Because humans are nice to each other (on occasion), when you go to someone’s house, the first thing they’ll do is offer you a cup of tea. Things are kind of similar when playing Ceylon, a game by Suzanne and Chris Zinsli. Only here, it’s the sort of kindness where your host offers you a cup of tea, only to then show you where the kettle is. “Oh, right,” you say. “I’m making it myself, then?”
“Yes!” they chuckle, before pausing. “Oh, but I’ve just remembered… I don’t actually have any teabags. And my kettle’s broken. You can have a glass of warm water, though!”
Ceylon is not as petty as that rather extreme example, but it is about tea (and sometimes gifting your opponents with things they don’t want). It’s also a game that’s card-driven and features area majorities, set collection and variable phase order, all based in Sri Lanka, which, in the 19th Century, used to be known as Ceylon.
Gameplay & Rules
In Ceylon, two-to-four players compete to be the best tea farmers and merchants in Sri Lanka, circa the 1870s. The tea industry is booming on the island, and players are in an efficiency race to build tea plantations, harvest tea leaves, and then fulfil specific orders to five different firms.
This is a Euro-style board game where players can earn points throughout the game by completing orders. They’ll score the majority of their points when the end game kicks in, however, where certain majorities are decided across different categories. Most points wins – a familiar trait.
Board set-up is modular. There are four districts – Kandy, Dimbula, Kuhuna and Uva – each eight hexagons-big. There are also five terrain tiles, all different shapes, comprising of four hexes. Four of these five are randomly picked, and one is placed in each district. Finally, four cardboard terrain tiles – simple, solitary hexagons – are added: one placed anywhere on top of the previously placed tiles; again, one per district. (Only three districts are filled for a two-player game).
This represents varying elevations throughout Ceylon, and different types of tea leaves only grow at certain heights. Black tea grows on the lower terrain, green tea grows on the intermediary terrain, and rare white tea only grows on the four highest points on your custom-built layout.
There is further modular creation, since four (out of a possible eight) councillor tiles are drawn and applied to each of the four districts. More about these, later! Lastly, three contract tiles are revealed face-up on the train spots at the top of the board along the train line, with the remaining deck nearby.
Each player has a personal mat and eight plantation markers of their colour, cover up their contract spaces. The first player places their wooden worker in any of the four districts, on lower level terrain. Underneath this worker they place a circular plantation disc and the furthest-left plantation marker off their player mat, thus revealing a potential contract space. The next player then picks a starting location, but it has to be in a different district.
Now you’re ready to play! Everyone is dealt a hand of three cards. These are split in half horizontally, showing two possible actions that a player can take. This is the real crux of Ceylon, because on a player’s turn they pick one of their three cards to play. They decide which one of the two actions they’d like to perform… And then afterwards, the rest of the players – in turn order – all get to do the other action on the card.
There are five actions available:
- Planting, - This costs five rupees and the player gets to place their next plantation marker on their current (and vacant) hex.
- Harvesting - The player gains tea cubes from the supply from all of the plantation markers on the six adjacent hexes to where they are.
- Trading - The player can fulfil a contract for one of the five trading companies by paying the stated quota of tea types/quantities to earn rupees or points.
- Pay a Councillor - This costs five rupees and then the player gets the extra benefit that councillor provides for the rest of the game.
- Advancing in Tech - This costs five rupees and the player moves up the tech track and earns a tech token (these are hugely beneficial, which I'll discuss later).
There is also a generic action on every card available, which is either take two rupees from the supply, or move your worker.
Play continues clockwise, with players drawing back up to three cards at the end of their turn. The game ends in one of two ways: either the last card from the deck is drawn, or one player has built their final plantation. Each player will get the same number of turns though, regardless.
Scoring is a case of working out a series of majorities. Whoever has the most rupees left at the end earns 10 Victory Points (VP), second-most gets six VP, third gets three VP and fourth gets one VP (in a four-player game, of course). Then the same scoring mechanism is calculated for those highest up the tech track, and those with the most plantations in each of the four districts.
However, to qualify for the latter, players must have paid the corresponding councillor, or their presence in that district counts for nothing. Any ties are broken by whomever is furthest along the tech track.
Players then look at how many contracts they completed for the five different tea companies, scoring 1/3/6/10/15VP, respectively. Lastly, they’ll lose two VP per plantation marker still sitting on their player board at the end of the game.
As you may have already deduced, player interaction is ever-present in Ceylon. You’re constantly aware that whenever you play a card to benefit yourself, you’re gifting all of your opponents the other half of the card, the chance to do something useful. It’s a similar mechanism to Puerto Rico, in that respect.
As a result, this means there is no down-time between turns, because players get to do an action every turn. The clincher is that usually it’s not the action they wanted to do! Cunning players might play a card that lets their opponents all, say, plant, but none of them are in vacant hexes, so it’s useless to them right now. Or, they might not have five rupees spare, so cannot afford it. It’s in such scenarios when players either opt to move instead or take two rupees.
The active player always takes their action first, but then player order kicks in for everyone doing the card’s other action. This is vital if two players are, say, looking to sneak in on an area majority by placing the final plantation in a district. Similarly, the first player to build a plantation in each district earns a bonus (these decrease in value), adding a further ‘racing’ element to proceedings. Or, perhaps two or more of them are eyeing up the possibility of fulfilling the same contract.
Contracts are a instrumental not only for end-game scoring, but also for gaining points (or, more likely, rupees) mid-game. Five different companies want to buy your tea; the contracts are numbered 1-5. If a player starts out by completing a contract for, say, Company Three, that sits on their left-most empty contract space. That player cannot complete contracts for other companies until they have emptied plantation markers off their contract spaces…
Of course, that player could complete contracts for three more than once. This will earn them points or rupees upon completion, but it does not count extra towards end-game scoring. Players know the next contract company tile coming (it’ll be numbered 1-5), but they don’t know the exact requirement of tea for completion.
There is further interaction when players opt to play the ‘advance in tech’ action. While the player doing said action moves their disc up the tech track and receives a tech token, all other players receive one rupee from the supply. And then there are the tech tokens…
These act as wilds. Not only do they represent a bonus action for the active player to take on their turn, but it can be any four of the five main actions (just not the ‘advance in tech’ action) or the alternative move/get two rupees action. These are vital to mitigate bad luck due to drawing a hand of poor cards. Tech tokens can even be played immediately upon receiving them (provided it’s your turn, that is, and you didn’t gain it via someone else’s turn). Timed wisely, these double turns can see you perform super-efficient combos.
Art & Components
Laura Bevon’s art illustrations are charming and there are pleasant details scattered over both the main board and the player mats. The outer score track is a series of leaves and the councillor token markers each have the famous ‘Lion Logo’ (which is a real-life quality control check logo for Sri Lankan tea, and features on the nation’s flag). Powder blue rivers clearly show the district borders and also add character to the board.
The terrain tiles are wonderfully chunky to give a sense of the height variances of the rolling hills. Sadly, the player boards are thin cardboard sheets in comparison (like in Great Western Trail). However, their graphical layout cannot be faulted: there is a spot explaining all-important end-game scoring, which tea grows where, and space here for players to keep rupees and harvested tea.
The three types of tea components are supposed to be ‘chests’, but between you and I, they’re just coloured cubes. There isn’t an explanation of these types of tea, which I felt was a lost opportunity to inject some theme. The same goes for the contracts – they’re wonderful and colourful, looking great on the board as train carriages… But would it have been too much trouble to give each of the five companies a name, and not just a number?
I always have a soft spot for wooden player pieces that are unique shapes, and here they’re a shawled silhouette. Unfortunately, they’re somewhat unbalanced, and fall over often. At least the plantation leaf markers are, on the whole, simple to glance at to work out which player holds majorities among a district.
One of the player colours is a muted maroon-like red and might be tough to view under dim lighting – we assume this palette was made on the back of the famous Prince Vijaya coining the Ceylon moniker Tambapanni (‘copper-red earth’, after the island’s red soil). Again, this was research I had to manually conduct. A brief history of the tea industry (and maybe the councillors?) on the back of the rulebook would have been a neat touch, but alas, not present. The rulebook itself is decent, if a bit wordy to digest.
Final Thoughts on Ceylon
Ceylon is a light-medium Euro that plays between 40-60 minutes, which is an excellent length for what it provides. It doesn’t feel rushed, nor does it outstay its welcome. The game always ends leaving you wishing you could have done two or three more things, which is always a great sign. There will be times when you’ll loathe to play a certain card – gifting your opponents a juicy action – but you really need to activate the opposite side of that card. It ticks a lot of boxes for what a Euro-style board game requires – resource/money management, contracts to fulfil, and area control among a tight, gorgeous board.
Board Game Geek’s community voted on the weight being 2.50/5.00, putting it on a similar shelf to Stone Age, for comparison. You could maybe class Ceylon as ‘gateway-plus’; a step up for those who have conquered the likes of Ticket To Ride and King of Tokyo, and now looking for a slightly heavier challenge – but nothing that’s going to frazzle their brains too much.
The modular set-up gets two thumbs up, providing a strong physical presence on the table. Consider getting a newbie to the game to build it – they won’t know what they’re doing with regards to impacting the course of the game! The variety of councillor tokens add an intriguing mix into gameplay structure too, but some feel stronger than others.
Councillor abilities range from being able to hold more tea in your warehouse at once, to discounts on planting, to planting in an adjacent vacant hex (provided it’s within the same district). Their randomised placement in set-up directly impacts where players might decide to start, or where they decide to gravitate towards, first. This can be a huge advantage to the first player, and there’s no compensation for going last.
Players tend to only move by opting not to take advantage of the action they’ve been presented by the active player – it always feels such a waste to just move on your own turn! Players can move one adjacent hex space for free, but to move two spaces it costs one rupee; to move a further space it costs an extra two, and then an extra three… It gets expensive, sharp-ish, and it’s slow gaining money two rupees at a time. Players need to move to plant, harvest and pay councillors, so while it’s an interesting choice deciding when to move, sometimes it’s as simple as doing it when you can’t apply the action offered to you.
It came as a surprise that there were no advanced variants with regards to moving. There are no penalties/extra costs for crossing the river boundaries between districts, nor climbing up into higher terrain. Does the game need this? For beginners, no; but would this add an extra layer of replay-ability, complexity, or theme into the mix? (It’s worth noting there are some once-per-game use asymmetrical tiles that can be applied for an advanced variant.)
I also wonder if the tech track is a little over-powered as a strategy… If you can afford it, that is. Progression along this track is not only one of the scored majorities at the end, it’s a tie-breaker, too. Tech tokens result in strong combos. Plus, there’s also two 5VP rewards if you can make it to the sixth and eight spot along it. Ignore the tech track at your peril!
So to wrap up, the question is: does Ceylon do enough to stand out from the ever-growing, saturated Euro crowd? I fear the answer’s ‘not quite’. It’s pleasant, sure. But ‘pleasant’ isn’t the level of superlative that I wanted to dish out. Ceylon’s almost there though, a bit like a teabag that needed brewing just a smidgen longer before it provides the ideal cup of tea. Despite this, Chris and Suzanne Zinsli are a relatively new design duo, and I’m eager to see what they serve up, next.