There's a number of different ways that tabletop games set up players against one another. In one game you might be taking turns around the table working together for a common goal, or compete in teams against the other players. Embark is built upon the reveal; you're putting your pieces in play based on how you also expect your opponents to play. Any game where you aren't just playing against the game but also the players across from you inherently add an element of chaos that works to bring you back time and time again for new experiences.
In Embark your aim is to get your sailors onto each of the islands to fill the role of Explorer, Colonist, or Miner. To do this you need to look at all of the boats that are planning on setting sail and making sure you're on them. Each boat has limited slots though, and only the boats that have a full crew get to leave for the island so you've got to hope that you're part of the lucky few. The game is played out in a number of stages where you allocate your pieces, load them into boats, land on the island, and then tally up points for the round. Each game will only go for six rounds, and on average with 4 players it was taking my group an hour or so. While there are points that are tallied during the rounds there are also endgame bonuses so you never truly know who is in the lead until the last moment, which adds to the fun.
To set up the game you put out an Island Board for each player and a boat card for each of the two docks on the island, in a three player game this will end up with three Islands and six Boats. These islands have spaces for all of your landing sailors to go. At the top of each board, there is also a special condition that will unlock as you explore more of the island. These conditions will normally give players a chance to earn extra points. Unlike other games where you can up/downscale the "as many as players" in Embark if you do this you'll throw off the ratio of sailors to locations on islands. Each player is then given their 30 color cubes, these represent your sailors, and a player board and screen to cover your decisions.
Each allocation stage you'll take five of your sailors, and any in the tavern, and put them on your hidden Player Board. Each dock on your Board corresponds to one of the boats i.e if you want a Sailor to end up on boat C then you should put them on the dock marked C. Each boat card has a limited number of spaces represented by the squares on them. Boats can range from holding two to six sailors, this is where strategy starts to come into play.
The different colored squares on each of the boats represent a different job that your sailor will take up. Explorers will move along the beaches and earn points per turn, once four Colonists are on the island they'll create a farm for points, and Miners will head for the hills and recover precious ore for you. There's also the super role, Captain, that can become any of the other three, and the Warrior who will displace a piece that's already on the island.
Players go around the room placing one of their sailors at a time into boats. This is when you want to quickly figure out which boats are going and which aren't going to fill up. Do you want to put all of your sailors into one boat to make sure it goes? or do you want to diversify across a number of boats so at least some sailors get across? This round is pure luck, you've got to hope that your opponents play as you expect them to. This phase of the game has the potential to go really well, or really poorly. Any sailors that don't make it to the island gets to go to the Tavern to wait for next round.
The boats that have been filled move forward and sailors start disembarking the boats, starting in alphabetical order and from the front. This means that the first sailor in boat A is always the first to get onto the island. For any Colonist, Explorer or Miner this stage is pretty easy, just file off the boat and move to your designated spot. The real question from this phase is where do you want your captains to go, and what do you want to be removed with a warrior.
After all the pieces are in place you get to award a single point for every explorer on the field and collect an ore if available for every miner. If you have a total of four colonists on any island they immediately merge together to form a farm, the player who constructs the farm gets fifteen points. Points awarded here do a great job of giving players a bit of an idea of who is in the lead but there are a lot of points allocated at the end of the game so you never truly know whose in the lead. After allocating points, new boats are dealt from the deck and the process starts again, this time you get to use the sailors in the tavern as well as the five for each round.
This process continues until the 6th round which should come naturally when you're allocating the last of your sailors. End game bonuses are awarded to players based on the number of ore that they collect over the game, for any unlocked island bonus, and for the player who has the most explorers on each island. These bonuses have the potential to launch a player to first place. Island bonuses can be anything but the explorer and ore bonuses force the player to focus on one, it's unlikely one player will be able to collect large points in all three but they might be able to have one or two that works in their favor. Every time playing this game it was these points that decided the true victor leading to a satisfying upset, and a bit of salt.
Embark comes with a lot of little components upfront so it can seem like a much more complicated game than it is. After getting through the first round though every player will have a good understanding of how their turn works and most importantly what their end goal is. While you're all vying for seats on boats there isn't as much direct conflict so while you're against one another this isn't a game that's going to hurt anyone's feelings.
The Bottom Line:
Embark is an enjoyable and chaotic game for you and your friends. While a number of the rounds are just passing through the motions the reveal during the boarding stage can be a lot of fun. The chaos ensures that each time you play you can have a different goal in mind but with so many players seeking out a limited number of spots how you fare is luck. The later stages, landing and allocation, are just moving through the motions and thus don't require much participation from the players. There's nothing wrong with that as it gives players time to not just focus on the game, but if you have friends who get distracted easily this not be engaging enough.
Get this game if:
You enjoy games with reveals
You enjoy games with strategy
You enjoy games with little direct PvP actions
Avoid this game if:
You want to be completely immersed in the game
You're likely to lose one of the many small pieces
Embark was reviewed using a copy provided to TechRaptor by TMG
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