Earth Board Game Review: The Best New Game of 2023Games Reviews board games
Earth is probably the hottest new board game of 2023, a strong favorite to win one of the Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) awards, and certainly the best new game I’ve played so far this year. It takes everything that’s good about the game Wingspan and makes it all more so, resulting in a gaming experience that’s a little more complex but also provides the satisfaction of building an engine that gets more powerful as the game progresses.
In Earth, players will play cards from their hands to their personal tableaux, building a 4×4 grid of cards showing flora (plants) and terrains that have powers that will be activated over the remainder of the game. Some cards have immediate powers, but most have powers that you can use repeatedly when players choose certain actions on their turns, and choosing cards that have the right powers and that you’ll be able to invoke more often is a huge part of Earth strategy. You’ll pay soil to play cards, and then you can water those cards to create sprouts, add growth to cards, or discard cards from your hand or the deck to your compost pile, which can then be used to create more soil or to fulfill other card requirements.
The goal here is to amass the most victory points, with at least eight different ways to get them in Earth. Most cards are worth victory points at the end of the game, as are the growth and sprout spaces you can fill on cards. A few cards in the deck grant more end-game points, often based on what cards are near it in your tableau. You’ll also try to achieve four public objectives and one private one for more points at game-end. And you get points for all the cards you composted during the game.
There are four main actions in Earth, each color-coded and represented by a unique icon for accessibility. The active player chooses one of those actions, and then all other players get to execute the same action. If you choose to Plant, you play up to two cards from your hand to your tableau, as long as you can pay their soil costs. If you Compost, you gain 5 soil and place two cards from the deck directly to your compost pile. (You do not need to turn your compost pile in Earth, although I suppose you could just to be more realistic.) You can Water, placing up to six sprout cubes on cards that have room for them and gaining two soil. If you choose Growth, you draw four cards to your hand and then place two growth tokens on growth spaces on any cards with room remaining. Non-active players get to do the same action, but their benefit is less—they plant one card rather than two, they gain either two growth or two cards, etc.
After you’ve taken the main action, you activate all cards that have the matching color in their action spaces. So if you choose Growth, which is represented by yellow, you’d find all cards in your tableau with yellow stripes in their action spaces (some have more than one color) and then execute their actions as well. All cards are fair game in this step, as opposed to Wingspan, where you can only activate one row at a time. Depending on the cards you’ve played, this will make certain action choices especially valuable for you because you might have a half dozen or more cards you get to activate. All players get to take this step, not just the active player, but it’s all simultaneous so it doesn’t slow the game down.
The game ends once someone plays their 16th card, completing their 4×4 tableau and earning a 7 point bonus. You add up all of those points I mentioned earlier, which can run into the 200s, counting every single growth cube and sprout token and composted card and then checking all objectives and so on.
The design here is just brilliant. It’s well-calibrated and runs very smoothly for a game with an engine that can involve this many moving parts. It is incredibly satisfying to pick an action and then just keep gaining stuff, or exchanging one thing for something better, through several cards in a turn. I think that’s a huge part of Wingspan’s appeal, and it applies just as much to Earth. But Earth also has way more going on, from all the things you need to track to the opaque nature of the icons, most of which sent me back to the rulebook multiple times before I could remember their meaning. It’s not a complex game in terms of mechanics or game play, but it’s more mentally taxing than other games with a similar difficulty level, which I’d call medium-heavy. The lack of any real player interaction, which Earth also has in common with Wingspan, does help to mitigate some of the high cognitive load here.
That last bit means this isn’t a game for younger players, even ones who have some experience at the tabletop; I’d guess about age 12 and up would be the right range. It’s an hour to 90 minutes to play, depending on player count (2-5, with a solo mode). The art is fantastic and the text, while small, is clear and readable, so the look and feel is there. If you liked Wingspan but also want something meatier, Earth will be right up your alley.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.