workers to your pool to be reused later. The first person to hit 17 victory points triggers the end of the game, and whoever has the most points at the end of the round is the winner. There are a couple little twists and finer points in there too of course, but that’s the gist of the game.
One thing many of my playtesters mentioned enjoying was that there was no pressure to attack their opponents in any way, which allowed them to primarily concentrate on managing their own resources. Also, many playtesters felt able to play strategically during their first game, with a couple going so far as to win them. All of my playtesters said they’d play again. The Builders is a game I wouldn’t hesitate to reach for at a table with novice gamers, and I think it would also be a good fit for middle school classrooms or higher.
Depth: There is definite replay value here. The same strategy is not guaranteed to work every game. Everyone starts with a different worker, and there are only five workers and buildings available to draft at a time. Due to the wide variety of costs and rewards of different buildings and workers, you must be able to adapt your strategy according to what’s available, as well as to the speed with which your opponents are successfully completing their buildings. It’s going to take a lot longer and greater expense to build a castle versus a pigsty, but the rewards are much more dramatic. This one is all about being as efficient with your resources as possible, and figuring out the current game’s timing and how to do that can be a fun challenge.
Theme: The art for this game is quite good, and by and large the cards are easy to read. The first side of each building card shows the structure in an unfinished state, followed by the reverse which shows the final product…if you have a big enough table, you can watch your village grow. Unfortunately for us, most of the time, the artwork just got covered up as we stacked our cards, which we did both for table space reasons and also to make tracking the game easier.
The coins being plastic instead of cardboard actually added a lot of fun to the game for us. The sounds the coins make as they click against each other and the table was pretty satisfying, and added a bit of immersion to the experience.
While the medieval European theme certainly works for this game, I can easily imagine it with many alternative themes, which might have been nice to see considering the multitude of games already rooted in this design space. One playtester, who was commenting on the game’s potential attractiveness to a classroom audience, noted that it was a shame that all the workers were Caucasian males, and generally lacked diversity. However, one thought I had based on the title alone was that this could easily be the beginning of a series…not only could different eras and cultures be explored, but I’d also love to see something like The Builders: Theme Parks or The Builders: Winter Olympics.
Fun: My playtesters ran the spectrum from veteran to novice, and everyone enjoyed this one. I think games which can hit the mark of good accessibility and good depth lend themselves to great gameplay experiences. The one downside we noticed, especially when adding extra players, was waiting for your turn. The first games tended to be pretty quick, but by game two players were more competitive, and turns could become quite long as they took time to track their own resources, their competitors’ positions, and to consider their options. Not game breakingly-bad by any means, but noticeable. Your game time could be closer to 45 minutes, possibly more as you add players.
Overall, The Builders: Middle Ages packs a lot into a tiny, efficient package. Quick to learn and set up, you will be able to dive straight into a game which will make you want to play again right away. As long as a few slow turns aren’t a deal breaker for you, for the price point, this game is an easy addition to your collection.
Special thanks to my playtesters: Austin, Gail, Michelle, Neil, Laura, Stan, and MB
4 out of 5