When I hear a new game described as one great game meets some other great game, I usually roll my eyes, or at least do the mental equivalent. Everyone wants to describe games they like as some combination of two great games—just like you hear with movies or TV shows or books. “This new game The Hobgoblins of Hangover Square is just like 7 Wonders meets Gloomhaven!” Sure, buddy. I’ll just be over here playing Wingspan.
So forgive me for what I am about to do: Realm of Sand, a Japanese game brought to the U.S. by Deep Water Games, is almost entirely a mashup of Splendor and Patchwork.
It really is, though. Take the polyomino aspects of Patchwork and cross that with the setup and goals of Splendor, and you get at least 80% of the way to Realm of Sand. And it works, somewhat surprisingly, once you get past the fiddly bits. Those two games shouldn’t taste great together, but they kind of do.
In Realm of Sand, each player has the familiar board with gridlines on it, with a central area in light shading surrounded by squares with dark shading. Each player starts with three of the game’s polyomino shapes, and on a turn may place one of those shapes anywhere on the light spaces on their board. The shapes show up to three colors, and after placing one on their board, the player then replaces each square of the shape with a single-square piece of the same coloring from the supply. You can remove a square from your board on any subsequent turn if you wish to replace it, unlike any other polyomino game I’ve tried; it’s a little wasteful, since you only get to cover up to four spaces on each turn, but it’s often the best available choice.
There are three decks of cards that show patterns you’ll try to match with the squares you place on your board; they’re laid out in three rows, just as in Splendor, and become more difficult from deck one to three. If you match a card, you take it, earning the game-end points shown in the upper left and the immediate rewards shown on the bottom. Those rewards usually include buttons (“spirit stones”) in five different colors, the three from the polyomino pieces as well as two new colors that are required to complete the patterns shown in deck three. Some cards give you a +1 level reward, which allows you to cover one dark square at a time on your board, thus giving you quite a bit more flexibility in placing shapes. When you match a pattern, you remove any of those one-square tiles you placed earlier and return them to the supply, so your board isn’t filling up as it does in Patchwork or similar games (Bärenpark).
Your second option on a turn, rather than placing a polyomino piece, is to place and/or move up to three of those buttons you’ve gained as rewards. Those cover single spaces, and can be used on empty squares or to replace tiles you’ve already placed, and they are extremely useful for finishing off a pattern shown on a card. Those level three cards typically require at least one of the blue or yellow buttons, colors you can’t place any other way. Unlike the one-square tiles, buttons are yours for the entire game. When you match a pattern using buttons on your board, you remove the buttons but keep them for future use.
Most of the pattern cards, including all of those from levels two and three, show an hourglass symbol with a number from one to four. Once any player has acquired a total of 10 or more hourglasses on their pattern cards, the game enters its final round, so game lengths are limited to under an hour, and you may choose not to take a pattern card because the trade off of hourglasses for points doesn’t make sense for you.
The six player boards are two-sided, with a basic side that’s the same for all players and an advanced side that comes with a unique player ability for each board. Those vary widely in utility and, in my view, strength, and I prefer not to use them because I think they might create too much of an imbalance—and they’re definitely not suitable for new players.
The art in Realm of Sand is by Maisherly Chan, whose work has previously appeared in the two-player games Hanamikoji and Shadows of Kyoto as well as larger games like Mystery of the Temples. She’s one of the most talented, if not the most talented, artists providing art for board games right now, and unsurprisingly the art in this game and on the box cover is immaculate. I don’t buy games just for their art, but it’s certainly a factor I consider, and also a reason I’ve kept a few games I don’t play that often. If Chan does the art for a game, I’m interested, and Realm of Sand is some of her best work yet.
If you enjoy polyomino games—and they’re having a moment in tabletop games this year, certainly—Realm of Sand gives you something totally different from most titles in this particular niche. Turns are quick, and if anything the game feels like it ends a little faster than you’d like. I do find the replacement process, where you take the larger tile off your board and replace it with one-square tiles, to be fiddly, and the result is a board that is easy to disarrange by accident, but it is essential to allowing you to remove a single square so you can match later patterns. It’s a very solid addition to this style of light family game, with enough spatial relations involved to satisfy adult players too.
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.