Saturday, May 21, 2016

Boardgame review — Giants

One Giant Step

(Originally published on March 19, 2009)

Designer: Fabrice Besson
Player count: 3 to 5
Publisher: Asmodée

There’s no place like home. Especially if home is Easter Island.

In Giants, each player controls a tribe that strives to sculpt, transport and then erect Moais—those gigantic, distinctive stone statues—all around Easter Island. In every one of the tribes, the chief, sorcerer and workers labor together to achieve this goal. Whoever does it best will score the most prestige points and win the game.

The game is played on a lovely board that offers a bird’s eye view of  Easter Island. The island itself is divided into connected hexagons, some of them plain spaces, others special spots where the sorcerer can work his magic. There is one quarry at each end of the island: one where the Moais start out, and the other where the headdresses (a.k.a. stone hats) come from. And on the perimeter of the island lay the Ahus, stone platforms where the Moais (and possibly their hats!) will get erected.

As the game begins, each tribe is composed of a sorcerer, a chief, a worker and two tribe markers safely hidden behind their player screen. Each turn, dice are rolled to determine the quantity and the sizes of the Moais that will be available (between one and five Moais in three different sizes).
Then players blind bid—at once—tribe markers for the order in which they’ll pick Moais, and tribesmen for the size of the Moai(s) they’ll be able to “sculpt.” So the more markers they bid, the earlier they’ll choose a Moai from those available, and the more tribesmen they bid, the bigger that Moai will be. But all those markers and tribesmen will not be available for the rest of the turn, which presents its own set of problems.

Then comes the placement phase, during which players take turns putting their remaining tribesmen on the board in an attempt to build chains that will allow for transportation of Moais and headdresses, from their respective quarries to the intended stone platforms all around the island.
A lowly worker has a “transport capacity” of 1, while a chief sports a capacity of 3. So if two workers end up in the same hexagon, for instance, a size-2 Moai will be allowed to go through that space, because the two workers together can muster enough strength. Now they don’t need to belong to the same tribe: rival tribesmen can work together (i.e. coexist in hexagons) without any problem.
It is also during this phase that the sorcerer can be placed on a special space to generate a variety of resources: logs (that increase transport capacity), a stone headdress, or an additional worker or tribe marker.

When all players are satisfied with the placement of their tribesmen, actual transport commences. In turn order, each player moves one of his Moais or headdresses, from their respective quarries through to… well, as far as they can take them. Many tribesmen chains won’t extend all the way to a stone platform. A size-3 Moai requires a transport capacity of 3 to be present in all the hexagons it will go through: a dubious proposition at best. So what to do if a Moai or headdress doesn’t reach its target? The player can use one of his tribe markers (if any are left!) to mark the Moai or headdress and save it for the following turn.
When the Moai or headdress <i>does</i> reach a platform, points are scored. The farther away from the Moai or headdress quarry the platform stands, the more points are earned when the piece is finally erected there. If a player required the help of an opponent’s tribesmen to cross certain hexagons, compensation—in prestige points—must be paid. In this way, players who spend a turn without a new Moai or headdress of their own can still earn points by using their tribesmen to set up a transport path that will prove tempting to their rivals.

At the end of the turn during which a player has erected his quota of Moais (which varies depending on the number of players), the game ends. Whoever has the most prestige points wins.

PRODUCTION

Everything looks great. From the game board to the tribesmen figures to the Moais themselves, every single element makes for a stunning display and helps anchor the gameplay deep into the theme.

Which is not to say that there are no—minor—production problems. The most nagging is the fact that tribe markers won’t “clip” on top of most Moais. This can become a problem when you’ve got several Moais left on the board between turns, and the markers—that identify which tribe controls what Moais—keep falling off. (I’ve heard of some people having similar problems with the headdresses, but this didn’t turn out to be a problem at all with my copy of the game).
Also, while the little logs are extremely cute to look at, they prove difficult to use because of their diminutive size.
Finally, the “pass” marker players are supposed to attach to their screen to indicate that they’re done for the turn is impossible to use as intended without damaging the screen or the marker (or both). We ended up simply placing them in front of our screens.
Problem solved.

RULES

Giants is not a complicated game, but a few of the novel mechanics do create something of a learning curve. The double-bidding at the beginning of every turn, as well as the creation of mixed transport chains, are unusual ideas that may stump some players at first. But once those concepts are integrated, the game flows naturally and without a hitch.

The rulebook is not as user-friendly as it could be, though. In addition to leaving a few stones unturned (about which the designer released a FAQ you can access here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/file/download/44oghrz0zo/giants_faq.pdf), it’s way too busy, leaving next to no breathing room for the readers’ eyes on every single page.
To its credit, the booklet is crammed with examples and clarifying notes; it even features a complete turn example and a short history of Easter Island.
I just wish they’d let the text overflow on one or two additional pages instead of keeping it locked up within eight pages.

One giant plus (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that it comes with rules in three languages: English, German and French.

FUN FACTOR

The game may look rather dry from a straight reading of the rules, but Giants turns out to be very fun. There’s great pleasure to be found in expanding your tribe, sculpting Moais and then transporting them to their platforms, and finally capping them—if you can!—with stone headdresses.

Learning to work with your rivals (and not always against them) is also great fun and takes a couple of games getting into. You try to spread the wealth instead of patronizing a single player… but sometimes that lone player is offering you a quick path to a bunch of points that’s hard to resist.

And while the initial game takes a while to get going—essentially because of the original game mechanics that take some getting used to—it soon reaches a comfortable cruising speed that brings everyone to a satisfying conclusion in about 90 minutes (despite the box announcing a 60-minute running time).



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