When Century: Spice Road was released in 2017 by Plan B Games, some people were quick to label it as Splendor’s brother from another mother. True, it shares some similarities. You’re building up an engine of cards, striving to get your mitts on specific spice order quantities worth delicious victory points. But instead of tableau-building, you’re deck-building, making Spice Road a different number to both play and learn.
The eagle-eyed among you might know that Century: Spice Road is game one of Emerson Matsuuchi’s Century trilogy of board games. 2018 saw Eastern Wonders hit the market, featuring pick-up-and-deliver flavours. Meanwhile, this year part three has just been let loose into the wild, with A New World offering a twist on the worker placement mechanism.
The clever thing about these three games is that as well as being excellent gateway games in their own right, any two of the three can amalgamate, providing a new bumper-game, entirely. However, in this tutorial we’re only focusing on how to play the one that set the ball rolling – Century: Spice Road. So clamber onto your camel, join the caravan and let’s trade some spices…
Century: Spice Road - Set-Up
Place the four red spice ‘pinch bowls’ (thematic, we like it!) in a vertical row. Pour the yellow spice cubes (turmeric) into the bottom bowl, then the red spice (safran) into the bowl above it. Next, the green cardamom, with the brown cinnamon into the bowl at the top.
Separate the cards into three piles according their backs – orange, purple, and grey. Orange cards are delivery ‘Point’ cards. Shuffle these and then deal out five face-up in a row, starting next to the pinch bowls, left to right. Place the remaining orange deck face-down next to the fifth card.
Place golden coins above the Point cards – specifically, the first (left-most) card in this row. Put as many gold coins here as the number of players, multiplied by two (eight, for example, in a four-player game). Place the same number of silver coins above the second card.
Now, flick through the purple Merchant deck. Put the 10 purple-border cards to one side for now. Shuffle the remaining deck, then deal out six face-up in a row below the Point cards. Again, place the remaining Merchant deck face-down, next to the sixth (right-most) card.
Those 10 purple-border Merchant cards that you removed consist of two types: Five have two grey cube icons in the top-left corner; the other five show two turmeric cubes. Give one of each card type to every player. Dismiss any remaining cards (if playing with less than five participants).
Century: Spice Road can accommodate two to five players – however, we recommend playing it at three players and up (at two players it can become a bit predictable). Deal each player a grey-back Caravan card face-up in front of them. Whoever has the Caravan card with a purple/gold circular symbol in the bottom-right corner is the first player (so include it when dealing in a less-than five-player game)!
Give the first player three turmeric cubes to place on their Caravan card. Give the second and third player (in clockwise order) four turmeric cubes. Finally, give the fourth and fifth player (if playing with that many people) three turmeric cubes and one safran cube. All done!
So, How do you Win?
Before we jump into the rules, first, let’s clarify: What’s the aim of Century: Spice Road? You and your fellow players are rival spice merchants looking to acquire (and then trade) spices from the east, the aim being to then fulfil orders (Points cards) demanded by wealthy clientele. At the end, Points card values are added (among some other things), and you guessed it… Most points wins.
Therefore getting spices and, more importantly, the orange Points cards is kind of a big dill (groan) to winning. But how do you accomplish that, we hear you ask?
On their turn in Century: Spice Road, players can do one of four possible actions: play a Merchant card, acquire a Merchant card, claim a Points card, or Rest (pass), with play occurring in a continuous clockwise order. Happily, all four actions are simple to grasp…
Remember those two purple-border Merchant cards from set-up? You can play one of those face-up in front of you, performing the action denoted in the top-left corner. The one with two yellow cubes on it (no arrows) is a Spice card and you’ll gain two turmeric. Take the corresponding cubes out of the turmeric pinch bowl and add them to your Caravan card.
It’s important to note: your Caravan card has 10 squares on it, meaning it holds a maximum of 10 spice cubes. If at the end of your turn you have more than 10, you’ll have to return your choice of spices back down to the limit.
The other card everyone starts with – two grey cubes with an upwards-facing arrow – is an Upgrade card. When played, this allows you to upgrade any two spices in your caravan into the next-most valuable spice, or to upgrade one spice cube twice. Return spices from your caravan to the bowl and claim the upgraded version of it.
In set-up, we told you to situate the pinch bowls in a specific order: turmeric – the least valuable spice – at the bottom, with safran above it, then cardamon, then cinnamon. So, this Upgrade card could be used to upgrade, say, two turmerics into two safrans, or, say, one turmeric into one cardamon. Again, your new spice(s) sit on your Caravan card.
There is a third type of card: A Trade card. You don’t start with any, but dozens sit in the regular Merchant deck – no doubt a variety of them will be face-up among the six you dealt out in set-up (alongside different offerings of Spice and Upgrade cards). Each Trade card shows a specific group of spice(s), with an arrow indicating towards another selection of spice(s).
One card, for example, provides the trade of two cardamon cubes in exchange for one cinnamon and two safran. If you (eventually acquire and then) play one of these cards, you’ll trade the spice(s) shown, for the spice(s) promised – again, returning spices to their bowls and taking the relevant ones onto your Caravan card.
An often-forgotten rule is that this action can be repeated multiple times in one turn, providing you have the appropriate cubes. So, using the example above, if you played that Trade card and had six cardamon cubes, you could do that trade three times. As a result, you’d receive three cinnamon and six safran.
Which brings us neatly to the second action a player could decide upon: acquiring one of the six Merchant cards on display. The left-most card is free. If you want the second card, it costs one spice of your choice. The third card costs two spices, and so on.
You pay by placing one spice onto every card to the left of the Merchant card you want. The card you’ve bought goes straight into your hand (meaning you can play it on your next turn, if you want). Once purchased, all Merchant cards slide one space to the left and a new card is added to the end of the row. If you buy a card with previously placed spices on it, you gain those spices, too.
Thirdly, you can claim one of the five Points cards. If you have the quantity of spices required on a Points card, you can pay them back into their bowls and take that Points card. If you claim the far-left card, you also take one of the gold coins. If you take the Points card second in the queue, you take a silver coin. Similarly, once a Points card is removed, all remaining cards slide one space to the left. A new card then joins the line.
Finally, the fourth action a player can take is ‘Rest’. This means picking up all Merchant cards that they’ve played thus far, back into their hand. Therefore, on their next turn, they’ll have an entire hand of Merchant cards at their disposal.
The game-end triggers once any player completes five Points cards (in a four- or five-player game; six Points cards in a two- or three-player game). Play resumes, however, until the end of the round – so each player has the same number of turns. Now the value of each player’s Points cards are added up. Additionally, gold coins earned are worth three points each; silver coins are one point each; and any non-turmeric cubes left in player’s Caravans are one point each, too. Most points wins!
Last of all, there’s just enough thyme for a few winning tips (okay, that’s the last of the awful spice puns, we promise)…
While technically you can stick with your two starter cards again and again (get two turmeric, and then upgrade them both), it’s a slow, inefficient and dull means to get what you need. Start out by acquiring some tasty Trade cards to build up your deck. Sometimes it’s worth taking the free Merchant card just because it already has a few spices thrown in, gratis!
When you play Merchant cards, consider placing them in an overlapping row, with the spice icons visible to you (rather than in one heap). Now you’ve got an at-a-glance view of which cards you have in your arsenal for later, when you Rest and pick them all back up.
Century: Spice Road is an engine-building race. With only five orange spice Points cards on display at any one time, chances are you can deduce which ones your opponents are after, given the visible spices they’re collecting. Can you confidently complete it quicker than they can? Or should you ignore it and concentrate on another Points card?
Keep an eye on the two spice orders that come with coin rewards – to a certain degree. If you wait for others to clear the queue, the Points card you’re eyeing up will eventually slide along into first or second in line, and with it, extra points in the shape of shiny things. Fingers crossed nobody nabs it before you, though! It’s possible to win by bumping your score up with those extra coin bonuses, but don’t let them distract you too much.
Similarly, if you can sense the end-game fast-approaching and you’re nowhere near completing any of the five Points cards, don’t fret. Simply work on trying to boost your Caravan up to stocking as many non-turmeric spices as possible. They offer a maximum of 10VP (one each, after all)!
Remember, the winner is not the one who completes the most Points cards, but rather the accumulation of their values. Sometimes rushing the game to complete five quicker, easier, lesser-value orders is a valid strategy, but then so can be playing the long game of taking ages to get the odd 20-pointer, five-cinnamon bad-boy (which sounds like a fiery curry in its own right)…