Alien explorers have discovered an uninhabited planet littered with artifacts of its former residents: Earth. Dig up these ancient relics and manipulate the markets to your advantage, and see if you can profit from Excavation Earth!
What Is Excavation Earth?
Excavation Earth is an economic set-collection game, designed by David Turczi and published by Mighty Boards, for 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 30 minutes per player. It is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge of $50 for a copy of the game; higher pledge tiers are available to include an expansion or premium components like metal coins. The game’s theme may be fine for younger players, but the market manipulation can be a little more complex, so I’d recommend this primarily for more experienced players.
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Excavation Earth Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. For instance, the cardboard standees in the prototype will be replaced by heat transfer printed wooden meeples. There have been some changes to scoring, terminology, and component design since this version of the prototype. Also, stretch goals reached during the campaign may add other components to the final game. The campaign has already unlocked a solo mode, unique buyer meeple shapes, and an additional alien race.
Here’s what’s included in the base game, not including stretch goals:
- Game board
- Mothership board
- Popularity board
- 4 Alien boards
- 90 Artifact tokens (18 each in 5 colors)
- 60 Action cards
- 12 Travel cards (not pictured)
- 17 Buyer cards
- 4 Command tiles (not pictured above)
- 52 Credit tokens (in denominations of 1, 5, 10, and 50)
- 4 Initiative tokens
- 12 Explorer pieces (3 per alien race)
- 88 Crew cubes (22 per player)
- 4 Turn Order markers
- 57 Buyer meeples (10 each in 5 colors; 7 white)
- Round marker
- 4 Player Aids
I really like the artwork in the game, which helps to immerse players in the theme. The map of Earth shows things like large sections of African and South America covered in water, a huge crater in Russia, and the large mothership hovering near the bottom of the board with smaller ships approaching and leaving it. (Despite the fact that climate change appears to have affected the map, Florida is still above water.) The board illustration has a stylized look that reminds me a little of contour maps—it’s not photorealistic, but has a lot of fun details in it.
Likewise, the “artifacts” that you discover are a mix of things from around the world: a soccer ball from Brazil, a California license plate, a Taj Mahal snow globe, even a faded Brexit poster. Most of the items are recognizable as things that exist currently, though I’m curious about the red tile with the skull—it’s a primate of some sort, but appears to have a big horn or knob on its head.
Excavation Earth uses some alien icons and symbols: the artifacts have four different alien letters that look like an angle bracket, a broken square-ish lump, a lightning bolt, and an open circle. The markets on the board are represented by six different icons. While it makes sense that the aliens don’t use a Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, it does make for some difficulty in referring to the pieces at times. For the markets, I ended up just referring to 1 through 6, though that also required looking at the board again each time. (Fortunately, the boards do have some Arabic numerals for scoring purposes for us humans.) Also, the alien letters on the tiles themselves are fairly small, and so when you place them onto the dig sites, it covers up the letter on the dig site itself. That makes it a bit harder to scan the board for the artifact that you want (a problem that was exacerbated when playing over video).
The game takes up a good deal of space: aside from the large main board, you also have substantial player boards (half of it is primarily a portrait of the alien), plus the mothership board and the popularity board, which holds all of the buyer meeples in rows. That’s one board that would be nice to have dual-layered, because you have to set up all the meeples on that board on the little rectangles, and a dual-layered board would keep them from sliding around so much.
How to Play Excavation Earth
Download a draft of the rulebook here. Since I noticed that there have been tweaks between my version of the prototype and the current draft of the rulebook, I assume that there are still changes being made to the game, so I’ll give an overview but may leave out some of the specific scoring numbers and details.
The goal of the game is to earn the most credits by acquiring and selling artifacts, building up your personal gallery, and acquiring influence on the mothership.
Set up the main board with the mothership board and popularity boards next to it. The board is seeded with randomly drawn artifacts, placed on the dig sites—the colored squares that match the color and alien letter of the artifact drawn. The black market (at the bottom left of the board) is also seeded with some artifacts, and the rest are placed in a face-down supply. Shuffle the cards and reveal a row (number depends on the player count) called the Surveyor Forecast.
The buyer meeples are placed onto the popularity board, and then the six markets across the top of the board are seeded with buyers by drawing buyer cards. As buyers are placed, they’re taken from the bottom of the popularity tracks so that the popularity level of that color increases. (White buyers are wild and don’t have a track, just a large area on the board.)
Each player gets an alien board along with the 3 explorer pawns, 22 crew cubes, 8 credits, and turn order marker (which is placed on the turn order track based on the starting initiative). Each player’s explorer pawns are placed on the first market (near Alaska), the fourth market (near Scandinavia), and one other location of the player’s choice. Each player also gets 3 travel cards and six cards from the deck.
The game takes 3 rounds to play, and each round consists of Preparation, Actions, and Scoring.
During the Preparation phase (skipped the first round), you’ll reset the markets so that there are 3 buyers in each, and also resolve the Surveyor Forecast by drawing some more artifacts of the colors shown. Player order will be determined based on initiative tokens that were taken during the previous round, and players will also draft 6 more cards, as well as taking back their 3 travel cards. If you’re playing with Command Abilities, you’ll place 3 random tiles in the mothership in round 2, and then flip them to their yellow sides in round 3.
The Actions phase is the bulk of the game: players take turns in initiative order, taking one action each, until everyone has passed. Here’s a quick look at the actions:
- Travel: Spend a card to move your explorers around on the map. Travel cards have 2, 3, or 4 fuel; action cards are worth 3 fuel. Your explorers may not occupy the same space as each other, but can be with other players.
- Excavate: Spend a card to dig at that color. Up to two of your explorers (at different dig sites of that color) may each take one tile from the board, placed into your ship’s cargo hold. You can also take a sample for your gallery (more on this later).
- Market: Advertise your wares! Spend a card matching a market where you have an explorer to add a crew cube (now a trader) and more buyers to that market. Markets can only have 4 buyers in line, so you can also bump older buyers back to the popularity board.
- Sell: Spend any card to sell artifacts at up to 3 markets where you have traders. The artifacts must all be the same color but it does not need to match the card. You’ll earn credits based on the popularity of that color, plus you’ll earn bonuses for the number of buyers that match the artifacts, plus the number of markets you sold to. The matching buyers are moved to the mother ship area, bumping existing buyers there back to the popularity board. One of your traders from each of these markets moves to the corresponding area of the mothership, becoming an envoy.
- Command: Spend a card to add a crew cube to a matching market, and/or add or remove a crew cube from the matching command center in the mothership. If you remove a crew from the mothership, you may activate the command ability (if applicable).
- Smuggle: Spend a card to buy or sell at a matching black market where you have an explorer. You may buy or sell up to 2 artifacts of different colors. The black market price is shown on the tile itself (and corresponds to the rarity of the artifact).
- Survey: Replace a card in the Surveyor Forecast with one from your hand, discarding the old one. Place a crew cube on the card you placed—cards with crew cubes on them cannot be replaced. Take an initiative token if you haven’t already this turn. You also draw 2 artifacts of that color, placing one on the board and optionally buying the other one.
If you cannot do any of the actions or choose not to, you pass, and are finished for the rest of the round.
A few notes about acquiring artifacts: Your player board has a cargo hold with white and black spaces at the top. Artifacts are placed here when you acquire them. Any of them may be placed in the white spaces, but only black market purchases may be placed in the black spaces, which are your hidden hold. If you run out of room, you cannot gain any more artifacts.
Also, each time you acquire an artifact, you may sample it to add to your gallery. (It’s not entirely clear what sort of alien technology this represents, but it does not use up the artifact tile itself.) Place a crew cube in the corresponding space of the grid at the bottom right indicating that you’ve sampled that artifact type—you’ll score at the end of the game based on the number of cubes in each row and column. Also, each time you completely fill a column, you draw an extra card from the deck.
(The fuel meter shown on this player board is from an older version and will not be present in the final version.)
The six market areas at the top of the board correspond to different locations on the map—each one shows an alien spaceship, which is also depicted on the matching action cards. As you play, you’ll add cubes to these spaces as traders, and add buyers to the markets, which increases the popularity of certain artifacts and also earns you more credits when there are matching buyers. White buyers are wild and will buy any artifact, but the color buyers will only buy matching artifacts. (The image here is of an outdated board—the trader area is now just one single space instead of two, and does not have scoring below it.)
During the scoring phase, players will earn credits based on having the most crew in each of the three command centers on the mothership. Each command center corresponds to two of the markets. The payouts for these command centers increases each round, allowing for 2nd place and 3rd place on the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively.
The game ends after the third round, and players then earn credits for their galleries. The player with the most credits wins, with ties going to the player with the most remaining artifacts on their player board.
Why You Should Play Excavation Earth
Before I dive into the game, I’ll start with this disclaimer: I’ve only gotten to play Excavation Earth once so far, because of various complications from COVID-19 and quarantine. The prototype shipping was delayed so it arrived right as the campaign was launching, and because I’m currently unable to host game nights, I played it over video, which had several limitations in a game that includes a lot of small text and hidden hands of cards. That, and I noticed that the various scoring values shown in the current rulebook didn’t line up with the printed values on the prototype boards, so I knew that my experience was not going to be exactly representative of the finished game.
That said, I can tell you a few of the things that stood out to me about the experience. I’ve already mentioned the artwork, which is excellent and includes some humor here and there. (I got a good chuckle out of the orange artifact, from Asia, that appears to be instructions for using a sit-down toilet, because my parents had told me stories about when those were first introduced in a world that was used to squat toilets.) The mothership board seems to take up more space than is really needed—and then the command cards will actually hang off the edges of it at weird angles—but I guess you can’t have a tiny alien mothership.
David Turczi has designed or been involved in a host of games, many of which tend to be on the more complex end of the scale for what I usually play: Anachrony as well as solo modes for Cerebria and Trickerion. So I wasn’t expecting this one to be simple, but I was pleased to find that even though there’s a lot of different things going on, it still had a game flow that you could follow.
When you buy at the black market, there’s an extra fee on top of the list price. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. LiuThe main procedure for making money seemed to be: acquire artifacts, market them, and sell them. This process is also how you get cubes into the command centers for scoring. (The black markets are another way to acquire and sell artifacts, but generally you won’t make as much money there as you would selling a popular item with a lot of interested buyers.) You also can’t really skip any steps in the process: each time you want to sell something, you have to already have traders present, whether by marketing or by using the command action to place one there—and marketing is better because you can also manipulate the buyers to your advantage first. The one advantage to using the command action to place people in a market is that you don’t have to have an explorer there on the board, so you might save some actions moving them around, if the buyer queue is already primed for whatever it is you want to sell.
Ideally, you want to accumulate 3 artifacts of the same color, get 3 traders placed in different markets, and then take a sell action to maximize your profit and bonuses. But that takes a lot of actions: at least 2 to acquire 3 artifacts, and then 3 more actions to place your traders, and then 1 to sell. That’s 6 actions—your entire hand—assuming your travel cards can take care of your movement. But if another player manages to manipulate a market before you sell, whether by bumping out the buyers of a particular color or by selling before you get a chance, then you might end up missing out anyway. Also, since each sale you make moves a trader to the command center on the mothership, you’ll have to market again for each sale.
The market manipulation is pretty fascinating to me, and keeping an eye on the popularity chart is really important. I like the way that the buyers go to the mothership for a spell, which means that after somebody sells something that’s pretty popular, the popularity doesn’t go down immediately. One more player can potentially get in another sell action before the prices drop because all those buyers refill the popularity board.
Jostling for control of the command centers is also tricky. Each one is tied to two markets, which means that (aside from using the command action) when you think about where to market and sell, you also have to consider which command center it will put you in. In my play, I seemed to be one step behind all the time, partly because I was watching the buyer queues and then only too late remembered to look at the command centers. This is one of those places where the alien icons make it a little harder to see how the markets and command centers correspond—it might be nice to have some sort of marking on the main board showing how the markets are paired up to command centers.
The multi-use cards are nice: there’s not a lot of info on the cards themselves, just a color and a market icon (and the finished version will also show 3 fuel at the bottom). I like that you can use them for different things: color is for digging up artifacts, market icon is used for marketing and visiting the black market, or for using the command action. The hardest one to remember, though, was the sell action: it just requires you to discard any card (even a travel card), and you can sell any single color. We kept thinking we needed to discard a card matching a market we were selling at, or the color we were selling. I think repeated plays would help that, but it’s the one action that just felt unintuitive throughout the first play.
Each of the alien races has a different special ability. I didn’t focus on those because those seemed to have gotten some tweaks since my prototype as well, but they give each player a different sort of advantage, and may help drive your strategy. There’s one that can make a free move each turn before their action, one that can buy from the black market when they take a sell action, and one that can dig up two artifacts with a single explorer. The stretch goals and expansion have added a few more alien races as well, so there are some interesting combinations that could play out there.
I wish I could give you a more informed look at Excavation Earth based on some more plays and a more final prototype, but such are the limitations of quarantine life. I wondered, based on the theme of the game, whether some evidence of COVID-19 might make its way into the artwork as well, since the disappearance of humans is never explicitly stated.
If you like economic games, particularly those that let the players manipulate the markets, Excavation Earth may be worth your attention. I like it for the theme (somehow aliens fighting over remnants of our civilization seems less distasteful than human colonizers taking relics from other cultures), and it’s definitely one I’ll be interested in revisiting once I’m able to host games in person again.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Excavation Earth Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype of this game for review purposes.