Full disclosure: A preview copy of SPQF was provided by Grant Rodiek / Hyperbole Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
I’m still running my three-year bloggiversary giveaway for Azul! Check it out if you want to win.
So, I was at Protospiel San Jose a few months ago (yes, I generally don’t playtest games, but I’m also not very consistent about that) and I saw that Grant Rodiek was testing out a new deckbuilding game. I love deckbuilders on principle (having reviewed far too many already), so I figured what the hell, give it a whirl. It was pretty fun but I remember getting wrecked, probably. Fast forward a few months and I managed to get a preview copy of the now-finished SPQF, and I’m ready to review it for y’all.
In SPQF, you are growing your civilization from its initial steps in the sunlight to sprawling greatness. How, you ask? By deckbuilding, of course! But this isn’t an average deckbuilder; no, not at all. You’ll have to do more than just string combos together if you want to create the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. Oh, also, everyone’s an anthropomorphic animal, so, that’s fun. Will your civilization be able to stand the test of time?
Setup is pretty straightforward. Give everyone a player board:
Have them put the Civilization Level Markers on “0”:
Give each player a set of Starter Cards:
Set aside the Victory Points:
The green and black cubes should get set aside, as well:
Shuffle the Monument cards:
Finally, give every player 5 random cards from the deck:
Place 3 more, face up, in the center, to form a Trade Row.
Each player draws 5 cards, and you’re ready to get started!
So, the gameplay’s a bit complex, but it’s interesting, so bear with me (pun probably intended).
SPQF is, in many ways, a deckbuilder focused on building up your forest civilization to be glorious and such. It’s also got a bit of negotiation and some mechanics allowing you to follow another player’s action, at times.
It’s probably easiest to walk through a turn, and then work through the mechanics of each thing once it happens.
During the Action Phase, the active player will play one card from their hand and resolve it. That generally happens in this order:
1. Play an Action card.
You may play any card in your hand for its effect. In order for a card to be playable, it must change the game’s state. You cannot play a card that only lets you take resources you can’t hold, for instance, or a card that would let you do something that you can’t afford. That will matter in a bit.
Some cards have a cost of one cube (check the top-left corner) in order to be played. You must pay that cost before playing it. Other cards will let you resolve additional cards; you must fully resolve each card before resolving another card. Finally, some cards have multiple actions on them. You may resolve those actions in any order, unless otherwise stated.
2. Modify the Action card.
So, each card has a specific type of Modifier:
- Oak Leaf (Wild)
Each modifer has a symbol (sometimes two!) of that type. If you’d like, you may modify the Action card you just played by playing additional cards with the same symbol (or an Oak Leaf), provided it has an x (symbol) on the card. That’s typically referred to as a “Per” action.
You may have cards that are “stored” next to your Player Board — those cards can also be added to your Action card (as though they were played from your hand), but only once per turn. Can’t go using your stored cards for everything.
Some cards will let you activate cards from a Trade Row. You may also modify those cards as though you had played them. Essentially, you’re playing those cards, but you don’t get to keep them. They just stay in the Trade Row.
3. Follow the Action card.
So, you’re watching the active player do this sweet action and you want to get in on that. In most deckbuilders, you can’t; you just wait until its your turn. However, SPQF isn’t most deckbuilders. If you have a card with a symbol matching the symbol on the Action card (or any of the Action cards played by the active player, if more than one was played), you may follow it, generally. There are, of course, a few caveats:
- There are some actions that cannot be followed. They generally have a / through the < symbol, on them. It can be a bit small, so just double check.
- You may only play one card per action you want to follow. Can’t just dump your whole hand on following; you need to play your own cards.
- Some cards have multiple symbols on them. Following with those cards still only lets you take the action once. The benefit to having these cards is that you can double-modify your own actions. If you want to follow another player’s per action twice, you’ll need that one Bear card.
- Some cards can only be followed once. These are called Binary Actions; you either follow or you don’t. There’s sort of an upward arrow symbol on them.
4. Resolve the Action card.
Now, the Action card is resolved. Start with the player who played it, and then each player in turn order who followed. Again, if you end up playing multiple cards, each card must be fully resolved before the next card can be. If the card has multiple Actions, you may resolve them in any order (not just left-to-right or top-to-bottom; that tripped us up a few times).
There are, generally, 7 types of actions:
- Gather: These actions generally let you get resources and add them to your supply. You can only hold 4 Resources of each color in your Supply (this ignores your Storage). Some cards will let you gain any color cube you want; this is represented by a white cube.
- Store: These actions let you store cards on the left side of your player board or cubes on the bottom of your player board. You may only store 1 card and 1 cube per Civilization Level you’re at. Again, Stored Cards will let you use their Modifiers on your turn, and Stored Cubes just are extra cubes that you can use to get around your Supply limit.
- Trash: This lets you remove cards in your hand from the game. Generally will let you gain cubes when you trash cards (or points).
- Recruit: This lets you gain extra cards from any Trade Row. More on that during the Recruit Phase, but generally you just take them and add them to your Discard Pile. Assume that this lets you take extra Recruit actions.
- Expand: This is how you level up your Civilization. Expand requires a cost in cubes to be paid, but if you are the first to reach that level, you gain a free VP. Some Expand Actions will let you expand more cheaply or gain points when you expand. Here are the costs, per level:
- Level 1: 1 Green or 1 Black Cube, 1 Green or 1 Black Cube
- Level 2: 1 Green or 1 Black Cube, 1 Green Cube, 1 Black Cube
- Level 3: 1 Green or 1 Black Cube, 2 Green Cubes, 2 Black Cubes.
- Level 4: 3 Green Cubes, 3 Black Cubes.
- Level 5: 1 Green or 1 Black Cube, 3 Green Cubes, 3 Black Cubes.
- Score: These cards let you score points per modifier, stored cube, stored card, Civilization Level, or cube you choose to discard, among other things. Generally just “play these cards to score extra points”.
- Other: These have weird effects, like letting you follow any “per” action twice, letting you resolve cards from a Trade Row, or letting you play additional cards. A few even let you convert cubes from one color to another!
Once you’ve resolved cards, the Action Phase is complete.
During the Recruit Phase, you just take a card from a Trade Row (even another player’s) and add it to your discard pile. No cost, no fuss; just take it and it’s yours, now. Note that you cannot recruit from your own Trade Row. That’s just silly. Also, you must recruit. No getting out of that.
Now, follow these steps in order:
- Discard all cards currently in your Trade Row. They were there from last turn and they had their chance.
- Discard all cards played / used as Modifiers. They were useful and they’ll come back again.
- Non-active players discard all cards used to follow. Generally I just have them follow straight into their discard, but you do you.
- Discard all Starter cards in your hand. They have an S in the upper-left corner. Also there’s a picture of them further up in this review.
Once you do that, you may have some cards left over. These are cards you did not play, and they’re kind of frustrated about it, so they figure they may just go on a journey of self-discovery. Add these cards to a row in front of your player board. This is your Trade Row, and other players may recruit from there. That will likely seem weird, but it’s by design. This is part of why you cannot play cards that have no effect — those cards will, as part of the game, move into your Trade Row. If nobody recruits them, on your next turn, you’ll discard them.
At the end of your turn, draw back up to 5 cards. This means that yes, if you follow another player’s action, you will start your hand with fewer than 5 cards, as you only draw cards at the end of your turn. As with almost all deckbuilders, if you run out of cards in your deck and still need to draw more cards, shuffle your discard pile, and that will serve as your new deck.
So, the game can end in a few ways:
- One player has 25+ in VP tokens.
- One player reaches Civilization Level 5.
- The deck in the center runs out of cards.
If any of these things happen, finish the round (so that all players get an equal number of turns). Then, score the game, as follows:
- Victory Point Tokens. Each VP token is worth the number of points specified on the token. Hope you know Roman Numerals. If not:
- I = 1
- V = 5
- X = 10
- XX = 20
- Civilization Level. Score points equal to your current Civilization Level.
- Level 0: 0. Ouch.
- Level 1: 1
- Level 2: 3
- Level 3: 9
- Level 4: 15
- Level 5: 21
- Monuments. Reveal your Monuments and look through your deck / trade row and such. Don’t count Oak Leaves, but each modifier matching your Monument’s chosen symbol is worth 1VP. If you scored the most on your Monument, gain an additional 3VP. Nice! Note that if there’s a tie, nobody gets the points. Grant is not a kind man.
- VP on cards. A few cards have 1VP symbols in the top right corner. It’s a bit small, so make sure to check your cards. Hopefully you win by a landslide, but it might make a difference.
The player with the highest score wins! Break ties by highest Civilization Level. Share the victory otherwise.
Player Count Differences
The major difference at various player counts is that there are, on average, more cards available in trade rows each turn, so I’d argue it’s a bit easier to go deep on one type of card than it is at two, when your options are a bit more restricted. That said, your trade row cards are also more vulnerable, since you have to go through three full turns of other players picking at your trade row at higher player counts. It’s probably not bad to start at 4 so that you get used to that happening; it’s an odd sensation from other games because you feel like you’re being … stolen from, in a way? It can upset some players, so, better to normalize it early, in my opinion.
As a more subtle difference between player counts, it’s a bit easier to deduce what Monuments players have at higher player counts, since there are more of the available options in play. At four, you know that there are no Monuments left out, so it reduces some of the ambiguity. That said, players may still, you know, aggressively telegraph what Monuments they’re playing, so, your mileage may vary on this last one.
No player count preference, personally.
- There’s multiple ways to win; try them all. Do you aggressively go after cards for your Monument, and try to take 10+ points that way? Do you level your Civilization quickly and aggressively? Do you focus on using your stored cards and cubes to gain points? Or do you gain points from modifying your own cards out the wazoo? There’s no one right answer, so, it’s hard for me to advise any particular way to “win”. Rather, there are good ways to accomplish those goals.
- Store an Oak Leaf card. Having that means you can always modify a Per Action you play, increasing its value. That’s really handy!
- In general, store cards you need but don’t want to play. I find storing the double modifier cards is good because then you don’t lose them to your Trade Row (and you get to keep the +1 VP!). On the other hand, don’t store all of your Expand action cards, otherwise you’ll have trouble building up your Civilization. I saw a player once store 4 Pickaxes and just use that to aggressively take resources each turn. It was good, if he had been able to take more than just black cubes. Alas.
- Know when to follow. Being able to follow an Expand action is good. Being able to follow an Expand action that lets you stay one level ahead of your opponents is better.
- Keep resources stored. There are plenty of cards that let you take a duplicate set of resources equal to what you have in storage, and other cards that let you score points equal to the number of cubes you have in storage. Try not to empty your storage, if you can avoid it. Though there is one card that lets you add cubes directly from the Supply to your storage, which is excellent.
- At its core, it’s a deckbuilder, so go for those combos. Playing cards that let you play more cards that let you play more cards is always the way to go. Whether it’s from your hand or the trade row doesn’t totally matter, when you can play 3+ cards per turn, so do that, if you can.
- It’s not a bad idea to get rid of the Starter Cards, when you can. They’re good for following, but they’re not particularly useful on their own, when compared to the general Civilization cards. I mean, that’s the point, obviously, but trashing / storing them might be useful if you’re looking to try and make a leaner deck.
- Keep an eye on your opponents. What cards are they playing? Do they have enough resources to Expand? What cards are they adding to their Trade Row? You’ll want to make sure you’re not helping them with your cards, which may mean occasionally taking slightly-less-good turns so that you can play actions that can’t be followed (especially Expand actions, given some of my other strategy tips). If they want something that badly, they can earn it on their time. This also will keep you more engaged in the game, since you need to pay attention to other players’ turns.
- Don’t forget you can recruit other players’ cards. You should also try to do this, especially if they’re forced to dump some particularly good (yet sadly [for them] unplayable) cards into their Trade Row.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is pretty fantastic. It’s very thematic and super colorful. It’s going to be fun to photograph.
- The game is surprisingly transportable. You can essentially dump the VP tokens if you’re traveling and just use a score tracker app or something, and then you’ve got a bunch of cubes (which is fine). Even though it’s thinky, it’s a nice travel-size game, especially if your co-travelers already know how to play.
- Once you know how to play, it plays pretty quickly. It has the same satisfaction level as a perfect game of 7 Wonders I played once with 6 other people that already knew how to play. There was 0 downtime and the game took 20 minutes. It was absolutely perfect. I don’t think I won, though, so maybe slightly less than absolutely perfect. SPQF has the same satisfactory game once everyone knows how to play.
- I find the combo potential of the game to also be very satisfying. I think that’s what I like about deckbuilders (and Spirit Island); you can often create super good combos to really make yourself into a powerhouse. Deckbuilding in general is about refining that combo (made explicit in Millennium Blades, where you only have one hand of cards). SPQF does a great job of capturing that.
- The wooden tokens are very nice, quality-wise. The game’s a labor of love for both the genre and like, game design in general, and it shows. It’s very slick and much appreciated.
- The theme is pretty fun, too. I like games with sorta nontraditional themes, and while Roman has been done (not that much, to be fair), having a sort of Disney Robin Hood take on the Roman Empire is very pleasant and leaves a lot of room for the artist (Fredrik Skarstedt, again, in top form here) to do his magic.
- The variable paths to victory are very satisfying. The Monuments gently try to push you towards certain cards, but your starting deck is half random. Having to balance that progression against trying to still level up your civilization is constantly interesting every time I play.
- I like the simplification of classic deckbuilding tropes, such as eliminating money as a major concept for buying new cards. One of the smartest things SPQF does is eliminate the need for a real “economy” by just having every card be worth the same amount. Some have costs to play, some have slightly better benefits in context, but the lack of having to track money (beyond resources for Civilization Level expansion) makes the game feel a lot more crisp, clean, and streamlined. I think it’s a great move, especially given how complex other aspects of the game are (and how effectively new concepts, such as the Trade Row, are introduced). It’s wise to simplify one thing to make space for the others.
- I appreciate all the player interaction and how none of it is directly attacking. The game is honestly a masterclass in building player engagement. You have to be paying attention the entire game so that you can decide if you want to follow actions, and you need to be watching your opponents and seeing if it’s worth snatching up one of their Trade Row cards to keep them from profiting further off of it. You don’t need attacks to make a game “interactive”, and I think that this is an excellent example of why not.
- Definitely not a game for everyone. It’s challenging and thinky (not quite as brain-burny as Mottainai, but it’s tough for me to play more than two games in a row of this without a solid break), but it wasn’t designed for that, to be honest. It’s exactly what it presents itself to be, but make sure you know what that is when you’re trying to decide if this is a good game for you.
- I wish the box had the title on the front + sides. I understand, artistically, why that’s not the case, but people keep asking me about it and it makes it easier to see on the shelf.
- I wish the rulebook had a few more examples of how card interactions work. I’ve been bothering Grant on Twitter about this, and word on the street is that there will be more guides, so, I’m not terribly bothered about this one. Just noting it for posterity.
- It would be nice if the VP tokens were different shapes to alleviate confusion. There’s a “doing so would be hellishly expensive” aspect to this that’s worth mentioning in the same breath, but it’s possible to have grabbed a V when you meant to grab a I and that causing some … confusion around scoring. Just be careful.
- It’s gonna take about half a game (or more) for players to “get it”. You really need to make the first game just a teaching game and tell people that straight-up. Naturally, some people are going to be bothered by that because it can be a challenging game to learn. This would not be my recommendation for “I’d love to try a deckbuilding game for the very first time” (that’s Dale of Merchants or Tea Dragon Society, by the way). This is much more a “I would like a deckbuilder to challenge me in ways I didn’t realize a deckbuilder could“. You’re going to get a few of the rules wrong; I’m sure I still have, to be honest. That’s how it goes. The thing is, even though we got the rules wrong in our first few games, my group kept actively asking to play it again. So, as long as you’re fine with giving people time to get adjusted to it, I think it’s worth it.
- I’d love larger icons. Some things are getting missed (the “pay one cube to use this card” and “score one VP if you have this card in your deck” icons, particularly), which can be frustrating, but also there are some odd things done with icons in the name of ensuring visibility (basically some icons are dark on one card and light on another, because the backgrounds change color). This may frustrate some players. After a few plays, in my opinion, we’ve gotten pretty used to it, but it might lower the learning curve a bit. My best advice on this is to make sure you’re checking what other players are playing and at the end of the game double-checking your decks to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- Some players will feel personally attacked by the Trade Row concept, I guess? They’re gonna need to get over it, but I’m just presenting this as something that some people might dislike about SPQF. Personally, I quite like it. It just seems like the kind of thing that might be polarizing.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, SPQF is pretty awesome! Again, I think it’s telling that after playing, my group asks to play it again, which is generally a great sign for a game. The major note of concern I have about the game is its complexity, but I don’t think of that as a bad thing. It just means that players should familiarize themselves with the game’s concepts before they decide if its worth adding the game to their collection. The need for a learning game is a bit frustrating for me (not much to be done about it), because it makes it difficult for me to teach it to new players and play, myself. Generally, you’re better off teaching it and letting them play among themselves, like you would for Kingdom Builder. That said, the game’s got a lot of cool features and novel takes on deckbuilding that blend seamlessly with its theme and core concept. The art is an absolute service to the game, and it’s a vibrant, colorful game that’s every bit as fun to look at as it is to play. If you’re as big of a deckbuilding fan as I am and looking for something that takes some familiar concepts and spins them around into something new; if you’re worried that deckbuilding might be a tired genre and you want something to breathe life into it; or if you’re anywhere in between those two extremes, SPQF is definitely worth checking out!