Designers: Andrea Chiarvesio, Pierluca Zizzi
Eclipse, Mage Knight, Cyclades, and Kemet. All of these are top-shelf titles that combine focused and streamlined Euro mechanisms with Ameritrash conflict and gumption. These are pretty boys who exude smooth yet possess unyielding bite. They’re the James Dean of the cardboard jungle and their kingdom just got a little bit smaller with the arrival of Hyperborea.
Hyperborea sets out to be a 4X game like Eclipse, albeit one set in a sprawling land-locked Fantasy world as opposed to the vast black sea of space. The vast majority of civilization games in this genre are bloated, unwieldy, and take all day to play. Hyperborea accomplishes a similar feat in a streamlined 90 minutes while still remaining substantial and mentally engaging.
The engine behind this Ferrari is the cube bag-building mechanism built on the foundation of deckbuilding. You will be acquiring cubes throughout the game and adding them to your bag much like a player acquires cards and adds them to their deck in Dominion. On your turn you will draw 3 cubes and place them on various tracks on your player board in order to either complete actions or build towards completing an action in the future. Actions such as moving your units on the hex map or acquiring a new Technology have different colored cube requirements. For instance, if you wish to push the attack and beat down your enemies with brawn you will need primarily Red cubes. Tailoring your bag towards your long-term strategic needs is key and the soul of this title.
The depth in this central mechanism is widened due to a key difference from its deck-building forefathers – the need to acquire additional spaces to place cubes in order to fully utilize an expanding bag. On the basic player board, you will only be able to perform a single set of Moves or Attacks and are quite limited in your ability to repeat or focus on a particular action. This allows for strong diversity and options in starting play but it enforces the need to nab Advanced Technologies from the public offer in order to enhance and manipulate your cube economy. If you want to perform a massive string of attacks you will need to research the Advanced Weaponry or War Mounts so that you have an additional space to place cubes and perform actions. This sort of two-step dance provides an ebb and flow in gameplay that requires thought and decisive action.
If the cube economy itself is the heart of the game, the Advanced Technologies are the brain. The quantity of cards is quite large, and only 8 are visible at any one time. This provides for an intelligent bite size sampling as players only need to focus on what is currently available and don’t have to sift through enormous tech trees or understand all of their options from a huge list straight from the get-go. This is, of course, borrowed from Eclipse and it is my absolute preferred method of Technology acquisition. It simplifies learning and provides exceptional variety with a very slick mechanic.
As emphasized earlier, choice is absolutely impactful in this game. Decisions require careful thought and weighing of options as you can often do as much harm as good by not respecting the game’s intricacies. Acquiring Technologies does not shirk this common theme as the decision point is not as simple as grabbing up Techs that suit your playstyle in rapid fashion. Each Advanced Technology adds a Grey cube to your economy as soon as you acquire it, which represents waste and slows your efficiency. These cubes are useless when drawn unless you have acquired some of the Technologies which can manipulate them in varied ways. The end result of having to deal with this waste is that a greater emphasis is placed on being picky about what Techs you go for and making sure they feed into your optimized engine.
A wide array of technologies offer vast choice and strong variety.
One of the main strengths of the cube economy is the games penchant for rewarding specificity but also tolerating diversity. Each set of actions on your main board has two choices, with one being typically stronger than the other. The stronger choice will require a more precise cube recipe in order to reap the greater benefit. However, instead you may opt to trigger the slightly weaker power and it will allow you to place a cube of any color as part of the combination. This provides for great tension and nuanced decision making as you draw a Red cube along with an Orange and must now decide whether to trigger your one strength attack ability by placing the Red and then the Orange in the multi-colored slot, or you can bite the bullet and place the Red cube on the stronger line waiting to trigger the effect until later in the game when you will draw the required Green cube out of your bag. Wait too long and your opponent may swoop in and clear out the Ruins you were gunning for. Act now with a weaker effect and sacrifice efficiency for instant gratification.
While efficiency and bag management touches every part of this game and will be the driving force behind victory and defeat, there are a number of additional layers which provide interaction and flavor. The board itself is made up of Eclipse-like hexes with the heart of the layout being face-down simulating a fog of war and allowing for exploration. You have a number of units at your disposal and will be able to move relatively quickly across the board, exploring with ease. Players will gravitate towards the center as it boasts the most rewards and is significant in controlling for end game scoring. When you combine ease of movement, simple deterministic combat, and incentive to hold contested ground, conflict will quickly arise and the Ameritrash face of this bi-polar beauty will emerge. You will have games where people will churn through units repeatedly and territory will be hotly contested. Other times several players will be focused on Technologies and Developments and pursuing victory through knowledge. There’s a nice variety and wide-open strategy space that provides for great replayability.
Clever permeates all areas of this design. You have smart little nudges like only allowing you to score additional points for killing opponents once you’ve killed one of each enemy’s piece, influencing you to spread out your attacks as opposed to focus on beating up a single player. The different faction abilities are also smart and always interesting, offering you typically a single benefit but they work in conjunction with specialized faction-specific starting hexes that provide for a combined foundation of specialty and unique play. The Technologies also boast benefits that typically align with their flavor text in intelligent and clean ways. The game will continually have you nodding your head and smiling as this duo of designers undeniably gets it.
The way the end game is triggered by the players as opposed to a turn limit is also a welcome aspect. Players earn victory points by having the majority of units in a space, by acquiring victory point chips from certain actions, by acquiring Advanced Technologies, by acquiring more cubes, and by killing units. Three different states cause an end game condition to trigger including a player having all of their units deployed, possessing 12 victory point chips, or owning 5 Advanced Technologies. If you accomplish one of these feats you receive an additional 2 victory points and as soon as two of these three are accomplished the game will end. It works rather well as it provides a natural impetus for action focus that aligns with one of the three core paths of the game (Tech, Conflict, and VP acquisition). Like all of the other elements, this is just another cog in the finely purring machine.
This is a beautiful game that contains excellent graphic design and a sleek appearance that perfectly matches the engrossing inner-workings. It’s a game that possesses that undeniable quality of being a deep and broad design that somehow manages to be astoundingly easy to play. It’s not heavy, brain-burning, or oppressive in any way. It doesn’t place a burden on the player but merely offers him an endless battlefield to explore. This game may not appeal to stoic Ameritrashers or rigid Euro gamers, but for those rebels without a cause this will hit that sweet spot that you just can’t quite itch enough.