When Daniel Craig, aka the graveliest Bond, starred in that seminal classic Cowboys vs Aliens, did you, on your 8th or 9th viewing, did you ever find yourself wishing that you could participate in that fantastical world but without any of the fuss of all that gunfighting? Wouldn’t you rather get down to the good stuff: the building and selling of trinkets?
Alright, I’m being a little unfair. Area 1851 is a worker placement game set in a world where aliens have arrived and ushered in an era of peace and prosperity in the old west. Now settlers, natives, and aliens all participate in trade, fueled by the clever gadgets that tinkerers, such as the players, cobble together.
The flow of the game is simple and has the potential to be extremely quick – all players take their turns simultaneously, and a crew that knows what they are doing will whip through all 6 phases of a round in a matter of moments.
The phases are these:
- Event – An event card is flipped over and resolved. These often change the rules for the round.
- Preparation – Draw up to 5 cards and roll your dice.
- Action – This is the meat of any turn; players have 2 action points to spend and can do so in several ways, but mostly revolve around building gadgets and attaching modifications (more on that in a sec).
- Delivery – Turn in gadgets you built for points!
- Assistant – Reset your workers and move exactly 1 of them to a new space, if you want.
- Rotate – Pass your hand of cards to the next player.
The game lasts for 15 rounds, each of which is defined by the six phases above. The goal of the game is to accrue the most reputation (points) among your fellow inventors.
The primary mechanism for getting points is fabricating gadgets and attaching modifications to them. Gadget cards represent the crafts you can make, and each one has a reputation value, a ‘cost’ (which is actually paid with dice, not currency), and up to 3 potential modification slots, which will add to the value of the gadget when it is delivered.
Modifications work the same as Gadgets, but they must be attached to correct sockets on existing gadgets. Once a gadget has all its sockets filled, it must be delivered for points (though it can be delivered sooner, if you’d like). Furthermore, the value of the core gadget (not its modifications) is doubled if you attach only modifications from the core gadget’s faction.
There are a few other ways of generating points, mostly revolving around worker placement spaces on the main board, but none give you the huge point boosts of a well-tinkered gadget. There are also Feat cards which, when achieved, will let you cash in more points.
Now, to describe Area 1851 as a ‘worker placement game’ is a touch generous – each player starts with a single worker (though a second and third eventually become unlocked) and moving them around the board is slow; each round, you can move one of your workers from one location to the next. Since each location has an effect for 1 or 2 assistants, it can take a full two turns to get your workers from one place to the next to use the effect you desire.
However, since the actions granted by these Assistant tokens is supplemental to the actions you can take (rather than dictating them), this limitation isn’t a terrible one. Really, it’s all about the gadgets.
Area 1851 has some good things going for it. The pace of the game can be lightning quick, turns when you get to build things are satisfying, as are the turns when you get to deliver a massive gadget for boatloads of points. The variable nature of the Events can add some fun variety, and the game’s sense of humor is great – the art and flavor text are top notch, but the combinations of alien, native, and settler tech can produce some truly hilarious moments.
And unfortunately, that’s one of the places where Area 1851’s shortcomings appear in full view. Since the game rewards you with a bonus for completing gadgets with nothing but faction-appropriate modifications, the game actively discourages you from making those wacky combinations that the title of Area 1851 itself promises. And that’s nonsense! – a game with this theme should be encouraging you to be as wild in your combinations as possible, rather than rewarding banality.
And that is a small example of what I don’t like about the game. It has a bunch of ideas which work well enough, but it doesn’t do enough with them. The theme, sadly, is entirely pasted on – if we were making cars, and each faction was simply SUV, Luxury, and Compact, the game could play exactly the same. I wanted so much for this to be a game about its ludicrous premise, and in that way it totally falls flat.
There are other little annoyances, too. The shifting of cards after every single turn can lead to frustrating moments – maybe you have a great combination of gadget and modification, but can only build one this turn, thanks to your dice. Well, too bad! That other card is going away and there is precious little you can do about it. Scrap it out of spite, I guess.
Another issue, and your mileage may vary here, is how reliant on well-behaved dice the game can be. Since you are limited in your tinkering by the three 4-siders you roll each turn, much of the game can be lost to manipulating these values through different mechanics, while players who roll what they need can often glide by for several turns, both building up their gadgets and stocking reserves of unneeded cards for the turns when they do need to manipulate the dice (‘scrap’ cards can be discarded to tune dice as needed).
My last complaint is that there is virtually no strategy to the timing of delivering gadgets. Outside of some random events, the best time to deliver gadgets is when they are fully modded, and there is no penalty for leaving them laying around while you wait for that perfect mod to land in your hands. And on the flip-side, there is no benefit to not delivering gadgets early. It feels like a lost opportunity to have some tactical consequence there.
All that said, though, Area 1851 is a fun game. If you accept the minor dings I’ve tossed at it, and as long as the multiplayer solitaire nature doesn’t bug you (as it doesn’t bug us), there is plenty of enjoyment to be had with it. But it’s fine, when I believe with a little more oomph it could have been great. With such fantastic presentation and a solidly absurd premise, space was the limit for all the wacky things that could have been done with it, and the hollow left by that unrealized potential is more than any radioactive nasal insert can fill.
(Gameosity was provided a review copy of this title. We were not otherwise compensated.)