Glen Drover’s Empires: The Age of Discovery is a tense game of high strategy and rich thoughtful decisions. Let’s get right to the point and start off with the principal indicator of the game’s greatness: It doesn’t even need to have the correct name of the game on the box or board. It’s called Glen Drover’s Empires: The Age of Discovery. But, they knew the game was so awesome that they didn’t care the box and the board has the wrong name on it:
Internet sarcasm disclaimer: I am in fact aware that it is not a typo.
Each player is issued a set of 5 colonists each turn. Players take turns deploying one colonist at a time. The colonists go in one of the various action boxes. Once all of the colonists are placed, then all of the action boxes are going to be resolved in sequence.
Each of the action boxes does something different. It’s not a pedestrian matter such as going here gets you money, putting there gains you flattery tokens, and placing yonder earns you bratwurst cubes. Each action box has its own way of incrementally layering tension to the game. When the sum of the tense parts is added together, it makes for a decidedly gripping whole.
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1. The first action box determines turn order for the next round. There’s a race to get here first. Sometimes. The other thing going on in this box is that you get money equal to the turn position you’ve acquired. So that means even after first and second place is taken, it still may be worth it to go for third just to get the 3 dollars. So the tension, depending on your priorities, is to come here early, or to come here late. So if you care about the money and not the turn order, it’s like a little staring contest to try to be last. And if you do come to this box early, you have to consider that you’re giving every other player the chance to get a little bit more money. While the money here isn’t lucrative, it’s one of the few things you can do to get money immediately, before important purchases are made.
2. The second box is the colonist dock. This is where workers line up to be shipped off to the new world. The colonist dock lets you play an area control game within this worker placement game. The new world is a map divided into territories. If you have the most folks in a territory, you can get a lot of points.
The tension here is to get as many dudes on the dock as you can. The dilemma is that it is more advantageous to get shipped to the new world last. If you go last, then you’re able to see where everyone else went. It’s simple then to put your guys where they’ll do the most good. Players that have guys early in line will sometimes have to hedge their bets because of the uncertainty of where their opponents place. The dock has only a finite amount of available room. This creates a tension that if you try to wait for later colonist spots, the dock will fill up too quick and you won’t get as many guys packed onto the ship for the new world.
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3. And then there’s the spot where you can grab some trade goods. Trade goods are the foundation of your economy, which gives you money during the game and points at the end of the game. Generally, the tension in this box is to get here first. So that’s three boxes in a row so far where there’s at least some motivation to get there first. The strain mounts, because there are lots of places you want to get to early.
4. Next we have a merchant ship up for grabs. The merchant ship is one of the best ways to improve your economy. This box is a little different, because it doesn’t matter who placed here first or last, and there’s no limit to the guys that can be in this box. This box goes to whichever player committed the most colonists here. This puts players into games of brinksmanship. One player will have spent a lot of guys, and will snatch the merchant ship. Other players may have spent slightly fewer guys, but have gotten nothing for their efforts. The challenge is determining just how many of your workers are worth committing to get a merchant ship. Sometimes it’s worth putting a guy here just to force someone else to have to put even more effort into getting the ship.
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5. The next box to resolve is the buildings. This one is straight up first come, first serve, and you always want to be served first. Buildings are the number one thing you spend money on. They’re tremendously important. The buildings give a variety of different powers and abilities. A single building choice can swing the outcome of an entire game. Similar to the big buildings in Puerto Rico, an end game building can take a game-long focus and augment it into a winning strategy. Buildings get increasingly expensive. This pressures you to develop your economy sufficiently to purchase the buildings you want.
One of the things that make this game interesting is the different combinations of buildings you will collect each game. Each session you’ll find yourself with a different set of powers because of your different buildings. Not every building is guaranteed to see the light of day, so you can’t count on following a given strategy every time. There’s also always conflict between choosing the building that’s best for you versus buying the one that’s way too powerful in someone else’s clutches.
6. After buying buildings, you then have to deal with raising expedition forces to discover new worlds and new civilizations. And once you find those civilizations, it is fitting to slay their warriors and plunder their wealth. This box is the park bench of the game. There’s no tension regarding racing here first or being there the most, or getting there last. Guys in here carry over from turn to turn, and you can never get blocked out. The tension in this box is risk management. If you want to play it safe, you wait until you accumulated 5 guys to send over to the new world. But that’s an entire round’s worth of guys. Going over safely to conquer the new world may not be worth an entire turn. So you have to manage at what point you will risk sending an expedition to encounter the indigenous population.
7. The next box is where you can get specialists. This is the place where you can invest your standard dudes this turn so next turn you get colonists with some special privileges next turn. One of the things that stands out in this game is not only are there workers, but there special types of workers that have advantages in specific boxes. Each specialist has one or two action spots where that specialist has a perk that a regular colonists doesn’t have. For example, the merchant earns you 5 dollars immediately when he goes to the new world, and he’s worth having 2 colonists when trying to obtaining the merchant ship. These specialists go quickly, so this once again is a chase to get here first. This decision calls for long term planning, since you won’t get the specialist until next turn, and the specialist will only be particularly useful if you’re going in specific places.
8. And finally there’s the war box. You put a guy here to trigger battle in one of the territories over in the new world. If you’ve recruited some soldier specialists, and then sent them over to the new world, you can place another worker in the battle box to get them to shoot other people. The tension in this box increases over the course of the game. Using this box is the culmination of several other choices and conditions. You have to have gotten a soldier, probably through putting a worker in the specialist box. Then you have to choose to send the soldier to the new world. And the soldier has to be in a spot where control of a territory is contested. And then yet another worker has to be put in the battle box. The first few turns may see no use of this box, but by the end of the game it can be hotly contested since it could decide the control of several new world territories.
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There’s a variety of destinations that can get you to victory, and many paths to reach those destinations. With so many competing priorities, you’ll never be able to get to do all that you’ve planned, so it’s a tough choice to figure out which things to prioritize and which things you can do without. It’s the first worker placement game I was introduced to and remains my favorite. Each of the different ways the boxes create tension compounds into a game where you become emotionally invested in the outcome.
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