I had high hopes for Spyrium. It’s the latest game from designer William Attia, creator of Caylus, one of the all-time classics of designer board games. Like Caylus, Spyrium is a worker placement game, but there’s much more to it than that—there are some very clever tweaks to make things particularly interesting.
It’s a little hard to explain how clever this game is without sounding facetious. In most worker placement games, you put your token on a space to claim it. In Spyrium, you place your worker between spaces left between a three-by-three grid of random cards, and can claim it when you remove your worker. Genius! I mean it—let me tell you why.
During the first phase of a round, you can place your worker down between any two cards. There’s no limit to how many workers can be placed in any of the boundaries—your opponents can also stake a claim, and you can place even more of your figures. You’re not taking anything when you do it. You’re bidding.
At any point, a player can move on to the second phase, allowing them to remove a worker. When you take off a worker, you can activate a card on either side, but you need to pay an extra £2 for every other worker surrounding that card. The more people competing for a particular card, the more expensive it will be. It might sound like this could lead to a locked game, where no one has enough money to activate a card, and with more players, this is certainly possible—but, you have the option of removing a worker without activating a card, and instead gaining £2 for every worker surrounding a nearby card. It can be very lucrative to jump out of the competition.
It radically changes what a lot of people expect about this kind of game. You don’t just compete for spots, blocking each other from taking what they want. You can place your worker just to bleed some cash out of your opponents and make a profit along the way. Your opponents can do the same to you, and they don’t even need to go in the same place. You can activate a building or a technique, buying them and removing them from the board, limiting the options of other players or stranding their workers entirely. You can even bow out of the first phase early and start buying cards before the prices rise too high—but when you do, there’s no going back.
You can probably guess that the game plays very differently with different numbers of players. When more people have more workers competing with one another, prices can raise sky-high and removing a worker can be a massive boon. On the flip side, it’s a lackluster if you play with the minimum complement of two players. By the end of the round, you might find yourself unable to buy anything or gain any revenue. It’s not a problem unique to the two-player game, but it kicks in earlier than larger games.
It’s a shame, actually. The game would be so easy to scale by specifying different numbers and patterns of cards set out each round. It could make the two-player game tighter, and bigger games a little less claustrophobic (unless you like that sort of thing). It’s easy to fix with house rules, but it would be nice to have some options presented by the designer in the rulebook.
The downside to the gameplay is that, outside of deploying and removing workers, the game is a bit dry. You just try to earn money and spyrium to turn into points. You build a tableau of patented techniques and buildings, but it never really feels like they click together in a satisfying or clever way. The tension in the game comes from competition over cards, not trying to assemble an engine. This could be saved by a more elegant design, but instead, Spyrium falls somewhere in the middle.
The game could, potentially, make up for its dry elements with a colorful theme. I certainly enjoy steampunk, and some people are absolutely fanatical about it. For those of you who don’t know, steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, usually taking place in the age of steam with some kind of fantastical element thrown into the mix. Think Victorian England with steam-powered computers, or mad scientists in the Wild West. If that sounds exciting to you, then, Spyrium is… well, totally unappealing.
What makes the game steampunk is the eponymous Spyrium. In the game, it’s a resource you can turn into points, but when you dig into the manual to find out more, it turns out that it’s… a source of energy. It’s just coal, but… not, for some reason.
That leaves the Victorian aesthetic, which feels just as tacked-on. There’s absolutely no story to the game—the front page of the manual says you’re playing English business owners, and off you go. Then you spend the rest of the game looking at cards with sad-looking buildings and people wearing stiff clothing.
The only thing that makes Spyrium science fiction is that the coal is green, and the only thing that makes it Victorian is that nearly everything is brown. It’s steampunk in color palette alone.
To be clear, the artwork itself is actually quite nice. It’s just unfortunate that there’s no interesting foundation for the cards, so they all end up looking mundane. Well, that, and the fact that clarity was not a particularly high priority.
One of the first things you need to do is shuffle the A, B, and C cards into separate decks, as each deck is used in a different stage of the game—but the backs are nearly identical. I can forgive the fact that they have the same basic art—after all, they’re the same type of card—but the letter distinctions matter, and they get lost in the mix. Good luck sorting cards based on the dark brown letter in a cluttered brown image.
What really bothers me is the spot on the board for events. The deck is face up, so players can see what will come up next turn—maybe they’ll want to save up spyrium or money to earn points, or they’ll know they don’t have to do so. The active card is placed next to it on the board, in a new pile. The game distinguishes between these two piles of cards by doing absolutely nothing. They’re identical. You just keep in mind that the future events pile is to the left. You know, like the exact opposite of a calendar.
Oddly enough, the use of symbols in the game is the most forgivable. It can be useful to make game components language independent, since they often reach an international audience. You don’t need to translate everything in the game, just the rules—granted, that just creates a need for translations of the pictographs for your first game or so, especially for the technique cards.
I can almost say that, beneath the surface, Spyrium is a brilliant game—the problem is that there’s not much to the game besides the core. The worker placement is clever and engaging, but everything else is disappointing. Some of the ideas in this game are just begging for a more polished implementation.
For some people, that won’t matter. If you don’t need a game to be colorful if the gameplay is innovative, or if you enjoy worker placement games and want to see some very interesting variations on that idea, this is the game for you. If you want something with a colorful theme or that lets you full off some clever moves, you’re better off elsewhere—but keep it in mind, because it’s worth checking out all the same.
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