Ex Libris is a board game about books, which couldn’t hit my sweet spot any more thoroughly without also including food or baseball in its theme. It’s really more a game of set collection, card management, and a little worker placement, of course, with no actual reading required, just some knowledge of the Roman alphabet and the ability to balance one’s play across a couple of different and sometimes conflicting criteria. (It’s no relation to the acclaimed documentary out now on the New York Public Library of the same name, and you could probably slip in four plays of Ex Libris during the film’s three-hour run time.)
In Ex Libris, players compete to collect and then “shelve” cards of library books (spines only, with funny and/or ridiculous titles) on the table in front of them, with scoring at the end of the game coming in several different categories—and in most of them, you only score for cards you shelved in correct alphabetical order. Once you shelve a card, you will have few if any chances to move it, so there’s some gravity in the decision to shelve something. Your shelves can only have three rows, although they can be as long as you wish. Books come in six types (identified by color and symbol, so the game is accessible), and in each game, each player receives his/her own focus type. There’s one type called “Prominent Works” that scores extra points for everyone, and “banned books” cost you points.
Each player starts with six hand cards, but the cards function both as items to shelve and as the game’s currency to grant you extra moves. Each player begins the game with three meeples, called assistants, and places them on various game spaces to get to perform certain actions, most of which involve drawing cards from the deck, taking them from the board, or shelving cards from the player’s hand (or from those just drawn). Your own player board has three spaces that let you draw one card or shelve one hand card, but not both; it’s a default option and the weakest thing you can do, only useful when you have no other decent option or must shelve a card at game-end to score.
The action spaces available change over the course of the game, as the board itself is variable, comprising 20 cards with one to four spaces for assistants, shuffled at the start of the game (other than card one), with a number of these cards drawn each turn, one per player. The lowest-numbered card on display then moves to a permanent spot on the banner that lists the scoring methods and identifies the priority and banned categories, so the number and variety of actions available will increase as the game progresses. These action cards allow much more flexibility and often more power to players, with abilities to shift cards already shelved, to shelve two at once, to discard several hand cards in exchange for taking cards on the display, and so on. Having a large hand of cards is usually key, because so many actions require you to discard X cards before drawing or shelving X (or fewer) cards.
That’s all there is to the base game, which is certainly fine for learning its mechanics, but Ex Libris itself is much better in its slightly advanced version, where each player gets a unique base card with its own associated meeple, and a special ability that’s only activated when the player plays that meeple (which replaces one of the three ordinary meeples). These can be extremely powerful abilities—one, the wizard, might be too powerful, because it allows the player to move one adjacent group of shelved cards once per round—and also makes the home card’s options more palatable. So deciding where to place your assistants, which already had the side effect of potentially blocking an opponent from a valuable space, now involves deciding which assistant to place, because one of your three triggers your own unique power.
You score at game-end for the largest solid, three-row rectangle of cards on your shelves, even if some of those cards were shelved incorrectly and had to be turned face-down before the scoring. Those cards won’t score in any of the categories related to the book types. Each player then counts up all symbols in his/her library in the six types—some cards may have two books in one category, so it’s the number of symbols that matters, not the number of cards. The player with the most books in the Prominent Works category gets 15 points, the player with the second-most gets nine, and the player with the third-most gets six. Each player loses one point per banned book in his/her library, gains two points per book in his/her focus category, and then gains three points in whatever category appears the least often in his/her library, excluding the banned books category. (If you’ve played Tigris & Euphrates or Ingenious, it’s the same idea—you want balance across the five non-banned categories to score well in this department.) Certain base cards allow other unique bonuses, which are then added to the points added/subtracted from those five areas to reach the final score.
I’ve played Ex Libris now with two players and with four, and it works just fine in either combination, with the obvious difference that in the four-player game you’ll find yourself more frequently blocked from action spaces you might want. There are some cards that get more powerful with more players, however, and in a larger game you’ll end up getting more cards for free on other players’ turns, so the game maintains its balance regardless of player count. It’s on the lighter side of midweight, and the box’s suggested game time of 45 minutes is about right. I also see a lot of room for expansion by adding new base cards for players and new action cards for the center of the table, which could help ramp up the complexity for folks who find it a little too breezy. I think it’s among the best new family board games of the year.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.