The battle of two old bearded white men… (I kid, but those covers…)
These two games were recently on Kickstarter, and though I normally ignore KS, both were available to play. Darwin’s Journey was made available on Tabletopia, and Carnegie on Board Game Arena. My friend and I decided to try them out (he was thinking about getting one). I won’t be going into detail on how these games are played, there are plenty of overview videos out there that were released for their respective KS campaigns. Also, they’re both heavy Euros, so there’s a decent level of complexity.
I went in not expecting to like it. It’s incredibly drab looking with too much brown, and though the theme sounded interesting, parts of the game were very abstracted. And it looked like just another worker-placement. After we played, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It is for sure dry as hell and very brown. But the combos are interesting, and I like that players can add new worker-placement spaces (nothing new, but still fun). Though I found the central element of collecting specimens to add to the grid a little boring. And it seemed pretty easy for us both to keep up on our Book icons which is how you score for the grid. It meant that for all of our hard work, the points from it were a wash. A bit of a letdown in that regard. Some of the iconography could have been better as well.
I expected to like the map part more since it was one of the few areas of the game that felt thematic. But the sluggish pacing meant that we didn’t explore much until far later into the game. And moving the ships forward felt more like homework since, for the most part, it’s just to keep up with the Beagle so we don’t lose points. The mail correspondence, one of the more abstracted aspects, was actually a neat mechanic where you can “bid” on end-of-round income bonuses. Totally abstract, but it helped you not only plan out your turns that round but also start planning turns for next round based on what you collect.
While the unique worker aspect sounded interesting, in play, the workers quickly become versatile enough that the knowledge seal mechanism stops being a noticeable factor. You can probably go anywhere, you just have to plan which worker to send where. It’s a system that starts interesting but is less-so as the game continues. And the character cards seemed cool, but they’re difficult to pull off, and I’m not entirely sure they’re worth the effort. The points earned from filling up your workers’ seals also don’t seem to compete with points you could earn from other areas.
One last thing that I liked was how you select objective tiles that once completed, take up a slot in one of two rows on your player board, unlocking a bonus for that slot. The slots have abilities like reducing costs or extra scoring, but one row requires silver tiles, the other, gold. You can hold 2 tiles, hoping to complete them, if you take any more, you have to place them onto one of the slots, but you don’t get the bonus until the tile is scored. But this pressures you to try and complete it since it’s blocking that slot’s bonus.
Overall, I enjoyed it, but I wonder about its longevity. At its heart, DJ doesn’t really offer any surprises. The parts that could have been unique fell a little flat for me. The combos are fun, but there are a lot of Eurogames that offer that kind of play. Additional plays might reveal more nuance to aspects that I didn’t click with, but I have no idea when we’ll come back to it. Due to how the KS was run, if you didn’t back the KS, you’re getting less of a game. Many options won’t be available after the KS, including tiles that increase the replay value.
While Carnegie looks much nicer (Ian O’Toole of course), the theme was more of a turn-off. It’s a business simulation, but rather than working in a specific business like Prêt-à-Porter, you operate a sort of headquarters, from which you build other businesses. It’s more office-management. But, the mechanics looked interesting, and I do enjoy economic engine-builders.
One thing that also worked well was the action-selection board. It’s a bit like role-selection games like Race for the Galaxy. The first player chooses an action, first resolving the “event” of the next space on the board. Then they perform the action they selected. Then in turn order, everyone gets to do that same action. But unlike role-selection games, only the first player chooses the action. But once the action is done for all players, the round ends, and first-player moves. So everyone will get to select actions, but only once per turn. If you’re not ready for the action that was selected, too bad. But the events on the action board are also important, triggering the travel bonuses from areas on the board where you’ve placed workers and giving you income. You can see what events are coming up and seed workers around the board in preparation.
Your central business comes with several departments pre-built in, and you get to deploy workers during setup to choose how you “power” the departments. For most of them, more workers mean getting to take more actions when that department is activated. But you quickly start accumulating new departments with new effects. The downside is that if you haven’t pre-deployed workers into the spaces you put the new departments, they’re slower to activate. But this just forces you to plan accordingly and make tough decisions. Leave a department weaker but have a worker in-place and ready for the new department? Or power up an existing department and wait longer before activating the new one?
Speaking of workers, one of the things I liked about the game most is how it layers the decision making. To activate most departments, you “spend” the worker there, but they don’t simply go away like in most games. You send them on a mission to the main board which is broken into 4 areas: east, west, north, and south. These are the event areas. More workers in one area grant a larger bonus when you take income from that area’s transportation track, but doing so also removes those workers and brings them home. In both “spending” workers in the departments and using them to collect transportation bonuses and income, there are decisions along the way. It’s never a binary choice of to spend something or save it. Spending them involves a series of new decisions.
Carnegie has some of the comboing of effects like Darwin’s Journey, but it’s much more focused on economics and engine-building. You choose how you score many of your points, donating to certain causes, but donating early means committing to a plan if you want those points.
While I enjoyed Carnegie more, my friend preferred the combos of Darwin’s Journey. Carnegie felt much fresher and unique, and it certainly has depth to it with many decisions to make with far-reaching consequences. Darwin’s Journey was also enjoyable, but it felt more generic. The parts that should make it stand out weren’t as impactful as I expected. At its core, it’s another heavy worker-placement. Whereas Carnegie has more of a hook to the gameplay without losing depth. The way workers shuffle around without simply being reduced to resources is interesting. The action-selection board is interesting (and changes from game to game). It feels similar to other games while remaining unique. Darwin’s Journey didn’t do that for me; it just felt like other games. Again, my views could change with more plays, but sometimes, a game only gets one shot to impress.