Newton slipped in quietly through the back door. Nobody made any fuss about it. In fact, until fairly recently only a few had even heard of it. Maybe its arrival has been swamped by all the excitement created by various different Kickstarter projects. Maybe it’s just because CMON know how to drum up interest in a game which has huge amounts of miniatures.
It seemed to have quite a bit of attention at Essen, but before that point, Newton was just off everyone’s radar. Rather like Lorenzo il Magnifico (also co-designed by Simone Luciani), when that first arrived. I first encountered Newton at Handycon 4… and immediately loved it, for all its flawed glory.
Co-created by half of the design team responsible for Tzolk’in and The Voyages of Marco Polo, Newton has a good pedigree. Once again, it has some of the feels of one of their previous games – in this case, there is a map with pre-determined routes, some of which cost coins to travel (though no camels, in this case).
Marco Polo has been heavily criticised in some quarters because the travel strategy is likely to be less successful. In the case of Newton, it may be that travel is the more favourable strategy, though this will depend on a number of other factors. Think of it more like the map travel in Orléans, with added purpose.
Newton is played over six rounds. Each round, players take turns to play one card to their player boards, or desks, to take the action depicted on the card. There are five card slots on the desks, which means 30 actions in total in the game. In this way, by having a fixed number of actions, the game feels similar to other games by Cranio stablemates Gigli and Brasini.
Although 30 actions sounds like a lot, don’t be deceived… those actions soon strip away, as there are so many things to do in Newton. It seems impossible to focus a strategy based on one particular type of action. And it would be a bad idea to do so, since all of the actions are closely integrated. In fact, until later in the game it can be difficult to take the same action more than once or twice in a round. Which means that Newton is very much a balancing act.
There are five possible actions available in Newton, each one is depicted on the bottom of a card. Players start with six cards; one of each action, and a joker/wildcard. Each action corresponds to a different play area, so it rapidly becomes easy to identify what the actions are: travel (on the aforementioned map), work (earning coins), lessons (acquiring new cards), technology (progress on a separate, one-way technology tree, rather like a map) and study. It’s worth focusing on these actions, to explain the way that they integrate, as this is the meat in a game of Newton.
Travel allows players to move their scientist around a map of Europe, occasionally collecting a supply of bonuses (points, money or potions – which can be used to enhance actions). The stronger the Travel action (I’ll come back to this) the further the scientist can travel. However, the bigger gains from map travel come from visiting specific locations – universities, ancient lands (sites of historic interest). Visiting these locations allows players to later stock the shelves of their libraries with information about the places they have visited, using the Study action.
Taking the Study action allows players to remove a book tile from a pre-stocked area of their board, and place it on a space on their bookshelves. Where that tile is placed in determined by two other factors – if the player has achieved an objective depicted on the shelf, and if they are taking a Study action of sufficient strength (lower shelves require stronger actions). Completing all of the bookshelves in a row or column is beneficial, as it awards points at the end of every subsequent round. The objectives include having visited locations across Europe, or having a set of books out on your desk (see Card Play).
The lessons in Newton are important because the action allows the player to take new cards – whilst the starting hand contains six cards, these will be depleted through the course of the game, so this action should ideally be taken once per round, on average. Remembering to do so can feel very limiting, at times… suddenly those 30 actions aren't quite as numerous.
Technology gives players a number of instant bonuses, but more importantly, gives players access to end game scoring bonuses, and these can, potentially, be huge. Progress on the technology tree, unlike map travel, is one-directional. So once a student (the markers on the technology tree) progresses down one branch they cannot return.
Work is a simple income track – earn one coin for each step progressed on the track. There are additional bonuses embedded along the track.
Cards are played to the player’s desk – there are five card slots to play into. Each card is divided into two parts – the basic symbol (depicting an action, which is present on every card) and the special effect symbol, which could be additional instant income, or possibly one or more books.
Books are important as they can enable bookshelves to be filled (see Study action, above). However, at the end of the round, each player must choose one of the cards they have played that round to tuck under their desk. In doing so, only the basic symbol (the action) remains revealed. Because of this, it is important to use the Lessons action at least once per round, to avoid running out of actions to take, whilst also making sure that one of the cards that is played in the round is “disposable”.
By tucking a card at the end of the round, one action symbol is permanently revealed. When the player plays a card, they take the action depicted on the card, but its strength is determined by how many times that symbol is visible on their desk. So tucked cards are still useful, and should be selected carefully. Bonus tiles, which carry additional action symbols, are also available throughout the game, to help boost the strength of a player’s actions.
Final Thoughts on Newton
Right at the top of this article, I used the word “flawed” to describe Newton, whilst heaping praise on the game. There are some combinations of cards which can seem somewhat overpowered. Some would argue that this makes the game broken or flawed. Some would argue that if someone has the opportunity to benefit from such a combination, then its the fault of the other players. I'll leave it up to the individual group of players to decide, as this seems to be a matter of personal taste.
I would definitely consider Newton a keeper. There are a lot of things to like about the way it plays, particularly the way that the actions integrate. It has echoes of other games from the same designers - particularly in the way that it ends too soon - whilst also feeling like it borrows from Mombasa, and Orléans. And yet it still feels like it does something new.