I’m starting this review with a disclaimer. If you found your way here hoping for a review of films starring the king of mediocre ’80s comedies, Steve Guttenberg, you’re going to be disappointed. I like the Police Academy films as much as the next guy, but this is a review of a game called Gutenberg, from Granna and Portal Games.
Gutenberg takes its name from Johannes Gutenberg, the German printer and inventor who gave his name to the movable-type printing press, which brought about the printing revolution in Europe. Its invention is considered one of the pivotal moments of the second millennium, so he’s kind of a big deal. Especially because developing printing workshops in 15th Century Germany is the perfect setting for a board game.
The gears of industry
The first thing you’ll notice when you see Gutenberg on the table are the cardboard gears. I dare you to not play with the cogs, making them spin, as if you were two-years-old playing with a Fisher Price toy. It’s a toy factor which really helps sell the game to players. Euros can be here-comes-a-hosepipe-ban dry, so anything which makes the game a bit more ‘fun’ is great. It’s especially good when the game in question is pretty much bang in the middle of medium-weight complexity.
Each player takes the role of one of the early printing pioneers, and the aim of the game is to complete printing orders. You need to invest in type-blocks, inks, patrons, and your levels in various specialties, in order to be the best. The gears I mentioned above are more than just decorative – they give you once-per-round abilities too. Choosing which to take, and lining them up well is important, because the first thing you do each round is to rotate the top one to the next section, causing that oh-so-satisfying chain reaction.
If this is all sounding like any other Euro at the moment, I can understand why. Other than the turning gears, there’s not much new acting as grease between them, making Gutenberg stand out from the crowd. And that’s where we take a look at the little player screens and the multitude of small black cubes in the box.
Bookmakers or book-makers?
There are five different actions you can take in each round of Gutenberg, but the resources on offer vary in usefulness. Instead of just taking turns in order everything is up for grabs, it just depends how much you want it.
At the start of a round, each player has a number of black cubes to insert into a series of tracks on a little board behind their screens. When the screens are whipped away, the player with the most cubes in each track gets first pick for that action. Where it gets really clever is how ties are broken. The First Player in each round has fewer cubes to spend than the next person, who has fewer than the next, and so on. Predicting what the other players are going bid for is the key to doing well, and it’s really tricky.
I love how thematic the pieces of the game feel. The wooden type-blocks are absolutely gorgeous, so tactile, and the little cardboard component boxes look just like an old-fashioned type case. When you take all of that into consideration, and those fun gears, it makes me wonder why the ink tokens are these tiny, fiddly, little cardboard tokens. I’ve got big hands, and they’re no fun to handle. It’s crying out for a blinged-up set of plastic ink drops.
Gutenberg gets a lot right when it comes to game design. It’s very easy to teach, and to learn, and the design decisions are a big part of that. For example, the actions are represented with horizontal rows of things on the board, and the rows are duplicated on the little boards you use to bid for turn order. There’s no trying to remember where you can do what, or in what order. You just work from top to bottom. It’s very elegant.
The double-sided board and the way the actions work mean that the game is identical whether you’re playing with two, three, or four players. I like it best at four, however, because the drama of the secret bidding is multiplied. You also get to see more of the different gears and patronage cards. The solo game works nicely enough, but so much of the fun is derived from what happens behind the screens, that a bit of the soul of Gutenberg is sapped when played solitaire.
Unless you’re playing with newcomers to board games, I’d recommend ignoring the rulebook, and using the character tiles in your first game, and every game in fact. It adds a little asymmetry which makes things a bit more interesting. With newbies though, it’s enough to play without. I like that there’s plenty of emergent strategy too. As you get more familiar with the game, you’ll find yourself playing quite differently to your first few games.
Gutenberg then. It’s a cracking medium-weight game, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s quick to teach, it’s easy to learn, and it’s got a great table presence. If it gets the exposure it deserves, I can see it being one of those games that gets recommended to everyone new to the hobby, in the same way games like Azul, Pandemic, and Quacks are. Love or hate the expression, it makes a fantastic gateway game.
If you like your strategy games heavy, Gutenberg might not keep your attention for a lot of repeated play, There aren’t enough gears to mesh in your plans, despite the inclusion of actual gears in the game. But if you want a game that will get pulled out again and again at games nights, conventions, and family gatherings, Gutenberg is a fantastic choice.
With any luck, Portal’s decision to publish it means that it’ll get far more exposure than it ever would have with just Granna behind it. Portal had a stand at the recent UK Games Expo (show report here) with a huge stack of Gutenberg boxes. By the end of the first day, it was already down to very limited stock – this is one to keep an eye on.
(fun fact: the editor I’m writing this review in is named Gutenberg too!)
Review copy kindly provided by Portal Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Designers: Katarzyna Cioch, Wojciech Wiśniewski
Publishers: Granna, Portal Games
Art: Rafał Szłapa
Playing time: 60-90 mins