Century: Spice Road was one of the hit games of 2017. Though the hype-train is moving on to newer, shinier games, Spice Road appears to have emerged from the initial waves of enthusiasm with a lot of genuine love from the gaming community.
However, Century: Spice Road was never meant to be a standalone. Designer Emerson Matsuuchi and publisher Plan B Games have a trio of Century games planned, each one spotlighting a different aspect of the historic spice trade. As Century: Eastern Wonders, the second game in the series and the subject of this review, was announced and previewed, the question on everyone's lips was this: would Matsuuchi be able to follow Spice Road's success with another hit?
A Quick Overview
Century: Eastern Wonders has many familiar elements from Spice Road, but it's designed to function as a completely separate game. Players of Spice Road will recognise the four types of coloured cubes that represent different spices, as well as the central mechanic of trading those cubes in different ways to reach certain point-scoring combinations.
And that's where the similarities end. While Spice Road was an entirely card-based game, featuring hand management and light action-selection, Eastern Wonders is a game played on a modular board with elements of area control and route planning.
Players have to navigate their way around randomly arranged spice islands where they can establish trading posts that allow them to exchange cubes. They must then make their way to ports, where they can cash in those cubes for point tiles.
While Eastern Wonders maintains the careful planning you can find in Spice Road, that planning must incorporate the very real challenge of competing with other players for limited space on the board in front of you. Though the games' objectives are similar, the mechanics of how you get there feel very different.
Before I go any further, I also want to acknowledge the existence of the combined game: From Sand to Sea. I've heard good things but haven't played that version yet, so for the rest of this review I'll focus solely on Eastern Wonders as a standalone game.
Gameplay and Mechanics
I've sketched the mechanics and objectives briefly, but there's more to the game than I mentioned above. There are a couple of constraints in place that make the game interesting. The first is that, each turn, you're allowed one free move to an adjacent tile. After this, moving further costs spices. This means that you can't move that quickly around the board unless you pay for the privilege.
The second constraint is that you can't trade at an island unless you've placed a trading post there. These are free to place so long as you're the first to that island. If someone else beats you there, it'll cost you. This means that the game feels a lot tighter at four players than it does at two, with the board being the same size no matter the player count.
If you reach a spot that you don't want to trade at for whatever reason (like you can't afford a trading post or you don't have the cubes required for the trade) you can harvest instead, which means taking two of the yellow (least valuable) spices. This can let you build up a collection of cubes for future trades and increases the options available to you each turn.
Route planning and trading are made even more interesting with an upgrade mechanic. Players start the game with a 4x5 grid completely covered by their trading posts. When they place one on the board, they choose the post from the leftmost spot in the row that corresponds to that island's colour (which are the same as the spices). As a row is uncovered by putting more posts down on the same coloured spots, players earn more points that go toward their endgame score. As they uncover columns, they can earn upgrades like an extra free move each turn, a bonus when you harvest or additional spice slots.
This mechanic rewards players for thinking more deeply about where they trade than simply the spots that are most convenient for them. It also encourages players to place posts on spots even if other players have already built there, as they risk falling behind if they don't. It has no parallels in Spice Road and is one of the elements that makes Eastern Wonders feel like a completely unique game.
Has Century: Eastern Wonders Lived up to the Hype?
Spice Road was a big act to follow but, in my opinion, Eastern Wonders has surpassed it. The second game in Matsuuchi's series is longer and thinkier than its predecessor. I like the new elements of strategy that a modular board and the potential for upgrades bring to the game.
However, those new elements are enough to make the game noticeably harder than Spice Road. I don't think that the rules are especially hard to understand, but the simple act of moving your ship every turn gives you many more strategic options than are available at most points in Spice Road. I think that one of the reasons that the first game was so successful was that its gameplay was compelling at the same time as being fully accessible to non-gamers. I feel like I could sit down and play it with anyone.
Eastern Wonders is still accessible enough to have a broad appeal, but it's not quite so kind as Spice Road. I'd play it with anyone who's keen to try a board game, but would choose easier games to play with people who are more lukewarm.
Another reason I like Eastern Wonders is the tactile element. Cards are nice, but they can't rival the simple pleasure of moving well-made wooden pieces around a visually appealing board. I also want to give props to Plan B Games for choosing player colours that, as far as I can tell, are friendly to people with colour-blindness (white, black, bright blue and bright pink). If I had to pick one hole with the game, it's that the board can get physically crowded at higher player counts with lots of trading posts around. It's not a big issue, but it can make it harder to work out what's where and what each space is doing.
I'm yet to try the game with the alternate board designs recommended in the instructions - so far I've stuck to the starter set-up. I'm also yet to try the combined game, Century: From Sand to Sea. The fact that both of these possibilities are available shows how much variability and replay-ability has been packed into a fairly small-box game.