There’s gold in them thar hills! Only it’s not gold, it’s ore. Oh, and those hills are actually islands. But, at any rate, there are resources aplenty for the taking and to get them we need to load up some boats with our voyagers and assign them to manual labor so we can sit back in comfort and get filthy rich! Sounds good, yeah? If so, then you are ready try out Embark by Tasty Minstrel Games. Anchors aweigh!
Embark by Tasty Minstrel Games
Designer: Philip duBarry
Artist(s): Robert Gonzales, Matt Paquette
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Prominent Mechanism(s): Area Control
TMG games get a lot of mileage around here. Pioneer Days and Exodus Fleet are fairly regular at my table. Generally speaking, the games are cartoonish in their art design, filled to the brim with components, and pretty fun.
What is Embark?
It’s a game for 2-5 players where you will explore various islands to gather resources and bring them back to your settlement. You will be safely in the rear, maybe having an ale at The Groggy Goblin, lamenting of first-world problems like, “why is the rum all gone?” Assign your voyagers various rolls and into boats then bid them bon voyage. They will go mine, explore, colonize, or steal people’s jobs all in your honor.
What’s in the Game?
If you’re familiar with Tasty Minstrel Games then you probably expect to see a lot of components in just about any of their games save for the occasional card game (such as Okey Dokey). This one is no exception to that rule. In fact, it is a testament to your spacial intelligence—and patience—if you are able to fit all the components back into the box after each play. This game is not like a bag of chips where 63% of the space is wasted on air. Anyway, here is a list of the components.
- 1 rule book
- 79 victory point tokens
- 20 farm tiles
- 15 key/unlock tokens
- 5 island boards (double-sided so you get 10 unique islands)
- 36 boat cards
- 60 ore tokens
- 1 first player token
- 16 talent cards
- 5 player boards and player screens
- 150 voyager cubes
Not bad for a game whose box dimensions measure less than 9″ x 6″ x 2.5″ (less than 23cm x 15.5cm x 6.5cm for you metric system types).
It’s hard to approach Embark with a completely objective opinion (do objective opinions even exist? Seems contradictory). I’m a fan of Tasty Minstrel Games already so I come to the game table with preconceptions and expectations. Clear rules and quality components being chief among them. The box is hefty for its size, like a good honeydew or pineapple should be (hey, we’re talking island colonization here so tropical fruits are on my mind). Upon opening the box I was happy to see the wooden voyager cubes and chip board player screens and tokens. The cards and the island boards are thin card stock with glossy finishes which I didn’t care for upon inspection. The rule book is clear and concise and the art is nice and thematic but isn’t the star of the game. Nor should it be.
Deep(ish) Dive into the Game
This game states it will take about 15 minutes per player. Throughout my plays of the game I found that is a pretty accurate statement.
Each player chooses a color they want (except yellow, that’s mine) and sets up their corresponding player screen. Then each player takes their 30 voyager cubes. They also take a player board which are mechanically all the same. Indeed, the only difference on them is the name of the pub so you will take whatever fancies you (except The Groggy Goblin, that’s mine).
Next, you randomly take 1 island board per player (you should also randomly choose a side to face up). These will be the islands you will try to plunder—errr, that you will responsibly gather resources from. Arrange them in alphabetical order. Place key tokens (key side up) on any key icon on the exploration track and also fill the mines with the appropriate number of ore tokens.
Reveal 1 boat card per lettered slot of each island.
Finally, shuffle and reveal 2+n talent cards where n = number of players (so 5 cards in a 3-player game). The player to the right of the starting player chooses one of these talent cards and the player to her right chooses from among the remaining cards. Continue until each player has chosen a talent card and put the last two cards away.
Now you’re ready to play.
This is where things can be a bit interesting. During the allocation stage, players take 5 voyager cubes (unless you happen to have selected the Eager Beaver talent card where you may take 7 voyagers in the first 4 rounds of the game) plus however many are in the pub. During the first round there are no voyagers in the pub. Then you assign those cubes onto your player board according to what boat you want them to board. There are corresponding letters on the player board to match the islands’ destination spots.
Some hobbyists love this simultaneous action mechanic and some hate it. I enjoy it.
Here’s the thing: a boat will not set sail unless it’s full. Some boats can carry as many as 6 voyagers while others can only fit 2. Furthermore, each slot on the boat represents a particular job. More on that in the next stage. The point is you have to decide where to send your voyagers and assess the available slots on each of the boats that can get you there. Then you have to decide whether to try for it this round or in a later round. Oh, and any voyagers that try to board a boat that’s at capacity is sent packing back to the pub. Unless you selected the Stowaway talent card. That card lets you add ONE voyager to ONE full boat per round. That voyager becomes the boat’s captain.
Once everyone is finished allocating their voyagers it’s time to remove your player screens and reveal where you’re sending them all. If you have voyagers assigned to A, move them below the corresponding boat. The players do this all at the same time. If you assigned voyagers to a letter that has no corresponding destination, tough! They go back to the pub and you’d better pay closer attention next round.
Now that all the voyagers are either standing on the docks waiting to board their boats (or carousing back at the pub), it’s time to start boarding. The first player chooses one voyager to climb aboard. Depending on the boat’s available slots, that first voyager can be a colonist, a miner, an explorer, a warrior, or a captain. I’ll explain these roles in the Landing Stage later. Then it’s the second player’s turn to do the same. Continue around the table until all voyagers have been assigned. If you have voyagers that couldn’t fit, send them back to the pub.
Note: if you have a talent card that lets you overlook/circumvent a rule as written, it takes precedence. That’s true of all stages and mechanics in the game.
At this point it’s time for any full boats to sail to their tropical destinations. It’s best to start with one boat at a time. The player closest to the bow goes ashore first. If it’s a miner you send it to the mines to collect ore. An explorer goes to the exploration track. Colonists start building a farm. Captains go wherever they choose. And warriors can boot anyone from their positions so long as the farm isn’t complete (4 colonists of one color create a farm). Then the next player closest to bow goes ashore to find meaningful labor. Do this until the boat is empty and then move on to the next full boat, if any.
If there is no position for a warrior to usurp, they can join the rest of the losers back at the pub. If there are no open slots for any given voyager, you guessed it, back to the pub. Emptied boats are discarded and a new boat card is put in its place.
Note: if an explorer lands on a key on the exploration track, flip it over and move it to the lock icon at the top of the island board.
This stage is very simple and probably the one you will most look forward to. Here there be points! Score 1 VP for each explorer you have on the islands, 15 points for every 4 colonists you have on a single island (top them with a farming token so warriors can quickly assess whether they can cross the border and take their jobs). You will only score the 15 points for a completed farm ONCE, you don’t get points each round unless you’ve completed an additional farm. Collect 1 ore token if you have a miner and there is ore still available in the corresponding mine.
Pass the first player token to the player on your left and begin a new round. Remember that this time during the allocation stage you allocate 5 voyagers plus any chumps currently chilling at the pub. As you can see, populating the pub isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Ending the Game
The game ends after 6 rounds of the 4 stages. You complete the island stage as before but you score some end of game points after you’ve done so. Any unlocked island bonuses are scored (you may or may not have island bonuses to score).
Count up your total mining tokens and receive VP based on that total (3 for 1-4, 10 for 5-9, 25 for 10-14, and 45 for 15+). It does not matter whether you have more or fewer tokens than your opponents to receive these victory points.
Finally, look at each island’s exploration track and find the last explorer on the track. Depending on the flag that was reached, award top points to the player with the most colonists on the island. If there is a second number on the flag then give the player with the second most colonists that many points. In some instances there will be a third number and those points go to the player with the third most. If there is a tie, add the tiers together and divide the total among all tied players.
The player with the most points wins!
Oh, you’d better stay engaged with this game! If you’re not paying attention and assign voyagers to the wrong boats, or the wrong jobs on those boats, you can really shoot yourself in the foot. Perhaps it’s intentional to do a bad allocation and you WANT to send voyagers to the pub so you can be in a better position the next round. Fine, do it! But you don’t want to give yourself an opportunity for a peg leg if there is little to gain from your careless mistake.
Pay attention to who seems to be targeting the mines or, really, anything they’re telegraphing. It may change your strategy.
Despite the allocation stage being done in secret, there is a lot of interaction in this game. I can’t directly influence your moves, but if I think you’re gunning for Boat B and there is only one slot left, I may stick a voyager there in an attempt to block you. Or if you have a mine I’m after, I have no qualms about sending a marauding warrior to that island to displace you. Of course, you may know that and try to block my opportunity and take that warrior position for yourself, even if it means that warrior simply goes back to the pub. Maybe I want to feign that I’m interested in the island you keep sending explorers to but in reality I’m attempting to colonize another for the farm bonuses as well as the endgame exploration bonus. Anticipating my opponents’ moves is a big part of the fun, and challenge, of this game.
Given the different islands, the different boats, and the variable player powers of the talent cards each play through is slightly different while still being somewhat consistent (i.e., no crazy new rules to implement…just nuances). Even if you played with the exact same setup several times in a row you could still have a unique playing experience based on your strategy or your opponenets’ strategies. In short, replayability is good thanks to variable player powers, a short playtime, and the randomized islands, boats, and talents.
Tasty Minstrel Games, in my opinion, always has top quality components. My initial impression of the cards was sort of “meh”. They’re a bit inflexible (they’ll crease easily) and have a high-gloss finish with no texture to speak of. But after I played the game I realized these cards don’t need the durability of other games where you are constantly holding or shuffling or playing them from your hand. You touch the cards so infrequently that you’re likely not to wear them out. So, if you like sleeving your cards you should consider NOT sleeving this game. Besides, you’d have a hell of a time fitting 52 sleeved cards back into this box.
The verdict on the quality is that it’s mostly excellent with the cards being only okay, but they don’t need to be any better for this particular game.
The family gamer may find this one just a bit too inaccessible for them. I think a lot of components can be overwhelming for those kinds of players. But for anyone else who is moving into hobby gaming, or is already there, this is a good one. It’s not overly complex. In fact, I’d say it’s sort of in the sweet spot for a game you can play in under an hour. The rounds play pretty quickly despite seeming to have a lot of steps.
If you’re a Tasty Minstrel Games fan, this is a good one to add to your collection. If you’ve never played a TMG game, this is not a bad introduction to their product line. It’s very reflective of the things they are known for. Give it a try!
- the box isn’t over-sized
- lots of good components
- great player interaction and replayability
- components have to be meticulously packed to fit back into the box
- the game can take up a lot of play space, depending on the number of players