Diatoms. We all know what they are, right? Yeah, of course we do, but just in case anyone doesn’t, let me explain. A diatom is a single-cell form of algae, and they’re actually pretty amazing. Did you know they generate somewhere between 20% and 50% of the oxygen produced on our planet every year?
I didn’t either, but I do now because I read it on Wikipedia.
As well as basically keeping us all alive, diatoms are also extremely pretty. More than that, they’re beautiful. Diatoms have symmetry and come in all different shapes and patterns and during the 19th Century, some artists started creating mosaics from the microscopic wonders. This is a game about making your own patterns and mosaics from these curious creatures, and it’s as much fun as diatoms are gorgeous.
Diatoms is a tile-laying game, pure and simple. There are two kinds of tiles to contend with. During your turn you’ll take one of the hexagonal tiles from one of the stacks, then add one of the tiles in your hand to the growing mosaic in the middle of the table. When you place a tile, the colours at the intersections of the tiles tell you which diatoms you get to claim from the little Petri dishes the game uses for storage (in the prototype copy I’m playing with at least).
Once you’ve got those unbelievably cute little diatom tiles in all their iridescent glory, you get to place them into your own mosaic board. There are a load of different scoring conditions based on what shapes and colours you place and where you put them, in the same way that classics like the Azul games do things. At the start of the game, there’s no wrong strategy to take here, it just depends on what you think you might be able to manage.
The kicker in Diatoms, the thing I really like, is the way that each of the spaces on the mosaic board can hold one of two different shapes. I can’t explain why, but I love this little detail so much. It’s almost the same feeling as doing those shape-sorting toys made for little children, but for adults instead. Because only an adult could cope with two shapes in one slot, right?
In principle it sounds like a really easy game, and in terms of taking your actions, and teaching others the game, it’s as easy as it sounds. Despite that level of ease, you’ll run into so many occasions where all you’ve got to do is place one or two little shapes, and there are only a few places they can go, but it’ll drive you batty trying to decide. This is down to the different scoring conditions I mentioned above. Agonising whether to try to get as many shapes of the same colour as possible, or to get a load of different shapes on a ring, or maybe going for symmetry, or a bit of everything… it’s so tricky to decide. Even more so when you add in the guest judge cards, which add even more ways to score points.
It gets easier with more plays, but it’ll still mess with your head, but in a nice way. It’s really hard to get annoyed when you’re playing with all of these pretty, pleasing pieces. They’re satisfyingly thick, and the finish on the (prototype) boards is really tactile too.
Planning is tricky, but not impossible, and I like the way that the multiple scoring objectives mean that you’re not totally screwed if someone starts gunning for the same things you wanted. It’s possible to branch into other scoring routes up until quite late in the game and still do well. That isn’t always the case in abstract strategy games, which is what Diatoms is.
Diatoms found fame earlier in the year when the designer, Sabrina Culyba, won a Cardboard Edison award for it, and rightly so. The problem with many abstract games like this is because they’re exactly that – abstract. They make for fun games in their own right, but it’s extremely rare to find a cohesive link between the theme and the game. Diatoms manages precisely this, thanks in no small part to the game mimicking the way the real mosaics are made in the real world. Taking tiny, pretty things, and making a larger pretty thing with them.
There’s plenty of depth in the strategy, and in my experience so far it doesn’t seem to suffer from my usual bugbears in this sort of game. My plans aren’t totally ruined if someone claims the thing I had my eye on before I get a chance to (Azul), but I can still make those plans before the player directly before me makes a move (Mandala Stones).
It’s a game where I’m genuinely happy to sit back at the end of the game and just admire the thing I’ve made. It sits there, shimmering, and while it might not be complete or entirely symmetrical, it’s still something I made, and its inception was based on its aesthetics first and foremost, even if that was to comply with the scoring conditions. Art for art’s sake.
If this style of game is your thing, do yourself a favour and back Diatoms. It’s quick, fun, easy to learn and teach, and so, so pretty. Then google “diatom microscopic art” and enjoy your trip down that rabbit hole for a few hours. Diatoms – keeping us alive and providing inspiration for fun, who knew?
Diatoms is live on Kickstarter at the time of writing. You can check it out and back it right here.
Preview copy kindly provided by Ludoliminal. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Design: Sabrina Culyba
Art: Sabrina Culyba
Playing time: 30-45 mins