Posted by: gschloesser | July 1, 2014

VÖLUSPA

Design by Scott Caputo
Published by White Goblin Games
2 – 5 Players, 45 minutes – 1 hour
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Voluspa

A friend of mine describes Völupsá as “Qwirkle with special powers”, which is a fair description.  Set in the realm of Norse mythology, players lay tiles into rows and columns, hoping to utilize the powers of the gods depicted to outscore their opponents and become the most dominant force.  It is a quick, tactical, tile-laying game that plays to completion in an hour or less.  Völuspá, by the way, is the name of a Norse poem.

The main feature of the game is the sturdy, nicely illustrated tiles depicting gods and characters from Norse mythology.  If you are like me, most of the little I know about Norse mythology was derived from reading Thor comic books many years ago and watching the recent movies.  You can take comfort in knowing that Thor, Loki and Odin are included, but there are also unfamiliar characters such as Skadi, Fenrir, Hermod, Jotunn and more.  Fortunately, a one-sentence description is given for each character, helping those of us who are unfamiliar with the mythology to somewhat understand how these characters fit into that world.

Game play could be summarized with “Play a tile, use its special power, score points.”  There are a few rules to govern the tile placement and their effects, but this does effectively encapsulate the proceedings.


Voluspa2Each player begins with a hand of five tiles.  Tiles have a value ranging from 1 – 8, but these can be enhanced or diminished based on the powers of surrounding tiles.  On a turn, a player will play one into an evolving grid, enact the tile’s special power, record their points on the score track, and refill their hand to five tiles.  The rules governing placement are simple:  each tile played must touch at least one side of a previously placed tile, and each column and row cannot have more than seven tiles.  Pretty simple to understand.

If the played tile has the highest value of any tile in that row or column, the player scores the entire row and/or column into which the tile was placed.  The points scored are equal to the total number of tiles in that row and/or column.  Placing a tile so that it is in a row and column with multiple tiles will yield more points than just placing it into a single row or column, so this is desirable.  However, it is not always easy to accomplish.

The true heart of the game is the special powers of the tiles, which can have various effects.  Some are complimentary.  The Fenrir, for example, has a base value of 4, but increases by another 4 for each other Fenrir tile in the same row or column.  The dastardly Loki tile reduces the value of all adjacent tiles to zero, while the repulsive troll prohibits any tile being placed adjacent to it.  The dragon can be quite useful, as it can be placed over a previously placed tile, nullifying that tile’s power.  The shifty Skadi takes the place of a previously placed tile, which is retrieved by the player.  While this rarely results in a score when placed, it is a handy way to get a valuable tile into your hand.  Some tiles–such as Odin and Thor–carry high values, so they have no special powers, as they tend to score mightily when placed.

The game continues until all tiles are drawn and placed, which usually takes less than an hour with four players.  There is no final scoring, as all points are earned as the tiles are placed.  An included expansion adds four new types of tiles, which add more options and variability to the game.

Völupsá is a game of tactics.  With four or five players, it is nigh impossible to develop a long-term strategy, as the board changes soVoluspa3
quickly.  Similar to Qwirkle, one must spot the moves that will score the most points based on the tiles currently held.  It is a game of instantly taking advantages of opportunities, as those opportunities will likely not be present when your next turn arrives.

Some tiles do require some advance planning, especially the Valkyrie, which has a low value, but can score an entire row or column if there is a Valkyrie on each end.  This is more easily accomplished when playing with just two or three players.  With more than that number, it is difficult to advance plan for this, as an opponent almost always places the second Valkyrie before play returns to you.

The game can bog down a bit as certain tiles are played.  The troll can cause the playing area to restrict–often severely–as it prohibits other tiles from being placed next to it.  Loki also limits players’ options, as they tend to avoid placing tiles next to him as he reduces their value to 1.  Dragons, which can cover a previously placed tile, do provide a method of eliminating those pesky characters.

Another factor that can cause the game to stagnate is that the board must be examined by a player on each turn to determine the most optimal play.  With five tiles, the placement options can be numerous.  This can cause some down-time as players study the board and their multiple options.  So, while it does add more options than found in Qwirkle, this is at the expense of speedy play.

 

The game also shares a problem with many tile-laying games:  the “weak player” syndrome.  If the player to  your left plays poorly or carelessly, he can inadvertently set you up for high scoring plays.  Thus, one weak or novice player can truly award the game to the player to his right.  This is troublesome, particularly to the other players.

Völuspá is a pleasant little tile-laying game that oh-so-lightly injects a Norse theme.  The artwork is excellent, and the special powers interesting, especially when using the included expansion.  A further expansion (Order of the Gods) adds additional tiles and options, but I have not yet played it.  The game’s main drawback is the downtime that can result as players study their options, as well as the limited play area that can also result when certain tiles are played.  It is ironic that one is caused by too many options, while the other is caused by too few viable options.

What ultimately dooms the game for me personally is that it is simply an “OK” game.  In a world when we are inundated with hundreds of new games each year, mediocre and even good games tend to quickly be relegated to the back shelves or even the trade pile.  A game truly has to shine or offer something refreshingly unique in order to earn repeated table time.  Völuspá fails in these respects.  It is fine, but nothing special.

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