Advancement Tracks

The etymologist in me keeps reading this as "the study of tape."

Genre is a funny thing. What counts as a western, for example? Or noir? Is there a tipping point between horror and action-horror? Do genres inform our artistic decisions, or are they labels we slap onto things to arrange them into tidy boxes?

Even though it hasn’t officially hit retail yet, Jamey Stegmaier’s Tapestry has already proven divisive. Right there beneath its title, it announces its intentions. A Civilization Game, it says, front-loading expectations with a whole lot of history. But if it’s a civilization game, it’s certainly an unorthodox one. Some have called it an evolution. Others seem to consider it a misfire. As someone who’s deeply interested in “alternate” civgames, those that seek to portray the sweep of human experience in ways that haven’t been endlessly rehashed, I’ve picked my side. I’ll put it this way: if civgames were westerns, Tapestry would be Cowboys & Aliens.

"Looks like Catan." —Literally 4/5 People Who Have Played a Board Game

If it looks like a civgame…

The watershed moment of our most recent play of Tapestry landed about halfway through. It was the cultural culmination for my civilization of isolationists, guaranteeing my dominance and ultimately cementing my victory over my four rivals. And it had very little to do with anything I’d actually accomplished.

But we’ll return to that in a moment.

To chart the course of my isolationists, you’d begin with the first man-made fire guttering to life. That seems reasonable. After all, the gift of Prometheus is what vanquishes night and bakes bread, what purifies water and destroys one’s enemies. Fire is the spark not only of industry, but also of imagination. So imagine my surprise when my next innovation was… vaccines. Before we’d gotten around to sheltering within huts, summing two and two, or inventing glass — in fact, our most advanced technique was clay pottery — we’d somehow discovered germ theory, learned to immunize against disease by utilizing weakened strains of microbes, and injected them into our bloodstreams.

I’m of three minds about this. One, that’s a patent absurdity, especially for a game that exists in a world where many believe that vaccines are a hoax perpetuated by literally every medical professional in the world. Then again, my second thought was reserved purely for the game’s sprawling symbology, because within five minutes I’d forgotten all about the “vaccine” thing and was working to upgrade the card itself for a boost to my science track.

And my third thought? Well. It went something like, How cool would it be if vaccines had predated the wheel? Adios, polio. We hardly knew ye.

This is where the magic actually happens.

One of four advance tracks.

Most civgames have set opinions about the development of pretty much everything. Technologically, the wheel predates crop rotation predates the factory. Politically, tribalism begets shamanism begets feudalism begets democracy. In material sciences, you can’t arrive at steel without first meandering past the iron and bronze ages. We look at the long string of innovations and developments and paradigm shifts that have sorted our own history into epochs and ages, slot them into a game, assign a few bonuses, and damn any exceptions or alternate possibilities.

Tapestry goes the opposite route, at least with its invention cards. The result hovers somewhere between preposterous and expansive. For every civilization that develops nails, calendars, and concrete, someone else will produce zeppelins, lithium-ion batteries, and time travel. No, time travel won’t let you repeat turns or take out loans from your future self. See my second point above.

Weirdly, though, even this doesn’t wind up being a statement on the nonlinear development of human cultures, because invention cards are only one of the many ways that Tapestry traces your progress. Most of the time, your headway is restricted to the advancement tracks that run the periphery of the board. There are four — science, technology, military, and exploration — and nearly every turn revolves around spending some resources to move a cube to the next space of your chosen track.

More than anything else, these are the heart and soul of Tapestry — titling it Advancement Tracks would have been more accurate, if not as catchy — and they’re every bit as linear as the inventions are not. Rubber will never predate steel, neuroscience will never bubble out of the noosphere before chemistry. And although this jettisons the game’s chance at a statement, one where a culture stricken by heatstroke will develop air conditioning while their beleaguered neighbors resolve the Neanderthal Wars with dynamite, at least they keep the game on track. Heh.

In this case, that shape is "Alien visitors to a backward world of huts."

Your capital city gradually takes on shape.

The way they work is refreshingly simple. You pay anywhere from one to three resources, bump up along the corresponding track, and gain the printed bonus. There’s an entire reference sheet of possibilities, featuring far too many symbols and exceptions to sum up here, but in general each track provides a reliable stream of perks. The exploration track uncovers new tiles on the main map, while the military track spreads your civilization’s towers beyond your starting zone. The technology track lets you obtain the aforementioned inventions. Science bumps you up on other tracks, sometimes to great effect and sometimes bypassing bonuses you were hoping to nab. At least that resembles a statement about the potential pratfalls of thoughtless innovation.

Meanwhile, these tracks bear a few details in common. Each occasionally builds structures that provide new resources during periodic income rounds, and at certain thresholds each awards larger landmarks that occupy entire sections of your capital city’s grid. Although it’s a letdown to erect, say, a train station or shuttle launchpad that does nothing but occupy a 2×3 section of your capital, filled-in sections eventually provide resources and points. In a game where a single resource can be a considerable windfall, that isn’t a bad thing.

Then again, everything provides points. Tapestry is very much that sort of game. Exploration awards points if you can match your new tile’s edges to similar terrain types. Conquest awards points based on some rolled dice. Add those to your inventions, total territory, spare tiles, spare cards, level of development on your player board, and completed rows and columns in your capital city, and you’re squinting pretty hard to find something that doesn’t score. And while this does a serviceable job of constantly patting you on the back regardless of your approach, it also tends to feel weightless, like there’s scarcely any reason to bother picking one path over another when sticking to a single approach will suffice.

The point stands, however, that the advancement tracks are the best thing about Tapestry. Although each one boasts a Rosetta Stone’s worth of alien icons, racing along them is a pleasure, meting out resources and structures and bonuses for those in the lead. It certainly helps that the far end of each track is appropriately rule-bending. Advanced science lets you jump ahead on the other tracks, sometimes taking multiple actions in a single turn. Warfare lets you conquer from afar. Exploration lets you colonize space. And unlike real space, which is big and empty and cold, colonizing space in Tapestry is immediately gratifying.

And then Tapestry goes and cuts its advancement tracks off at the knees.

I'm excited to play this card that I cannot use in any fashion.

The titular tapestry cards are a mixed bag.

Tapestry is named for its tapestry cards. Or maybe it’s the other way around. No matter. Either way, they’re the bulk of the reason why the game doesn’t hold up.

Every so often, usually when you’re out of resources, you’ll want to take an income turn. As far as I can tell, these represent paradigm shifts or golden ages, moments when your culture stops being one thing and becomes another. Resources are produced, points are scored, and a single tapestry card is played into your civilization display. Take enough of these income turns and you’re finished with the game. That’s three tapestry cards, each of which will shape your culture in ways that you cannot predict at the outset of the game.

Here’s the thing: tapestries are wildly, insanely, painfully divergent in their effects. Some produce tremendous game-shattering benefits. Others do hardly anything at all. Of course, many are situational, and might be beneficial or neutered depending on who plays them. Regardless, your success or failure often comes down to whether you happen to draw something that meshes well with the strategy you’ve been pursuing.

Take my isolationists as a prime example. Every civilization begins with a national identity. Mine was that my enemies were unable to invade my hunkered-down territories. When it came to my neighbor on the right, a militarist who gained bonus income from conquest, too bad so sad, here’s a bristling line of untouchable provinces. Narny narny narny.

But it was my other neighbor who really suffered. Throughout the game, he focused on grabbing new tapestry cards — without ever nabbing anything that yielded more than marginal advantages. Still he trucked along the science track, gleaning its bonuses one space at a time. As an architect, his goal was to fill up his capital city with structures, which he hoped that track’s academy and laboratory landmarks would enable.

Really. It isn't that bad.

Half of the front of the reference sheet. Not as bad as it looks.

Except the architect now took two swift punches below the belt. First, another civilization dropped a Dystopia, letting them steal the academy out from under his nose without needing to occupy the corresponding space on the science track. That particular jab landed again when the militarist played the Espionage tapestry, which duplicated the Dystopia to steal another unearned landmark. Then, as the architect raced to secure the laboratory before somebody snaked it, I dropped a turd called Marriage of State. Now whenever the architect advanced along a track of my choosing, I also gained its benefit. Naturally, I chose science.

Just like that, each of the architect’s meticulously prepared moves either benefited a rival — while giving him a lesser benefit, since there was no longer any academy to pick up — or moved him along a track where he was hopelessly outpaced. Halfway through the game, every investment and maneuver he’d made, every plan for the future, even his shot at winning, were totally scuttled by the luck of the draw.

It would be one thing if this were the exception. Or if Tapestry made it possible to grab enough tapestry cards to ensure you find some opening. Or if the game were short enough to justify such capriciousness. Or if it featured enough chancey moments that they all balanced out in the end. Or if it were interested in immersing its players in even a rudimentary setting. None of the aforementioned ifs apply. Instead, every one of our plays has turned upon such hinges, when one player’s civilization ability canceled another’s, or a strategy was totally wiped out by an inopportune tapestry card, or somebody happened to be holding a trap card that negated an attack outright, or somebody realized mid-game that their capital board couldn’t fit a certain building even if they’d never built anything on it, or somebody watched in dismay as their chosen card earned a handful of points while somebody else’s broke the sound barrier. Every play has been more frustrating than the one before it.

Pictured: me STOMPING Somerset.

With fewer players, Tapestry feels less messy.

To be clear, the issue is neither balance nor luck. On their own, either might be mitigated or massaged, calculated or bullied. Rather, it’s the way those elements intersect with the game’s decision space. Most of the time, your decisions matter very little. Each approach offers a constant pat on the back, spilling out resources, structures, and points. In other words, every action is rewarding — which is a good thing — but also equivalently rewarding, which is less so. There’s hardly any room to actually shape your destiny. That is, until the tapestry cards begin to appear. But then your destiny is largely shaped by picking the best possible card and hoping your rivals are holding worse best possible cards than you.

I hate to say it, but as a genre mashup between engine-builder and civgame, Tapestry doesn’t quite embrace what either has to offer. It’s all cowboys over here, aliens over there. And this time, not even Harrison Ford can elevate their combination beyond merely okay.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on September 24, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Well that’s a really thought provoking insight. I don’t want to be disheartened as I have it on pre-order, but hopefully it’s more rewarding / less frustrating for me than you found it.
    Thanks for bursting my bubble of anticipation before Tapestry arrives. Forewarned is forearmed.

  2. Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good – not that it’s going to stop me trying the game. Any thoughts on how it matches up against other civ games? Historia was my first thought…

    • Depends which civgames you’re referring to. For me, the gold standard remains Clash of Cultures, but there are plenty of great examples that do things a little differently. I haven’t played Historia, unfortunately.

  3. Thanks for the review. How many playthroughs have you done of Tapestry? As someone with no prior civ game experience, I didn’t really invest in this one because of that element specifically. I trust that SM will take constructive feedback and offer improvement (if needed) in the same way they have with Scythe over the years.

  4. “In other words, every action is rewarding — which is a good thing — but also equivalently rewarding, which is less so.” I find this sentence really confusing. Any additional thought here?

    • It’s fun to get stuff for your actions. But if every action gives you roughly equivalent stuff, does it really matter what action you choose? That’s the let down.

      • That’s precisely my criticism about a different generally well regarded board game: Great Western Trail.

        While there’s one aspect that you shouldn’t ignore if you want to achieve a good score (which can be achieved either by investing in cattle or in the railroad), what you’re doing from turn to turn doesn’t matter much. There’s many ‘point-salad’ games, but this was the first where this struck me as being a bad thing.

        Judging by the review, Tapestry is even worse, which is a shame since it sounded like a really interesting take on civ games.

    • Bryan got it right. Tapestry does a great job of making every turn immediately rewarding. The problem is that those rewards don’t amount to much difference.

  5. It’s nice to see the hype bubble on this one burst a little bit. I would still be interested in trying it if somebody in my game group gets it (which is almost a given), but nice to see some negatives to go along with all of the anticipation.

    Great review as usual!

    • Thanks, Dave! If you get around to trying it out, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • I played it at SHUX this last weekend. Five players, and it played incredibly quickly and well for five new players, finished in 2 hours.

        But wow is the game random and unbalanced. The Futurists player lapped us on the scoreboard, winning with something like 265 points. I was in second place with 161. And he didn’t even benefit as much from the randomness as the rest of us did! His Tapestry cards weren’t that useful to him.

        I wouldn’t be against playing it again, but I certainly don’t need to.

      • We ran into some Futurist trouble as well. I hear it completely kills the ability of the Chosen, but I haven’t played with them yet.

  6. “…or somebody realized mid-game that their capital board couldn’t fit a certain building even if they’d never built anything on it…”

    You might want to review the rules on this one. Every monument should be able to be built on every capitol board, since “hanging off the edges” is allowed.

    • Would you say hanging off the edge of the capital board is a landmark fitting on the board? The sentence doesn’t say that a certain building is without a valid placement on their capital board.

    • Would you say hanging off the edge of the board is fitting on the board? The sentence doesn’t say, for example, that a certain building is without any valid placements on the capital board. It is still, perhaps, a surprising efficiency loss.

  7. Thomas Romanelli

    Having watched several play throughs (while waiting patiently for own copy to arrive), I’ve also made some observations that, while concerning, haven’t yet dampened my enthusiasm for the game.

    The resources themselves are really just a proxy for an action point economy, and players that obtain additional resources can extend their turns before seeking new income. It appears that there is a sizable difference in the synergies between the Exploration and Military tracks versus Science and Technology. Being able to place tiles (and gain the bonus resources from them), coupled with putting income buildings on the board goes a long way to imbue future turns with even more resources. Players who don’t get their own income buildings out early on often appear hobbled by midgame. I watched on play through where the player ended their last turn only to watch their opponents complete another 2-4 actions before tallying points (and easily blowing past the previous high score).

    I’ve read many good things about Tapestry and I’m still looking forward to exploring all of its nooks and crannies, but my expectations have been duly tempered.

  8. Thanks for this, Dan – not only thoughtful and incisive, but it made me feel a whole lot better about my decision to ‘wait and see’ on this one. I felt the same about Wingspan, and Dune, and am pleased to say I was right to hold off on all three of these titles… Good call, me! Thanx again, Dan!

  9. Not sure why my comment came through as Anonymous, I’m logged in as @mangozoid, apparently…

    Alex Bardy

  10. The hype for this game was overwhelming, and I nearly pulled the trigger… but as with Wingspan, I held off. I’m glad that I did, as I consider it very expensive for a game that, to my mind, appears quite ordinary.

  11. Wow. A mediocre Stonemaier game that looks pretty, but is pretty vapid.

    A first.

  12. Thomas Romanelli

    I also held off on Wingspan and Dune (the latter in part because of the last-minute GF9 exclusives that I did not feel was at all consumer-friendly), but bought into Tapestry’s first printing with the understanding that it would NOT be a typical civ-style game.

    There’s minimal player interaction, no definitive tech paths and I don’t entirely buy into the choices separating Science and Technology. The end-game point spread is frankly ridiculous, with players capable of scoring sub-100 to a theoretical 400. Having said all of that, I’m looking forward to discovering what the game is, rather than what everyone thought it would be.

  13. boardgamesnobswpcom

    Wow, perfectly said. Wish I was as good with words! I’m more like Hulk, “game…bad”. Keep up the great work!!

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