In the mid-19th century, Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon – was one of the biggest nations in the world for coffee production. But within the space of just a few decades, the island country went from experiencing its heyday ‘coffee rush’ to being devastated by coffee leaf rust, a disease that blighted the thriving industry and led growers to transition to planting tea. Today, tea is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest industries, while its coffee production has never fully recovered.
That’s probably not what comes to mind as you enjoy a warm cuppa. Instead, you’re probably just thinking, “Mm, this is nice.” To that end, although it’s the fascinating historical backdrop against which the board game Ceylon takes place, you don’t find yourself ruminating on its semi-accurate depiction of growing tea leaves. Instead, you find yourself just thinking, “Mm, this is nice.”
Like combining hot water and plant matter in a mug, Ceylon is a simple pleasure. Don’t dismiss it as being bland, though; while it’s undeniably familiar, there’s plenty to recommend it on a cold day.
Central to the game and its satisfying flow are its action cards. Each player chooses one from their hand of three to execute each round, from establishing a new plantation on their current space to harvesting tea from adjacent farms to exporting harvested tea to fulfill contracts and earn points or money.
It’s very easy to get to grips with, but it’s given a spoonful of sweet player-interaction sugar by the double-ended design of the cards, which grant every other player the chance to perform a different action as the result of your choice. (There’s also the always-present ability to move your pawn or gain coins.) So you might want to harvest those tea cubes, but that could give a rival the chance to claim a contract before you – something they might not have the card to do otherwise.
Along with hopping around the board to plant your tea at higher altitudes (neatly represented by modular tiles that give literal verticality to the board) and jostling for the favour of local councillors who grant bonus abilities, it’s comfortably competitive and strategic without being the tabletop equivalent of pouring scalding water on your friend’s crotch.
Despite every player always having something to do and think about even when it’s not their own turn, Ceylon never begins to boil the brain. Points are accrued by completing contracts (the numbered ‘companies’ add set-collection bonuses) and having the most plantations/coins/technology when the game ends – it’s enough to provide some hot decisive moments, but not so much that things the warm feeling grows cold waiting for someone to take their turn.
The limitation to a hand of three cards helps with the flow, but can occasionally lead to options feeling a little too restricted – even when technology tokens can be spent to perform any available action, freeing things up again, you have to draw the cards, have the cash and spend the turn (yours, or someone else’s) to purchase them in the first place.
Like nailing a milky brew, Ceylon gets its ratio of gentle complexity, delightful presentation and friendly rules near bang-on. Where it begins to cool is in the feeling that, unlike its intriguing yet underused theme, its gameplay doesn’t do anything that’s particularly novel or overly original. Its staple blend of cardplay, board-based area control and gathering/trading resources is the water, tea and milk of gaming – together they’re a pleasant enough mix to sip down at the time, but you probably won’t remember this particular cuppa versus any of the others you’ve tried.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
Ceylon is a tasty brew of reliable board game ingredients served up in the very pretty mug of its curious setting and tidy presentation. If offered, you probably wouldn’t turn it down – but it’s more builders’ tea than Earl Grey.
Designer: Suzanne Zinsli, Chris Zinsli
Artist: Laura Bevon, David Prieto
Time: 1 hour
This review originally appeared in the March 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.