Earth is being played and talked about for long enough after its initial hype to prove that it’s here to stay. If you’re wondering what it’s all about, you’re in the right place. Earth is a tableau-/engine-building game about growing plants, trees, bushes and fungi. Plants sprout, grow, die and return to the earth as compost, which is a nice thematic nod to nature’s cycle. Earth is the ideal game to play while you’re sitting around a table with people you like, having a chill time making little wooden towers. There’s plenty going on beneath the surface to keep you thinking, too.
Race for the birdbox
“What game is it like?” – that’s the question I get asked most when introducing new players to a game. In the case of Earth, the best comparison I came up with was “Race For The Galaxy meets Wingspan”, and I think it holds some weight.
Each turn starts with the active player choosing one of the four actions available at the top of your player boards. These basic actions do things like add cards to your hand, add sprouts to your tableau cards (little green cubes), add growth (stacking wooden stems and those cute little mushroom-looking toppers), and add cards to your compost pile. Each action has an associated colour, which triggers cards with the same colour in players’ tableaus. That’s where we see similarities with a lot of other games, including the aforementioned Wingspan.
Earth is a game which doesn’t want any of the players to have any real downtime. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re the active player, and let’s say you choose to activate the orange action. Not only do you get to activate your orange actions, I get to do the same. Each of us has our cards on the table in a 4×4 grid layout, and we activate them left-to-right, top-to-bottom, so there’s a great opportunity to employ some strategy.
I might have a card which lets me add sprouts to cards and another that converts sprouts to growth. Maybe I’ve got a card which lets me take more cards into my hand, and another that lets me convert cards in my hand to compost. Knowing that the cards activate left-to-right, top-to-bottom, it makes sense to place cards that give me things before cards that let me do something with things. For experienced game players, this is all common sense, but to people taking tentative first steps into the hobby, the dawning of these realisations can be a real ‘Hallelujah’ moment. It’s so cool to see people suddenly ‘get’ how engine-building games work, and the smile that lights someone’s face when they realise they’ve done something clever is wonderful.
Better than a two-stroke diesel
When it comes to any engine-building game, the thing that really matters is how satisfying the game is to play. There are a load of potential pitfalls for a game like this, but the designer, Maxime, has done a great job of avoiding them.
Even if you do a really poor job of planning your horticultural wilderness, you still get the feeling of being able to do something, even if it isn’t particularly efficient. By the same notion, the way the game’s cyclical resources work means that it’s rare to find yourself with a huge excess of things you don’t want. Planting cards costs dirt, and like any of the other resources in the game, the dirt you gain tends not to be exponential. There’s a real feeling of one-for-one with many of the resource exchange actions, even if they don’t necessarily look that way at first.
It’s a far more forgiving game than others in this genre, especially compared to fine-tuned games like Race for the Galaxy. When it comes to scoring VPs at the end of the game, all of the various resources you’ve still got are just worth one point. Each dirt token, each sprout, each unfinished trunk growth, and every card in your compost pile – they all score a point each. For beginners, this is a great touch. It means they don’t feel like they’ve failed in some way, just because they’ve got a field of green sprouts and precious little growth.
The real difference in scoring comes from the bonuses offered by other cards on display. Ecosystem objectives earn you points, Fauna cards do the same. Interestingly, there’s a beginners’ mode suggested in the rulebook which uses the second side of the Fauna board, whereby it doesn’t matter when you complete a Fauna objective. You always get 10 VPs. In the full game the first player to claim one gets the most points, then the next player gets the next most, and so on. It’s just another example of the way the game is looking to guide people into the hobby with a gentle touch and to get people used to how to play it, rather than worrying about how well the other players are doing.
There’s a lot to like about Earth. From its theme which I don’t think anyone could ever take offence at, through to the clever inclusion of a beginners’ game in the rulebook. For a very mechanical engine-building game, it manages to pack a lot of theme in. Plants are planted, watered to sprout, they grow, and then they die back to become compost. I mean, there’s a lot of Earth’s ecosystem that’s left out – namely animals – but when you’ve got everything from Wingspan (review here) to Ark Nova (review here) already covering that, why bother?
It’s going to become my default answer to the question “What’s a good game to get people into more serious board games?” from now on. The abject lack of player interaction becomes a major strength, because it lets the players mess around in this little eco-sandbox, to flick switches and see what happens. You’re not going to be attacked by other players, and you can’t attack them. You’re left alone to your own devices, and that’s what modern Euro games are at their core – multiplayer solitaire.
What elevates Earth above others, for me, is the fact that as well as being a great introductory game, there’s a ton of depth to it. The way that your tableau’s arrangement can be dynamic until you commit to the fourth card in a row or column, the way that cards in that tableau and trigger bonus scores so readily, and the sheer variety of strategy on offer. You want to come up with some kind of recycling machine that says ‘Screw everything else – compost, compost, compost’, go for it. It’s viable.
Earth is essentially a bix box of cards (over 350 of them) with a clever, easy-to-grasp game which will keep you coming back again and again to see what happens. While it is available to play over on BGA (click here to take a look), the interface there is designed to help people who already know the game. If you can play the physical game first, do so, or head over to watch Paul Grogan’s excellent instructional video on YouTube right here. Top stuff, highly recommended.
Review copy kindly provided by Inside Up Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Design: Maxime Tardif
Publisher: Inside Up Games
Art: M81 Studio, Conor McGoey, Yulia Sozonik, Kenneth Spond
Playing time: 60-90 mins