Designed by David Turczi, Wai Yee and Gordon Calleja, and with art by Philipp Kruse, Excavation Earth is a 1 to 4 player game with a unique theme. The players play one of five alien races - or seven with the expansion - that has landed on Earth well after the end of the human civilisation, and they are digging up old artifacts like those metronomic cats that wag their paw at you, or a car licence plate, and selling these artifacts onto collectors. The alien that makes the most money at the end of the game is the winner.
Each Alien race has its own asymmetric power and like all good board games you will gasp at quite how game breaking your own power is, and then feel a pang of jealousy as the other players at the table proudly announce their equally game-breaking powers. Great start then, but will this be a great game...?
The board and the components are what we have all come to expect from a Kickstarter: excellent! Each player has three huge screen-printed meeples in their own colour depicting their race. You have dual-layered player boards and good high-quality card stock, with wooden cubes and buyer meeples. The art on the board is excellent and truly evocative of the theme. Kudos to publishers, Mighty Boards; there is nothing here that could really be upgraded. Sure, there aren’t any plastic minis, but then this is a euro game right? Well sort of...
However, before we hit the game play let’s just mention the iconography. It has a real 'alien' feel to it, but that also makes it somewhat alien to decipher. It’s not bad in any way but some of the symbols are somewhat similar and once you place your meeples on the board it can obscure those symbols which you need to be able to see as it is important for the actions and for the artifacts. This is by no means a major issue but it is annoying.
So how do you play Excavation Earth then? Well, first you have to set the game up, and this game does take a while to both set up and tear down. Not only that, but there is a whole preparation phase after rounds 1 and 2 that is almost as time consuming as the initial set up. This isn’t a deal breaker but it is something to consider.
Hands of cards are built through card drafting and then players take turns discarding a card to take an action until they either run out of cards and pass or they decide to pass and discard down to two cards. You play the game over three rounds, refilling the artifacts on the board and gaining a new hand of eight cards, and there is a brief scoring phase after rounds 1 and 2, scoring dominance in each of three command areas. On your turn you take two actions which include:
· moving your archaeologists around the board to dig sites, markets or a black market
· collecting artifacts once you’re in position at a site
· sending a trader to one of the markets and seeding that market with potential buyers
· selling your artifacts at a maximum of one artifact per market
· buying or selling artifacts on the black market
· influencing turn order and the colour of artifacts that come out in the next round
· surveying to see what new artifacts might turn up and nabbing one quickly before anyone else can get it, but at a high price, or
· taking a command action, which will make more sense later...
All those actions could feel a little bewildering but there is a natural rhythm to the game: move, collect, get the traders in place and sell. Unfortunately, the game can fall into a rather formulaic plod through these actions and it can have a tendency to play itself at times. Each action also requires you to play a card. Every card can be used to move and you get three move cards on top of your hand of eight cards each round. You can also use any card to sell. However, for most of the other actions you must match the colour of the card with the colour of the artifact or the icon of the market. There are five different colours and six different market icons, which does mean you could get randomly screwed by the card draw so that you simply can’t get the colour of artifact or influence the market that you need to influence. This can be quite punishing if you are unlucky.
The game has a really interesting market mechanism and this is the heart of this economic euro. Each colour of artifact becomes more or less precious to the buyers over the course of the game. To start with, each of the six markets is randomly seeded with buyers in a rainbow array of the five colours of artifacts with a smattering of white 'wild' buyers for good measure. The more buyers of a colour there are on the markets, the more valuable that that colour artifact is to the buyer. So players are using the trade market to seed buyers of the colour of artifacts that they want to sell. Each market can only have four buyers and so when you add new buyers into a market, the ones at the front of the queue then decide that they don’t want to be at the market any longer; they’re probably hungry or something and so they wander off back to the market board. OK, that may not be the most thematic element of the game but it works.
When the player comes to sell they can sell up to three artifacts of any one single colour and they must sell them to different markets and those markets must have a buyer in that artifact’s colour and/or a wild white buyer and they must have a trader at that market. Phew, got it? Well if your head was exploding trying to get your brain around that conundrum, try working out the amount that you get for selling the artifact. Well surely it’s the price on the tile? Er no, in fact that isn’t relevant at all. It is based on the relative value of that colour in the market to the other colours based on the number of buyer meeples on the market board, plus 2 credits for each buyer meeple matching the colour of the artifact in the markets you are selling artifacts, or wild white buyers, plus a bonus if you sold to two, or better still, three markets in a single turn!
Now, I know that sounds super complicated, and that’s not even the end of the sell action, but let’s pause for a moment, because there’s something quite important in that action. You have to sell to markets that have the correctly coloured buyers and when you do you clear out all those buyers and the white ones as well. So, if you are following another player and hoping to sell your artifacts at the same market you can get totally screwed. This is a potentially very mean and very nasty game where timing is all important. Definitely not a game for the Care Bears Christmas Party then.
There are other ways to score points and, as you collect the artifacts, if you collect all artifacts of the same colour or if you collect the artifacts that share the same symbol, you score points and draw cards. So, there is a colour and symbol Bingo-style set collection game going on here at the same time and that set collection fits nicely with the theme of the game.
Quickly going back to selling for a second, when you sell, you move all the buyers to 'the mothership'. I assume it is time to leave Earth with their new prized possessions and this stops the price of the good just sold from plummeting back down immediately. However, once another player takes the sell action, those existing buyer meeples on the mothership go back to the market board and that juicy price you were about to get for selling those three red artifacts, yeah well no one wants them anymore. Also, for some unknown thematic reason the traders become something called envoys and you move your cubes from the markets you sold to, and place them on one of three command areas on the mothership board. These command areas provide money for the player that has the most at each location at the end of each round, increasing as the rounds go by and special command actions open up in round 2 and 3 that allow the player to manipulate the board, their cards and/or the markets, and you can take a cube back to your supply as an action and potentially take a command action.
This is actually not an overwhelmingly complex game and the rulebook does a good job of getting the rules across in a relatively short span, providing you with some good examples to build your understanding. The only other concern that I will raise here because it is a pet hate, if you are going to have artifact colours and player colours, don’t use the same colour twice! It becomes confusing. Unfortunately, there is a yellow artifact and a yellow player colour. Sure they are marginally different shades of yellow, but really? Surely grey could have been used instead? Oh no wait there’s a grey player colour, what about green or blue? No, they are used in the expansion. OK, so perhaps Excavation Earth ran out of potential colours, but there are better options than shades of yellow.
Ultimately, this game feels like a puzzle. It’s like one of those sliding square puzzles. You have to carefully, in the right order, slide each square into its correct place and you cannot do it out of order otherwise it won’t work. Unfortunately for you tho', there could be someone else at the table who is trying to do a different puzzle using the opposite side and keeps moving your squares out of position just when you think you are perfectly placed. When you combine that with the fact that you might just not get the card you need to maximise your turn, and you can see that this game should probably come with a blood pressure warning. This is not to denigrate the game, it is just a warning that you could have your plans completely hosed by a bad card draw or because someone else at the table beat you to that sale of purple artifacts.
If you like your economic games with a scoop of chaos and an ability to really screw over your opponents then Excavation Earth is almost certainly the game you are looking for, but caveat emptor or more specifically Care Bears beware!
You thought this was finished right? Wrong! There’s an expansion Excavation Earth: Second Wave which has a number of modular expansions that can be added to the cutthroat fun off the base game. The first of these is a wild colour card! Yippee!: a way to mitigate the random screwage of the card draw, which you can play and get back using a Command Action. Nice addition, and I would suggest always playing with this expansion. It's just a pity the card doesn't also act as a wild for the various symbols.
The next module is a couple of extra alien races to play which will spice the game up a bit for regular players, and they both have those lovely game-breaking asymmetrical powers too. Yummy.
The third module is 'achievements'... Now it is probably at this point I would be asking for a warm towel over the face and a cold water whilst I try to explain the additional rules and complexity that this module brings. However, these achievements do provide a way to mitigate at least some of the cutthroat tendencies in the game, giving those players something else to work towards and more options will likely mean fewer players constantly treading on each other’s toes, which I believe is the right direction to be taking for an expansion.
The fourth and final module adds yet another small board/tile with something that resembles Jabba the Hutt’s sailing barge in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and much like the movie, the barge in Excavation Earth: Second Wave is full of hangers-on who want to watch an archaeological dig?! OK, yes it is definitely stretching the theme thin, but again it provides another way to score majorities at the end of the game and reduces the formulaic plod through the order of actions.
So is the expansion necessary? Absolutely, if just for the wild cards. Does it make the base game better? Yes it does, unless you love chaos and the likelihood that all your best laid plans can be destroyed in a single turn. Should you play with everything added in? Well, the base game isn’t too complex in terms of rules, but there is that overlaid complexity that a game gets when it has so many actions and trying to decide what to do can be paralysing. However, perhaps that’s where Excavation Earth’s formulaic actions actually helps to get you started.
Oh, and did I mention Excavation Earth has a pretty solid solo mode? That should come as no surprise since the game is co-designed by David Turczi. The solo mode is challenging, tho' there is quite a lot of upkeep each turn for the solo AI. However, the puzzle-like nature of this game, and the fact that you can accept more of a cutthroat game when you are in a one-versus-one scenario against a faceless AI, means that, for some, this may be a solo game first and foremost, and perhaps a multiplayer game second.
(Review by Jason Keeping)