July was quite the dry month for me in more ways than one. Part of that has to do with me moving from Ohio to the Arizona desert. The other part, well, let’s find out…
Crystal Palace is a design that brings my love for Capstone Games in conflict with my distaste for soulless Euros. Who emerges the winner in this epic duel, you ask? Not me, that’s for sure.
I could delve into the intended theme of it all, but then I would just be looking up the description online and redressing it in the same paper-thin clothes that disintegrate the moment somebody opens their mouth to teach the game. You want to know the theme of the game? It’s worker-placement dice that cost money but generate you points and cards and resources and income and, lest we forget, more points.
Sure, the choose-your-value aspect of the worker-placement dice is what has fans raving and makes the game bearable for me. That’s because the dice aren’t rolled (like Rajas for the Ganges) or upgraded (like Teotihuacan), rather, they are secretly arranged and revealed in a round-by-round auction. The highest bidder gets the coveted worker-placement privilege of 1st player in turn order, plus their selected higher-value dice lead to more placement options during the round. But you’ll pay for it dearly in money as income proves to be a literally slippery thing here.
Your worker placements can earn you cards into your tableau, but the purchase or activation of these cards costs resources of either money, gears, or light-bulbs. Once a card’s bonus is triggered, it will grant you points, an immediate bonus, and occasionally a recurring bonus. Other dice spaces allow you to move up tracks, claim tiles with more bonuses, earn resources, and so on.
If you read the previous paragraph and thought that sounded like 90% of modern Euros, therein lies my problem. Every new game (but especially dry Euros) must answer the question: How do I stand out from the crowd? Theme or art or a novel little twist in the formula isn’t going to cut it. Especially when at the end of the day the gameplay is to just spend some stuff to collect some stuff and move up some tracks and earn points. There are already SO MANY games that have perfected this formula.
We have interactive economic games like Brass, efficiency rondels like Great Western Trail, Uwe Rosenberg worker placement extravaganzas Agricola and A Feast for Odin, fancy component concepts like Tzolk’in, and so on. I just don’t see the point in so many of these other heavy Euros that require so much investment from the players and reward that investment with a shriveled, recycled payoff.
Current Rating: 5.5/10
This small expansion to Nidavellir, known as Thingvellir, does exactly what I was hoping it would do. It brings more nuance to the auctions where the highest bidder has the option of selecting a card from the camp rather than claiming a card from the tavern.
The camp displays 5 cards at all times, and these cards are either valuable mercenaries or lucrative artifacts. Mercenaries will be added to one of two colors at the end of an age, while artifacts grant useful abilities or a heaping of points with a caveat.
Our play with the expansion struck a nice balance between gunning for the camp cards and ignoring them for the tavern options. It certainly provided more reasons for us to want to win auctions, even at times when we were ambivalent toward the tavern dwarves.
Thingvellir also adds some more hero cards, which are certainly a welcome feature, although some of the more fiddly heroes seem to have the tendency of being ignored due to their lack of convenient clarity. I appreciate the designer’s desire to provide loads of variety, but I think the hero cards would’ve benefited from a little more streamlining. This is especially true after I finish explaining the rules to newcomers whose eyes have glazed over after getting the firehose of hero abilities.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Juicy Fruits is the third game from publisher Deep Print Games and the debut title of the Capstone Family brand. I had high expectations for this colorfully vibrant game considering their previous production collaboration, Renature, was a major 2020 hit for me. We even got ourselves into the juicy, fruity mood by bringing delicious fruit creamsicles with us to the table. We were set to immerse every one of our senses into this experience. All signs indicated that this would be a pleasant little game to enjoy with my wife, Camille, due to its inviting presentation, breezy gameplay, and puzzly challenge.
Straight out of the gates Juicy Fruits stumbled through a noticeably obnoxious setup. The issue wasn’t the rulebook or the setup requirements on their own. Rather, the problem that immediately annoyed me was the organization solution within the box. Just like their previous publications, Deep Print proudly keeps the inside of their boxes completely free of plastic. What this means is that they opt for a basic cardboard insert with cloth bags and wooden pieces rather than plastic inserts, bags, or components. This setup feels like a nice touch, with their eco-friendly intentions certainly appreciated, and it even works fine for their other game in our collection, Renature.
This same organization philosophy turns out to be an absolute mess in Juicy Fruits. The game includes two large cloth bags, presumably for the wood pieces and cardboard tokens respectively. I have no qualms with all the lovely fruit pieces being mixed into the same bag. It did turn out to be a hassle digging through 100+ pieces of wood to find the similar colored player tokens, but even that is forgivable. My true beef lies with the cardboard tokens.
There are 121 cardboard tokens in Juicy Fruits, to be exact. These tokens are divided into roughly six categories, with some of those categories being further divided into different types or player colors. Toss all of these tokens into the same big bag for storage, dump them out into one messy pile for setup, and you’ve effectively turned a 3-minute setup into a 15-minute setup… at least if one player is handling all of the preparations. To add insult to injury, the cloth bags are actually needed during setup when you have to separate the 50 boat tokens into their two colors and put them back into their own bags in order to draw them back out and position on your player board.
Anyone who doesn’t want to deal with that kind of headache every time they break out Juicy Fruits will essentially have to track down 6 or 7 more bags (most likely made of plastic) because apparently we can’t have both an eco-friendly and user-friendly production.
Organization complaints aside, I was still expecting an enjoyable experience once the game finally got rolling, as was Camille. The rules are very straightforward: simply slide a collection token in a straight line across the empty spaces of your island board, earning one matching fruit piece for each space moved. Fruit can be spent each turn on either fulfilling a boat order on your board or claiming a business tile from the central display. Both options grant points, but they each have an interesting wrinkle.
Fulfilling a boat order creates another space on your board, making your turns even more efficient as you have more room to slide tiles and earn extra fruit. Claiming a unique business tile can be a lucrative option, either in scoring big points or granting another movement tile; the catch is that these businesses will clog up your island board spaces! So obviously it is best to fulfill lots of boat orders first and rush for the businesses second, except business tiles will quickly dwindle as your opponents snatch them up, and each purchased business tile moves the countdown marker toward the end of the game!
For those who want to add an extra layer to the gameplay, you can flip the scoreboard to the Juice Factory side where extra fruit becomes less a waste and more an opportunity to nudge your player tokens up the track to score more points.
What you essentially have a is an order-fulfillment game where the chewy center is the efficient sequencing and sliding of tiles on your board for maximum fruit collection. The only problem is that this chewy center lacks…. juiciness. Despite the competing options I’ve explained of clearing boats versus gaining businesses, nobody in their right mind is going to gun for businesses in the early game. So the obvious choice of each turn is to simply survey your boat orders and slide the collection tile that grants the most fruit in order to remove a boat. Deciding the right sequence of sliding your tiles is usually obvious as well, and you can get by easily by planning a few turns ahead.
Once you are ready to start clogging your board with businesses, you’re simply going to opt for the tile that you can most easily afford using the collection opportunities that are currently available to you. The Juice Factory variant of spending one or two fruit pieces to slide up the track does require some budgeting to ensure you save your fruit for your desired orders, but it mostly serves to water down any thematic flavor of the core experience.
Because I’m the one who has a much stronger preference for more dynamic, interactive games, I figured Camille would at least get some enjoyment out of our play of Juicy Fruits. But I was surprised to find that she was just as disinterested as I was. The core challenge just never came to life for us at any point during the game.
After trudging through Juicy Fruits, Crystal Palace, and CloudAge, I am saddened to see the end of a hot streak between Capstone Games and I. Don’t get me wrong here, these are perfectly fine games, and they’ll surely hit the spot with the right crowd. But they are a far-cry from the style of Capstone games that I’ve come to know and love.
Pipeline, Bus, Watergate, Renature, Irish Gauge, The Estates, Stick ‘Em, Ride the Rails, Curious Cargo, and New York Zoo… these designs are my JAM. All of them provide me with the tense, bitey, standout, gorgeous gameplay that have made me a huge Capstone fan. I’m still confident that Iberian Gauge and Pipeline: Emerging Markets will be excellent, I have high hopes for Riftforce, Rorschach, and Imperial Steam, and I’m sure that Capstone has more great games up their sleeve.
Yet Juicy Fruits represents the expansion of Capstone into gaming lands where I can’t follow. It puts an end to my blind purchasing streak of Capstone releases. I’m both happy for their successful growth into wider markets, and saddened by the muddying of their style of play. And I’ll stick to Whale Riders for my family-friendly, colorful, contract fulfillment fun, thank you very much.
Current Rating: 4/10
Mango Creamsicle Rating: 9.5/10
Cryo is a streamlined, modern Euro that’s hard to dislike. Everything it does, it does extremely well. The strategic paths are varied, the gameplay arc is tight, the pacing is just right, the decisions are crunchy, the interaction is bitey, the production is slick, and the rules are smooth. Honestly, my only worry at this point is if this game can hold my interest and continue to engage me through plays two, three, four, and beyond.
Since Cryo and Crystal Palace are both modern Euros that utilize worker placement gameplay to earn resources and compete for points, I suppose it might be interesting to investigate why I enjoyed my encounter with Cryo so much more than Crystal Palace. A good first place to start would be the cards.
In Crystal Palace, you have the freedom to select your cards from the market, yet these felt more like point mongering resource sinks than anything exciting or unique. Spend 5 bulbs and 2 gears for 12 points, plus another 4 points if you can acquire this other specific card, or 4 bulbs for 8 points and a bonus resource. Yippee. Meanwhile, Cryo has players blind drawing cards from a deck, and there are only 8 unique cards in the entire deck, so surely Crystal Palace possesses the more interesting deck, right? WRONG. Cryo gives every card so much more weight and meaning thanks to their multi-use properties. A single card can provide a useful permanent upgrade, a unique end-game scoring objective, a vehicle for essential pod transportation, or valuable resources when scrapped, and you only get to use it for one of those options.
Another interesting comparison to make here would be in the sharp player interaction. Being the good little worker placement games that they are, both designs feature limited spaces and potential action blocking. Where they differ is in how open, visible, and direct this competition is. While Crystal Palace is certainly the more nasty and punishing of the two games—a feature I typically embrace with my icy heart—this nastiness is far too frequently a coincidental side-effect of a player’s main intentions rather than a direct attack on their victim. An opponent can place a higher value dice at a site and block my low-value dice out of the benefit, but they merely went there because they need that site’s benefit, not necessarily because I deserved it. On the other hand, Cryo has its players competing for majorities in the subterranean caverns, bumping each other off the 1st or 2nd place points. Or another way to reduce their scoring potential is to weaken them at the source, sabotaging their pods at the stasis chambers before they can even pick them up from the board. And one of my favorite features of Cryo is that it lets the players control the pacing of the game which can end with an early drone recall or an intentional sabotage of a player’s final pods stuck in stasis. This sounds meaner, but in practice it is far less punishing, as the loss in points or progress is very incremental. Despite Cryo being the milder of the two games, it does a much better job at harnessing the tension and rewarding the conflict between competitors.
Crucially, the return on investment is much stronger in Cryo where the teach is streamlined, the game lasts a mere 60-90 minutes, and the experience arcs nicely from start to finish. In Crystal Palace, you have to slog through the rules dump before spending 2+ hours on a looping point quest over 5 rounds of 7 phases each.
Finally, I found there to be a stark contrast of freedom and purpose between the two games. Crystal Palace feels a bit like clambering uphill on a slip-and-slide while Cryo offers the explorative flexibility of a splash pad. The resources and locations of Crystal Palace don’t matter, and may never matter, until you need to earn a specific resource to meet a specific cost or until you find that no other site nets you more points. Furthermore, you’re spending half your actions simply trying to keep your head above the suffocating income waters. Economic tightness is certainly an admirable quality, but I’ve found this to be a much more satisfying feature in games like Brass, Pipeline, or Age of Steam where you eventually claw your way out of poverty and into prosperity. Crystal Palace never offers the big payoff for all that struggling and simply leaves you wondering at the purpose of it all.
Conversely, Cryo lets its players decide whether they are going to scrape by on resources to gun for the early worms or invest in a dynamic engine of private actions, reliable salvage, and powerful upgrades. Importantly, the five resources here don’t simply feel like different-colored hoops to jump through for points. Every resource has a an essential, unique purpose: organics for rescuing your crew, tech for upgrades and vehicles, crystals for fuel, nanites for flexibility, and energy for transportation. No action feels as though it is done in the service of blatant points, except for the competition for cavern majorities, but this feature is more an interesting tug-of-war rather than another bland bite of a point salad.
To put it simply, where Crystal Palace feels like cobbled, point-mongering complexity for complexity’s sake, Cryo offers much more game for players to savor beyond the mere efficiency puzzles at play… all this at half the time investment! I’ll be the first to admit that Crystal Palace features the more innovative mechanisms. But Cryo stands as proof for why the complete package matters much more than the fancy wrappings.
Current rating: 7.5/10
The Red Cathedral
There’s something to be said for a slim box that packs a punch. The Red Cathedral contains no wasted space and just the right size of functional, solid, and pretty components in its box.
The decision space and complexity feel just right as well. Players are aiming to help construct the Red Cathedral through three possible options each turn: 1) staking their claim on specific sections, 2) collecting the necessary resources, or 3) delivering resources to construct and decorate the building. These options offer a nice mix of strategy and tactics—strategy on the Cathedral where staking your claim on construction cards and decorations can mean all the difference in endgame column majorities; tactics on the board where the rondel of ever changing dice present enticing opportunities of collections and combos.
Claiming construction cards early has its benefits, as you can block out opponents from heavily competing against you in big scoring columns. Yet the downside is twofold: whenever an opponent completes a section above your unfinished card, you take a minor hit of negative points; also, claiming a card comes with a now-or-never option of paying for a workshop tile that will improve your resource engine for the rest of the game. In the early stages of the game, money is tight and the construction claiming opportunities are plentiful, and as the game progresses onward these two things tend to flip-flop in their availability. The constant tug-of-war between these two incentives is a nice touch, and the same can be said for decorating the finished sections of the cathedral.
If I save up for one purple and one green jewel and spend my entire turn decorating one card, I can score three massive prestige points while I improve my majority standing in that column. Yet each card can only hold one decoration tile, and opponents can quickly and cheaply block me out of the big majority points by ignoring the jewels and throwing down multiple decoration tiles at once.
The resource collection rondel offers enough of a dynamic twist to the standard Euro formula to keep players on their toes. Pick a die and move it a number of spaces equal to its current value, then collect the resource at that space equal to its current value, then re-roll all the dice in that space. While that’s the core novelty, there are plenty of other interesting wrinkles to pad out the satisfaction including a beneficial influence card in the quadrant where your die stops, an engine building player board where you can gain unique benefits for moving specific dice colors, and the option of paying money to move your color die or the white die even further along the rondel.
It’s important to keep an eye on the shifting opportunities that each die presents, even if you were planning to spend your next action on the cathedral cards rather than the board, because otherwise you may miss out on a lucrative turn featuring a resource or point dump. This strong tactical flavor to Red Cathedral is a double-edged sword, as it can also slow down the pace and frustrate certain gamers who don’t like rolling great opportunities for the next opponent’s turn.
While the package comes together nicely into an enjoyable, crunchy Euro, The Red Cathedral struggles to keep its pacing and length as compact as its production. With a group of players who don’t think too hard or overanalyze the most optimal option on their turn, this one is likely to make for a fast and fun experience. On the other hand, if even one player struggles to quickly process the frequently changing board state, the game will start to drag out and lose its luster. Unlike other tactical games with longer downtimes, such as Pax Pamir, The Red Cathedral doesn’t quite merit the frequent hiccups on the flow of play. This design does not put the spotlight on your opponents’ turns, so like many efficiency Euros, the downtime here acts as a pesky, disruptive advertisement break rather than engaging entertainment.
Finally, I’m not sure I see this one holding up with repeated plays. The variety here between each play has a bit of a Taco Bell vibe, meaning the same ingredients are rearranged into an experience with a unique label that ultimately ends up tasting roughly the same. I can’t say for sure, as I’ve only played this once, but I’ve played enough games of this style to have my suspicions.
Regardless, The Red Cathedral is unquestionably an above-average Euro, an enjoyable challenge to discover, and very likely to entertain newcomers despite its shortcomings. Plus, it comes with plenty of bags!
Current Rating: 6.5/10
We are now mere days away from the launch of the Criminal Capers Collection on August 10! You can head over to our pre-launch page and sign up to be notified by Kickstarter the moment it launches. And in the meantime, why not check out our How to Play and Play-through Videos for Soda Smugglers? These will really give you a feel for what game 1 in the Criminal Capers Collection plays like.
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.