30 October 2022
Clay monster management on the streets of Prague
Place yourself, if you will, in the labyrinthine streets of 16th century Prague. The night is dark and still with just the faint flickering of candlelight emanating from the upper reaches of the synagogue. A low murmuring barely pierces the silence before it is shattered by the violent rumbling of stone on floorboards. Within, Rabbi Loew grins at the lumbering life assembled before him; a Golem rendered from the clay of the nearby Vlatava river and animated by the Hebrew words for God and Truth.
This sets the scene for Golem, the latest Cranio Creations game from veteran designers Simone Luciani, Virginio Gigli and Flaminia Brasini. And for a sprawling strategy game, what an unexpectedly vivid theme it is – taking the magic and mystery of Jewish folklore and reinterpreting its drama through the lens of European game design. During its lengthy play-time, players will act as Jewish scholars, gathering the resources needed to construct golems, forge artefacts, and increase their knowledge. As long as players’ students maintain control by keeping on top of their studies, golems will serve them well, gaining access to powerful abilities. Failure to do so can be costly, with the destruction of an unruly golem perhaps being the only viable option. After four rounds, the player with the most points is the winner.
First unveiled at the 2021 Essen Spiel, Golem swiftly became a convention favourite. Now, with its wider release, fans of the Italian design trio can look forward to seeing if the game lives up to both the hype and the renown of some of the designers’ previous hits Lorenzo il Magnifico, Grand Austria Hotel, and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. First impressions certainly align with these earlier titles, most notably with Golem’s somewhat intimidating scale. This is a large game with numerous moving parts and a level of complexity requiring significant commitment. And whilst plonking down this symbology-laden table-hog on family game night might be ill-advised, a willing group used to exploring the intricacies of heavier game design are in for a treat.
Mechanically, Golem uses a mixture of innovative action-drafting, worker-placement, and engine-building to provide the basis for a game divided into three pursuable strategies. Both the main board and player boards are split into three coloured sections corresponding to research concerning either books, golems, or artefacts. End game scoring will rely on multiplying the final number of each of these criteria by the number of corresponding menorahs revealed by ‘developing’ (flipping) particular tiles. Whilst any and all of the strategies can be worked towards during the game, variable setup options – including unique artefact boards, starting resources, and objectives – do well in giving players some direction.
How these goals are pursued is largely managed by Golem’s central synagogue action board; a three dimensional structure into which a number of coloured marbles are dropped at the start of each round. Alongside each of the five actions, randomised number and colour distributions of marbles correlate with how powerful an action will be and which students will advance their studies along the streets of the main board. For example, taking one yellow marble from the three gathered on the ‘Golem’ action will result in that player moving their student in the yellow district one space, before receiving three clay and deciding whether to pay to flip a development on the golem section of their board and/or construct a golem.
Each player will take two marble actions every round alongside one ‘Rabbi’ action. This works in a simplified worker-placement fashion, with players placing their single rabbi on one of that round’s action tiles, blocking it from other players and also setting up next round’s turn order. Whilst there’s only between four and six worker-placement spots, these are replaced with new ones each round, making this decision (performed only four times during the game) feel as exciting as it is important.
A more innovative take on worker-placement emerges through the management of golems. These hulking constructs will move a variable amount each turn, granting bonus actions whenever a game effect activates them. Movement points can be spread across any number of golems but must be spent in their entirety. The more powerful actions are at the further end of the board with the crux being that any golem ahead of that district’s student must be paid for in knowledge. Essentially, golems are useful until they’re not and thus these titular components require careful management by players hoping to activate action spots efficiently.
Whilst overwhelming at first, Golem’s intertwining network of mechanics soon proves to be immensely satisfying. In fact there’s an incongruous minimalism to the game’s structure with it technically amounting to only twelve actions across four rounds. But from this foundation a combination of player choice and subtle randomness opens up pathways to further actions and combos, exploding in players’ minds like cognitive cluster bombs. If you’re a fan of Three Sisters and other roll and writes featuring this combo-building game arc, then Golem may feel similarly satisfying – yet, with its immense physicality, there’s a grandness here which can’t be replicated with paper and pencil.
Central to this physicality is the three-dimensional synagogue, which, in the flesh, isn’t as visually impressive as it could have been. What is impressive though is how this elaborate marble distributer avoids being written off as merely a gimmick. Firstly, there’s a level of readability inherent to columns of coloured marbles – more so than if dice had been used. This readability, in turn, occasionally encourages some instances of seemingly risky strategic diversification: sometimes it’s worthwhile simply snatching up the action with the most marbles and evolving your overarching strategy from there. It’s a genuinely exciting mechanism for randomness that fits surprisingly well within the rest of Golem’s heavy-Euro framework.
Not unexpectedly, Golem’s level of player interaction never amounts to more than taking a marble or action spot an opponent was eyeing up. Confusingly though, this lack of interaction is somewhat welcomed, its presence never threatening to muddy the already dense layers of complexity. Similarly, Golem simply has no need pushing take-that elements of gameplay upon players hoping to ruin plans their opponents are perfectly capable of fumbling through themselves.
Looping back round to theme, it’s worth mentioning that it’s largely non-existent within the game’s mechanics. Despite this, Golem makes up for it aesthetically and simply by offering such a unique and underrepresented setting. Whilst the golem is a recognisable figure in the world of tabletop gaming, its appearance rarely references its origins in Judaism. Here, these origins are displayed explicitly, taking the most famous tale of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and the ‘Golem of Prague’, and supplementing it with evocative imagery, symbology, text, and font, all under the supervision of David Piazza; an expert in Jewish history and culture. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see a level of respect put towards a game’s theme that mirrors the attention clearly given to honing Golem’s excellent overall gameplay.
PLAY IT? MUST-PLAY
A near perfect exemplar of heavy, multifaceted game design, whose slickly intertwining mechanisms boggle the mind as much as they excite it.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED GRAND AUSTRIA HOTEL…
Luciani and Gigli have taken the fantastic action drafting mechanic of this similarly heavy 2015 favourite and honed it to perfection.
Designer: Virginio Gigli, Flaminia Brasini, Simone Luciani
Publisher: Cranio Creations
Time: 120 minutes
Looking for more?
Find reviews, news, and features in Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
A game that hooked a thousand gamers, it's 40 years of Fighting Fantasy! We take a look back at some of the titles and that changed a generation of gaming, and how it became the behemoth it remains.40 Years of Fighting Fantasy
The Countdown Begins!
There's nothing better than unwrapping the perfect game at Christmas, but what about on the 24 days leading up to it? Our elves hand wrap every gift in the Advent Calender, to bring you the best countdown gamers could ask for.Pre-order now!
Have you visited our game store? We have everything from mystery boxes, to games and accessories, so you're bound to find your newest favourite. Head over there now to claim it for yourself!Visit the Game Store
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products