Some of the biggest mysteries of our planet will likely remain mysteries indefinitely. We speculate, we guesstimate, we theorise, but ultimately, some knowledge may very well be lost to us for good. The most speculated theory about some of these enigmas revolve around the concept that extraterrestrials were responsible, or at least partly responsible for these sites of wonder. I am talking of course about Stonehenge, the Nasca Lines, the moai littering Easter Island, and of course, the pyramids around the world. In Origins: First Builders, these tribulations are null and void, because you are an Archon, selected by our friends in the sky, and destined to lead your freemen to new heights of civilisation.
Is the game a natural wonder or is it a war waiting to engulf? Let’s find out!
The Truth Is Out there!
Origins: First Builders can be considered a bit of a point salad game. As I am sure many euro-style games can be. In this game you have many areas that you can visit, different tracks to work up, resources to collect and spend, and buildings to construct. There is a military track, zodiac tracks and encounter sites to visit. There are also several different end game scenarios that basically allow you to tailor when you end the game.
So the game basically revolves around trying to decide what action to take next. I do enjoy that the game isn’t set out in traditional turns however, in this game instead of taking all your actions in one go, you are restricted to choosing one action, and then waiting until others take an action before it comes back to you. This can lead to some tough choices as you try to determine the best course of action for the round. You must pass when you choose not to take more actions, or if you have left yourself without any options left.
These choices are important because in order to take actions you need to place your workers out at the encounter sites. Your workers are represented by die that of course have a number value as well as a colour. Placing a die at any encounter site allows you to take one of the two actions associated with it. You can also trigger a bonus action but only if the colours match and the die value is equal or higher than that of the site.
These are more beneficial actions to take if you can claim them. This makes for some crunchy decisions as whenever you place a die in a location (the die colour does not need to match encounter colour), you will increase the value of that location by 1, so you can cut off an opponent’s strategy if you enjoy being cut-throat in these kinds of games. This is doable as there is no limit to the number of dice that can be placed in a location. The different colours for the sites are randomised at the start of each game, whereas each location has two permanent actions printed on it. This means that each game should see you able to trigger different pairs of actions if played well.
As well as the encounter site increasing by 1 after being visited (loops from 6 to 1 as you spin the dials) your freeman also gains new knowledge and increase in value by 1 when they return to you at the end of the round, making them more useful the following round. This offers more decisions in itself as you need workers to trigger your building's abilities and can accumulate for end of game scoring.
The higher the number, the bigger the multiplying scoring will be, but if used like this, they don’t return to you, much like laying a farmer on a field in Carcassonne. But, if you use a freeman at its most knowledgeable state (6) then you get to take both actions at an encounter site AND the bonus action if the colour matches. When it returns to you it is promoted to an advisory position for your archon and retires, so it cannot be placed out further (or used to trigger your buildings).
Your archon is also a worker you can place but has no number value, it is unaffected by the number of a site. When your freemen retire into an advisory position, it turns your archon that colour allowing it to take an action and the bonus action of a site it visits of the same colour. And of course, you are able to have your archon in all 5 colours if you want.
The actions the sites allow you to do vary from gaining resources, building buildings, moving up the military track, moving up on the zodiac tracks, gain new freemen or temporary freemen (speakers). There are also things you can do that are outside the main board being: grow your population (gain a new die), close a district of buildings (using a die to trigger their abilities and scoring points based on colour patterns), or build a tower level (multiplied by matching colour dice used to close districts for end of game scoring).
The game does a decent job at keeping each game feeling slightly different from the previous. As mentioned above, the coloured encounter sites are placed randomly during set-up, which changes the actions you can combo into with the bonus action of each game. There are multiple zodiac cards which only 3 are used in each game, being placed randomly on the available tracks. Each of these zodiac cards is awarded to whoever is highest in its associated track at the end of the round, granting small boons to whoever holds them.
The available building cards are separated by colours, and one of each is available to purchase at any time, but each stack is shuffled each game, which means every time you build a tableau of buildings they will be different. This is great as when you take a die to trigger the buildings, you only trigger the 4 buildings around the die, so with many different buildings and abilities, you will be always finding interesting little combos. Of course, the coloured die only triggers buildings of the same colour, so thinking ahead will be an advantage here.
The last thing that adds to the replayability is the thing that I consider the most broken of the game as a whole. The 5 district cards that you draw at the start of the game serve 2 purposes. The first indicating the colour pattern of buildings you can construct to earn points after assigning die to your buildings. The second is that each of these district cards show 3 towers of different colours, adding them all together gives you the pool of available towers of each colour for the game. And herein lies the flaw of the game.
The main game end trigger comes from depleting 2 of these colour tower pools. And you will want to buy these towers, as the amount of them you have is what multiplies with the dice you placed in your buildings to garner massive end of game point scoring. In the first game of this I played, there were 2 colours that started with many many less than the other colours, and the colours that were of the lower number, were ironically the colour needed to trigger the district building colours, and so were the ones bought the quickest. This ended the game pretty abruptly and felt as though it just shouldn’t have been allowed to happen, and yet it was.
All of these things don’t make a massive difference to the games you will play, but the slight variations definitely are welcome to a game that can last several hours, or ten minutes depending on the drawn district cards. My main advice would be to reshuffle the district cards if you are presented with a poor distribution of towers at the set-up phase. Or failing that, decide as a group that you will play until 3 colours are depleted instead.
Components & Aesthetics
This section is such a mixed bag of comments. There was such a good opportunity to make the components in Origins: First Builders truly shine out, but there are elements that unfortunately fall flat.
The game is incredibly aesthetically pleasing. I love the artwork on the box that couples ancient architecture with futuristic/alien theming. This works incredibly well as a theme as it isn’t one I have seen much, if at all during my gaming journey. Unfortunately, the stella artwork doesn’t translate over to the components all that well. The plastic encounter sites are functional but could have benefited from a bit of a unique personality other than being different colours. The worst offender of the bunch is the resource tokens. They are all a very simple design, on a small cardboard chip, on a white background. Three of the four types of tokens are yellow and hard to distinguish at a glance. There were many times when we accidentally paid a food cost with coins by mistake or vice versa.
The rest of the game components function really well, which unfortunately creates a bigger divide among the parts that don’t function well. I really liked the artwork on the player boards, as they reflected the theme really well. I also really liked the little dice holders that accompany your player board, making placed dice easy to distinguish from your opponents’.
The rule book is a pretty chunky book if you are more familiar with smaller games, but it is well written and easy to get through. Both set up and playing of the game is pretty fluid and intuitive, with examples throughout that made learning the game an easy process.
What Works And What Doesn’t
Origins was a game that took me a little by surprise. I haven’t delved very far down the euro-style board games personally. But playing more of them I find myself being drawn into them more and more. The game presents you with a decent number of tracks to move up that garner different rewards and abilities. The choices are really what make this game shine, as there is always something you can do, something to work towards.
And given that you take alternating actions and not whole turns, these choices can easily be affected by other people’s actions. There is a healthy mix of actions that can reward you with instant points and ones that can net you a waterfall of points at the end of game scoring. On top of this, the options presented to you are vast enough to not be able to truly get the most out of each area, giving you new play options with each play of the game.
You may have noticed that I used the word “colour” in this review probably more times than I cared to type. This is because Origins relies far too heavily on different colours to represent different things. There are 5 different colours used, these relate to the encounter sites and their represented ability, different building types, different coloured dice and separate from those there are also 4 different player colours. I found myself wishing the colours were further apart in the spectrum or incorporating some sort of distinguishable pattern or symbol on them too. One of the main people in my play group is colour-blind and I hesitate to play this with them. I feel he will likely struggle with some of the colours, especially in certain light conditions.
Origins: First builders have a lot to love. But it also has a few rough edges that could have easily been smoothed out. Eurogames are the hardest type of board game to inject theme into, given they are usually referred to as ‘dry’. This game does well to try and inject an interesting theme onto a game that could just have easily gone down the typical euro style route. The theme doesn’t really shine through in the gameplay, but that is perfectly fine. I really like the randomised parts of the game set-up and the decision making of what would benefit you the most. I love that there are always options available to you, or ways in which you can mess opponents up a little whilst not directly interacting with them.
The game’s tokens really are a disappointment, as well as the possibility of having a drastically uneven distribution of tower colours at the game’s set-up. The encounter sites could be painted to spruce them up a little, and the district cards can be reshuffled to alleviate tower distribution, but there isn’t much you can do for the tokens, short of upgrading.
Origins: First builders is a really enjoyable game as a whole, and I highly recommend it, I just wish there had been a little extra thought that went into components. I think this game sits nicely in a zone that is accessible for players (like myself) who haven’t dived much into euro games, but there is also enough to the game for seasoned euro gamers to take enjoyment from it. Easy recommendation from me, check it out!