It Takes a Village(rs)
One of the joys of board games is watching how the same system can be used in radically different ways, and in the process produce entirely different moods. Take Haakon Gaarder’s Villagers as a prime example. I’ve played more drafting and tableau-building games than I’d dare guess at, but none of them felt quite like this.
The backstory to Villagers might not be what you expect, especially given its cheery first impression. In the aftermath of the Black Death, hundreds of people have taken to the road, looking for new opportunities and places to call their own. As the founder of a brand new village, it falls to you to welcome the best workers into the fold, or perhaps retrain those with esoteric capabilities to become laborers to support your town’s more skilled vocations. It isn’t exactly a simulation of post-plague Europe, but it serves nicely enough.
On the surface, what follows hardly demands remark. If you were to catch a glimpse of Villagers on somebody else’s table, it would be easy to mistake the drafting as straightforward. The same goes for playing those villagers. In the former case, everybody takes turns selecting a villager either from the road or from one of the decks above it. In the latter, playing a card is usually as simple as putting it on the table. I trust you know how to do that much.
It isn’t until we peel back a few layers that it really springs to life. Not because it conceals untold depths, but because Gaarder deploys every element with such a light touch.
Take how cards are used. Every villager belongs to a different suit. These indicate the profession that villager relies upon to ply their trade. There are three common suits — wood, hay, and ore — meaning their basic profession can be played into your village for the meager price of a discard. Once added into your village, these become sturdy trunks ready for grafted branches. For example, the lumberjack becomes the foundation for about a half-dozen other professions. Literally! You see, each lumberjack will permit you to place two more cards on top of him, provided they’re also members of the wood suit. The cards themselves are dead simple, limited to a small handful of abilities. That humble lumberjack might well soon permit your village to host a gold-earning wood carver, a shipwright who permits you to play an extra card every round, or a cooper who earns income when certain other cards are played.
This elevates the entire drafting phase. You’re not only grabbing whichever card looks best. You’re gambling on suits. There are just enough cards that it’s worthwhile to grab a card matching a suit you’re interested in, without it ever becoming guaranteed that you’ll get exactly what you want. Continuing with the lumberjack, maybe your gamble pays off with a cartwright. His income is considerable, but he can’t be placed directly atop a lumberjack. Instead, he requires an intervening wheeler. That is, unless you happen to chance upon someone special, like a monk or an apprentice. Now you’re presented with a conundrum. Double down on wood? Hold onto the cartwright just in case? Or force the poor guy to bale hay so you can pursue another objective?
And that’s before we add in the suits that aren’t so easily founded. There are also resources like grapes, wool, and leather out there. These offer greater rewards, provided you’re the one to claim them. As in the best drafting games, Villagers revels in letting players nab cards out from under each other. A tailor might provide more gold than anybody else, but the shepherd, spinner, and weaver necessary to employ him means there will be plenty of chances to disrupt anybody’s ambitions of cutting fine coats.
The play is smooth. Pleasant, even, in a way that’s satisfying without being flashy enough to make anybody sit up and take note. More than once, we’ve introduced Villagers to a newcomer, who upon completion reports that it was perfectly fine, only to grow more animated in their enthusiasm as we discuss what it does well. It’s the little touches. The fact that there are two copies of every card, all the better to make the odds of dredging up a particular worker easy to assess. The occasional special card for shaking up the rules, but never so forcefully that anybody needs to consult the manual. The little conundrums between one villager and another.
If I call it sleepy, please don’t take it as a criticism. It’s sleepy the way fishing can be sleepy, or watching a ballgame, or punching counters. Sleepy, but punctuated by anticipated hiccups of activity. Somebody demands you leave a card alone. More money is paid to the blacksmith. So-and-so fails to hate-draft the card that will prevent somebody from winning by an obvious margin.
Its one weakness is that it wants a higher number of players. Too few and certain suits are removed. Worse, entire stacks of cards may never appear. The same happens when played with four or five people, but at a much lower quantity. It’s enough to keep you on your toes, to prevent you from putting all your eggs in one basket. When you can’t be guaranteed that a spelunker will show up to enable your jeweler, you keep an eye open for other opportunities. At only two or three players, there’s a significant chance that certain cards won’t be revealed at all. That’s the importance of the road. It’s always in motion, churning cards, offering new laborers. Without that movement, it threatens to become too placid, like fishing in a low-water ditch rather than a stream.
With so many games coming out every year, I understand the temptation for designers to make their creations more complicated, more intricate, more blinged-out. Villagers takes a step in the other direction, and takes it with such poise that it’s hard to look away. It barely even needs its rulebook; a few double-sided cards would have been enough. Not that I’m complaining. I haven’t even touched the solitaire mode yet; with such ease of play, there hasn’t been a need. This is the sort of game I like to keep around for years, an effortless little thing that can be revisited without any difficulty whatsoever.
Thanks, Black Death.
A complimentary copy was provided.