Stonemaier Games is known for being one of the best around when it comes to graceful Kickstarters and awesome components. After their success with Viticulture, they followed up with Euphoria: Building a Better Dystopia, a worker placement game that uses dice as workers, but not in the ways you might think. How’s it measure up in the rather crowded genre of worker placement games? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
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: Wow, do these guys deliver. Now, this game is expensive ($70 MSRP), but it’s got bits upon bits, and they all look great. The game has an incredibly unique look with its color scheme, steampunk dice and neon pieces. The graphic design is also very good, except that the worker spaces laid over the large amount of artwork behind it on the board makes it a little too busy when you are first learning the game. Otherwise, the board has reminders in all the right places, great artwork on the cards, beautiful components – everything you’d want.
Accessibility: For some reason, this game did not click with me as I read the rulebook, even after a couple of read-throughs. I highly recommend Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played! video for the game – another friend and I both watched it on our own and then we were totally ready to go for our first two-player game. However, playing the game the first time was still a little rough – there are so many resources / commodities in this game, and it’s hard to understand a clear path of victory at first (though your recruit cards might help guide you – if you understood what you were picking). Also, we did so little on our first few turns that it felt like something was off, but I think it’s just a matter of the game taking a little longer to get an engine going – also, the spaces that depend on total dice value don’t give big benefits as easily with lower player counts (I was surprised that there’s not really any scaling for different player counts in the game, other than the number placement spots for stars, which is how you win). I also recently played Stonemaier Games’ other large worker placement game, Viticulture, and the main difference is that Viticulture‘s many moving parts seemed tied together in obvious, thematic ways that made it easy to grok; Euphoria seems like a mish-mash of too many ideas that makes it harder, but not impossible, to learn. (I’ve also been accused of being a “Top 40” gamer in the past, i.e. someone who only likes easy gateway games, so maybe I’m just out of my wheelhouse.)
Depth: There’s certainly a lot going on in this game, though that doesn’t necessarily mean deep strategy. I do think the game is very interactive, you need to be very cognizant not only of your opponent’s plans but of their pace, since you need to spend turns retrieving workers. It seems that the main ‘hook’ of the game is the dice-as-workers mechanic, but instead of the typical method of that giving you different options as in games like Castles of Burgundy and Kingsburg (there’s a smidge of that), the main purpose of the dice is to screw you out of a worker if you roll poorly or take too many risks. This can be absolutely devastating if you fall down to one worker, especially if you focus on food and bliss instead of energy and water (the commodities that let you get more workers). There’s also negative interaction when you don’t participate in a marketplace – suddenly, there’s a part of the game that you just can’t do until you go there and fix it. This isn’t particularly fun, because it feels out of place (much like the “block yellow cards” tile in 7 Wonders: Babel) and it’s not particularly strategic, because you cannot possibly know what the market penalties will be until they appear. I think there’s a deep game here, and it was somewhat fun to get an engine going with bonus abilities from recruits, but it seems like most of the game is spent just grinding gears in a way that feels somewhat soulless. It also didn’t seem to scale particularly well down to two players (three or four is probably ideal; I didn’t try with five or six). With two, the tunnels were fairly obvious as to what we wanted to happen and somewhat tedious – the faction track seemed like just one more idea on top of way too many. I’m probably being overly harsh – there’s an interesting game here, but it’s not nearly as tightly designed as other worker placement games, like Lords of Waterdeep or Viticulture. I’ll say that I do really like the race feeling of placing your stars on the board, it makes for a great, tense endgame – that’s probably the more exciting innovation in worker placement, but it’s really not too different than the race method of games like Viticulture, Splendor, and Cosmic Encounter.
Theme: The theme is there, but it’s subtle. There’s some great humor in the text on the ethical dilemma cards, and in the plain pictures of everyday items on the “artifact” cards, and the titles of the locations. Obviously a lot of thought into the theme coming through mechanically, with the Icarus faction behaving differently, the “knowledge” the workers have, and the tunnels and so on, but you don’t really feel it in the gameplay. If the game was more card-driven, I think there would be more opportunities to integrate the theme, but as it stands, I felt like I was just grinding through a worker placement game, and the dystopia theme never crossed my mind during play.
Fun: This is a decent, even good, game, just not a great one. I don’t mind when a game has a lot going on (Twilight Struggle and Five Tribes are games with comparative weight that I enjoy immensely), but the result of that hard work didn’t feel particularly rewarding. It didn’t feel like you could build that much of an engine or to bigger or better turns, and the “negative fun” parts of the game (market penalties, losing workers) seemed to make the game un-fun rather than tense in a good way. Worker placement and optimization fanatics may find a lot to like here, but I’d steer you towards Stonemaier’s other game, Viticulture, for a more thematic and exciting worker plagame.
Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia has some redeeming qualities, but there are too many ideas and the ambitious theme doesn’t really come through.
3 out of 5