Full disclosure: A preview copy of this game was provided by Button Shy Games. Some rules and artwork may change between when this preview was published and when you get your copy of the game.
This one caught my eye a while back, so I’m excited to be able to get it to the table. In this two-player-only game, you play as industrialists trying to fulfill contracts in the floating civilization of Empacta. While the occasional blimp comes by to bring resources back to the people below, you toil away to make Empacta great. Will you be able to usher in a new age of prosperity?
Setup is pretty simple, since by my count there’s only, like, 17 cards. You’ll want to give each player a set of four resource cards:
Each starts at 0. They’ll also need a habitat:
Note that there are two sides to the habitat, so choose randomly which side starts up. It matters a bit, but I haven’t quite played / strategized seriously enough that I have a strong preference.
Next, set out the blimp and contract cards:
Finally, set out the five building cards. Like the habitats, two are double-sided, so choose randomly which side starts face-up:
For the regular version of this game you’ll also need 8 coins (unless you back at the Deluxe level), so I’ve taken the liberty of using the clock tokens from Hanabi, since they’ve got distinct sides. If you’re using something that isn’t a money coin, make sure that it’s got two distinct sides, since you’ll need to indicate which side is Player 1 and which is Player 2.
Once you’re ready to play, your area should look like this:
Gameplay is also pretty simple! Each turn, you will have the ability to take three actions out of a possible five, and you may repeat actions. On the first turn, however, Player 1 will only take two actions. Three of those five cost an “action point”, two are free actions. I’ll briefly list them here and talk more about them in detail below:
- Activate a Building.
- Disconnect a Building.
- Connect a Building.
- Fulfill a Contract.
Activate a Building
So, at some point (through some connect actions) you’ll have established a network of buildings (likely three) connected to your habitat. As one of your three action points on your turn, you can activate that building and gain its benefit (usually resources gained or converted to other resources).
For example, if I activated this building:
I would gain 2 water. Pretty straightforward. There are, however, two caveats. One, if that building has a spiral symbol on it, you must flip the card over after activating it. This will change what it can be the next time it’s activated, so make sure you don’t forget! The second is that you can activate buildings that are connected via your opponent’s habitat. Take this network, for instance:
I can still get water from that building, even though it’s connected to Blue via Red. Just, as a result, Red gains one resource of the type pictured on their card (water, in this case) and then flips their habitat card over. It’s sort of a disincentive to use things that are connected to them.
Note that you can never have more than 7 of a specific resource; if you attempt to take more than you can carry, you won’t be able to take them. So, for instance, if you have 6 water, you cannot get water from a building that gives you 2 water.
Disconnect a Building
If, during the course of the game, you find that you don’t like the connection structure that you currently have, you can disconnect a building of your choice from your habitat by spending an action point. Note that you cannot use this to disconnect buildings from your opponent’s habitat, only yours. This is useful if you want to force your opponent to use an action to Cloudburst on their next turn.
A Cloudburst just shakes up the whole sky. When you Cloudburst, remove every building from every other building, severing all the connections. You also may flip any building with a swirl on its card over (not your opponent’s habitat). This often lets you reorganize the network to be more advantageous, but also comes at a pretty significant cost of a full action point. Note that if you spend too much time Cloudbursting, you won’t have time for much else, but I’ll talk more about that in Strategy.
Connect a Building (Free Action)
So on your first turn, for instance, you’ll just kind of have your habitat floating on the clouds. If you want to get anything done, you’ll need to be connected to other buildings. You can connect a building to your habitat (not other buildings) for free. This will allow you to activate those buildings on subsequent actions. To reiterate, this does not cost an action point to perform.
Fulfill a Contract (Free Action)
So, let’s take a look at the Contract card:
There are seven potential contracts on this card, all of which can (and hopefully will) be fulfilled by either you or the other player during the game. To fulfill a contract, you have to have (and spend) the number of resources specified on the card. Then, cover it with one of the coins. Use Heads for one player and Tails or another, or whatever consistent-and-agreed-upon convention suits you best (red cubes for red, blue cubes for blue, whatever). You may be able to fulfill more than one contract per turn. If so, awesome. Once a contract has been fulfilled by one player, the other player cannot fulfill it. Well, usually…
So, you’ll start with Player 1 (who will only take two actions) and keep playing. After each set of turns, advance the coin you have on the Blimp card:
At the end of Rounds 3, 5, and 8, the Blimp comes from below to carry away some resources. Yes, you’re up in the clouds being industrious, but you do need to provide for those who aren’t up there yet.
- After Round 3, the Blimp takes 1 Resource of your choice.
- After Round 5, the Blimp takes 2 Resources of your choice.
- After Round 8, the Blimp takes 3 Resources of your choice.
If, for some reason, you are unable to pay the Blimp, you must relinquish a contract of your choice, removing your coin from its space on the Contract card. This is pretty much the worst thing that you can do, as after Round 8, you count the number of Contracts each player has fulfilled and the player with the most wins! If there’s a tie for Contracts, whichever player has the most resources wins. This means if it looks like neither player will get that last contract, load up!
Player Count Differences
None. Two-player only game.
- Generally, I feel like there are difficulty levels to the contracts, so be cognizant of those. Getting a lot of water or stone is something both players should be able to do before Round 3, so those are easy. Getting a lot of Hydrogen or Oxygen is more challenging, as it requires you to convert water or stone. Getting mixtures of resources is the hardest. I’d say it’s a good idea to go for the easy contracts first to cut that route off from your opponent. Bonus points if you can get two.
- I think water tends to be a bit more useful than stone. Similarly, I think it’s easier to get Hydrogen than Oxygen, so that might be useful in your calculations. The HydroSplitter (3 water -> 2 Hydrogen + 1 Oxygen) is what tilts it for me, since that’s always available. If you’re noticing that your opponent’s going hard on water, don’t be afraid to cut them off.
- Don’t be afraid to Cloudburst. Sometimes you’ll need to, if your opponent is connected to both the water building and the HydroSplitter. If you split those up, they have to go through you to keep doing that, which benefits you a lot. Or, you might want to Cloudburst so that you have an advantageous setup and your opponent will be required to Cloudburst to break that up. There are plenty of good reasons to Cloudburst. That said:
- Don’t be the only one Cloudbursting. Remember, it takes an action to do that, so if you are consistently Cloudbursting, your opponent is getting 50% more game to play. Even if you’re getting resources from your opponent going through your habitat, that might not be worth it. Just be strategic about your Cloudbursting.
- Generally, it’s a good idea to have lots of resources. Yes, your first priority should be fulfilling contracts, but if it looks like the game’s going to go into a tie, hoard resources for that tiebreaker. It’s generally reasonable.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Great art and theme. It’s super cool! I haven’t played or seen anything like it. It’s very whimsical.
- Easy to teach and quick to play, but strategic. I think it’s neat because of that. Definitely something you can just slide in your pocket and take with you, which is, I suppose, the whole point of wallet games. That’s not to say it’s random (like, say, Dragon Slayer), just that it’s light.
- Resource cards are a good idea. It makes the game easier to carry around than trying to have little resource pieces or chits or something to have to deal with. It’d be nice if they were square (just to keep the space needed for them consistent), but I like them.
- I’m amused by the Blimp. I’m not sure what about it amuses me so much, but I think I’ve imagined that the Blimp is much more malevolent than the game’s lore makes it out to be. I don’t know if that’s a real pro for you if you’re considering buying the game, but it’s something I like about it. As a gameplay mechanic, I think it’s a good deterrent; I haven’t seen anyone lose a contract to the Blimp’s arrival (and I somewhat doubt I will unless my opponent isn’t paying attention).
- I find the Magic Portal is very rarely used. Just not something my group has used much, so it ends up being a dead card in my games. Do you use it a lot? If so, how does it play into your strategy? Let me know in the comments.
- A fair number of my games are sort-of-predictable. I mean this in the sense that by Round 7 or 8, we can tell who the winner is going to be without getting to the end of the game. A lot of the times that’s because we tie, to be fair, but it does not seem like you can make a ton of “surprising” moves since you don’t have an incalculable range of options. I worry that means that the game lends itself a bit to “doing the math” (which ends up extending the game time a bit) or that there’s a slightly dominant strategy, but I’d need a few more plays to figure it out precisely.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, Ahead in the Clouds is a neat little game! I love the theme and I like the resource-management elements of the game as well as the whimsical nature of connecting the different buildings to fulfill contracts. I like the Cloudbursting can be used offensively or defensively, and I’m generally a fan of the mechanics. I think that the reason I wish there were a bit more to it isn’t because it’s a bad game at all, but rather that I think it’s a cool enough concept that I’d love to see it expanded into a bit weightier of a game and this would be a good primer / light version (sort of like BANG! The Dice Game is to BANG!). Either way, if you’re looking for a cool little wallet game to pick up and play with a few friends, this definitely isn’t a bad option.