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Museum Review


Have you ever stood inside the cavernous halls of a great Museum - perhaps the grandiose prehistoric galleries of Natural History in London or the vast art collections of the New York Metropolitan- and there, amongst all the ancient treasures of civilizations swallowed by time, thought to yourself “How much have I paid to get in here and stare at pots? Pots, for god’s sake. I’ve got pots at home. If I ran a museum, let me tell you, things would be a damn sight better than this sorry debacle. Why, there’d be warships and chariots! There’d be an entire wall of katanas! Nobody would yell at you for riding the mammoth skeleton! By god, it would be the greatest assemblage of wonders that this world has ever seen!”?

Well, here’s your chance to put one over on those killjoy curators that frown upon your ambitions to switch clothes with the caveman waxworks right here in Museum, a 2 – 4 player set collection game from first-time designers Eric Dubus and Oliver Melison (both of whom followed this effort with Dominations: Road to Civilization). Set in the early twentieth century, you’ll be scouring the four corners of the globe for your own set of archaic marvels and displaying them in the most awe-inspiring arrangements you can think of, before reaping the sweet acclaim and inflated entry fees from the visiting general public.

Please Unmount The Tyrannosaurus Exhibit

The heart of Museum lies in acquiring ancient relics, treasures and antiquities- represented by the game’s 180 Object cards- to exhibit inside your galleries. Hailing from Europe, Asia, America, and Africa and the Middle East, these artefacts cover a staggering twelve different Civilizations which are then further divided into six distinct areas of interest or Domains. If that’s already got your eyes glazing over, don’t worry; it’s easier to grasp than it sounds.

Want to exclusively collect Egyptian curios for an exhibit? Go right ahead. But if you’re specifically after relics of Egyptian agriculture or maybe Japanese warfare? That’s where the Domains come in handy. Come the end of the game, you’ll score enormous amounts of bonus points for both the size and variety of your carefully curated showcases- even more if you manage to fulfil the requests of your wealthy museum patrons- but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. First, we’ve got some tomb-robbing to do!

Travel the World! Steal Its Stuff

At the beginning of each round of Museum, players are able to inspect the latest haul of archaic goodies unearthed from each of the four continents. There’s usually two on offer per region and you’re free to take any one of those into your hand. Once you’ve gotten hold of the artefacts you want, it’s tough decision time. Every Object card has a printed value, ranging from one to five, that represents both what it will cost to exhibit the piece and how many victory points it will net you.

You’ll usually be paying for one item with another in a straight swap; let’s say I want to show off the Mask of Sargon for example. The Mask of Sargon is as awe-inspiring as its name suggests- sounds like I could trigger the apocalypse just by putting it on, doesn’t it?- so it has a value of four. To display it, I’ll need to discard something of equal value so I jettison my Chertsey Shield and my Fresco of Pompeii, each with a value of two. No big deal.

The discard piles in Museum are available to take back into your hand as an action on your turn so I can just come back for them on the next round, right? Well, here’s the twist: once your relics are in the discard pile, they’re available to any other player who wants to buy them. Herein lies the central risk; do you split your time between collecting junk that you have no intention of ever displaying just to pay for the stuff you do, which will invariably slow you down? Or do you go for broke by only cherry picking the artefacts that you really want, praying that no other eager curators swoop in before your next turn and pinch a vital piece of your exhibition that you’d temporarily side-lined to pay for your Celtic War Chariot?

Prestige Worldwide

Helping to ease your financial conundrums, Museum does accept another form of payment called Prestige points. Prestige comes to you in a number of ways, most commonly through displaying the absolute crème da la crème of historical wonders. The highest ranked exhibits in the game are called Masterpieces and include such marvels as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Colosseum of Rome and the Moai of Easter Island.

Every time you play a Masterpiece to your museum, you gain a Prestige point- which, let’s face it, you’ll have earned for managing to steal a 481 foot pyramid out from underneath the Egyptian government’s noses. Prestige points are also awarded to you if another player decides to acquire an artefact from the continent pool on your turn, presenting another interesting dilemma; do you expand your collection and help your opponent on the way to victory or pace yourself and do nothing?

And then there’s the troubling matter of the score counter. For every item you display, you’ll also immediately reap its cost value in victory points. Once you hit fifty, you trigger the last round… and let me tell you, with the sheer meat of Museum’s scoring coming from your various collections, you really don’t want to exhibit too much too early and drop that final curtain on yourself before you’ve got at least one full parade of Incan agriculture tools to show for it.

Public Enemy No. 1

But beware, beware I say! Think before you snatch up that Mayan Triceratops saddle, for there is treachery afoot! Hidden within each of the four Object decks are a number of “Public Opinion” cards. These unwelcome entities represent the pesky journalists of the international press poking around your establishment and accusing you of taking too many artefacts from a certain continent. For every one of these cards that show up, a marker is placed next to the offending location. At the end of Museum, any items that are still lingering in your discard pile from these locations will cost you precious victory points.

Mesopotamian Chamber Pot Expert Wanted

If running your museum is already sounding kind of stressful, you’ll be pleased to know that you don’t have to tackle it alone. A range of Experts- from cultural consultants to artefact appraisers- are available for hire, each bringing their own distinct benefits to your venerable house of wonders. For example, an Ancient Greek specialist will act as a bonus card to that Civilization which might help you complete an important collection at the end of the game.

An inventory assessor can give you a big advantage in expanding your allowed hand size, reducing the time you spend shipping items back and forth from your discard pile. Experts can be a powerful addition to your game of Museum but if you’ll have to decide quickly whether to invest in them or not. Each turn, they cycle across their own separate board, with three available at a time, and once they’ve disappeared, they’re gone for good.

The Joys Of Exhibitionism

Museum is a beautiful game. Stunning actually; one of those collector’s pieces that you could just take off the shelf and aimlessly stare at. Illustrated by one of the industry’s top artists, Vincent Dutrait (Jaipur: 2nd Edition, Treasure Island), the game’s real showpieces are the Object cards, each featuring an exquisitely depicted artefact, treasure or location. For the true history enthusiasts among you, every card also features a short passage of flavour text to give you the skinny on what exactly it is that you’re acquiring for your galleries.

The main board is a handsomely antiquated clutter of dossiers and newspaper clippings, framed by the golden score track. The Experts are lovingly named and individually illustrated on their own cards. Aesthetically speaking, this truly is a museum in a box.

Thusly, the set-collecting meat of Museum is a uniquely joyous experience. Gathering these fine-looking specimens for display gives the role-playing aspect of the game- an element so commonly overlooked in this hobby- a true weight to it as you feel like a real curator sizing up pieces for exhibition. The added bonus, of course, is that the historical text on the cards might just make you that bit smarter for having played it.

Did you know that the Segovia Aqueduct was 15 kilometres long? Or that the Lycurgus Cup was named after an ancient king of Thrace from the Iliad? Those dreaded rounds of Trivial Pursuit aren’t looking so menacing any more, are they? Why, you’ll collect enough cheeses to be able to open some sort of afterlife for mice!

(A Long) Night At The Museum

With that said, it’s a real shame that such a natural and enjoyable theming fit for a mechanic is nearly crushed to death under a landslide of a half-dozen others. Museum is red-handedly guilty of aspiring to be a far heavier game than it needs to be. Look how long this blog has gone on for already. There’s still at least three different major parts of the game I haven’t explained to you yet. Three! And the bad news is that two of them are designed to slow an already leisurely-paced experience down to a treacle-footed crawl.

At the start of each new round, you’ll reveal a card from the Headline deck. That’s the sixth deck in the game so far if you’re counting along at home… and we ain’t done yet. Portraying real world events, turmoils and tragedies, this stack of cards will rarely give you anything resembling a break. It can cause staff to become more expensive to hire, force you to pay more to exhibit objects and, most commonly, closes down entire continents for artefact collection. This is irritating enough in a four player game where the Object cards are cycling more swiftly but with two players, it is almost paralysing to a title that already suffers from some major scaling issues.

Thrace And Favour

Favour cards (which make up deck number seven) do go some small way to helping you make up lost ground. For every ten points you score, you’ll draw one and gain access to a range of rule-flouting abilities such as being able to exhibit items for free or draw a rare extra card from the continent decks.. except if they’re closed, of course.

The Patron deck is the eighth and thankfully final deck that is dealt out at the start out of a game of Museum. Here, wealthy patrons offer you big bonus points for collecting a certain number of Civilization and Domain cards to be arranged in collections at the end of the final round. The points are offered in three brackets, each more valuable than the last to reflect what you manage to collect. You managed to get six Middle Eastern religious tomes? That’s great, here’s six points. You grabbed EIGHTEEN?! Good lord, how? Are those sirens I hear in the background? Take your twenty bonus points and begone!

Them Bones

What really hurts Museum the most is that it just doesn’t feel like it was play-tested extensively enough before its release. Hell, it barely feels like it was play-tested any more than going home time on a Friday afternoon at the office would allow. The problems begin almost immediately with the Patron cards.

If you’re lucky, the right cards will come up to fulfil your objective. If you’re not, they won’t. The available artefacts don’t automatically cycle through after every round which means if nobody picks them up, the same two items can be there for potentially the entire game. This runs sessions into the ground like absolute murder at lower player counts as you’re continually forced to pick up garbage that you don’t want, just to run through the gargantuan Object decks to find something that you do. Often in Museum, a winner is decided long before any sort of real strategy comes into play. If the Egyptian cards come up for your opponent’s Patron goals and no Roman ones show up for you, there’s sweet diddly Nero you can really do about it.

The Expert cards are largely useless for the same reason. If you’re racing to complete a Patron collection, you’ll only ever really want to buy the relevant specialist for it. Everybody else is just too expensive to bother with… all except for one single unbelievably broken hiring who allows you to exhibit your items for a cheaper cost. The Expert deck works on a first come, first served basis so if this infamous character turns up on your go, you’ll end up saving potentially dozens upon dozens of victory points in display costs… or, fatally worse, your opponent will.

Elsewhere, the Public Opinion markers are a great idea for a thematic penalty with horrible execution. As a straight mechanic, they exist as a light slap on the wrist. You generally won’t have an enormous amount of cards lurking in a discard pile to be punished for come the end of the game… unless the last player decides to just dump a steaming trash fire of condemned items straight into yours.

Again, there is nothing you can do about this unless you possess the appropriate Favour card which is going to be one fortunate pick out of a deck of 27. You can further improve your chances by hiring the one Expert that allows you to pick up two Favour cards and choose one to keep but, again, this is a lot of preparation work on a wing and a prayer for something that may or may not happen to you. Like many eventualities in Museum, it feels a lot like the designers came up with linear solutions to gaping problems that can only be mitigated by sheer luck of the draw.

Battle (For Floor Space) At The Smithsonian

Further feeding into the stew of scoring opportunities in Museum is the chance to arrange your exhibits in a pleasing manner across your own unique floor plan. There are points to be had for both displaying a collection in a marked central gallery and filling up every available space in your museum with your acquired archaic booty.

Let’s put to one side the fact that each of these floor plan boards are nearly twenty inches wide because Museum takes up a lot of space, so it is not a game to play if you don't have a big table haha!

A problem I have is that the boards are marked with slots to stack your artefacts one on top of the other, meaning that all of that beautiful artwork, all of the delight of seeing your hard-earned collections laid out next to each other, seems to become lost. More than that, it’s just a tad fiddly to have to keep poking your new acquisitions in between your older ones.

A Louvre-Hate Relationship

There are a staggering five available expansions to this game- the seemingly inevitable consequence of a high profile well-funded Kickstarter- that I haven’t yet touched. Frankly, the idea of adding one more solitary mechanic to Museum begins to sound less like a sick joke and more like I’d have to build a house extension just to have the room to play it.

And yet, despite its pavilions of flaws, despite its numerous irritating attempts to block your fun like that overzealous security guard rugby tackling you to the ground as you move to scale the blue whale replica, Museum does still find its way to my table. Now and again, of course. House ruled to merry hell.

Museum is a wonderfully themed set collector, forever calling out to the history nerd in me. There is a second edition in the works that promises to address a good number of my criticisms here in this review and so I do wish Museum the very best for its future. If it could play as beautifully as it looks, we’d probably have an all-time great on our hands.