Apr 1, 2015

[Games] The Builders: Middle Ages

The Builders: Middle Ages was quite the surprising little game that provides fairly complex gameplay in a very small package. We saw it while browsing around Paradigm Infinitum during one of our trips to Singapore last year. We weren't quite sure what to expect since typically tins this small only really support games like Timelines or something and nothing too complex.

But the tin clearly indicated on the back at this is pretty much a worker placement game, which has become one of the more compelling game systems that we've been enjoying as of late. And we're talking about big hit games like Lords of Waterdeep or even Prêt-à-Porter, both being big box games with some amazing play.

This game still manages to touch on that now-classic game mechanic and yet remaining small enough to still be brought around easily.

Synopsis: The Builders: Middle Ages is a city-building game created by Frédéric Henry. It supports 2-4 players and the English version has been released by Asmodee.

The goal in the game is to be the first to get 17 victory points, which you can earn by building various structures. Each player has 3 actions to "spend" per turn, which consist of a key list of options. A player can either Open a Site, Recruit a Worker, Assign a Worker to a Building or Get Money. Open a Site and Recruit a Worker as pretty simple - you take one of the five face-up site cards or worker cards from the table and place them in front of you. These are now yours and no one else can build these sites or take these works. No money is needed yet since payment only really comes into play when you actually start building.

When you Assign a Worker to a site, you then have to pay the cost of the worker in order to employ him. There are four classes of works ranging from Apprentice to Master, with varying levels of skill but also increasing hiring costs. A work can have skill bars in one or more of 4 building characteristics, which include carpentry, masonry, architecture, and tilery. Thus you need to match the workers to the building requirements in order to complete it. But every additional worker you assign to a site involves more actions as well. The first worker assigned only costs one action while the second will cost two actions and so forth. Thus you want to complete each site with as few workers as possible in order to minimize costs and maximize earnings.

Get Money works with a similar system where the number of actions you spend on this action increases how much you get. One action gives you 1 coin while two actions gives you 3 coins.

In the surface, the game seems to incorporate aspects of games like Lords of Waterdeep but also has that engine building feeling like Splendor. Option paralysis is probably one of the biggest risks here since it's pretty much "free" to get more Building/Site cards and Workers turn after turn. Then you realize you haven't been building stuff and thus not earning victory points.

The random element to the cards is pretty significant and there's no real way to plan for what buildings might come up or what workers may become available. Thus you typically focus on getting works whose skill slots complement one another so you can quickly mix and match workers to address most buildings. The limitation on placing multiple workers on a single building combined with their hiring costs really helps keeps the game strategy tight and requires a fair amount of focus. Spending a whole turn to get money feels like a waste of time given all other players are working on their projects.

The game plays out in a largely solitaire-like fashion similar to Splendor given there's no way to directly affect the actions of other players apart from denying them building sites or workers. Thus you really end up focusing on your own strategy and hoping to get the points you need well before everyone else. Some feel this is a weakness to the game since they want more aggressive competitive play but I think it's just okay.

Game material quality is pretty good given the feel of the cards and the quality of the plastic coins included in the set. I just wish they put more effort into how the workers were drawn since all worker cards have the same image on both sides. At the very least they could have either shown a worker At Rest versus Working or they could have gone for a gender switch option.

The Builders: Middle Ages is a surprising little game that offers fun play in a small package. It's far from a perfect game but it makes the most of what limited space it gave itself to operate in and is still worth some game time during your meet-ups with friends. So the game gets a good 3 generic-looking workers out of a possible 5.

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