Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Colonists

The Colonists - Epic Gaming

Everything You Wanted To Know About The Colonists And Then Some

Over the last three weeks at Monday NoBoG I've had a chance to get to close grips with The Colonists.  It announces itself boldly on the game box as "The Epic Strategy Game", and at a play time for us of over 9 hours for a single game, epic is maybe the right word. What's the other word it could be instead of epic ? Oh yes. Long. But that reads less excitingly on the box cover - The Colonists - The Long Strategy Game.


The Colonists is a game firmly of the Euro style camp, a worker placement production engine builder, released last year by new to the game design scene Tim Puls. His first game design ever, the seed for the idea behind The Colonists started in 2008 when Tim first started to play heavier Euro classics including Agricola. Loving the idea behind the worker placement Build Your Little Production Engine World and taking some nods from the computer scene from things like Civilisation, Tim began to design The Colonists with a clear dislike of anything military or play spoiling and the idea that your workers on your actions shouldn't simply return to you magically after a round but stay where they are, persistent, and only able to move to areas / actions near them.

The Detail

The Colonists is a game where players take on the role of village mayor and must guide their settlement to ever greater heights of development and employment. To achieve this the player will build an assortment of different buildings in their tableau by spending resources, managing those resources carefully between active and non active storage locations, playing development cards to help the colony, allocating worker meeples to staff buildings and finally at the end of a year making sure you have enough sustenance to keep your worker meeples actively employed and not scurrying back to their homes in search of food.

The game space breaks down into two main parts - the first is your tableau where you will manage your village and your resources ( each resource needs a storage spot, there's no unlimited stacking of resources here ! ) , and the second is the shared world called "The Mainland", which is a modular tile based set of actions that your action meeple will wander around to take actions.
An Era 4 Tableau

End of Era 3 Mainland
The game takes place over 4 "eras", each successive era containing its own unique buildings, action spots and development cards with a ramping build cost, sophistication and power. The eras are played back to back, so things you pick up and develop in era 1 could well be along for the ride for the whole game - or if they're the right kind of building maybe they get upgraded into something a bit fancier, or if you start running out of space in your limited space village you might choose to burn them down to building something else.

Each era breaks down into a number of years where additional tiles will get added to the mainland - the pool of actions - your village will produce resources and sustenance demands need to be met. Overall you'll get to take a minimum of 30 actions per era, possibly more up to say 40, depending on your setup. This is pretty much a Euro length game in an of itself per era - 30 meaningful actions ( something like Glass Road has anything between 12 and 40 actions per player per game, Agric has a minimum of 28 actions up to around 52 ish ).

A key aspect of the game is that all meeples are not equal - there are three types of meeple, green farmer/labourer, yellow citizens and red merchants. Each type of meeple is basically a level of sophistication up from the next with increasing requirements of sustenance and building capability. The names are by and large arbitrary and don't reflect the capabilities of each meeple type. During the game you'll find yourself slowly evolving from a simple green meeple economy to a more convoluted and pricey green / yellow meeple economy to finally a tricky to balance green / yellow / red village.
All The Lovely Meeples. The Red Dudes sit at home awaiting jobs.
 The second key aspect is that resources require explicit storage space - each single resource requiring a single space - if you have three food, you're going to need three storage slots. Also, not all storage spaces are equal. Some can be freely used on your action - some you cannot access during your action, but you can move around before an action, and some are one way only storage spaces - production sites that can temporarily house that years production at best, but never be re-used.
Storage - Era 1 and Era 2 Storage here

 The final key aspect to the game is that of the mainland - a modular hex tile board, each tile of which has an action on it that a player can take. Each players action meeple ( or meeples later if you get upgrades ) can wander around adjacent tiles taking the action from each rather like the mechanism in Istanbul. Obviously this has a massive impact on the game - you're not free to simply pick and choose what action you'd like to take, you have to take a series of chained actions, and, depending on how the modular board has been created this can be vastly different from game to game ( or even in game once action spots start giving you the ability to switch any two hex tiles ).
Era 4 Mainland - James has spent most of the game arranging the mainland
in the worst possible way. The Milton Keynes of the Euro world.

The Aim

Victory points. What else ? Your victory points here are going to come from the buildings themselves - minimal points for eras 1 and 2, but these do add up quickly, development cards - minimal again in the overall scheme of things, and finally employed meeples - fairly substantial if you're doing it right.

Getting juicy high point end era buildings in and also staffed by high point red meeples is the killer aim, but affording the exorbitant costs of those buildings and the greedy sustenance requirements of the red meeples is the puzzle of the game - assuming you're playing the whole game.

It should be noted - probably because the game is so long - that there are game variants where you can pick and choose which era(s) you play. This means you can dip your toe in at a complexity level and length of game that suits you, but, at a cost of the game being way less dynamic and a good deal more flat in what you can achieve. I can't really imagine playing say, an era 4 only game - it would be weird and I suspect very dull with everyone having the same setup, and limited time to pick a direction.

The Feel

To me, the game plays like a simplified Caverna with a spin of an Istanbul like central action space that ties you into choosing suitable paths of actions rather than just picking any old action you feel like. The buildings that are placed in your village have the same feel as Caverna - each one doing interesting things and generally providing either space for your worker meeples or production spots for those end of year production phases ( of which you get 5 per era ). This is pretty much the same as Caverna or Agric in that your fields in those games produce food and animals, and there is then a requirement to feed ( and clothe in The Colonists for those damn picky red meeples ) all your dudes. The difference here is that The Colonists production phase can see you pretty much producing all the goods available in the game - wood, clay, bricks, planks and so on - as well as the needed sustenance food, and, the number of worker meeples you have is going to be far far greater than the max of 5 ish you get in Agricola - you're going to be dealing with a dozen or more.
Era 4 tiles awaiting to join the Mainland. James is in charge. It's awful.

Despite the increased production breadth in The Colonists and the number of worker meeples you are pushing around, there doesn't seem to be a particular uptick in the complexity required in managing your tableau. By and large once something is in your village it tends to stay and just keep on doing its thing - with maybe an upgrade or two to keep it efficient.

The game is interesting in a Euro management kind of way, there's plenty to do and look at, and the paths to get where you are headed are fairly diverse - but overall it doesn't seem to make too much odds how you go about things - it doesn't feel like it's a game where you can get a runaway leader and then have to sit there for the next 9 hours watching said runaway leader preen over how good their efficiency is. Is the game just busy work then with a series of hobsons choices ? It doesn't feel like that - the choices about how you build your world are interesting, I just think there is no super bad course you can take here - the game is not punishing, and just about everything you do is going to help.
This Years market actions. You get five of these per era. 40 in all. Zoiks !
 The pain point in the game is the getting of resources, conversion of resources, storing of resources and then the spending of resources. That's the crucial juggling you'll be doing as you attempt to build better stuffs and keep up with the increasing sophistication of the eras.

It must be said here. The game is long. Very long. It doesn't feel like a waste of time or too much boring downtime - which is quite something as there is an absolute butt load of downtime and there can be some sticky AP moments which just double down on the length.


The game is cool, very enjoyable if you like your Euro stuffs, is wildly replayable with a modular tile mainland that guarantees almost a unique pattern of actions every game, and a variable card deck and limited choice of powerful Ambassadors in setup. It has no huge game breaking flaws mechanically, scratches a Euro production engine itch, and because of its length and scope is probably the most Euro productiony thing you're going to play. But, that's not because its a super crunchy and clever production engine game. It's just that you're going to be doing a fairly standard production enginey thing for 9 hours. Quantity. Not quality.

The game kept my attention and interest, and some of the core mechanics are interesting and cool - the persistent wandering meeple is a lovely twist on the typical pick whatcha like Euro mechanic, indeed the whole mainland thing is interesting with its variable market action that changes every year, and you'd think that this aspect of the game has legs to be pushed into other games.

But the game does have problems. Possibly one killer problem. And the design some seem to suffer from a lack of editing, something of a kitchen sink mentality and a lack of elegance.

Problem ?

There are a number of small problems with the game which feel like they are a victim of this being a My First Game I Designed issues and no strong editorial voice cutting the game where it needed some pruning.

But the kick ass arguably show stopping problem for this game is its length. Length and what you get for your time investment.


The box reckons the game is between 30 minutes and 6 hours in length. But by now we all know that box game length times lie. Our four player game, excluding setup and rules, took us 9 hours to complete. Eras 1 and 2 came in at over 3 hours for the pair together, Era 3 on its own was around 3 hours, and era 4 a similar amount of time.

At 9 hours in play, sitting down to this game with a full table is daunting. This is not going to be a game you slam out regularly for a gaming session - this is going to be a full on reserve a day and settle in for the long haul. Even if you split play up over multiple sessions, the commitment will then be more akin to a short roleplay campaign than a simple board game night !

And what do you get for your 9 hours ?

You get Caverna. Played maybe three times over back to back.

First you get to build your village with green meeple buildings - and no sustenance cost.

Then you get to do it over again, this time with yellow meeples and yellow buildings, this time with your more traditional, one food per meeple sustenance cost.

And then you get to do it again with your red meeples and red buildings, with a pricey two food and one clothing cost.

The buildings interleave and upgrade, so you'll have a mix of green, yellow and red by the end, but make no mistake, the mechanics are the same - the costs rise, the capabilities go up, but you're doing the same problem solving three times over.
3.5 hours in, End of Era 2. My first yellow dudes have turned up.

Which is perhaps a clue as to why the game takes 9 hours to play. That and the fact that by game end you'll have taken at a minimum a gut busting 120 actions, and in all probability the action count will more likely be up around 140 actions. You'll also have overseen a massive 20 production and sustenance cycles.

Compare and contrast something like Agric. 6 sustenance and production cycles.45 ish actions. Which just so happens to be approximately a third of the numbers of The Colonists. Coincidence ? Hell no !

So. It's three Euro games. Stuck in one.

But yeah, think of the awesome unique production euro-ness and the heights of efficiency joy you get with 9 hours to craft your vision.

Except you don't. Maybe there's a finite limit to Euro Production Joy. Maybe its the fact that you're repeating the same schtick for 9 hours. But whatever it is, for me, The Colonists does not produce three times the Euro goodness of Other Things. For me it produces the same amount of Euro goodness of Other Things. But at three times the length.

Meh. I mean ok. It's not terrible. But now combine that with "and when the hell am I going to get time or convince anyone else to sit down to a 9 hour game of Resource Shuffle (TM)". And you have a problem.

I like the game. I am very glad I played it - I had fun. I feel no need to ever play it again. Ever.

So that's the time issue. What else ?

Resource Finagling

The storage issues in the game are just a pain in the ass. And not an exquisite pain in the ass like the panic of trying to feed yourself in Agricola and avoiding the shame of the begging card, but more a pain in the ass like, wow, this is entirely unnecessary and fiddly.

The game makes a deal of having only some of your storage areas accessible to use goods in an action. The other areas are off limits. You are free to switch goods around before an action - but not during. In this way it kinda makes sure you cant spend all your goods in a single action. Its limiting you to how many things you can build or convert in a single action. But oh boy. The fiddlyness of this is just meh. One of the areas - a warehouse - contains a single, SINGLE resource slot. Which is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. If you're lucky and diligent you might get this up to as much as five slots by game end ( by contrast, a single storage hall at this point can hold 12 items, and you have potentially three of them plus an extra three slot area, making a total of 39 items ).
Extra Storage. All three spaces. Three. Woo. A sad single ore is next door.

The ratio of this warehouse to usable space is minimal. And only exacerbated by the fact that, oh my, so long as its before an action, you can freely switch this shit around anyway.
Era 4 - my storage is still stuck around Era 3. No time to get better.

Which very quickly makes you beg the question - why the hell is this in the game. It serves bugger all purpose. Apart from adding extra rules and extra fiddlyness for the sake of it.

If you wanted to limit how many things someone can do on an action - rather than arse around with usable and non usable storage, simply state the limit on the action - no more than three times, two times, whatever. Indeed the game already has this concept in place for single use activation - you can only do this once. The game should clearly have just ditched the fiddly resource shuffling and stuck in build limits - elegant, quicker, no pain ( less time !! ).

Limited player interaction.

The game plays like a solo multiplayer. Even when you've not got a card in that entirely eliminates all interaction between players, the interaction is almost nil. The only interaction is someone must pay to use an action spot someone else is standing on. Exactly like Istanbul. But in The Colonists the chances of you tripping over each other at exactly the same time with exactly the same plan are minimal to non existant. Whereas Istanbul has 16 action spaces of which maybe half are not reasonable relevant at any point, The Colonists can have 60 spaces ! Imagine Istanbul with 60 spaces, and then see how many times you land on each other.

Solo multiplayer doesn't sound so bad - no one can mess with my ideal setup. Sure. For 9 hours ? At this point you might as well lock yourself in your garden shed for a day, play the game, then compare notes with everyone else ! Table camaraderie and socialising is a key aspect to how palatable this game is. Because the game certainly isn't going to give you anything.

Learning Curve

There's a learning curve to the game. What's an optimum number of green workers. When should you start pushing for Ore. How much food is a good number for end game ? Pubs. Yay or nay ?
Building two pubs. A good idea ? I'll let you know in 9 hours
Unless you're the kind of gamer that likes sitting down before ever punching the bits and number crunching the rules to get some kind of game plan - or possibly just cheating and reading what someone has to say on the internets - then this game has a learning curve like pretty much every other Euro of, oh, This Is A Good Idea Right Now, And Thats Really Not.

Which is fine.

But at 9 hours, getting a good grasp of that learning curve is less of a gaming experience, and more of a life choice. Yes. I Have Dedicated Myself To Mastering The Colonists. In my spare time I have a career and earn money.

It's perhaps not a big deal particularly if everyone is just learning as you go, or some very helpful experienced soul nudges you occasionally, but again, finding out that your plan to massively invest in
Snake Oil Lol This Doesnt Do Shit Really But Its Kinda Been Left In The Game Anyway was bullshit after 9 hours of play is going to be, I imagine, somewhat deflating. Fortunately there isn't really anything in the game thats a Big Mistake, but you can definitely mis-step and either under provision or over provision for stuff that never really happens ( James and his Cunning Plan of developing Powers so he never had to pay anyone for action spots springs to mind - it was basically a waste of time ).


The RNG in the game is pretty acceptable. By and large it's not a huge surprise, you can see things coming, and it just injects interest in the game rather than table flipping bullshittery. That being said. Some things like the development cards can be at one end of the scale an entire waste of time, and at the other super powerful. One card that James picked up in the powerful end game set of development cards was literally - gain one coal. The prize for naughty children at Christmas. And in game terms worth about the same thing. The problem is that achieving anything in The Colonists takes quite a bit of prep. Hauling your meeples ass out to pick up cards then hauling it back across the board two turns later to play the card is a pain in the ass effort. Picking up a card that says Ha Ha You Loser on it, and watching the next player pick up, Everything You Do From Now On Costs Nothing is somewhat shit. Then again perhaps its part of the balance of the cards - its something of a risk. But again, after 9 hours of this shit, everything becomes a little more .... sensitive in design terms.

And Everything Else

Theres a number of minor issues throughout the game. The largely pointless busy work with tools ( you need tools to build stuff, you produce them every turn, after 9 hours of gameplay no one at the table ever had a problem with their supply whatsoever - what the hell is the point of this goddamn extra piece of resource crap that is never a supply problem in the first place ! ), the oddly pointless green meeples ( they cost nothing to support, they get you 1vp if employed, well crap, shall we just  remove them entirely from the game and assume green buildings are powered and get you an extra vp ?! ) . Timing seems to be rather wacky in the game as well. By the time final era storage spaces are available, you'd be an idiot to build them instead of building something rather more points fancy - and if you do build them, you're likely not going to have a chance to utilise them. Unless they come out super early - and even then, limited usability. A lot of stuff seems to be like this - odd timing issues with the whole game.
Green and Yellow Economy ! Era 3 ish.

You could do much in the game so much more elegantly, reduce bit count, reduce time , reduce fiddly.

The game is badly in need of a ruthless editor.

Or another game needs to come out which takes some of the nice concepts from this game, and chops it down to some reasonable length.


I've given The Colonists a good kicking here. Ambushed it in a dark alleyway and proceeded to beat the living snot out of it. But it's all in love really. The game is very playable, enjoyable, and I think every serious Euro gamer needs to play this at least once. Maybe twice ( more than this is madness or a life path choice imo ). The game is going to be the most productiony Euro game you play, it IS epic because it's three Euros in one, back to back, over 9 hours of play, and you get to wear the I've Played The Colonists Survivor T Shirt.

It's a nice effort from Tim Puls. But hopefully, when he does his next game, his excitement about including Absolutely Everything Ever and making Everyone Play It For The Longest Time Ever will have receded and something a bit more elegant will hit the table.

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