07 June 2020
Never mind the blocks
Tabletop versions of video games have always seemed a bit odd to me, because the bits that get transferred onto the cardboard version are almost never the bits that made the digital version interesting, because although the underlying notes of what we enjoy in games are universal, video games and tabletop games have different strengths.
Minecraft, possibly the best-selling computer game of all time, already has a tabletop version: it’s Lego. Like Lego, Minecraft is a sandbox, more about exploring, experimenting and expressing rather than trying to ‘win’. So how is a physical and much more gamey version of the game going to work?
Microsoft has trusted its adopted baby to the safe hands of Ravensburger, a company with a proven record of successful licences, from recent hits like Villainous and Jaws, to versions of Enchanted Forest with some Disney princesses chucked in. But while its recent tie-in hits have come from the prolific game-factory of Prospero Hall, this time the venerable German publisher has handed the design reins to Ulrich Blum, creator of a few mid-level Eurogames. How’s that worked out for them?
If you ask a Eurogame designer to make you a Minecraft game, you’ll get a Eurogame about Minecraft, and that’s what’s happened. Minecraft: Builders & Biomes has biomes, it has mobs, it has the signature characters Steve and Alex, and it has 64 chunky wooden blocks in five types. But the mechanics and the experience are traditional tabletop.
You ‘mine’ blocks from the stack of 64 (arranged in a 4 × 4 × 4 cube) to buy building tiles, which you add to your personal playboard, or weapons which you can use to fight mobs, which give you extra moves or score bonuses. Each time a layer of the big cube is exhausted there’s a scoring round, where you check the tiles on your playboard for contiguous groups of the same biomes, materials, or building type.
The cardinal sin is that there’s no actual mining and no actual crafting. You take the enticing, tactile blocks from the big cube, and then you trade them for things. The only building is by proxy; you can swap a sand block and a wood block for a tile with a picture of a desert house on it.
It feels like the designer had a friend describe Minecraft to him, or possibly read its Wikipedia page, and based the game on that, not on how it actually plays. The tropes are present and correct. The gameplay is almost completely different, and Minecraft’s unique tone of ‘if you build it, you’ll have fun’ is nowhere in the box.
Gameplay-wise it’s so evenly balanced that it’s almost impossible for one player to run away with the win. The only randomness is in the combat system, and we found that the players who won the game were usually the ones who’d had the most luck in fights.
We had fun. The kids got a big kick out of blowing up witches with TNT. But at the end, we didn’t feel like we’d built anything or done anything memorable. It’s a thoroughly competent and well-balanced Eurogame with some clever mechanics and a lot of nice bits in the box. But it’s not Minecraft.
PLAY IY? PROBABLY
This is a decent game being sold under false pretences. It can be a lot of fun, but if you’re after the Minecraft experience on the tabletop, this isn’t it.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED… Planet
Blue Orange’s charming ecosystem-maker with its dodecahedrons and magnetic tiles lets you shape biomes and populate them with cute animals. Just the thing for your budding terraformers.
Designer: Ulrich Blum
Artists: Nikoo Jorjani, Nicolette Suraga
Time: 30-50 minutes
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
64 Large wooden blocks
64 Building and mob tiles
16 Weapon tokens
4 Sets of 5 player tokens
4 Experience counters
4 Player pieces
4 Player boards
8 Overview cards
Block base card
This review originally appeared in the March 2020 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.
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