Umbra Via Ignitis
Connor Wake’s Umbra Via is a study in contradictions. It’s a game of steps, bids, tiebreakers, and infuriating balance. Whether that’s a good thing is also a contradiction.
If you’ll forgive me, there’s no way to discuss Umbra Via without delving into some rule-speak. I’ll do my best to avoid making it too dry.
Umbra Via is a game of nested goals. Your ultimate task is to remove eleven soul flowers from your soul tile and then remove the tile itself, a process that’s far less hippie than it first sounds. The penultimate task is the completion of paths. More even than that, you must ensure that your energy flowers are scattered across the stones of the now-completed path in greater abundance than the flowers of your rivals. This, of course, requires you to win the bids that let you place those tiles, along with the flowers that will populate them.
I’ve rendered this process in reverse to highlight a point that will only become apparent later. For now, note how every step of this process is cleverly tangled. Like a wreath of grass in which any plucked strand will crumple the entire object. Or like the wires of a mail bomb which when tugged too casually might result in an explosion.
From the beginning this time.
Like everything else in Umbra Via, bidding is both clever and somewhat maddening. The idea is simple. Each round opens with four tiles on auction. Players bid blindly on those tiles, using some combination of energy flowers and soul flowers drawn at random from their personal bag. The full difference between these varieties will become apparent momentarily. For now, the distinction is that energy flowers count as one bid while soul flowers count as two. After the first bid has been revealed, players continue with a second bid for the same tiles. This is an opportunity to one-up, modify, or ameliorate the damage of the previous bid. Upon completion, totals will be tallied and tiles awarded.
Two contradictions now shoulder to the fore, both of them every bit as clever and maddening as anything else in Umbra Via. The first is that your soul flowers, the same that are so valuable during bidding, are tossed out of the game. They don’t remain on their tiles. Only energy flowers help obtain control of paths. The second contradiction is that tiles are awarded and placed in order from lowest to highest quantities of flowers.
If this sounds abstract and even a little bit confusing, you’re in good company. I’ll spell out the implications. The more contested a tile, the more likely it is to be placed last. In a game that’s all about arranging, controlling, and completing paths, this allows underdogs to enact surprising reversals of fortune — finishing paths, blocking paths, seizing control of a path that’s still under development, that sort of thing. It’s possible to bid smart, but it’s also difficult to suss out exactly what “smart” looks like. Doubly so when you’re also considering a pair of tiebreakers with each bid, one for tied tiles (to determine the order they resolve in) and another for tied players (to determine who gets to place the tile).
Okay, so tiles are now placed on the board. As soon as a path is surrounded by walls, whether from other tiles or the edge of the board, that path is summoned. Whichever player has the most flowers on it gets to remove soul flowers from their soul tile equal to the length of the path. Again there are tiebreakers and second places to consider, but those aren’t as important as what comes next. Remember, soul flowers are great for bids but terrible for control of paths, because they’re removed from the game between bidding on tiles and placing them. But at the same time, soul flowers are your reward for finishing paths.
Which means that the closer you get to winning, the harder it becomes to win.
This is clever. More than clever. Brilliant. A masterstroke of balance. Early on, you might link together four, five, six tiles and somehow win the majority on them when their path is summoned. You’ve pulled ahead! But your reward is paid in powerful but fragile soul flowers, forcing you to work smarter as the game continues.
Umbra Via doesn’t stop there. Once all your soul flowers have been earned, you’re required to also remove your soul tile itself. This is the same as earning at least two flowers — piddly single-tile paths don’t count — and you’re required to come in first place on a summoning.
That’s what Umbra Via does. Dead in its tracks. As soon as somebody pulls ahead, the game tugs the reins. With so many soul flowers showing up in your bag, and with such a difficult final hump to climb, you’re winning bids but not winning paths, at least not in first place. Instead, everybody closes in on their final goal. The final rounds are nail-biters. Which tiles will be won? Which will be placed first? Placement becomes everything. Those tiebreakers become all-important. Left to right for tied tiles. A shifting pattern for tied players. With everybody on the cusp of winning, all it takes is a surprise bid and the whole thing is finished.
Clever. Also maddening.
Is it possible for a game to be too balanced? Yes, and its name is Umbra Via. Where early paths feel like accomplishments, its insistence that everybody should come within a hair’s breadth of victory spoils everything that came before. It can end with a smart play. Absolutely. But it can also end because one tile received a weak bid. All those smarts, that brilliant intermarriage of bidding and spatial placement and area majority… and it can end with a whimper.
What a game. I can’t help but be deeply impressed. But it’s the sort of impressiveness that’s easier to admire in the abstract than with repeat plays.
A complimentary copy was provided.