18 November 2019
Sets off but lacks some wind in its sails.
Embark disregards a potentially complicated discussion on the topic of colonisation to instead approach its theme in a simplified and abstract manner, embodied by its cube workers. They are just game pieces, serving a primarily mechanical function. Don’t think too much about workers travelling to an untouched island and mining it out of resources or cutting down its forests to build villages – instead, think strategically about fitting your workers on card ships because if they don’t make it to the island, you’ll miss out on victory points.
Behind this flawed theming, there is solid gameplay with a lot to offer. There is an element of bluffing and strategy, as players secretly assign their workers to different boats. Only a full ship can travel to the island, but miscount the number of available spaces or mistime assigning people and someone may be left off the trip, their player missing out on those valuable points.
When loading cubes on the boat, workers are assigned roles that they will perform once on the island. The colonists begin building huts, while explorers discover more of the island’s secrets, unlocking its special abilities and increasing its victory point value at the end of the game. There are jobs on the island that require some co operation from the players, such as exploration. While some tasks will be unaffected by an opponent’s presence, such as building villages, others, like mining, will be in direct competition. If a miner arrives on the island but all relevant spaces are occupied, they become a colonist instead and so ship spaces are never wasted – it is worth mentioning that this rule is not clear in the rulebook and had to be clarified with the publishers via the BoardGameGeek forums.
Different island tiles and ships add a bit of variety to the game each time – while these are not necessarily gamechanging, they are just enough to spice things up. Special talent powers, chosen at the beginning of each game, have the potential to affect the gameplay significantly, not only encouraging players to adopt a particular strategy but, depending on the card, even giving some players an unfair advantage. After several playthroughs, our group unanimously agreed to remove the Jackof- All-Trades and Wanderlust cards from the game because they simply gave too big of an advantage to whoever picked them up.
The art of the talent cards expands on the theme of the game, although the setting’s fantasy elements are easy to miss if you’re not looking closely. The graphic design of the game in general is very clear, but there are instances when it can cause confusion. Some of the colours of the player cubes match the colours of the roles on the boat, making it seem as if the pink player, for example, can only have warriors travelling to the island. Simply adding a few more colours could have easily cleared that up.
Embark makes itself very easy to enjoy. Its gameplay is tight and fast, offering just enough player interaction to keep everyone involved without being overly confrontational. It easily traverses the seas of having enough strategic depth to become engaging and challenging, without losing approachability and ease of play. It’s a good game, but a less problematic theme could have made it that much easier to enjoy.
PLAY IT? PROBABLY
Designer: Philip duBarry
Artist: Robert Gonzales, Matt Paquette
This review originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.