With literally thousands of games released every year, the quest for an innovative theme could almost be one itself (I'm thinking a Snake Oil-esque party game) and it is rare that a wholly unique setting presents itself. It did for us, last year, when we played 2018's Edamame (Happy Baobab) - green beans rear dragons for a fight to first blood - and it has again, with the inimitable GemShine Pylons. In this game by Andy Van Zandt, with art by Katie Welch, players are powering up an empire of critters by decorating pylons with gems... yeah, not been there before. So, is the game helped or hindered by its peculiarity?
To start, four stacks of decorations are laid out, then each player takes 4 gems and a pylon, and 5 cards from a deck of 70 are set out to form a buy row, with a help card nearby housing a gem to start the market. Taking an equal number of turns, each player on their go does one of three things: pay for a card from the market; take all gems placed in the market; or turn a card in hand face down to make a pylon. Card costs are one gem, two gems, or one pylon and, when bought, most cards have one or a choice of two actions that the player can perform which include drawing new gems from the bag to boost a mostly closed economy, place pylons from the deck, acquire decorations for existing pylons by paying with 'representatives' on cards in hand, or placing gems onto pylons and decorations.
It is admirably simple, with big and bold iconography that - for the basic game - is completely understandable; the mechanics let you get on with acquiring gems, pylons and decorations with no interference other than your opponents. There is some pressure in ensuring you have enough gems to both score and buy cards as there is no generic action to acquire them; there is a choice to be made when buying cards to go for the strong actions or the most representatives; and there is an ongoing tension behind who will snaffle the best decoration.
Add to that the fact that the game's pace is controlled by the players and you have quite a snappy filler that runs to about 20 or 40 minutes depending on player count. Good play will most definitely be rewarded but there is still an element of luck in which cards come out to potentially balance the game. The last reveal in the game can swing the scoring significantly: the majority of coloured representatives left in hand make those gems score the most, in a fashion similar to Arboretum (Renegade Game Studios/Z-Man); that makes the otherwise dull turn of creating a pylon actually quite useful.
There are two variant ways to play, both of which are very 'tweakable' in their level of difficulty, which means you can make it as challenging as you like or tone it down for inexperienced players. The solo game is against an AI which leverages rule-breaking on its part to provide eight levels of challenge. The co-op mode boasts 49 combinations of difficulty, pitting the players against some rogue cards which deplete your resources, with an aim to score well on a grading system. Both modes are good, the co-op a little better, though 'alpha' play is possible; and both strategically reward slowing the game down. The publishers, Game Elemental, say there is a campaign mode in the works, too... yes, let's see this mighty empire for which we are decorating the power lines with precious gems!
My usual penultimate 'quibbles' paragraph is going to feel a little light, which is a good thing: perhaps it's the lack of intuitiveness through theme, but we had to reference the rulebook a lot in our first couple of plays. It is quite wordy and not always easy to find what you want to look up. Other than that, the AI got a little stuck in the solo mode, when it only had one gem slot and couldn't fulfil any of its options.
Overall GemShine Pylons has been a weird, but pleasant surprise, trying to do the best you can versus an opponent, AI or a gang of rogue critters, in a fairly limited timeframe, was very much a stimulating and engaging experience. The various modes of play and wide player count give it good flexibility, though you are likely to struggle to attract players by describing the theme to them. 'We do what now?'
(Review by David Fox)