Great games create moments, stories that we repeat to ourselves as we remember moments together. This is what draws me to narrative in games.
Broadly speaking, narrative has to do with the story a game tells, and some games do this intentionally and overtly. I’m naturally drawn to those board games, and Almanac: The Crystal Peaks by Scott Almes invited me along to play from the start. The box looks like a large book from the side, and this playful (described as whimsical by the publisher) attitude fills the game at almost every step.
Two to four players embark on a journey in the fantasy land of Baeloria which was established in Almanac: The Dragon Road. Playing the first game isn’t a prerequisite. The games can be played together via some cards, but I only reviewed this second installment. In any case, for those who enjoyed the first game, they may find even more enjoyment in this version. We played the game enough to explore all 19 different scenarios in the book.
Each game is played over six rounds. Each round, players will use meeple pieces, which represent their caravan workers, to visit a spot on the current location and get tokens or trade them in for more gold. There are also spaces where you can get additional contracts for your caravan, increase your caravan via cards, or you can increase the strength of your caravan. Usually, there are different setup and placement rules for each scenario. These scenarios will have different tokens and placement spots available.
Over the course of the game, players will have a choice as to which location in the scenario book to visit next. This is why there are 19 different scenarios. Although there is a common starting space, and some similar ending spaces, the way you get there will change based on the choices made by guides throughout the game.
This leads to one of the more unique aspects of a game already made up of mini games. At the end of each scenario, players bid to become the next guide. Each player secretly hides an amount of gold in their hand for their bid, then simultaneously reveals their bid. So far, so normal. However, the winning bidder pays the amount the lowest bidder placed in their hand. After paying this cost, the winner becomes the new guide and chooses which of two locations to travel to next in the book. Each location shows the relative availability and sell cost of the resources. You are, without a doubt, telling an economic story.
This bidding mechanic is interesting for two reasons. Most of our plays of the game took about an hour or a little more. Breaking up the traveling section into bidding and encounter cards (more on those in a second) allowed us to experience more of the over the table experience most worker placement games are missing. It also provided a way for players to feel as if they were affecting the leading player even if not all placement opportunities on individual scenarios felt evenly balanced.
Every game should have highs and lows. Too much flat gameplay makes a game feel solid yet uninteresting. This game allows players to experience highs, lows, and look forward with expectation to the next reveal of an encounter or scenario. The bidding process only serves this process more by breaking up the potential monotony of a what could be a fairly basic worker placement game. Except, it’s not so basic due to the different tokens and even silly opportunities which may crop up, depending on which path you take.
On that note- this isn’t a balanced game. It’s a fun game. If you are looking for an always perfect information, open economic game of little to no chance and all strategem, you should probably look elsewhere. If you like to compete, laugh, and get somewhere in a game, then you will probably like this experience.
Back to encounter cards- there are 20 different encounter cards. You will use one, A through E, randomly selected for each game. This adds to the traveling caravan experience. My only gripe these is that you may have to look up how someone else understood the card to make it clearer. This problem detracts because so many other elements of the game are immersive. Whenever you have to stop, look up a rule or search a forum for clarity, it takes from an otherwise engaging and charming experience.
That’s about my only negative experience with the game, some minor annoyances that felt a little unpolished to an otherwise delightful game. There are odd grammar and punctuation mistakes throughout the game which made a few things harder to read, as well as a few rules that probably could have been written more clearly. Don’t get me wrong, this game felt like play, and the only reason I bring up these issues is that they pulled us away from what was an otherwise charming game. They caused the table to disengage from play to do what felt like work. The publisher did mention that there was some change in the development team for the game, and considering this fact, the final product does a lot better at engaging players than many other games.
The artwork is bright and the iconography is clear. We were always able to follow setup rules and find different tokens when needed. Some of our favorite pieces were the ones we discovered as we played the game. I won’t spoil any of that for you, but it seemed like the designer and artists had fun themselves making the story.
The story told here isn’t deep or complex, or maybe even compelling. You are playing as caravan traders moving goods from here to there, and gold is part of your end game score of fame. However, there are opportunities for light role-playing and personal tales of competition.
For a game of games, this is a delightful approach to the world of worker placement games. Worker placement can feel very dry or overly take that, maybe going to a sub-optimum position to stop someone else from gaining something. Although there are a few take-that opportunities, players will constantly have chances to do something interesting. This isn’t a dry game either. You can’t just rip off the theme and apply some other theme. The game is the theme in Crystal Peaks. The narrative may be thin, like a Saturday morning cartoon, but it’s exactly what I want, sometimes. A little bit sugary, a little bit too sweet, but life-affirming at the right time. This is a feel good game I would feel good recommending to others.
Thanks to Kolossal Games for my review copy!
Time 60-90 Minutes
Mechanics: Worker Placement, Economic, Narrative, Strategy