You’re Cold as Ice
Tom Jolly and Luke Laurie’s Cryo opens with a bang. En route to a habitable world, its colony ship is struck off course, possibly by sabotage, and finds itself scattered across the surface of a snowball planet. Divided into distrustful factions, the crew scrambles to hoard supplies and thaw out their companions before they’re lost to the flames. Nightfall swiftly approaches, driving the survivors underground.
If Cryo were your typical systems-heavy nu-Euro, its opening riff would serve as a prelude to resource swapping, puzzle-box optimization, and careful accounting. A veneer meant to decorate some math. To be sure, there are resources to swap, puzzles to optimize, and accounts to settle. But far from being your typical nu-Euro, Cryo approaches its setting with laser focus. Rather than coming across as ponderous or disconnected from its setup, Cryo’s story begins with a thunderclap and keeps drumming until it reaches its fateful conclusion.
It might seem contradictory to say that Cryo has three focal points. Didn’t I just say that it was laser focused? The answer is a matter of expectation. In many modern Euros, mentioning three focal points might make one assume that the game strikes out in three separate directions, each accompanied by their own scoring criteria. Not so in this case. Cryo’s focal points are more akin to focusing lenses, narrowing and directing a beam of light until it’s hot enough to cut.
The first lens is rhythm and movement.
With your colony ship spread broken across kilometers of the ice world’s surface, your only hope of survival lies in the ship’s drones. Their function will prove familiar to anyone who’s played a worker placement game. On your turn, you take a drone, land it on one of the map’s many stations, and use an adjacent action. These actions are admirably restrained both in number and complexity. Each of the ship’s four segments contains crew pods, rescued via a straight exchange of one organic material for one pod. Resource tokens are spread all over the place, ready to be scooped up. Other actions include burning crystals to make energy, using tools to play or draw cards, or transforming crystals, tools, and organics into wild nanomachines. In our plays, the most-forgotten detail was that you can only drop off a single scavenging crew at a time — an error of attention rather than clarity on the game’s.
As long as you have at least one drone on the table, it’s possible to spend your turn recalling them all back to your personal platform. As they return, each settles onto its own space, possibly executing programs you’ve formed by collecting resource tokens rather than claiming their raw output. This presents a tried-and-true tension between nabbing resources now or slotting them for later use, and transforms an otherwise skipped turn into an outpouring of benefits.
Before long, this ebb and flow of drones becomes the underlying rhythm of the entire game, a sturm und drang that establishes periods of poverty and plenty, squeezes or expands the available slots on the board, and sparks literal explosions as the ship’s decay engulfs additional banks of surviving crewmembers in cold storage. There’s a real temptation to pass early, not only because it claims the lead (so to speak), letting you get the jump on open space in advance of other players, but also because it hastens the countdown to the final freeze. Every turn, every action, every placement carries the sensation that it cannot be wasted.
Over the course of all this movement, it’s necessary to interface with Cryo’s second lens, its deck of cards. It’s easy to imagine a version of Cryo that split its deck into two, three, four separate piles. Instead, an enormous amount of possibility has been crammed into a single deck. A single icon, even. Whenever you see the icon of a card, that means you can either draw or play something. Why divide into two when one will serve?
If the movement of your drones sets Cryo’s rhythm, its cards provide the harmony. Each serves four purposes, although you’ll only be spending a card for one of its uses at a time. The easiest option is that any card can be discarded for resources. Far from a pity prize, it’s often useful to ditch anything that doesn’t quite gel with your approach. Past that, cards can also be used as upgrades or missions. The former are transformative, letting you land drones on damaged docks, rescue crew pods before they’re destroyed, resuscitate pods for fewer resources, or execute additional programs when returning drones to your platform. The latter are, well, scoring bonuses. In both cases, these mold your approach in useful and surprising ways. Some players will need to hustle to rescue their crews, while others focus on returning their drones as often as possible. Some will be skint on electricity, others will seemingly generate resources from nothing.
The final option on each card is its vehicle. These are for moving your awakened crew from the withered surface to the geothermal caverns below. It’s a one-way trip, forcing a repeated investment in vehicles. Some have variable effects, such as traveling farther for less energy or rescuing a destroyed pod. But in order to fully understand their function, we need to first talk about that third and final lens — the reason you’re doing anything at all.
Let’s say you want to settle beneath the surface of a frozen ice planet. Not exactly a light undertaking. Caverns need to be scouted. Your colonists must first be adequately thawed. The proper resources should be banked, both the raw materials necessary to live in a particular cavern and the energy for propelling a vehicle full of colonists deep into the crust. That presupposes a vehicle, of course. In case you’re counting out your actions, you also need a drone to drop off the vehicle at the cavern entrance. That’s a lot of logistics for what amounts to a glorified bus drop-off.
Everything in Cryo builds toward settlement. It’s a crescendo. A culmination. This isn’t to say it will only happen once. It’s simply an action you spend many turns preparing for. It’s also the action with the greatest rewards. Crew pods settled underground are worth more points than anything else. Some missions only reward colonies, whether lots of individual settlements or sprawling cities. Certain caverns award even more points to the faction that controls them. If you aren’t moving downward, you’re going nowhere.
This is the lens that discharges the laser. Everything has built toward this moment. It’s also what gives Cryo its focus. Many Eurogames are puzzles of scoring as much as puzzles of interlocking actions. Every little thing is worth some amount toward your final score. The same is true in Cryo, but modified by its hallmark focus. Sure, you’ll earn a little extra for survivors stranded on your platform, plus upgrades and unused vehicles. It doesn’t fully escape the temptation to award points for too wide a range of categories. Fortunately, there aren’t all that many to consider. Anyway, the real rewards come from your colonies. This isn’t a game that tells you to rescue your people only to reward you for minor lines of accounting periphery to their actual survival. If you didn’t get around to settling the underground, your faction fades with the sunlight.
I wouldn’t call Cryo a reaction against the current trends of Eurogame design. It’s more of a reconciliation. Why have four decks when one will do? Why require multiple resource conversions when one will suffice? Why turn scoring into an arithmetic quiz? Even with hidden missions, it’s fairly easy to suss out a leader by glancing over who’s settled which caverns. Each play will have a different setup, but only slightly. A few damaged docks, different distributions of resource tokens, and slightly divergent arrangements of caverns. That’s hardly what we’d call a variable setup.
But that’s precisely what makes Cryo special. This is a medium-weight optimization game that isn’t trying to trick me into thinking it’s heavier or has more longevity than it does. It’s focused. Lean. Interactive, even if only sporadically. Every action counts. And it rewards careful planning without asking its audience to grapple with opaque or labyrinthine systems. Cryo is exactly the sort of thing I’m coming to appreciate more and more: a game that drives at something interesting, executes it well, and gets out of its own way.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on May 4, 2021, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Cryo, Z-Man Games. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.
Well said. “Cryo is exactly the sort of thing I’m coming to appreciate more and more: a game that drives at something interesting, executes it well, and gets out of its own way.”
Great review, Dan. Wow, for some reason this game slipped by me and your review was my first introduction to it. And it isn’t going to be available in 6 months – I can get it right now! Thanks again for the insightful review.
If you give it a shot, please let us know what you think!
A positive SPACE-BIFF! review for a game that’s already on my radar automatically bumps it one category on my BGG wishlist. I have recently been leaning away from games with a “point salad” approach so this sounds like a good alternative. Thanks Dan!
Thanks for reading, lowbeer!
In case it’s of interest, I riffed on this review a bit in a blog post. I was particularly interested by your observation of the customary mismatch between what a game says it’s about and what its action actually entails. And so it’s interesting to hear that Cryo bucks that trend.
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