In line with its steampunk inventors’ theme, Gearworks is a board game stuck mid-assembly, its cogs turning swiftly until one of them shifts just a bit out of alignment, making the whole contraption fall apart. Yet, it has been taken off the work table and sent into the wild, its intriguing ideas lacking fine-tuning. There are parts of Gearworks that work incredibly well and are clever but, unfortunately, there are also those that let it down.
In a grid-based grapple, players lay down gear cards to take control of specific rows and columns to gain parts corresponding to them. At the end of the round, if a player is still in control of that row or column, they can claim parts and possibly use them to build a contraption to gain victory points.
Figuring out where to play a card – a core mechanic of the game – is pleasantly brain-scratching. Placements have their own rules: columns can’t have cards of the same colour while rows must go in numerical order. These rules are just restrictive enough to be challenging but there are also ways to break them by either using the inventors’ powers or spending spark tokens, which makes gameplay more flexible.
Player interaction is another added layer of complexity, and the first element that feels half-finished in this game. It is a fun exercise to try to figure out which parts other players are going for and try to block them off. However, the game doesn’t provide many tools to do so. Instead of formulating a specific strategy to stop a player, most of the time everyone is poking in the dark, stealing rows and columns, hoping that one of them has a crucial component for a contraption. As the card draw is random, it is even harder to predict where an opponent could place a card, and the better strategy becomes the one where you are just looking out for yourself, almost ignoring what other people are up to.
It is hard to know whether Gearworks was designed as a fast-paced experience – it only has three rounds and a dynamic turn structure that support that assumption – or a game of slower, carefully-measured thinking, where players take their time to make a move.
Placing a card on the board is not too complex – if it follows the rules and gains a necessary part, the decision is easy. However, there is a mechanic for gaining sparks – useful for a variety of bonus actions – that brings the game to a grinding halt. If by subtracting or adding two adjacent numbered cards players equal the number on the card they just placed, they gain a spark. This is worth doing every time, if cards allow, but figuring out the right placement takes time. Other players can’t plan their moves ahead of time, as the grid changes significantly every turn – therefore they have nothing to do but sit and wait until someone does maths for the best position.
With the steampunk theme, one would imagine that components would look fantastic but, like the rest of the game, there are hits and misses. The graphic design is very clear, which for this type of game is crucial to get right. The artwork on gear and contraptions cards is also excellent, but the inventors themselves are drawn in a slightly amateur style, breaking the slickness of the other cards. Every token has been cut to shape and gear tokens, in particular, are a delight: simple but clever, rotating to indicate which player is in the control of a row or column.
Unfortunately, the game becomes a little fiddly when setting out the grid and, while players can purchase a mat that has the card outlines on it, this is something that should have been in the game from the start and not something sold separately.
Every compliment for Gearworks, unfortunately, comes with a ‘but’ at the end. It is an enjoyable game that made a few missteps along the way.
Gearworks has a lot of potential, but feels under-tinkered – and the spark of its tile-laying is dampened by unexciting maths.
Designer: Kirk Dennison
Artist: Sheryl Chieng, Yoma, Jason Flack
Time: 30-45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the November 2018 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.