First Impressions: Mosaic

Cover

Mosaic is a civilization game by Glenn Drover and Forbidden Games currently on Kickstarter. My friend and I are very much into the theme of civ games, and this one is centered on the Mediterranean, giving it a more unique feel than most other civ games. And it has a sort of card drafting/engine building feel, like a lighter Terraforming Mars—a game we really enjoy. Mosaic looks great; excellent art and graphic design (except the prototype player boards which are drab).

We played it 2-player on Tabletopia (after watching some other playthroughs online). Note, we also played with the new fix rules for the endgame and card offer wipe. We already knew going in how much these two rules improved things.

Positives

Up front, I want to mention that we enjoyed the game for the most part. We like the concept, for sure. We don’t mind how mean the game can get, and the tug-of-war for area control was interesting (mostly). I also liked the government tiles; these were more impactful than I expected. The game mechanisms seem well interconnected; the way population works, the versatility of money, and the different ways to use resources. Nothing felt tacked on. The cards look nice. So does the map. What follows are my thoughts (as well as some from my friend) based on our first play and having watched other playthroughs.

Theme

We went in knowing it wasn’t a very thematic game, so it didn’t disappoint us much. But I think the biggest disconnect in the theme is the map. We don’t have our own territories, there are no borders to defend or expand, and we are free to build where ever. It’s an area control game, which doesn’t mesh with the theme.

The leaders don’t feel that different, at least not in our first game. In the end, you’re not quite a “civilization.” And the tech definitely doesn’t feel like a developing civilization. We’ll get to the tech in detail below, but most of the cards are very passive and aren’t impactful. The game looks nice, but it is a fairly thin theming; not totally abstract, but not immersive either.

Engine-building?

One thing we found is that you don’t really build an engine. You kind of end up specializing in some sort of production (except for me, where maybe 2/3s into the game, I had really good production in everything), but the resources weren’t that big of a deal. Money can replace resources, and there were multiple moments when we were flush with cash. Even if you are low on production of something, you have options. You can increase population which counts toward all production; you can drop cities/towns into spots that give production or resources; you can just pay with money. You don’t have to focus your production because you can switch gears pretty easily. This is helped by the fact that each resource has multiple uses. Maybe that’s what they’re going for, but that openness to do whatever you want is kind of the opposite of an engine-builder.

I think one area where more “engine” could come from is the technology cards. Many of them just increase some sort of production then sit on the side. What I would have liked to see more of were technology cards that provided unique abilities. This is where much of the “engine” comes from in games like these; unique things I can do that no one else can do. Producing 16 ideas instead of your 7 isn’t that unique; you can just make up the difference with population, money, or just spend one extra round working. But the starting technology card Bronze (which let me kill an enemy unit in a region with my infantry) felt more interesting and unique than most of the non-starting cards I acquired during the game. The government tiles also felt unique and nudged us towards different strategies. It just seemed like there were too many passive technology cards that didn’t add to our engine, just production. This brings us to…

Pacing

This more of a minor point, but the game has odd pacing. We build up some resources, then spend a couple of rounds or so using them up. Then we go back to producing—rinse and repeat. The game is engaging maybe 2/3s of the time. The turns are mostly quick, but many turns are spent just stockpiling resources. Even worse when you have to stockpile food so you can spend another boring turn converting that into population; which is another resource. The fun is constantly being paused to collect resources every few actions. My friend had the idea that you could collect all your resources when you choose the work action. The game would certainly need rebalancing, so it’s probably too late for such a change.

And one of the problems with the resource-collecting that hurts the pacing is that often, you collect resources for something expensive, but you’re still short. Have to spend another round collecting resources (or pay money). I wish the values of the game were smaller and balanced so that, more often than not, one work action gave you the resources you needed. It seems like much of the design is centered on these production tracks: building them, working them, spending large amounts of resources, and slowly adding more production. But collecting resources isn’t that interesting (though sometimes satisfying when you collect a ton at once). This start-stop pacing might also contribute to the game’s (possible) length problem.

Scoring

Another oddity was the redundancy in scoring. Achievements are worth 6. They’re interesting to shoot for, though some can take a bit of work (maybe they shouldn’t all be 6?). Golden Ages are also 6. These aren’t as interesting since the components required for them are generally collected passively. The free bonus on them is neat, but some were much more impactful than others (production, as established, isn’t usually as meaningful, certainly not so far into the game where you’re collecting golden ages; whereas a free city can be pretty significant).

Then there are the great projects. These are the worst. It’s 1 point per component matching the project. Again, collecting components is largely passive, and earning 1 extra point for them is hardly exciting. Even worse, if you have the golden age for a component, most likely you’re going to score about 6 points (again) for your project. This means the project and golden ages overlap, rewarding you for your set of components. But the great projects have no ability on them. So they’re less interesting and redundant. I don’t think the game would lose anything if these were removed. But rather, I’d like to see an ability on them instead of scoring. The ability could be related to what the project is and would encourage you to specialize more (running off of the matching component, perhaps). Again, it’s probably too late for such a change. But to me, the projects are the weakest part of the game and could be removed without losing anything.

Area Control

This was a minor thing but worth noting, that maybe 2/3s into the game, the area control kind of died out. After a while, our strongholds were so well established that it was hardly worth fighting over them. Why go out of my way to fight for a territory to earn 6 points for first instead of 2 for second? It ends up being a lot of work just for a few points. But this seems like a 2-player problem since you always at least get 2 points as long as you’re in the region. With more players, you still might fight for second place since third or lower scores nothing. Some of the other issues above may also be more of a 2-player issue (like the redundancy of great projects and golden ages; not enough competition for these?).

Length

For not being a complicated game, and especially for having such quick turns, it’s a long game. Even with the fixes (and we ended with the new rule, having collected all achievement and golden age tiles), it was around 3 hours for 2-players. It can be a little slow online compared to in-person, but this game didn’t feel especially slow online. Maybe 2.5 hours in-person. If you read everything so far, you might notice that I mentioned 2/3s multiple times. I think the game could be cut by a good 3rd or 4th and still feel satisfying. Right now, when the game feels ready to end, and we’re in a good position with all the things we’ve earned, it just keeps going anyway. Again, it could be a 2-player issue where, because all achievement and golden age tiles are out, the new ending is still too slow (cut down on tiles based on player count?). Maybe at higher player counts, those go fast enough that the game ends when it should. But I can’t help but feel that the empire scoring cards being shuffled into the decks the way they are puts the endgame too far out (potentially). It’s pretty random where the card is in the build and technology decks since these are larger decks than the others. The empire cards might need to be placed higher in the deck to get a more consistent (and trimmed) playtime. I think this would be solid at 90 minutes for 2-player.

Thoughts for Now

We had fun with it, but it seems like Mosaic still needs more development to iron things out. The production is very nice, but the gameplay is rough around the edges. More plays might reveal nuances that improve some of these areas, but when it’s a pricey Kickstarter, it’s tough justifying the risk, hoping it gets better the more you play. We’ll be watching this one to see where it goes and what the final version looks like.

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