Origins: First Builders Review
Some people theorise that extra-terrestrials visited our planet many moons ago, and taught our civilisations many things. Building pyramids for example, that’s always a favourite. Origins: First Builders puts you in a world where these aliens have indeed popped over to say hi, and are willing to teach us all about building and warfare, and all that good stuff.
It’s a game from the Euro stable of Board&Dice, so you’d expect it to carry on their fine pedigree. For the most part, it does. The design from the mind of Adam Kwapiński (best known for Nemesis, and the upcoming Frostpunk game) feels like a natural fit among the likes of Tawantinsuyu and Zapotec, despite the slightly fantastical setting. Tracks to climb, resources to hoard, and more dice to chuck than a fight in a Yahtzee factory.
If you’ve seen any images of Origins, it’s likely that the first things that caught your eye were the colourful plastic discs at the top of the board. These are in fact, motherships, in classic retro-futuristic style, rotating above our planet. During the game players take turns to place their workers (dice) at the sites of the motherships in order to have encounters. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with less mashed potato.
The alien visitors impart wisdom on your tribes, allowing you to build buildings and farms, increase your military might, and take on more spiritual pursuits by advancing up the zodiac temple tracks. Naturally, each of these things are interwoven with threads of dependency, meaning the benefits you gain doing one thing, often allow you to do another, and so on.
Right now, you might be reading this wondering “How is this different to any other Euro worker-placement game?”. The answer is in the way Origins uses dice as workers. It shares some DNA with its stablemate, Teotihuacan, is as much as the values on the dice can increase with certain actions, becoming more powerful as they do. The motherships rotate in-place with each action taken there, and the workers visiting must at least match the value of the pips shown on the highlighted section of the ship.
And therein lies one of the biggest problems with the game.
The motherships, whose positions determine which actions you can or cannot take on your turn, have dice pips embossed on their outer ring. The pips are really hard to see at a glance, even for eyes younger than mine. It’s such a basic flaw that I’ve seen plenty of people online take a Sharpie to them, to make them legible. The irony here is that if the motherships had just been printed on the board, and a normal dice placed on top to achieve the same function, there would have been no problem. The plastic ships are over-engineered and superfluous.
The same is true of the plastic ‘population bases’ used, which are effectively dice holders. As each is unlocked, they move from one spot on your board to another, just above it. They don’t actually do anything practical, and could easily be written out of the game, and left us with one less fiddly thing to do during the game.
I’m also slightly irked by the military track. The track runs around the outside of a colosseum printed on the board, but nothing actually happens in the colosseum. It’s just a big, grey oval, which stays empty for the whole game. In the setup I have to place piles of dice, resources, and cards around the outside of the board, and leave a great big gap vacant, and… grey. It’s something that bothered me with the design of Dune Imperium too. Designers – use the space on the board before asking us to swamp our tables with more stuff.
Stars in your eyes
The reason I’ve been so vocal about my gripes, above, is because I really like Origins: First Builders. It’s a really nicely-made, reasonably heavy Euro game. It’s right in my wheelhouse, and it is painfully close to being a great game. There are a few imbalance issues in my opinion, but I think rules tweaks in the recently-announced Ancient Wonders expansion could fix these. In each game I’ve played so far, the winner seems to race away and win by a healthy margin.
The randomisation of the zodiac track cards are a curse and a blessing. They can make each game feel very different to the previous one, which is great, but the game length can vary quite a bit. The end of the game is triggered by player actions, and some of those actions get boosted by some of the available zodiac cards.
These minor grumbles aside, it’s a slick game which gives you tons of choices, and plenty of routes to victory. There are great opportunities to plan the building tiles for good bonuses and scoring, and there are some really clever things you can do with your workers. Promoting them past a value of six means they turn into advisors, and can be plugged into your player board to further expand your abilities. They can also occupy a ‘seat of power’, which is a gap in the junction where four buildings meet. These give more scoring chances, if the arrangement matches cards, and can activate building powers again.
There’s a lot going on, and a lot to like about Origins.
If it sounds like I’m torn on Origins: First Builders, it’s because I am. I love the dice as workers, I love the various tracks and resource management, and I love the clever tile-laying puzzle of the buildings. The motherships’ lack of legibility is an irritation, more than a show-stopper, but it seems unbelievable that it didn’t get caught in playtesting. The same goes for the way the value of each resource token is printed in the middle of the tile, on top of the image of what it represents. I defy anyone to not accidentally pick up wheat when they meant gold, and vice-versa.
The game advertises a solo mode by David Turczi on the box, which got me really excited. Be forewarned however, that the mode in the box is a practice mode – you against your own score type of thing. If you want an ‘active’ automa opponent (which plays a very good game, by the way), you need to download it and print its player board and instructions yourself. You can get it here. It was a bit of a disappointment to not have it included. It’s something Praga Caput Regni did too, and I really hope it stops happening soon.
If you can overlook the over-engineered plastic pieces, and my other little bugbears, you’ll find a rock-solid Euro, worthy of the Board&Dice logo. Complex, easy-to-learn, and tons of indirect interaction, just like a good Euro should be. I’m really looking forward to the expansion, to see what it throws into the mix. Anyone who doesn’t like player-driven ending of games should keep an eye on it too, as one of the modules determines the length of the game. I like what Board&Dice are doing at the moment, they’re a great publisher, and Origins: First Builders is a crunchy, satisfying game.
Review copy kindly provided by Board&Dice. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Origins: First Builders (2021)
Designer: Adam Kwapiński
Art: Zbigniew Umgelter, Aleksander Zawada
Playing time: 60-120 mins