Review: Hyperborea

HyperboreaExpectations are a funny thing.  Perhaps more so than any highly-anticipated release this year, I had no idea what to expect from Asmodee’s big-box release for 2014: Hyperborea.  Everybody I talked to wanted to try it, but nobody could describe exactly what it was.  A sleeker Through the Ages style civilization game?  The next Terra Mystica?  An Eclipse-killer?

Hyperborea contains elements of all of these games, but does it stand on its own?

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: Hyperborea’s communal “board” consists of several hex-shaped tiles, placed randomly in a manner similar to Mage Knight or Eclipse.  Each player gets a large player board, along with a cloth bag and a small army of fantasy-style plastic miniatures.  There’s also an impressive collection of counters, tiles, and other cardboard bits, and a big pile of your standard-issue Euro-game colored wooden cubes.  The amount of “stuff” in the box is fairly impressive, but it’s definitely not on the level of the aforementioned Mage Knight or Eclipse.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Hyperborea’s $100 retail price tag.  While the components are nice, I’m having trouble justifying the cost.  Let’s compare it to one of Asmodee’s other Gen Con 2014 releases, Lords of Xidit.  The number and quality of miniautres is similar, as is the amount of cardboard.  Hyperborea does include bunch of wooden cubes and cloth bags for the players, but it just doesn’t feel like a $100 game.

Accessibility: As I mentioned, there’s a lot of game here.  Six unique actions, and two separate boards to worry about.  Cubes, cards, bonus tiles, and armies, all jostling for your attention.  Fortunately, the rules are very streamlined, and turns generally boil down to placing cubes, taking the corresponding action(s), and possibly moving a figure or three around the map.  I had no problem teaching the game, and there were few questions about the rules once we started.  That said, the streamlining of a game with so many moving parts is both a blessing and a curse, as you’ll see.

Depth: I’ve heard Hyperborea described as a “4X” game — Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate.  I suppose most of these elements exist in some fashion, but the game lacks the epic feel of most civilization-style games.  Players draw colored cubes from a bag and place them on action squares on their personal boards.  Different colors correspond to different actions — for example, green is most often used for movement, and red tends to fuel combat actions.  Other options include building defenses, drafting armies, adding new cubes to the bag, or purchasing technology cards.

Aside from the action selection on the personal player boards, there’s the shared communal map consisting of random terrain hexes, each with one or more cities or ruins to exploit.  Most of the map tiles start face-down, but the exploration felt a little bit shallow.  Since the map is made up of relatively few tiles, the entire world can be visible very early in the game;  in every session I’ve played, all of the hexes were revealed within the first turn or two, as a player only has to move an army adjacent to a tile to reveal it.

Armies?  Oh, yes.  There’s an element of area control.  Armies are moved via the “green” player action, and they can attack other armies with the “red” action.  There’s no dice or bluffing here.  Combat is simple: For every figure you attack with, you remove an opponent’s figure.  Points are only awarded for the first combat won against a given player; further points cannot be gained until a figure of each other player has been defeated.  This helps prevent a situation where someone can score points by repeatedly beating up a single weaker player.  I enjoy the simplicity of Hyberborea‘s conflict, but it isn’t nearly as deep as a game like Kemet.

If anything, I feel like Hyperborea tries to do too much, and rules concessions had to be made to keep the game from being overly long or complex.  Still, there’s a lot to like, and I feel like the game mechanics will hold up to multiple plays.

Theme: Here’s where the game starts to falter for me.  The artwork and graphic design are presented in an attractive, if “generic fantasy”, style.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly memorable about the theme.  I’d use Terra Mystica — another mechanically sound game with a fantasy theme — as an example, but I actually remember most of that game’s races and the cool wooden buildings you place on the board.  In Hyperborea, nothing ever prodded my imagination.  Even the army figures, which are decently sculpted, single-color plastic, blend in to the drab terrain and dry feel of the game.  All of the technology cards have unique names and artwork, and after several plays I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of them.  They didn’t feel like new and exciting discoveries; all of them boil down to “place an orange and yellow cube here to get access to a slightly better action”.

The problem is, Hyperborea is a cube-pusher at heart.  You’re drawing cubes to place cubes to take actions that will often result in, you guessed it, getting more cubes.  With all the time, effort, and expense that was put into the (admittedly attractive) artwork and board elements, it’s a shame that the theme doesn’t stand out.

Fun: Opinions from my fellow players have fallen across the board.  You may have noticed Hyperborea on Hillary’s personal “best of 2014” in our recent Staff Picks article, while another player during one of my sessions claimed, “I get why this is a good game, and I have absolutely no fun playing it”.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle.  There’s an interesting mix of mechanics that eclipses any thematic shortcomings.  Overall, Hyperborea is an engaging experience that borrows from other games while introducing an innovative “bag building” resource system.  My biggest issue isn’t with the game itself, but with its price tag, which ultimately lost it a point in my final review score.  As long as you keep realistic expectations, Hyperborea combines intriguing depth with an elegant design — but wait until you can find a good deal on it.




3 out of 5

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