When I see a game with polyominoes, I am at least curious about the gameplay. This was definitely the case with Silicon Valley by Scott Almes.
The front artwork by Kerri Aitken didn't hurt either, and when I was given the chance to take a prototype version of the game home after GenCon, I decided it would be worth it because I knew I would at least try the game a couple of times since it had a solo mode.
Silicon Valley isn't quite one of those games where you are out of luck the entire game if you take a bad first turn. In fact, the action choices are intuitive enough that even if you do something that aren't immediately optimal, each player should still be able to do something better the next round and build on it. There are built in ways to catch the leader in the game- more on that in a minute. Overall, the game feels like a nicely put together puzzle game that should take experienced players about an hour to an hour and a half. It's definitely not a family weight game though.
The game is played over a series of rounds where players may choose three different or three of the same action. The actions consist of: 1. hiring or poaching an employee 2. expanding personal headquarters 3. acquiring venture capital (VC) funding 4. outsourcing tech 5. launching a product 5. sunsetting a product 6. performing layoffs. Each of these actions comes with a benefit and usually some sort of a trade-off. For example, your initial headquarters
only has room for three employees. When you hire an employee it will cost you some amount of money, plus you now have less room for employees, and finally you will have to pay that employee during the operations phase of each round. Every action carries a weight to it like this; essentially, you are balancing time of the growth of your company against that of your competitors and it is one of the most thematic elements of the game. The gameplay forces the risk and race of being a tech company trying to balance its internal values with being in a competitive market.
The products in the game place themselves necessarily at the center of gameplay. At first, players will take their time to build these products with code, but eventually savvy players will realize that the net gain on quick succession of innovations and new product launchings by poaching their neighbors can gain them the victory.
Each product has an Innovator tile which allows a first mover to create the product and enjoy both immediate (shown with an exclamation mark) and ongoing (shown with an infinity symbol) benefits. However, after the first round this product is out, a second mover may also make the product by copying the initial code. This forces the innovator to flip the Innovator tile to its B side. In effect, the 2nd move gets to gain most of the benefits of the person who took the time to carefully plan out their moves to get the Innovator tile.
There are also ways to grow a HQ, get different venture capital cards, and gain new employees. All of these work out to ways to make new products faster and more efficiently while you don't accidentally lose valuation in your company. Why do I say accidentally? Intended obsolescence is built into your employees and products. Your headquarters will always keep chugging along, even if you lack money to run it. This is pointed out in the rules as if an angel investor came along to save you. And by you, I mean the soulless company that you happen to inhabit through your gleaming neo-modern halls of tech brilliance.
I'm not going to go over all the gameplay here, but suffice it to say you are incentivized to layoff employees in this game. You gain everything you can from them, and then you want to lose them if they get in your way. If you don't- and this is where we return to accidental and intentional devaluation- you will lose twice the valuation you would if you intentionally laid them off or intentionally sunsetting that product that brought your company to prominence. It's not the products and it's definitely not the people you need to succeed in this game. Your headquarters is what gives you bonuses and keeps you chugging along. You are the corporation and no nostalgia is going to stand in your way.
The solo mode is both terrifying and a lot of fun. The AI has no care for you whatsoever and it will brutalize you at times, but quite randomly and there is no good way to prepare for it. I both like it and hate it for its difficulty.
I look forward to hearing what other people say about Silicon Valley after it appears in retail. I've had lots of questions about the game when I bring it out. If you are curious about more gameplay or want to see it in action you can see that here for my video review or here for a solo play.
I recommend Silicon Valley for groups that like a good puzzle game with some light interaction. If you are familiar with the television show of the same name, it will bring you through some of the same ups and downs as you play it. Just don't get too attache to anyone you employee- flip the script, eat the employees for an odd bit of social commentary and the way we currently innovate.
Silicon Valley by Scott Almes, Art by Kerri Aitken, published by Grail Games
Time 60-90 Minutes/ 90-120 first time
Mechanics: Solo, Catch the Leader, Spatial Orientation, Engine Building