Board games have always been something of a curiosity to me. The ones that are traditionally sold at the mainstream level are not really games at all. Instead, they are simply task-oriented linear time-wasters that teach children very little about competition, problem solving and strategy. These common stock of games, most of them made by a company with the same initials as peanut butter, are pretty useless when it comes to actually challenging the brain. While we can debate the meaning of the word “game,” I think my point is clear. That is why now, after attending numerous Penny Arcade Expos, I look to games like Stonemaier Games‘ Euphoria to open up our minds.
I have learned over the years that there are pieces of cardboard with cards or dice that may entertain, but they certainly don’t challenge. After seeing games like Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island and Smallworld in action two things were apparent to me. The first was that I knew nothing about board games and my spatial reasoning in relation to understanding actual game instruction manuals needed a refresh. Smallworld broke the seal on my brain when it came to reconsidering the scope of what a board game is. So over time, I started to filter out the standard cardboard time wasters in my house to be replaced with game that challenged the brain at all levels. Decision making is gaming.
So, enter Euphoria. I was sent a prototype to review, then their Kickstarter (to which I pledged at the ‘Model’ level) was 200% funded by day two. That’s pretty awesome, especially since some of the best facets of the game will only enter into existence based on the Kickstarter stretch goals – which will most likely all be met by the time this article is published (I’m really only in it for the steampunk dice). Also, since the copy I got was a prototype I have to point out that in the slide show above all of the components are prototypes and will not generally reflect the exact final production quality and contents. So, this past weekend I sat down with my brother and my 7yr old to give Euphoria a shot. My 7-year-old is very intelligent, but the game was above her level. The teens refused to play until I learned the game, so my brother and I set it up for four players (each of us playing two) and with the 7-year-old managing all the dice and cards we gave the game a spin.
First, we read the instructions. Well, my brother read the instructions while I played games on my phone. Then he set up the board and I read the instructions. Euphoria is a game of worker placement set in a dystopian future. Think the logistics and bureaucracy of Brazil mixed with the paranoia of Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World. That is, it is not a utopia but rather a brightly colored future laden with mechanical elements and organizational psychology. Euphoria sets the player on a path to claim ownership of this future through a number of interesting tasks.
Where Euphoria could quickly devolve into a tedious exercise in logistical command, instead it slowly builds to an exciting climax of resource collection, worker allegiances and corporate espionage. And guess what? You get to decide the apocalyptic factors that lead to this dystopian world. You can vote on the Stonemaier Games website to decide which apocalypse will create Euphoria. Frankly, I’m going with mind-controlling jellyfish: not only can they control your mind, but they can sting you into submission. Not sure how they evolved to that point, but they already glow so that’s got to be on that particular evolutionary trail.
As far as gameplay goes, I was a little bit lost at first — even after I read the directions. That’s pretty normal for me, though, until I get everything organized in my head. There are a lot of moving pieces in this game, so there is a lot to keep track of. After playing through a few times I’m sure that I’ll become old hat at it, but until that point I’ll have the directions in hand. I’ve played Smallworld a billion times but I still forget things in that game all the freaking time. Thankfully, there are plenty of markers on the board to indicate where things are at, such as the knowledge scale for the workers.
As you can see from the pictures, there are a ton of dice. These represent the knowledge of your workers. This enables their awareness of the fact that this future they are living in is a dystopia, rather than the first 30 minutes of Logan’s Run. If they get too smart, then they may just leave you. Each player also gets two recruit cards. One already is in your back pocket (figuratively) but the other needs some convincing. Certain milestones in the game will turn the tide of that recruit, which any player can inadvertently activate.
The flow of the game, for us at least, was interesting. There are no rounds or phases in Euphoria, so no fighting about who goes first. You pretty much either place or remove a worker on your turn. You construct markets with penalties or rewards based on your involvement, and the commodities and resources change game to game — as far as their value. The game ends when someone has placed all of their workers on the board, who are still dumb enough to be loyal to you even though you’ve trapped them in a dystopia disguised as a steampunk dream world. Throughout the game, you work to move them through the world, all while trying to keep their knowledge base low enough to your advantage to retain control of the world before the other players.
While the game never ventures into the aforementioned pit of tedium, there are times where we slowed down to re-reference the rules to determine behavior of actions. The amount of detail and logistics in this game is a testament to the patience and intelligence of the designers. While I’m not positive Euphoria teaches any currently viable economic lessons, it certainly provides a paranoid and hypothetical back-drop to our own messed up and borderline totalitarian economy. The steampunk elements aren’t overwhelming, but rather enhance a very stylized and engaging design. In fact, the design was one of the first things that drew me to this game.
Euphoria seems complex at first, and frankly there are many complex elements to the game, but presented in a simple and (over time) easy to comprehend manner. Tabletop game veterans should have no problem quickly taking control of the scenario and gameplay, while tabletop newbies might have a bit longer road with having to learn the logistics of a non-linear decision based game. Overall, a very creative game with numerous gameplay possibilities and combinations. The look and feel of the game, the pieces (even the prototype pieces) were clean, sharply creative and thought provoking. I enjoyed not only being challenged by a table top game, but challenged in an intelligent rather than strictly chance manner.
Be sure to check out the Euphoria Kickstarter and get your steampunk dice-enabled version before they are all gone.