Sometimes when playing a board game, I simply have no idea what’s happening. Not necessarily because the game is complicated — although sure, that happens too — but because the game doesn’t bother to string together its bones with connective tissue.
Take Vivarium by Frédéric Vuagnat, for example. Vivarium is about exploring a hitherto undiscovered continent brimming with amazing creatures, uncategorized plants and minerals, and zero complications from colonialism. In exploring this new land, explorers select their discoveries from a grid by matching dominoes. Why dominoes? I couldn’t tell you. Presumably the publisher had a few extra pallets of dominoes hanging around at the warehouse.
To be clear, I’m fully aware of the potential breakdowns this line of thinking could cause in any other situation. Why dice? Why shuffled cards? Does our military really assess their odds of victory via a combat results table? Okay, bad example — the golden eight-to-one attack ratio, I understand, is still taught at West Point. But the point stands. As in any medium, board games demand their own suspension of disbelief. In this case, that suspension of disbelief insists that dice or cards or, yes, dominoes stand in for something else. They’re a shorthand, an abstraction.
When it comes to Vivarium, the dominoes seem to be an abstraction of everything your explorers might do while peeling back the mysteries of this newfound continent. Trekking through jungles. Canoeing down rivers. Categorizing animals. Giving minerals the old lick-test. A whole lot has gone into the dominoes. And rather than simply randomizing options, the way dice or a deck of cards does, the process tends toward calculation. You begin holding two dominoes, but you’re forced to switch out one of them with the floating domino at the center of the table. Only then can you use them to make a number pair and claim your animal, equipment, or contract from the grid of options.
Except this is strangely perfunctory. It’s a four-by-four grid, and you’re free to massage the digits of your dominoes with crystals. These are provided amply, either by nabbing equipment cards or, less often, by passing a turn. I’ve never actually witnessed anybody resort to the latter option, but it’s there. Meanwhile, dominoes can be used interchangeably. There’s no x-axis, so to speak. If you have a domino at 4 and a domino at 1, you can pick the card in the fourth column and first row or the card in the first column and fourth row. And that’s before we even consider that every domino has two numbers on it. Or use crystals to change the numbers.
In other words, it’s a selection system that hardly matters at all. A few turns in, one begins to wonder why this wasn’t simply a drafting game. It’s an incredibly rare turn that you won’t be able to nab exactly what you’re looking for. If anything, the preventative factor is the other players grabbing a desirable card first. The dominoes hardly enter into it. They’re not only an abstraction of in-game action, but also an abstraction of above-the-table action. They stand in for decision-making as well as for the adventuring toils of your characters.
They feel nice to clack together, at least. Clack clack clack.
If the game’s drafting mechanic isn’t up to snuff, how about the cards being drafted? Well, about that.
There are three types, as I’ve previously alluded. Creatures come in a few flavors for scoring purposes and offer a few points. Equipment cards bend the rules and give you crystals. Contract cards are scoring opportunities: points for every pair of green and red cards, or for minerals and dragons, or a lump sum that slowly diminishes as you grab more equipment cards. That sort of thing. There’s also a contest each round. By picking up the right cards, you earn crystals and points. Imagine that.
It’s all so boilerplate that the whole thing quickly fuzzes together, not unlike how one’s eyes go slightly crossed when watching a bad documentary. There’s nothing wrong with the function of these cards. They work. They spit out points on schedule. But they’re so formulaic, so unadorned, so uninventive, and the remainder of Vivarium is so devoid of excitement, that the veneer peels back through nothing rougher than basic handling. There’s no verisimilitude. Not only verisimilitude in the simulationist sense, in which the game’s actions mirror its represented setting as closely as possible, but also in the bare wallpaper sense of most board game settings, where the lovely artwork and introductory paragraph serve to drape a sheet and a hat over a coat hanger to sell the notion that we’re talking to somebody. This doesn’t even try to disguise the hanger. It’s just you, crouched in a closet, pretending a coat hanger and a spare sheet is the person you’re working up the nerve to ask to the prom. It’s the sort of game I would feel embarrassed to introduce to somebody who only has a passing interest in board games, because it makes one wonder aloud what each little thing represents — “What are these dominoes for?” to give one example — only to feel vaguely silly when there’s no answer.
It gets more interesting as the round goes on and cards are claimed. I will give it that. Then again, it’s so easy to alter your dominoes’ digits that there’s never any pressure. The decisions on offer are easy to make, but so bland that there’s rarely much incentive to fret over what exactly we’re choosing. Either you’re picking between sixteen vanilla wafers, one of which has a raspberry on top, or you’re picking between fifteen vanilla wafers because the good one was taken last turn.
Clack clack clack. There’s an irony, I think, in that the dominoes are the best part of Vivarium, despite serving almost no purpose. But then, you can find nice components everywhere. Which is ultimately the problem. There are so many board games out there, so many wonderful ideas and worlds and models to explore, that there’s really no excuse for Vivarium to be one of them.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on May 15, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Studio H, Vivarium. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
What a lovely blog you have created and I am impressed with your writing style. I am also a regular reader and still enjoying reading. Would you mind writing a blog post for LEKH? My blog has international traffic and writers who contribute to my publication. By doing a guest post drive traffic to your blog blogs. I hope it would be beneficial for both of us. Read our submission guidelines here https://lekh.co/
I love hearing you praise games for doing what they do so well. It cheers my heart to find that our hobby keeps advancing and setting its bar high. (It also scares the wuzzles out of me, IIBH, as an aspiring game designer.)
I also love it when you see the faults in a game. Thank you for showing both the bad and the good (clack clack clack), regardless of whether your opinion is an overall + or -.
Because: can we really rate art — and/or something so experiential as a game — with a number? Sure there’s a place for that. But I’m hungry for the personal nuances. Please Keep Feed Us.
Ha, thank you for the kind words. I’ll keep on keeping on! Best of luck with your own designs, by the way. This hobby only improves as new voices continue to ring out.