Designer Ted Alspach has a certain reputation when it comes to games about building things. In 2012, he released the city building game suburb, perhaps the best equivalent of board games with the iconic video game SimCity. Continuation of 2014 Castles from Mad King Ludwig applied a similar approach to castle building, and the two titles were praised by players and critics alike. Now Alspach has returned to similar thematic grounds with Colonya game set in the wake of a devastating nanotech apocalypse.
However, if you’re looking for mechanical similarities to Alspach’s previous tile-laying city builders, you won’t find them here. Colony is a card-and-dice game in collaboration with Japanese designers Toryo Hojo and Yoshihisa Nakatsu. Players control rival settlements trying to rise from the ashes of civilization, using cards as buildings and dice as the resources needed to build them.
The building process starts before you even start playing. The game comes with a collection of 34 different building types, of which you will only use 13 on any given playthrough. When you add them to your city, each building offers a different ability, such as letting you store extra resources or trade with your rivals; different card combinations can make for games that feel very different to play. You can customize your gaming experience, including favorite cards, omit others, or just use a random selection, and a simple smartphone app (iOS, Android) can generate card combinations if all of this seems like too much effort.
from the ground up
Once you’ve chosen the buildings, place them in the center of the table to form a marketplace open to all players. Each building has a prize in the form of resource dice with a certain set of numbers, and much of the game revolves around collecting the resources you need to buy the buildings that best suit your strategy.
On each turn, players roll three resource dice, keep one for themselves and pass the rest to the player to their left. That player then repeats the process, passing the last remaining die. Players therefore gradually build up a pool of dice and can use these resources during their turn to buy buildings. It’s a clever approach that encourages everyone to plan their own turn while their opponents are playing, and while it comes with a heavy element of randomness, it’s softened somewhat by the fact that you can trade two matching dice for one. with some of your choice.
It won’t be long before you can claim your first buildings, and each building offers a different advantage to your city. Production facilities stabilize your economy by allocating additional resource dice at the start of each turn, although you cannot store them as “unstable” resources for later use in the game. Prestige buildings are expensive to acquire, but offer new ways to gain victory points. Fallout shelters are tactically useless, but they give you more and more points the more you collect in your city.
Some cards introduce elements of player interaction. Attack cards allow you to grab resources from rivals. Defensive cards protect you from aggressive opponents. Exchanging buildings allows you to trade dice with other players and grant bonuses when you complete a deal. Together they borrow Colony an outspoken political element. Build a big head start and you’ll find yourself plagued by raiding parties and shunned by potential trading partners. Get aggressive in the early game and you can expect a backlash once your rivals have acquired their own offensive abilities. Make a clear game for a certain type of building and your opponents will do their best to make sure you don’t get the dice you need to acquire it.
This capacity for diplomacy and passive-aggressive (or sometimes just aggressive) meddling with adversaries distinguishes Colony from the dice-rolling city game machi Koro– a comparison made by some critics, but one that doesn’t hold up after you’ve played a few rounds. Another difference is the fact that once you build buildings, you can spend extra dice to upgrade them, earn extra victory points, and unlock more powerful versions of their abilities. Warehouses can increase their capacity. Barricades can repel attacks from multiple opponents. Shady pawnshops can become valuable sources of useful dice.
Your decisions about which buildings to upgrade are probably more important than the ones you actually build – a fact that highlights one of the points Colony‘s greatest flaws. The cards you buy in the early game are likely determined by the resources you have available rather than a strategic preference, and this can lead you to marry a certain set of tactics. You are not allowed want to be the aggro player or the trader or the clever manipulator of technologies, but there’s a chance the dice will force your hand in your first few turns.
You get more freedom of choice as the game progresses, meaning: Colony can be a game of delayed gratification. Wait a while and you may be able to perform a neat sequence of daring plays to steal the win. But again, maybe not, and delayed gratification really doesn’t work without the “satisfaction” part.
There’s also the fact that the game doesn’t do much to convey the post-apocalyptic theme. Pretty stark map art shows a world of brutalist concrete gray, but while this is in theory a game about synthetic protein labs, force fields and uranium mines, it could just as easily be about wheat fields, city walls and blacksmiths. Even a few columns of fictional world-building fluff would have helped set the stage.
Whether these shortcomings seriously detract from the game’s strengths probably depends on your taste. The game combines several interesting elements. Between drafting dice, building your resource economy, putting together an efficient engine, and upgrading your buildings over time, there’s a nice sense of progression here. Colony it doesn’t lack smart ideas, but getting them takes a bit of patience as you’ll be ravaged by the game’s initial burst of randomness. It’s not, as some reviewers have suggested, a game driven almost entirely by luck, but it does have a tendency to dictate your starting conditions and then force you to make the most of what you’ve got.
For me, that’s not a deal breaker, and the possibilities that different card setups offer are seriously intriguing. Despite the flaws, I look forward to spending more time in this hard, gray, ruined future.
List image by Owen Duffy