Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Utopia

Designers:  Ludovic Vialla & Arnaud Urbon
Publisher:  Matagot & Rio Grande Games
2 – 5 Players, 1 – 1 ¼ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Last year, the heretofore unknown company Editions due Matagot caused quite a stir at the Spiel in Essen with their release of Khronos, a big-box game that caught the attention of just about every gamer at the convention.  It was an impressive first release, and left gamers anxious to see what the company had in store next.

Now, Editions due Matagot and designers Ludovic Vialla and Arnaud Urbon have offered the gaming world Utopia.  No, I am not speaking of the perfect world, but rather a good, albeit not perfect game.  Fans of games with attractive 3-D components will likely consider the game’s pieces to be close to utopia, as the five different types of buildings and five wonders are quite an impressive sight.  Unfortunately, two of the buildings are very similar in design, as is the artwork of the leaders representing two of the five different cultures.  This is a source of confusion throughout the game, which unfortunately detracts from an otherwise clever design.

The theme seems original:  the king of Utopia invites princes from the greatest civilizations of antiquity to settle in his city and develop it with architectural wonders.  Players represent the king’s ministers, attempting to assist the princes in their development efforts, which will increase their prestige.

The board depicting Utopia is divided into four isles, each further divided into five-to-eight districts with values ranging from 1 – 4 points.    Isles are connected by various bridges and/or ports, and part of the challenge is to maneuver the princes into districts in order to construct buildings and wonders.

An assortment of “guest” tokens representing the five civilizations is mixed in an extremely small bag.  Each turn, a number of guests equal to three times the number of players are drawn randomly and the tokens are placed by the isle at which they will arrive.  Players then alternate taking guest tokens and placing one of their matching prince tokens into one of the districts on the isle where the prince arrived.  This process continues until all guest tokens are taken.

If a player manages to get one each of his five different princes onto one isle, they are removed and he immediately constructs a wonder on that isle, earning six points.  Alternatively, if a player assembles three of his prince tokens of the same civilization into one district, they are removed and a monument of that civilization is immediately erected.  This does not earn the player any immediate points, but it ultimately will generate points during the scoring phase of each turn.  Further, it does earn the owner of the wonder on that isle (if any) points equal to the value of the district where the monument is constructed.  Each district may only contain one monument, and each isle may only possess one wonder.

After all guests are removed and princes placed, each player receives five action cards.  Each action card depicts a prince from one of the five civilizations.  The player currently in first place must discard two of the cards received, while the player last on the prestige track may keep all five cards.  Every other player must discard one card.  This is a nice balancing feature, and does help keep the leaders close to the rest of the pack.  Players may keep five cards from turn-to-turn, which will assist in their selection of guests during the first phase of a turn.

In turn order, each player then performs as many actions as he desires, playing the proper cards to do so.  Each player possesses two privilege tokens that can be used to change the identity of any civilization card.  Once used, however, these tokens are discarded.

As in the first phase, players may immediately construct a wonder or monument if they assemble the correct number of princes in a district or on an isle.  The possible actions include:

a)      Move one or two princes.  Princes must begin in the same district and can be moved to an adjacent district.  If they are located in a district with a port, they may be moved to a port district on the same or an adjacent isle.  A player must play a card matching the type of prince(s) moved.

b)      Add a prince.  By expending a matching action card, the player may add a prince to any district that contains one of that civilization’s monuments.  The player owning the monument earns one point.  Alternatively, the player may play three matching action cards to place the corresponding prince in any district.

c)      Remove a prince.  By playing a matching card, a player may remove a prince from a district that contains a monument of that civilization.  The player immediately earns two points.  This move becomes increasingly valuable as the game approaches its end.

d)      Influence the King.  A prestige scale tracks the value of each civilization, ranging from 1 – 5.  Initially, this is determined randomly, but players may use an action card to increase the value of the matching civilization by one space.  Alternatively, two matching cards may be spent to move the corresponding civilization to the bottom of the track.  Of course, the object here is to increase the value of the civilization in which you have more monuments, while reducing the value of civilizations in which your opponents are heavily invested.

A turn ends once every player has played all of the action cards they desire.  Each player receives points based on the value of their monuments.  If any player has reached or exceeded fifty points on the prestige scale, the game ends with the player having the most points emerging victorious.  Otherwise, a new round is held in an identical fashion.

There is much to like here.  Players must carefully manage their cards in an attempt to gather their princes in order to construct monuments and wonders.  Monuments tend to earn considerably more points as the game progresses, but wonders can earn substantial amounts of points if constructed early.  I really enjoy the challenge of optimally using the cards to perform the actions necessary to achieve these goals.

In spite of its name, however, this is not exactly gaming utopia.  There is a significant degree of luck due to the card draw, and the player going last on the final turn can substantially alter the final scores by manipulating the value of the civilizations on the prestige scale.  Further, as mentioned above, the similarity of some of the artwork and two of the buildings is a constant source of confusion, and has soured some on the game.

In spite of these drawbacks, however, I still enjoy the game.  I find the design clever, and the challenges it presents intriguing.  I can live with the luck of the card draw, as a major part of the challenge is deciding how best to use the cards you have been dealt.   While some may consider this frustrating and blame the cards for their lack of success, I feel that all but the worst luck can be overcome.  While it may not live up to the heights suggested by its name, Utopia is still a fine game, even if it does fall short of gaming nirvana.

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Responses

  1. The production design of Utopia is so darn confusing that it effectively ruins the game. If I played it a few more times, I’d end up airbrushing the pieces. But that would only solve one of the design issues. The game itself is so light that I’m not compelled. It’s a lot of effort for what you get. (5/10)

  2. Beautiful bits. You may laugh but it reminds me of Elfenland. You spend the first part of each round placing your pieces on the board. Next you play as many cards as you want to arrange your pieces to your benefit. The difference is that you place your pieces before you draw more cards. Sometimes the cards don’t fit with the pieces you choose to play. You do get 2 change card tokens. They are a big help. 8/10


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