Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Until my mother moved there, I was unaware that Hastings is the go-to town in England for all things 'steampunk': I discovered this when buying a hat and noticed that others on the shelf had goggles and gadgets aplenty. Well, Widget Ridge is the game to play if you're in '1066 country' and you fancy a little one-on-one card play a la Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast) or its descendants, Ascension (Stone Blade) and Star Realms (White Wizard). Having knowledge of these games came in useful as this unruly offspring is let down by its manual.
Widget Ridge is designed by Ian Taylor and published by Furious Tree Games. While it can take up to four players you'd need a second copy as the compact box contains cards for just one or two players: yes, there's a lockdown-friendly solo challenge, too, against the villainous statue Lord Covington. While the all-important cards have good atmospheric art and design by Matt Burton - even fitting in a second text panel of card powers - the villain of this piece is a rulebook which I found myself having to refer to far too frequently and not finding answers. It's not helped by the black pages which bleed into the white serif font, or that some pieces of information - like the winning condition in the solo game - are either obscurely located or omitted altogether. The scoring cards are a little too wacky and fragile, as well.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The basics are sound, if derivative: manage your hand within a classic deck-builder rule set of play actions, buy from a Market, clean up, and draw five; but there is the twist of persistent machines ('Constructs'), built from three cards, which you can trigger at the very end of your turn. These give the game its mechanical heart, whimsically reading from left to right to create devices like a 'Wind-powered -- Battle Corset -- with Chrome Sides' and rules such as 'Pay 3 coins -- to draw two cards and discard two cards -- or gain 5 Spark'. Spark is Victory Points and the first player to 100 wins.
This, in principle, is fine: it's chaotic - more so even than Star Realms which also has persistent cards and a high VP target. The chances of building your Construct early can be improved by good purchasing, though card costs seem neither balanced nor well distributed. 'Battery-Powered' at 4 yields 8 coins, which is hugely OTT; while the big bad Doom Cannon generates enough VP for three cards on its own. If a player gets this going, it'll be hard to catch them. That task, though, is facilitated by a heavy-handed catch-up mechanic where powers literally state: 'If you have less Spark...' yielding up to 18 Spark. To its credit, Widget Ridge handles trashing cards ('melting') much better than some modern deck builders like Clank! (Renegade Game Studios): there is little chance of drawing a dull starting hand during the end game.
So, like other games that have a Steampunk aesthetic - Steam Works (TMG), Steampunk Rally (Roxley) and Imaginarium (Bombyx) - the key is getting a literal engine up and running: those triple-threat devices can be game changers. They can be targeted, though, by several 'take that' cards, but you'll soon get them fixed if you've been 'melting'. I don't know if the chaos is a result of the theme, or whether the theme slots onto an inherently chaotic base, but there is something about accepting the degree of chance present here which doesn't sit right with me in the way it does with, say, Dominion (Rio Grande). To be fair, both players face this issue in mostly equal measure, depending on the luck of the draw of the Market.
The solo game is a two-part challenge: first, three (but it could be four... that rulebook again!) mechanical bison get loose and you must disable them, improving your deck while earning enough Spark to do so; then Lord Covington comes out and does... well, mostly generate Spark. The 'automa' is fair enough, but I couldn't find a clear statement in the rules as to what needs to be done before he overloads and explodes and the game is lost. 'Better' was my guess.
So, as it was, I didn't buy a hat with goggles and gadgets and I don't own any other game with a Steampunk vibe, which is probably a fair indication that the theme in Widget Ridge wasn't going to win me over. However, I found its quirky game play just about surmounted the flighty mechanics, erratic card pricing and cranky rule book. If you like both genres that Widget Ridge showcases and, especially, if you are happy riding a mechanical bull to see how long you can keep it under control, there's enough here to entertain. Just be warned that steam might start coming out of your ears if you jog your scoring cards or have to reference that rulebook.
(Review by David Fox)