Caravans of Cubes- A review of Serica: Plains of Dust

I really enjoy studying ancient history. There is a lot of interesting aspects that would have been neat to see or participate in. Who wouldn’t want to walk through Rome, or visit the streets of Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon, stroll through the great amphitheaters, ride a chariot across the Roman network of roads, visit the temples of Greece, or ride a camel across a dry,hot, dusty desert, carrying goods to far off places? Ok, so maybe you and I wouldn’t want to do the camel ride. It is dusty, hot, long and dangerous. And did I mention it is hot? And dusty? Dodging bandits and raiders, rationing supplies to make it across the desert, getting covered in dust, dirt and grime, looking out for snakes, battling heat exhaustion….I think I’ll just stay right here in the air-conditioned 21st Century, thank you very much!

Illustration by Photokanok on freedigitalphotos.net

Illustration by Photokanok on freedigitalphotos.net

In our day of fast cars, fast trains, and fast airplanes, long distances are nothing to us. In 5 hours from now, I could be in Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Miami, or even farther, Mexico, Canada, etc, etc. We easily forget that a long journey used to take weeks and months of time. In that ancient period, there were no railroads to ship goods to other places. Everything went by caravan- load up your donkeys and camels for a long, arduous trip to get your goods to foreign markets and gain wealth. The concept does have an allure, even if you don’t want to get dirty!

Now, however, you could recapture some of that excitement with a game. While this kind of theme is few and far between, it is certainly intriguing. Todd Sanders, a prolific designer has done just that with his game Serica: Plains of Dust. All you need is some good paper, glue, ink in your printer, a steady hand, a knife or scissors, and a bunch of cubes.

OVERVIEW

DSCF3225

Serica is a two player game depicting the trade between the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire. For a PnP game, the art really is quite nice. Todd Sanders, who is a prolific designer on Board Game Geek, has created many well designed PnP games and this is certainly one of his finer offerings. It is amazing how many games this guy cranks out. As a budding game designer, I just don’t know how he does it!

At its heart this is a card drafting game. For those unfamiliar with the term, in essence players start out with a small deck of cards, and slowly buy more cards to add to their deck, giving them extra abilities, points, and other advantages. While a little more abstract, you do get a sense for building something as your deck gets bigger and bigger.

DSCF3226

However the gameplay goes beyond just collecting cards and playing them. There is the whole process of shipping goods to the other player, moving your cube caravans across the attractively illustrated barren desert. In fact most of the points to be had can be found here, but more on that later.  Plus, you can choose to take cards out of your deck (sacrificing their abilities) and building them for points. There is a lot to see here but it is not too overwhelming or complicated.

CONSTRUCTION:

Photo paper, ruler, glue, brush, knife. Steady hands not included. Also not included: Card stock, laminator, etc.

Photo paper, ruler, glue, brush, knife. Steady hands not included. Also not included: Card stock, laminator, etc.

For those who are not particularly crafty, or DIY-inclined, the build could present some of a challenge. There are 54 cards to make (6 sheets of paper, plus the backs to, and a game board. Depending on your method, the construction could take a lot of time or very little. The simplest would be to print everything out on thick card stock, double sided to get the back artwork (not necessary, but is a nice touch) and cut it out. It may not look the greatest (card stock tends to not render as sharp of an image) but it would be quick enough. A better solution might be to print it on high quality paper, laminate it, and then cut it. Since I got a laminator, this has been my favorite process- you get a better looking card that is pretty durable. You can find the same laminator here: Thermal laminator @ Amazon

However, at the time I made this, I did not have those resources, so I printed it all on single-sided photo paper, which looks great. But, then I had to carefully line up and glue the card fronts and backs together, press them in books for days, and then cut them out. The end result was a nice card/tile that looked and felt pretty nice. But it was a lot of work, and the cards don’t shuffle the greatest, especially because the photo paper finish like to stick to each other somewhat (not a problem for the finish, but it makes shuffling more of a pain)

The game board was also printed on photo paper and then mounted on heavy duty card stock This is pretty simple. You can scale it larger or smaller if you want. I made mine a little bigger.

Cubes! It must be a good game, right? Right? ...

Cubes! It must be a good game, right? Right? …

You will need 110 cubes or pieces for this game. 15 cubes in 7 colors (Blue, red, yellow, green, white, purple (I substituted dark blue), and black). You also need 2 cubes, one yellow and one red, for the player colors on the VP track. You will also need 3 pieces in red and in yellow to represent caravans. You could use whatever you want like a cool Camel meeple, or just use cubes. The cubes I used are the counting cubes I referred to in my review of  Empire Engine  You can find the cubes here: Counting Cubes

GAMEPLAY

The game consists of 4 phases, which are taken consecutively on a players turn, and then play passes to the other player. In front of you is your hand of cards, (4 cards) which are drawn from your deck each turn. This means that all the abilities you accumulate through your purchases are not always available (part of the mechanics of a deck builder. You do want to be somewhat selective about what cards you fill your deck with. If they are a bunch of cards with few abilities, it might be better to just build them to the playing field and get points out of them. Ideally you fill your deck with powerful cards as possible so each turn you have different but powerful abilities to help your empire grow and thrive.

your hand. These are your abilities....this turn

your hand. These are your abilities….this turn

The phases of the game are fairly straight forward: Produce, buy/build/defend, Trade, and Discard. For production, each player has 8 production points. What this means is that there are resources you can produces, but some take more points then others. For example, Gold costs 3 points while Glass costs 1. For your turn you produce a variety of resources from the budget of 8 points available, so you might produce 2 gold and 1 wine for one turn, or 4 glass and 2 wine, or 5 glass and 1 gold, etc.

To buy cards you need a variety of different resources. Here’s the catch though: You and your opponent produce different resources, meaning you need each other’s stuff to be able to get some of the cards, especially the really good ones. The Roman Empire has 3 resources it can produce unique to it, and the Han Dynasty has 3 resources unique to it.This is one part of the brilliant trade mechanism Todd has created, but more on that in a little bit.

Once you have produced your goods, now it is time to do something with it. You can choose to buy a card from the pool of cards available to the side called the “Crossroads” You will want a “cheat sheet” handy to decipher the symbols of how many of each resource you need to buy a card for the first few games. Some cards need a lot of one resource while others need a variety of resources. Once the card is purchased, it gets placed in your personal discard pile. Have no fear though! Just because it is in the discard DOES NOT mean you will never see it again. It will be back because of the deck builder mechanic. However, it will not be immediately available to you.

The text on the left from top to bottom: Buy cost, build cost, stacking number, victory points, and stacking bonus (white circle) On the right column is the special ability the card gives you while in your hand.

The text on the left from top to bottom: Buy cost, build cost, stacking number, victory points, and stacking bonus (white circle) On the right column is the special ability the card gives you while in your hand.

DSCF3231

You may also choose to build cards to the table to form your empire. You pay the build cost in workers (artisans) and receive the victory points. There are various types of cards, and there are special bonuses if you can build them out in order (Example: You build a blue card with a “1” value and than later build a blue card with a “2” value beside it. Stacking them like that will give you extra points. However, if it was a brown “2”, there is no stacking bonus) While not a huge supply of victory points, these buildings are important. Sure, you sacrifice their abilities. But often, once built, they provide needed defense against raiders, ore extra points. Plus, they function as the game timer. Once someone builds 10 cards to his empire, the game ends.

The blue column is correctly stacked, giving bonus victory points. The other column is incorrectly stacked. The red 1 on top of the brown 1 yields no bonus. Sorry!

The blue column is correctly stacked, giving bonus victory points. The other column is incorrectly stacked. The red 1 on top of the brown 1 yields no bonus. Sorry!

You may also choose to defend. When a bandit appears in the cross roads, you must defeat him or face potential disaster for your caravans. The defense points available to you through built cards are your only real defense, plus any extra bonuses from your hand. So there is value in building cards to get those defense icons. If your total matches or exceeds the strength of the bandit, you drive them off, your caravan is safe, and you get rewards of victory points and goods. Yay!

The big bad wolf of bandits. Yikes! You need a defense of 6 to drive him off, or he wipes out a whole caravan.

The big bad wolf of bandits. Yikes! You need a defense of 6 to drive him off, or he wipes out a whole caravan.

The Roman empire successfully drives off the  Bandit with a defense value of 3 built cards; each yielding 1 defense

The Roman empire successfully drives off the Bandit with a defense value of 3 built cards; each yielding 1 defense

However, if you fail to defeat them, they will steal and pillage, taking goods from your caravans, sometimes wiping them out completely. Plus the bandit remains in play until defeated. You opponent must face him as well, and if he fails as well, then that bandit will be back on your next turn to steal and plunder. So keep yourself defended! It is a hostile desert out there!

Once those actions are resolved, you may then Trade. You can either start a new caravan or move all your existing caravans one space.  When you start a caravan, you choose up to 4 goods to ship. The next turn, you may begin to move that caravan slowly across the desert to the other empire.

DSCF3228

This is how you get those needed goods to your opponents. While you may not want to “help” your opponent, you really can not succeed otherwise. Most of the points you can get are usually through your caravans unless you get a really great deck building engine going and stack up cards before your opponent has a chance to blink… Upon finishing your journey, you receive 2 points for a successful caravan, plus the value of the cubes delivered as victory points. So a caravan of 4 gold cubes, which cost 3 production points to produce yield 3 victory points apiece when successfully delivered, giving you 12 victory points plus the 2 for finishing. Not too shabby at all, especially when buildings only give you a token amount of points: 1-5 usually.  I think this is a pretty brilliant way to make the trading work in this game, and so keep the theme strong.

Once you have finished that, you discard your hand and draw a new hand for the next turn of 4 cards. If your draw deck is exhausted, you shuffle all of your discarded cards and they become the draw pile. Thus the cards get shuffled around, and those cards you bought will eventually end up in your hand. The constantly changing hands certainly makes the game interesting, meaning you may not do the same actions this turn as you did last time. It’s (really) just not in the cards….kind of.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Serica is a nice, intriguing 2 player game. It is definitely a full-featured game. A typical game lasts about an hour usually. The various cards, the trade caravans, and the deck building mechanics make for a lot of interesting decisions, and a usually a pretty close, very competitive game. Those I have played this game with have really enjoyed it. I really enjoy it to. It is a little harder to get to the table because of it’s length but it is worth the time.

Two Caravans loaded with goods labor their way towards the Roman empire, bringing spices, silk, and porcelain.

Two Caravans loaded with goods labor their way towards the Roman empire, bringing spices, silk, and porcelain.

It is also worth the construction. While you could certainly find people willing to make it for you, it is  satisfying to play a game that you crafted. And really, it is considerably cheaper too! Don’t let the cards scare you away too much from making it! Cards don’t need to be hard to make. If you are interested, the DIY forums on boardgamegeek.com have a variety of different techniques to make the cards, appropriate for varied skill levels. No matter your craftiness skills, it should not be too much of a challenge.

There are some complaints that the game is harder for the Han dynasty, in part because the fact that military cards are difficult to get without Roman Empire goods. However, I have not noticed too much of an imbalance. There are other advantages to the Han dynasty. The court cards you can get are very powerful!

The art is attractive and for the most part functional. It is a fairly simple, minimalist style but it works well. My only complaint is that the cards can be a little hard to read. There is a lot of icons and information available to see, and it can be a little daunting. Plus, the build cost letters are really hard to see. I would recommend playing in a well lit area to make things easier for your eyes. You could ink the offending text in with a sharpie to make it easier to see but that would be a bit time consuming. I just keep a lamp in the study especially for playing games so that you can better see everything.

However, this is not a major issue, unless you really have trouble seeing things. I would say, that really, this is a good game that is a great game for 2. While it takes some work to make, I think the pay off is worth it!  You can find the files here: Serica: Plains of Dust

Feel free to chime in. What is your favorite ancient history themed game? Have you tried Serica? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Have a question about crafting? Feel free to comment below.

(disclaimer: this post does have affiliate links)

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Caravans of Cubes- A review of Serica: Plains of Dust

  1. Pingback: #30- A Look Back, and a Look Ahead | The Frugal Hobbyist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s