Very few notions have done as much harm to our hobby as the chestnut that “Luck is Bad.” No, silly. Luck is good. Luck is great and generous. Also benevolent, if you accept it into your heart.
Sorry. I got carried away there.
But as I was saying, luck is awesome. It’s just also very hard to do right. Anybody can invent a luck-based dice game. How about this: first one to roll a 4 wins. There. That’s a dice game. An awful one, but a dice game with lots of luck nonetheless.
Unearth has attracted some (very) minor controversy. As far as I can tell, the problem is that it’s a dice game that happens to look good, thus stymieing those who like their games pretty but haven’t yet braced for the possibility of failing thanks to the clatter of the dice. So let’s talk about that.
When talking about luck, it’s often helpful to note that we aren’t necessarily reading from the same page. There are different types of luck, “schools” of luck if you want to be pretentious about it. For instance, every single game contains at least one of these chancy flavors, since you can’t control the random firings of your opponent’s neurons. Are they having a good day? Have they had enough carbs? Have you? Inspiration, a fuzzy mind, a deceased uncle twice-removed, playing in a tournament and being paired with an inept or exceptionally talented opponent — when we enter a game’s magic circle and set aside our worldly cares, we’re not really doing that. Not entirely.
Unearth is a game of chance, and I mean that in two very broad senses. First up, it provides plenty of information then asks what you’d like to do with it. Most of the time, this means a row of ruins to claim, each heaped with two or three blocks you can excavate, and a hand of cards that can manipulate your rolls. These are the things you “know.” They’re random, but everyone is largely working from the same set. And while there are some hidden aspects that can win or lose you the game — the ruins that have been randomly returned to the box during setup, mostly — when we complain about a game’s capriciousness, we’re almost never complaining about this form of input luck.
Instead, we’re complaining because 90% of your decision space is choosing which die to roll and where to roll it. Everything else rides on how the die falls once it’s cast.
This is what cleverer people than myself call “output” luck, for reasons that are probably apparent. Your decision has been made, so now you live with the consequences. Even Unearth’s delver cards, which provide opportunities to reroll dice or add +2 to a d6, must be played prior to your main roll. They’re a means of hedging the odds, not altering them. Or at least not immediately altering them.
Makes sense? Good. Because what Unearth gets totally right is that nearly every single roll is valuable in some way.
Okay, let’s back up. In Unearth, your goal is mainly to accumulate sets of ruins. Five purple ruins are worth a ton of points, while only two or three are piddly by comparison. So, of course, most of your decisions revolve around picking up ruins that will add to your sets.
But that isn’t your only goal. Picking up blocks will let you assemble wonders, whether special rule-bending “named” wonders or generic points-earners. In fact, while these don’t offer quite as many opportunities to score as collecting sets, they’re hardly negligible. If you want to win, you’ll probably need a wonder or two.
That’s where Unearth gets clever. See, claiming a ruin is one thing, entirely about rolling high. There’s a threshold to be met, at which point the highest die-face wins. So it goes. But rolling low means you’ll claim one of that ruin’s blocks. Since each player is holding three six-sided dice, plus an eight- and a four-sided option, it might initially seem like the d8 is always superior to the d6s, which in turn are superior to the d4.
In practice, that’s only rarely the case. Sometimes you’ll want to snipe a specific block in order to build a major wonder, and avoid triggering a ruin’s threshold. In that case, your pointy little d4 suddenly looks pretty good. Other times you’ll want to take a shot at somebody who’s nearly locked down a ruin. It doesn’t matter if they have all their dice piled in the same place, because a modified d8 just might steal it out from under them. There’s a lot more going on in Unearth than its detractors seem aware of.
This makes Unearth a competent dice-chucker, and I’ve had plenty of fun manipulating my cards, accumulating the right blocks, and yelping out loud when something doesn’t roll my way. As usual when it comes to this sort of thing, you’ll just have to gauge your own tolerance for failed rolls.
The real problem is that Unearth evokes a hollowed-out ruin in more than just its setting. It’s pretty to look at and props itself up all right, and maybe its raw architecture is solid, but it still feels so eerily hollow that you can practically hear an echo every time the dice skitter across the tabletop. It’s no Greenland, Neanderthal, or Bios: Genesis, each of which are determined to provide context and flavor and setting until your head hurts. Not every game needs to drown its players in theme and terminology, of course, but a good general rule of thumb is that they shouldn’t be dry.
Unearth is fine. Mildly clever, even. As a dice game, there’s nothing wrong with its chanciness. But after it invested all that thought into how its dice operated, if only its attractive exterior had been wrapped around something a smidgen more exciting.