What Is Fire in the Library?
Fire in the Library is a press-your-luck game for 1 to 6 players, ages 8 and up, and takes about 30 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $19 for a copy of the game (with additional pledge tiers to donate a copy or to get a deluxe edition). The game is simple enough that younger kids can learn it pretty easily, with the most complex part of the game being the various tools. The theme is about rescuing books from a fire, which should be all right for most players barring a fear of fire.
Fire in the Library was designed by Tony Miller and John Prather, features art and design by Beth Sobel and Katie Khau, and will be published by Weird Giraffe Games.
Fire in the Library Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.
- 22 Library Cards
- 30 Tool Cards
- 6 Turn Order Cards
- 6 Reference Cards
- 22 Book Tokens (4 Purple, 5 Black, 6 Yellow, and 7 White tokens)
- 17 Fire Tokens (red)
- 1 Library Bag
- 1 Scoring Track
- 6 Librarian Figures
The components themselves are fairly simple—cards, wooden cubes, meeples, a bag—but the artwork by Beth Sobel is fantastic. (She has also done artwork for games like Herbaceous.) The highlight is the library cards, which fit together to display an image of a magical library, trees growing among the full shelves of books. As the fire intensifies over the course of the game and books are burned, these cards are discarded, revealing the gradual destruction of the library as more and more flames accumulate. This part of the artwork wasn’t completed in the prototype.
The tools on the cards are also very nicely illustrated, and the gamebox itself is made to look like a hardcover book. The turn order cards are somewhat plainer-looking, with just a row of boxes and icons on a scrap of parchment, but they’re functional.
Overall, the game looks nice and the components are easy to use.
How to Play Fire in the Library
The goal of the game is score the most points by rescuing valuable books before the fire consumes the library.
Set up the library cards in the center of the table so that each book color has its least valuable card on top, increasing to its most valuable at the bottom. Set the scoreboard nearby. Use as many turn order cards as needed for the number of players, and put the rest away. For the first round, distribute the turn order cards randomly (or in whatever way you decide).
Set aside 10 fire tokens, and then place the rest of the fire tokens and all of the book tokens into the bag.
Give each player a reference card, and place each player’s meeple near the scoring track. Shuffle the tool cards and deal each player 2 cards, and then reveal 3 tool cards face-up next to the deck.
(Note: for solo or 2-player games, you’ll use the AI player, but I’ll explain how that works later.)
Each round has the following phases: Choose Turn Order, Save Books, Books Burn.
Choose Turn Order
The first round, the turn order cards are randomized, but in subsequent rounds, players will take turns, starting from the lowest score to the highest score, choosing a turn order card. Going early is riskier but may earn more bravery points. Going later is safer but may be worth fewer points.
When it is your turn, you take the library bag and draw cubes from it one at a time, placing them on your turn order card from left to right, until you decide to stop or the books burn. Each turn order card has a number of “safe” spaces, showing a tool icon below them, and “risky” spaces, showing a flame icon and a number below them. Books will burn if you place a single fire (red) cubes on risky spaces, or if you have two fire cubes anywhere on your card, safe or risky.
If you stop before books burn, you score points for each book you rescued: look at the numbers on the library cards to see how many points each color book is worth. If you stopped in a safe space, you may collect a tool—either from the three face-up cards, or from the top of the deck. If you stopped in a risky space, you also collect bravery points, the number below your last token. (Bravery points are not cumulative.)
If you didn’t stop in time, then the books burn! Discard one matching library card for each book cube that you have, which also makes those types of books more valuable. (If you did not have any book cubes at all, discard the library card with the lowest index number—the smaller number on the card.) You add a fire cube to the bag for each flame icon revealed on the library cards. Then, you get to take a tool.
Whether you rescued books or burned books, you put all the cubes back into the bag, and then return your turn order card to the center of the table, and the next player takes a turn.
After each player has had a turn, then some more books automatically burn. Look at the four library cards and choose the one with the lowest index number. That card is discarded, and if that reveals a flame icon, add another fire cube to the bag.
There are various tools, and they have icons indicating when they may be used: before choosing turn order cards, while you’re saving books, after you score books, or even when books are burning. I won’t describe all of them here, but I’ll give a few examples:
- Amulet: Before anyone chooses turn order cards, draw as many cubes as there are players, and place one on each turn order card.
- Shovel: Twice this turn, you may draw two cubes instead of one and choose which to put on your card.
- Lockbox: After scoring books, place one saved book on this card until the end of the game—you’ll score again based on its value at the end of the game.
- Cloak: If you burn books, save one books and score points for it, and also score bravery points, but burn everything else.
The game ends immediately when the last card of any of the four colors is burned up, even if it’s in the middle of a round. The highest score wins! (Ties go to the first player who reached the score.)
For a 1- or 2-player game, you also include the AI player, using one extra turn order card. The AI player will always take the earliest turn order card it can. During its turn, you reveal and discard the top tool card. There are ribbons at the top right showing some number of book colors. Those books automatically burn. The icons lower on the card (near the card effect) show the remaining book colors—these are the books that the AI player saves. The AI player scores as if they had put those saved book cubes on its player card, scoring for bravery points if applicable. (The AI player does not use tools.)
You skip the Books Burn phase, since the AI is guaranteed to burn at least one book each round.
Why You Should Play Fire in the Library
Fire in the Library is a horror-themed game. Wait, you don’t think a room full of burning books qualifies as horror? It’s certainly something that frightens me more than zombies, though. I think the theme is a nice fit for the game—though you’re all somewhat selfish librarians, because it’s not just about saving books, but ending up with the most valuable collection of them once the library burns to the ground. I like the way that, as certain books go up in flames, the others in that category become more valuable because there are fewer of them remaining. This can lead to some selective saving—if I’ve got a yellow book stashed away in my Lockbox, I actually hope that the rest of the yellow books burn up so that mine will be worth more at the end of the game.
Fire in the Library is a press-your-luck game, so the gameplay is all about playing with probability, weighing risk and reward. The more books you save, the more points you’ll score—but every cube you pull out of the bag might be fire. And as the game progresses, there are more and more fire cubes in that bag.
The core gameplay is simple enough that even my almost-5-year-old was able to join in: pull cubes from a bag, and decide whether to risk continuing or stop to score points. She didn’t necessarily pay close attention to how much fire was in the bag compared to books, but she understood the basic idea of “books good, fire bad.” The tools added a little more complexity, but for the most part we were able to explain them as she picked them up. She particularly liked using the axe, which allows you to rescue somebody else when their books burn—but you also take and score their most valuable book!
It works well for adults, too. I like the turn order cards, because it adds another element of choice to the game: Going first in a round is the riskiest, because there’s only one safe space on the card, but you can also earn a lot of bravery points if you make it back out with a lot of books. Going last gives you the most safe spaces, but not as many bravery points. One interesting twist is that if you go later, you might earn more points per book because previous players have burned some and made them more valuable! On the other hand, if too many books burn, you might not get a turn at all.
The variety of tools gives you some leeway in how you want to play, too. Some cards are particularly meant to protect you against burning books: they might let you remove fire after you go one cube too far, or save at least one book when everything else catches on fire. Some give you opportunities to score extra points. Some just let you be mean, like the library cart: keep all the books you’ve saved this turn on the library cart until the end of the round, which means that there are just fewer book cubes left in the bag for everyone else.
The various books start with varying values, and each time a category burns it goes up in value by 1 point, with all of the categories maxing out at 7 points. So the white books start off as the least valuable at 1 point, and the purple books are the most valuable at 4 points. But there are also the most white cubes in the bag, and the fewest purple cubes—which means that the white books are also the most likely to be on your card when you get caught by the fire. There’s an interesting pace where the relative value of the books shifts over time, and it’s quite likely that they’l flip-flop so that purple books wind up being the least valuable and the white and yellow books overtake them by the end.
Certainly the game does involve a good dose of luck: sometimes you just have bad luck and you start with a fire cube every time you draw from the bag. There’s only so much that you can mitigate dumb bad luck with the tools. But it also means that scores can change drastically from round to round. I’ve seen multiple instances where one player was lagging behind but then managed to pull into the lead (or at least second place) by the end of the game, usually by going early in the round and going after bravery points. If you’re looking for a game that is primarily strategic, this is probably not it. If you like press-your-luck games, though, Fire in the Library does a great job of integrating the theme and mechanics, and there are some interesting ways to mitigate bad luck and manipulate the values of the books.
I’ve played Fire in the Library with several player counts, and it maintains the tension and excitement really well regardless of the number of players. I will say, though, that AI player is a jerk! Burning books and scoring points every turn? Most of the tool cards will let the AI player burn two books and rescue two books, but there are some that aren’t balanced, so on one turn the AI might burn three different books, and on another it might leap ahead because it scores three books. When we’ve played against the AI, we’ve found that it’s a constant challenge to keep up, which puts more pressure on us to take risks. It’s nicely designed, and I like that the resolution of the AI player is very simple and doesn’t bog down gameplay at all.
Overall, I would recommend Fire in the Library for players who like press-your-luck games but want something a bit deeper than single-decision games like Zombie Dice or Incan Gold. The turn order cards and tools give you more options and result in more player interaction, on top of the tension of drawing cubes from a bag and hoping you don’t get burned. Come for the beautiful artwork, stay for the selfish librarians!
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Fire in the Library Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.