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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.