Follow ancient pathways into the unknown, surrounded by colorful flowers.
What Is Umbra Via?
Umbra Via is a tile-laying game (with bidding and area control) for 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, and takes about 30 to 45 minutes to play. It was released this week and retails for $39.95; it’s available directly from Pandasaurus or check in with your local game store. The theme is pretty abstract, so there’s nothing inappropriate for younger kids.
Umbra Via was designed by Connor Wake and published by Pandasaurus Games, with artwork by Eddie Schillo and Stevo Torres.
Umbra Via Components
Here’s what comes in the game:
- 4 Cloth bags
- 132 Energy flowers (33 per player)
- 68 Soul flowers (17 per player)
- 4 Bidding boards
- 4 Soul tiles
- 4 Player screens
- Main board
- Altar board
- 4 Placement Order counters
- 20 Path tiles (including 3 special tiles)
The artwork in Umbra Via is designed to look like old mosaics: tiny tiles laid out in geometric patterns, with some cracks and chips. It’s a very cool effect, because the paths themselves are otherwise quite simple: there’s a straight path, a 90-degree bend, and a T intersection. The mosaics give you the feeling of uncovering something ancient.
The path tiles are supposed to be oriented randomly when they’re revealed, though the backs of the tiles have “Umbra Via” printed on them, so you may have to fight the urge to turn all the tiles facing the same way when face-down, or else the tiles will also have the same orientation when revealed. It could have been nice to have them printed so that they’re also facing in random orientations relative to the backs.
Most of the artwork is blacks and whites and grays, but there are bursts of color for the player colors which are also represented by flowers. The player screens are a mix of mosaic and flowers, and you can also see the flowers on the backs of the bidding boards. This is just an extra touch—you never use this side of the bidding boards in gameplay.
While the bidding boards and screens have flowers on them, the rest of the player components (bags, flower tokens, and soul tiles) are distinguishable only by color. The flowers come in two types: the more vibrant energy flowers and the paler soul flowers. I’m not sure if this color palette (purple, blue, red, and yellow) causes issues for color blind players, but the purple and blue soul flowers can be a little confusing: the purple looks a bit blue on its own, but the blue one is slightly greener. It could have been a nice touch to have different shaped flowers for each player—perhaps matching the illustrated flowers—but 8-pointed star also fits the mosaic theme.
The components overall are nice, and are small without being tiny. The player shields are just big enough to cover your bidding board and have a rules reference on the back, and the flower tokens are thin wooden tokens. The bag is big enough to mix up your flowers in, and since you only pull 3 at a time, it works fine, though if you have very large hands it may be a tight fit. All of the tiles punched out quite easily.
How to Play Umbra Via
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to be the first to claim all 13 of your soul flowers (including your soul tile).
Place the main board in the center, with the altar board next to it. Shuffle the path tiles and place them next to the altar board, along with the placement order counters. Take one energy flower from each player and place them randomly next to the tiebreaker track on the right side of the altar board.
Give each player a bidding board, player screen, bag, soul tile, and flower tokens of their color. Place your soul tile nearby (visible to everyone) with 11 soul flowers on it. Place the rest of your flowers in your bag. Place your bidding board behind your player screen.
Each round, you’ll reveal new path tiles, bid, and then place (and possibly score) tiles.
First, four tiles are drawn from the supply and placed onto the altar. These should be oriented randomly. (If the supply runs out, shuffle the discard pile.)
Next, there will be two rounds of bidding. Each player draws 3 flowers from their bags, and secretly places them onto their bidding boards; the four spaces on your bidding board correspond to the four path tiles on the altar. The paler soul flowers are worth 2, and the darker energy flowers are worth 1 toward your bid.
The bids are revealed, and all flowers are transferred to the corresponding spaces on the altar. Then you repeat, so that everyone will have a total of 6 flowers on the altar. Then, you put the order placement counters on the altar board, from the lowest number of flowers to the highest. In the case of a tie, the order goes from left to right on the altar board. These counters indicate the order in which the tiles will be resolved.
For each tile, count up each player’s bid—the player with the highest bid gets to place the tile. If there’s a tie, the player higher on the tiebreaker track wins, but then moves their flower to the bottom of the track.
Tiles must be placed in the same orientation, without rotating the tile. If there are no tiles on the board, the tile must be placed in one of the four center locations. Otherwise, the tile must be placed so that it is next to an existing tile (though it does not have to continue the path). Any soul flowers on a tile are removed from the game, but energy flowers remain. After placing the tile, check to see if any paths have been completed—that is, all of the paths have been closed off, whether by other tiles or the edge of the board. If so, then there’s a Summoning and you score the tile. (Otherwise, you proceed to the next tile.)
Count the total number of energy flowers on the entire path and rank the players from most to least. (If you have no flowers, you do not get a rank.) If there are ties, players share a rank.
The 1st place player gets 1 soul flower per tile, and each subsequent place gets half as many (rounded down) as the place above them. In the photo above, the red player is first place and gets 2 soul flowers because the path has 2 tiles. Purple, in second place, gets 1 flower. Yellow is in third place, but half of 1 rounded down is 0, so they score no soul flowers. Soul flowers are claimed from your soul tile and placed into your bag.
Then, the scored path is removed from the main board. Energy flowers are returned to their players and put into the bags, and the tiles are discarded.
Note that if multiple paths are completed by placing one tile, they are all scored independently, even if clearing one path re-opens the other.
This process is repeated for all four tiles. If any tiles have no bids on them, they are simply discarded.
After all four tiles have been resolved, start a new round.
To win, you must be the first to claim your soul tile, which has 2 flowers printed on it as a reminder. In order to claim the soul tile, the tile must be empty (you have to have claimed all the other soul flowers), you must score a path that is at least 2 tiles long (to score 2 flowers), and you must be ranked first place for that path.
If you run out of flowers on your tile and you don’t meet these conditions, then you don’t claim anything for that Summoning. For instance, if you earn 2nd place in a 4-tile path, you would normally claim 2 flowers, but you don’t get your soul tile unless you are first place.
If multiple players claim their soul tiles for the same path, victory is shared.
There are three special path tiles, which are recommended after you’ve gotten used to the basic rules of the game: the Void tile, the Block tile, and the Four-Point tile, pictured above from left to right.
When you win the bid for the Void tile, you place all the energy flowers on it in an empty space on the board, discarding the tile itself. When a tile is placed onto that space later, all the flowers there are added to it.
The Block tile cannot be bid on—it simply takes up a space on the altar to reduce the number of tiles available that round, and is discarded at the end of the round.
The Four-Point tile is placed like a normal path tile, but then the player who placed it moves all energy flowers onto an adjacent path tile. This tile also has no openings so it closes paths that touch it. When any path adjacent to it is completed and cleared, it is removed.
There are alternate rules for 2 players, though it is listed as a recommended “variant” and presumably you could play with 2-players with the regular rules.
There is a 3rd neutral color. Each player adds 3 neutral soul flowers and 16 neutral energy flowers to their own bags. Place 11 neutral soul flowers on its soul tile, but do not put the neutral color on the tiebreaker track.
When you bid, neutral flowers still count toward your bid—place your bid on the edge nearest you, so that you can tell which player neutral flowers belong to. However, when scoring, the neutral color is ranked as its own player and can award soul flowers from its tile. If a player is ranked 1st, they get the neutral flowers (soul and energy). If the neutral color was ranked first, the player who completed the path gets the neutral flowers.
If the neutral soul tile would be claimed, then it is flipped over to the “x2” side for “sudden death.” Each path tile counts as 2 tiles during summonings, awarding more soul flowers. The neutral color no longer awards soul flowers when paths are completed, though the neutral energy flowers still go to the first-ranked player.
Why You Should Play Umbra Via
What initially intrigued me about Umbra Via was the mosaic artwork and the path tiles. I love tile-laying games and path-making games, and I was curious to see how this one played out. As it turns out, the game isn’t just tile-laying, but also mixes in the blind bidding and area control, and it makes for a really fascinating experience. The path-making isn’t what I expected: in fact, you’re breaking paths as often as building them.
Here are a few of the ways that Umbra Via differs from some of the other tile-laying games I’m familiar with. For one, you can’t rotate the tiles: however they appear on the board, that’s how you must place them. However, along with that comes the other unexpected rule: you don’t have to connect paths at all. You have to place tiles adjacent to others (if there are any), but you’re free to cut off roads, run a path into a wall, or whatever.
That’s because Umbra Via is really an area-control game: it’s all about getting the most flowers onto a closed path, so getting to choose when to extend a path or when to cut it off becomes crucial. Definitely the way to score the most points is with long paths, but every time you extend a path you give other players a chance to add more flowers to it. In some instances, it can be worth it just to score a 1-tile path so that you can score and not give anyone else any points.
The 2-stage bidding is tricky. It allows for a little bit of bluffing: maybe you don’t put any flowers on tile #2 in the first round of bidding, making people think you don’t want it, but then put all three of your flowers there in the second round. Another trick is that the tiles with the lowest number of flowers will be placed first—so sometimes you may throw some extra bids on a tile that you know you won’t win, simply so that a different tile will be placed before then. It can be hard to get your brain around this ordering: the most hotly contested tiles will go last, at which point they may no longer be as useful if they were placed first.
The soul flowers and energy flowers are also a good twist. You start with 6 soul flowers in your bag, so they won’t come up often until you start scoring some tiles. They’re worth double for bidding on a tile so they can help you win control of the placement, but then they vanish, so they don’t help you with the area control aspect. There were many instances when a player won the bid, but then had to place a tile which had none of their energy flowers on it at all. What do you do? If you extend a path where you have flowers, you’re simply giving more control to your opponents. But if you place it on a path where you’re not present, it makes it that much harder for you to get your foot in the door later.
When you score, you collect soul flowers and add them to your bag—they’ll help you win bids but not area control, so there’s a bit of a balance that happens. To win, you have to score at least 2 points at once and be first rank, so that gets trickier. Since the number of flowers on your soul tile is public knowledge, it’s easy to tell how close somebody is to winning, and that lets players form shifting alliances as the game progresses.
Most of my plays were 3-player games in Tabletop Simulator, and what we found was that at least in our games it was pretty frequent for there to be ties for ranking, where two players would score for first place. It often seemed better to make sure you got first place even if was shared, rather than trying to battle for exclusive control and potentially falling to second place. That dynamic may change with other player counts, but we usually had a lot of shorter paths with only an occasional longer path.
Umbra Via seems pretty simple on the surface. The three special tiles add some wacky effects, but this isn’t a game that has a whole lot of variable setups—it reminds me a little of Tsuro, another tile-laying and path-making game that also can be thought of as area control. The bidding and jockeying for position are the heart of the game, and the fact that it’s a small board, only 4 by 4, makes it a tight race.
Thematically, it’s kind of vague: there’s a paragraph in the rulebook about a “pathway into the unknown” and “the key to greater meaning,” but it’s not really clear what any of that means, soul flowers and energy flowers and Summoning. Ultimately, it’s not that important and I didn’t really care once I was playing the game; however, it’s always nice when you can see a little better how the story is tied to the gameplay. In this instance, it’s more of an abstract game with a lovely appearance.
If you like tile-laying and area control, Umbra Via is worth a try—it uses the bidding and path-making in some innovative ways, and even within its small boundaries it feels like there are a lot of strategies to explore. (At least, I haven’t figured out how to win consistently yet!)
For more information or to order a copy, visit the Pandasaurus website.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.