The Colonists bills itself as “an epic game,” and certainly delivers on that promise in size, scope and even sheer weight (the box is around 7 pounds). It’s a very clever, well-designed game that almost invites us to mock it for its ambition, and perhaps a little pretention too. This is the game for people who think Le Havre doesn’t take enough setup time, for people who really wish someone had merged Civilization with Agricola, for people who saw Cones of Dunshire on Parks & Recreation and really did want to be the Ledgerman, because if there’s one constant theme of gameplay in The Colonists, it is that good accounting is absolutely essential.
The game really has almost every mechanic you might find in a low-luck game. You’re building a colony (or city), you’re placing workers, you’re collecting resources, you’re playing cards to improve your little nation-state. It has approximately 2×108 pieces. And it presents you with an enormous array of possible decisions that could easily lead to paralysis by analysis if you’re so inclined.
The Colonists takes place over one to four eras, each comprising five years, with players taking two turns per year and taking three actions per turn, so that’s 30 actions per era and possibly 120 for a full game. For nearly every game I review here, I play the full game through at least once before writing anything, but in this case, for reasons that should be apparent, that didn’t happen: I played one two-player game over two eras, which took two solid hours of gameplay plus the half hour of setup. While familiarity with the rules would probably have shaved a little bit off the playing time, as the game moved along the number of potential actions for each turn grew, which meant we spent more time thinking and less time doing (or talking to each other, because between turns we were each running through mammoth decision trees in our heads).
Each player starts the game with a mostly empty colony board that has a couple of Farm tiles, each of which has one green worker who can be used to activate certain other buildings; storage space for three resources; and three tools, used to construct just about everything in the game. You’ll need to build more storage spaces, which are actually a huge requirement in the game and can be upgraded in later eras to hold more stuff. (I couldn’t help but think of the Monty Python sketch “Storage Jars” while playing.)
There’s also a central board of hex tiles that will change each game, with two Market tiles that confer ever-changing benefits to players who land there and to which a player can move his/her marker (called a “steward”) from anywhere on the board. Otherwise the player must move around the board of hexes one at a time, and on each hex take the associated action, usually one of three things: acquiring resources, converting one resource type into another (wood into planks, clay into bricks, clay and ore into tools), or adding a building to his/her own board. Each building has its own cost in resources, so many turns will have you taking one or two actions to get resources while taking another action to build something.
Buildings have all sorts of different benefits, from giving you resources at the end of each year to giving you more workers or allowing you to upgrade green Farmers to yellow Citizens or, later, to red Merchants. Most buildings require a worker on them to be activated and thus usable, and you get points for workers at the end of the game if they’re employed on a building, not sitting at home on the farm. You score for buildings at game-end regardless of whether they’re activated, but score nothing for resources.
Still with me? Then there are embassies, four types per game out of nine total; you spend resources to build one and then get some specific benefit from that partnership for the rest of the game, like getting a bonus action or extending the use of certain tiles. These can be upgraded in later eras to get greater benefits.
That storage thing is a big deal in the game, as you can only build with resources in your storage spaces. You can have warehouse spaces that are separate from storage, and you can use the “buffer” on production buildings to stash one turn’s worth of production of that good on the building where it was produced. You can then move resources between any actions before building, but you can’t build with resources from within storage and from the warehouse or buffers. It’s actually not a bad concept—it prevents anyone from hoarding resources and potentially racing out in front—but the idea that someone sat down and thought, “you know what boardgaming really needs? A game with a mechanic that’s all about storing goods,” just tickles me.
You score at the end of the game for workers, buildings, any development cards you’ve played that are worth points, and for any gold coins you’ve acquired over the course of the game. Those can add up quickly depending on what you build—a Pub produces one coin per turn and takes a green worker, a Theater produces two and takes a yellow worker, etc.—and you can also get them by selling certain goods while on market tiles. The buildings constituted about 2/3 of our total scores after two eras, but gold coins accounted for most of the difference in our final scores.
Although there’s no Ledgerman role in The Colonists (and, sadly, no cones), the game requires you to keep track of a lot of different things at the end of each year—that is, after every player takes two turns. You get resources from production buildings and/or development cards. You have to provide food for your yellow Citizens and both food and clothing for your red Merchants. You have to add three tiles to the board, and flip the card that controls the functions the market tiles provide. And within your turns, you should start to accumulate lots of benefits—an extra wood here, a reduced cost there—that become easy to forget because you’ll have so many of them even by the end of your first era. I mean, I know it’s a running joke on the show, but a Ledgerman would have come in handy here.
You can start a Colonists game with any era and end after any era, but your strategy will definitely depend on when you’re stopping—there are buildings you construct for long-term benefits that might not help so much if you’re nearing the end of era two and plan to stop, for example. I’m sure there is an audience of gamers who’d be happy to sit for four hours and take all 120 actions, building something expansive and sophisticated, an engine of production that lets you build fancier stuff and sell what you don’t use. I think the game itself is well-designed and complete, and in that sense it’s a bit of a marvel—it’s among the most rules-heavy games I’ve ever played, but it’s highly balanced and doesn’t seem to have any rules that don’t work or exist just for their own sake. But would I pull this off the shelf very often? I have a feeling I won’t. It’s aimed at people a good bit more hardcore than I am.
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.