Aldira by Jakob Emmerling and Benjamin Steiger, illustrated by Ary Lieberwirth, is already three quarters of the way towards being a really good game! I've been playing a preview prototype ahead of the game's upcoming launch on Kickstarter. The prototype is still in its first flowering so I'm eagerly looking forward to sampling its final fruits!
As a native Aldiran, you take the role of a competitive botanist living in the jungle village of Aldira. Your aim is simply to have grown the best plants for the annual competition, thus being crowned 'The Marduk' (that's ‘winner’ to you and me).
Starting with the same limited deck of cards and access to the same resources, players bid on which actions they would like to take (plant a plant, draw water, harvest etc). Each round is a day that's split into morning, afternoon and evening. You may take one action in each. The jostling between players comes when you choose to do the same action at the same time as a competitor; players must then defer to who wanted to do the action most (ie: who bid the most cards to take that action). This simple but potentially punishing bid mechanism leaves you constantly assessing and hoping on the desires of your competitors and does a good job of encouraging upbeat player interaction without distracting you from focusing on your own garden. In addition to growing your garden, asymmetric core and side objectives encourage you to adjust and adapt your technique – requirements which appear to be straight-up good fun, but I was not able to explore fully with the prototype due to a gap in the rulebook.
The game describes itself as a deck builder but I’m not sure this is entirely accurate. The ability to build your deck stems from the rewards granted by some of the plants you harvest but this is fairly limited because they might equally reward you in other ways (eg: extra fertiliser). To my mind, Aldira seems more like an engine builder to me, as you try to make your harvest synergise with the next crop. Thematically I think this works well with the idea of recycling/composting of garden waste, but it does mean that some luck is implicit in the game.
The good news is that the luck-factor is balanced out by the bidding mechanic, which compels you into a scrum against your competitors from beginning to end - fun, with a fair degree of bluffing and second-guessing! You are rewarded for your efforts but never greatly punished. As it stands, I believe there is a missed opportunity here for more asymmetric player options to complement the characters depicted on the back of the cards. The designers have gone to the effort of describing the characteristics of the depicted gardeners, so hopefully this is in the works. Indeed, the designers have put a lot of effort in building the whole fantasy village of Aldira, including invented types and names of plant, and even a brief foray into a made-up local language! In this post-Wingspan (Stonemaier) world, some small part of me does wonder if the effort of this passion project could have been channelled into depicting real-world fauna for even greater thematic depth...
(Review by Michael Harrowing)