My friend: “I’ve bought a new game called Cytosis, wanna try it?”
Me: “Sure, what is it?”
My friend: “It’s a science game”
Me: “Oh cool, genetic experiments gone wild? Mutant space beasties with a taste for human flesh? Man-made super viruses?”
My friend: “It’s a worker placement game about the biological processes that convert glucose, lipids and ribonucleic acids into protein hormone receptors and enzymes!”
My friend: “The workers are conical flasks and, at a high level, it’s scientifically accurate. It’s got this awesome central mechanic where resources produced in the cell Nucleus are transported via the Rough ER and Golgi Apparatus into the Plasma Membrane across multiple turns!”
My friend: “It has a colourful board…”
From Darkness into…the Plasma Membrane
Ok, so maybe the exchange didn’t go quite as described above. Nevertheless, after several hours playing a heavy economic game so steeped in darkness it absorbed the light, the bright colours were pretty much the only thing that appealed to me about Cytosis.
Everything else…the theme, the artwork, the fact it was yet another worker placement game. The oodles of iconography to explain each action space. The new systems and processes to get my head around. And this is before we consider the in-game use of terminology that, at best, I had studiously avoided in the 20+ years since I last attended formal education.
The entire thing screamed: STAY AWAY!!
My goodness, though. How wrong that first impression was and how glad I am that I have played this game.
Victory Equals Health
Cytosis is a 2-5 player worker placement game with a biological theme where staying healthy equals victory.
The winner is the player who has collected the highest number of those renown indicators of good health, victory points
Over twelve rounds players will gather resources in the form of macro-molecules. Then they will spend those resources in ways that simulate processes found in cell biology.
Each round an event card will be revealed that, typically, provides additional resources to one action space.
Players then take turns to place their conical flasks on to the board to take the actions indicated. These include:
- Gain ATP (the in-game currency)
- Gather mRNA, lipids, glucose and other various resources
- Buy Cell Component cards (objectives)
- Move their Transport Vesicle to complete a cell component card
- Collect Enzymes or Alcohol Detoxification cards
- Add their token to one of the four end game objectives.
The central mechanic here is moving the Transport Vesicle from the Rough or Smooth ER to the Plasma Membrane. This is the only way to complete many of the Cell Component cards. It’s a multi-turn pathway requiring planning, resource investment and timing to achieve.
Once achieved the payoff can be significant. Cell Component cards not only improve your overall health, they also, in the case of Hormone Receptor cards, provide bonus points when another player builds the matching Hormone. This adds a dash of engine building to Cytosis and is a nice addition to the ‘do stuff to get stuff to do more stuff’ mechanics.
Set collection features also. The Enzyme and Alcohol Detoxification cards award points for type and number collected while goal cards provide a direction to your game play often based on numbers of cards collected. All of which provides useful additional strategy options…if you are quick.
Spaces on the board are very, very tight. Some actions have space for only one Conical Flask. This means the player with the overall lead at any point can easily be blocked from spaces. Hate placement can be overcome, however, using Grey Conical Flasks. This is an action space where, for a cost, an additional flask can be temporarily used to take an otherwise blocked action. A useful work around, yet costly in resources and themselves limited in number.
Smooth and Quick
As I played Cytosis that first time, and every time since, the smoothness of the game play stood out. The actions make sense. The iconography is clear. The decisions have not once inducing the crippling analysis paralysis of more complex games. This means that even 5 player games whizz past at a refreshingly quick pace.
Cytosis is a lovely, interesting, dare I say educational, worker placement game. Complex enough to engage and require thought, yet also relatively simple. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as ‘entry level’.
And perhaps relative simplicity is also its biggest drawback.
The strategy is essentially a choice of two: complete Cell Component cards or collect sets of Alcohol Detoxification/Enzyme cards. How each of these are accomplished is the challenge. However, there are so many other games available with six, seven or more ways to win that I fear for the long term replayability of Cytosis.
Maybe familiarity with more challenging games is the reason Cytosis flowed so well. As a gaming group, we are admittedly familiar with complex games. In this context, Cytosis did not bring anything new aside from theme. There was not one mechanic not seen already in many other games.
The theme was very new, however, remove the theme and it feels…comfortable.
Cytosis is a game drenched in a theme likely to divide opinion. From the imagery on the board, to the action spaces, to the resources. All of it is firmly rooted in the biological processes it represents. The commitment to the theme is remarkable.
However, as much as some of my game group found the theme fascinating, others have not. One player has opted not to play due to the theme. I also found the theme to be…not the most appealing at first glance.
And yet, despite this clear commitment to theme, Cytosis is, oddly, theme-less.
The central mechanic – transporting macro-molecules from the ER to the plasma membrane – could just as easily be something quite different. Goods travelling down a river, car parts on a production line, plates on a sushi bar conveyor. The alcohol and enzyme set collection could be sets of…well, anything.
Despite these limitations, Cytosis keeps cropping up on game night. Bigger, more well known games, seem to come and go, however, Cytosis returns over and over again. Perhaps its very simplicity means we think of it as starter game to warm up our mental muscles. Maybe it’s the striking colours or non-agrarian theme.
Whatever the reason, Cytosis is a relatively little known gem of a game that deserves a closer look.
Final thoughts On Cytosis
My thoughts on Cytosis did a complete u-turn after a single game. Games since then turned that initial reluctance so far in the other direction that I’ll play every time it’s suggested. I have even requested it to be played over far more well-known games in the genre.
It will never replace the likes of Viticulture or Agricola in the hearts of complex worker placement fans. It is, however, a well-designed, fast playing, educational, introduction to the genre. As such Cytosis receives a firm recommendation.