SNOWDONIA (Surprised Stare Games/Lookout Games, 1-5 players, ages 10 and up, 60-90 minutes; $49.99)
Snowdonia, designed by Tony Boydell, is a game that flew under my radar entering Essen 2012. However, several good reviews and ratings by attendees caught my attention in the days following.
In Snowdonia, players are building a railroad track from Llanberis, Wales to the top of Mount Snowdon (Wyddfa), the highest mountain in Wales. The year is 1894 and the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company Limited has been formed to build a branch line from Llanberis to the summit. Each player represents a company providing labor to construct the railway. But, unlike other train games, players all work on the same train route, excavating and clearing rubble before laying track and constructing stations as they proceed up the mountain. They will also have to contend with the changing weather and obtain resources necessary to lay track (iron ore and rails), to build stations (stone), and to hire additional workers (coal). During the game, various events will occur which also interfere with plans and drive the game to its end.
Basically, Snowdonia is a worker placement game. Players will allocate all of their workers to various "action" boxes. Then they will resolve the actions in "action order". Finally, they will prepare the board for the next turn. Sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it? Yet, it is how this happens that makes this game unique. (More on that later.)
By laying track, building train stations, fulfilling contract cards, and advancing your "surveyor" along the train route, players score Victory Points. The game ends when the last piece of track has been laid to Yr Wyddfa. At that point, the player with the most VPs wins.
First, players must lay out the railway route and station cards around the outside of the game board. (Interestingly, the "train route" is not printed on the game board but consists of cards laid in a certain order around and off the outer edges of the board.) Seven train station cards are placed around the game board. A varying number of "track cards" sandwiched between each of the station cards. After the track and station cards are taken care of, rubble must be put on the track and station cards. Each track and station card has a number imprinted from 2-5 indicating the number of rubble cubes it will hold. Other cards (Contract, Action, Train) are then sorted and put in their holding areas as well. Weather is checked (determined by those Contract cards) and markers used to indicate the weather for the first three turns.
Each player takes a set of player cubes and pawns of their color choice (black, purple, pink, green, blue). One pawn begins in the Llanberis train station printed on the board. Another pawn is situated in the “Pub”. The players keep the other two pawns in front of them. These pawns will be their "workers" to be assigned during the Worker Placement phase of the game. Finally, a number of resource cubes (representing iron ore, stone, coal, and events) are tossed into a bag and a set number of these cubes are then allocated to the “Stockyard” printed on the game board. These are the resources available to the players to build track, stations, and purchase trains during the game. Thus, set-up can take a bit of time and is one of the few "nits" I found with the game. So how does the game play?
Worker Allocation - Each turn a player will place their two workers (and if they pay a bag of coal they can hire a third "temporary" worker from the Pub), one worker at a time, on an Action Track. This continues until all players have placed all of their workers (either two or three). The Action Track provides seven boxes (printed squares representing seven different actions) in which workers may be placed:
1. Stockyard (obtain resources from the stockyard)
2. Excavation (clear rubble)
3. Works (convert rubble to stone and/or iron ore to steel rails)
4. Lay Track (in areas with no rubble)
5. Build (either purchase a train OR build part of a train station)
6. Site Office (obtain a Contract Card)
7. Surveyor (move their Surveyor to the next station up the mountain)
Each Action box holds a limited and varying numbers of workers depending on the number of players. For example, the “Surveyor” box will hold an unlimited number while other Action boxes will accommodate from 2 to 4 workers. Once all workers are placed, the Action Resolution begins.
Action Resolution - Each Action Box is resolved in the order listed above (Stockyard first, Surveyor last). Within each Action Box, workers are activated in the order in which they are placed as follows:
Stockyard - Each worker in the stockyard allows a player to take up to three resources (iron ore, stone, coal) from the stockyard. These are taken in any combination desired except that only one coal resource may ever be taken. Resources may run out before a worker’s turn in which case he gains no resources.
Excavation - Players may remove a number of rubble cubes from the route cards, beginning with the card closest to the Llanberis station. The amount of rubble removed is governed by the weather and may be modified by an owned train and/or a contract card a player owns. Removed rubble is placed in front of the player who excavated it.
Works - Players may exchange three iron ore cubes for one steel track and/or two rubble for a stone cube. This action may be taken up to three times by the player for each worker pawn placed here (provided he has the resources available to do so).
Lay Track - Players may return one steel track bar to stock and construct a track on a cleared route space (all rubble has been removed from the route card). They do so by flipping the card over to its "track" side and placing a cube of their color on the track card. This will provide a number of victory points at the end of the game equal to the number printed on the card. The number of tracks a player may lay on a given turn is limited to the number of workers he placed in the box, the number of steel track bars he owns and the type of weather for that turn.
Build - The build action allows players to either purchase a train (at a cost of one or two steel bars) or to build a section of a train station. Each player may own only one train at a time and, if wanting another train, must turn in the train they own before paying for the new one. Different trains offer varying abilities and advantages to the owning player. Train station cards contain areas that may be built by turning in stone or steel track bars. When a portion of a station is ‘built’, a player places one of his playing cubes on that section to indicate he built it. Each area built will provide a varying number of victory points at game's end.
Site Office - Workers placed here allow the player to take a contract card from those lying face up in the Site Office. Contract cards provide both a game-end bonus for completing certain requirements (amount of track laid, stations built, etc.) and a one-time-per-game action that may be taken by the player during the action resolution phase.
Surveyor - All players placing workers here may move their Surveyor along the Station Route. For each worker a player placed, he may move his Surveyor to the next Station up the mountain from Llanberis. The higher the Surveyor goes on the mountain, the more victory points he will score at the end of the game.
After all actions have been resolved, players prepare for the next game turn. New contract cards are revealed, upcoming weather is determined and new resources are drawn from the bag and placed in the stockyard. There are two other elements in the game that have a great impact on how each game is played: Events and Weather.
An Event is triggered during the clean-up phase when new resources are drawn from the bag to go in the stockyard. Each white cube drawn (of five possible) goes on the event track and the event it covers will occur. Events may remove rubble from the route cards, may lay track even on an uncleared route, may stop construction on a particular train station and may require maintenance of players' trains. Each of these events impact upon what players will be able to do.
Weather, determined by the Contract cards drawn during the "clean up" phase, affects how much rubble may be removed on a turn and how much track may be laid. On a given turn, a player will be able to see the weather for the current and two following days thus allowing for some future planning. Sunny weather increases the amount of track that can be laid and rubble that may be removed by a worker. Rain decreases those amounts. Fog completely halts all excavating and track laying for that turn.
The game ends when the last track has been laid (whether laid by the drawing of an Event cube or by a player action). Victory points are then tallied. Most victory points wins.
I found the components to Snowdonia to be excellent, with a sturdy game board, lots of wooden cubes, pawns, train "bars", weather and game markers, and nice, coated game cards. Overall the game leaves the impression of quality and careful design. Several elements of the game itself also caught my attention.
First, it accommodates 1-5 players. The solitaire opportunity is a positive and I prefer games that accommodate at least five players (and this game scales well). Second, it is a "train game" and I have enjoyed most train games I’ve played. Third, it is set in Wales, a rather exotic setting to me as I know of few games with a Welsh setting. Fourth, who can resist a train game that begins in Llanberis and ends in Yr Wyddfa?! (I had never heard of the mountain or the railroad before seeing this game.) Fifth, the game is semi-cooperative in the sense that everyone works on the same railroad, clearing rubble, laying track and building pars of the stations. Sixth, the game itself works against the players by sporadic events that lay track, clear rubble and stop construction of train stations thus robbing the players of precious victory point opportunities. Seventh, weather (rain, fog, and sun) plays a significant role in the progress of the game. These elements set Snowdonia apart from other worker placement games I have played.
Snowdonia is a game of forecasting and preparation. You must get in rhythm with the game and be prepared for what is coming! The challenge is to anticipate which events are imminent (they come in a prescribed order but not at a prescribed time), what other players will do and the approaching weather. Being prepared for each of these eventualities is the key to success. I am terrible at each of these and find myself nearly always a day late and a dollar short! But for me, after five games of Snowdonia, that’s both its challenge and allure! - - - - - Frank Hamrick
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