Full disclosure: A review copy of Realm of Sand was provided by EmperorS4 Games.
I’m still working through Gen Con, but of course, hope springs eternal, so we’re starting to filter in more of the Essen releases, as well. You’ll see a mix of both coming from me over the next few months, though I probably will start slowing down once we hit the holidays; I’ve been publishing four reviews a week for … about six or so weeks, by this point, and the pace is currently “grueling”. But I’ve lied to myself about taking a break for over a year, now, so who knows. In lieu of that, lemme talk about an exciting release from a company that I’m a huge fan of, EmperorS4’s new Realm of Sand, coming out at Essen.
In Realm of Sand, the titular realm is falling apart. This, unfortunately, affects the regular world, as this mythical locale is the source of magic. So time is starting to unravel and geometry (and geology) are starting to get all weird. The queen has journeyed to the realm to try and activate some of the magic to get the realm back together, but we magicians need to use those magic gylphs to start fixing the realm itself. Will you be able to restore magic and save the land? Or will you only be able to watch as the whole thing crumbles to dust?
First thing you should do is give each player a player board:
If you’re experienced, you can also use the Advanced Side:
If you do, put the correct color crystal on the corresponding part of your player board, but on the colorless side. Also, give each player one of these level tracker cubes, and have them set it at 0:
Next, shuffle the Building Cards:
There are three levels (like Splendor): Set four of each in the center of the play area, near the deck.
Give each player three tiles, randomly, and put the rest in a circle around the cards (like Patchwork):
These are sorta individual tiles; you should group them by color and set them somewhere. I use the bit bowls that Annette made for me, but it’s really up to you:
Lastly, throw the discs into a pile:
You’ll use different numbers for different player counts:
- 1 player: 2 of each disc
- 2 players: 4 of each disc
- 3 players: 5 of each disc
- 4 players: use all discs
Take the queen and randomly place her token somewhere between two tiles in the circle:
The thing on the right is the first-player marker; give that to whichever player is going first. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
So, in Realm of Sand, the source of magic is dying and the realm is crumbling. You have one shot at restarting it — you have to reconstruct enough of the realm that magic kicks back in and you don’t all collapse. That seems like a good idea. Your overall objective is to place tiles and use those tiles to construct Building Cards, earning you points. How does this work? Let’s find out.
On your turn, you have two options:
- Place a tile. When you place a tile, you may place it on any light-colored tiles (unless you have gained levels, allowing you to place on as many dark tiles as you have levels). When you do, take the single-block tokens that match the tile and place those on the spot currently occupied by the tile. Then, return the tile to the circle, placing it behind the queen. If you cover up existing blocks with your tile placement, return those blocks to the supply and replace them with your blocks. You may rotate / flip over your tiles, if you want.
- Place or move up to three discs. If you have discs, you may place or move up to three discs on the board to locations of your choice. They do not have to be contiguous, but they work like tiles, so if you place a disc on a block it is removed and replaced by the disc.
If, once you’ve done one of these actions, you have at least one configuration on your board that matches one of the Building Cards (at any level), you may claim them. Remove the corresponding tiles and discs from the board and take the card, adding it next to your player board. Note that Blue and Yellow tiles do not exist, so those buildings can only be bought with discs. The Building Cards will typically give you discs (and occasionally let you gain a level), as well as earning end-game points and hourglasses, a mysterious currency that accelerates the end of the game.
If you claim a Building Card, you’re using the Advanced Board, and the tiles you use to claim the Building are on at least one crystal spot, you’ve charged your board’s ability! Flip the crystal to its colorful side. On a later turn, you may use your crystal’s ability once. You cannot use a crystal ability on the same turn that you charge your crystal, so don’t.
Once you’ve done that, your turn is essentially over. If you have fewer than three tiles, claim one of the two tiles in front of the queen token and add it to your tile stash. Also, if you claimed any Building Cards, replenish them from the supply. The next player takes their turn.
If at any point one player has 10 Hourglasses worth of Building Cards, the final round has begun. Finish the round so that players get an equal number of turns, and then the player with the most points wins!
For this one, you just play normally, as though you were playing with more players. There just aren’t other players to take turns, and if you place discs, you remove one of the two tiles in front of the queen from the game. When you place a tile, you place it, add the blocks, and then remove it from the game (instead of placing it behind the queen). Play 14 turns and then check your score, comparing it to these scoring tiers:
- <= 25 points: Apprentice
- 26 – 30 points: Master
- 31 – 35 points: Grand Master
- 36 – 39 points: Premier
- 40+ points: King of Ragusa
Player Count Differences
The major differences with a game like this are around contention — more people competing for the buildings you want inevitably means that you either need to be more efficient or you need to start targeting less-desirable buildings. Keeping an eye on other players’ boards is pretty key, here.
Another important difference is the reliability of tiles. You will have a much worse sense of what tiles you can get in a 4-player game than in a 2-player game, since players are much more likely (especially in the early game) to play and take new tiles rather than discs. This might throw you off a bit.
That said, I have no preference on player count, with this one. I think it’s solid across the board.
- Get disks. You need disks, worst case, to get some of the more advanced cards, but I’ll tell you a secret; a truly enterprising player can also use disks, should they have enough, to purchase some of the Level 1 cards essentially as a free action. Certain Level 1 cards only require 3 tiles placed correctly to earn them, so once you have enough disks you can use that to run out the disks and deny your opponents any shot at them. If you do that, you’re running a huge advantage, but be careful! Those cards aren’t … very valuable.
- Don’t lose sight of the goal. It can be tempting to just buy cheap cards all day, but there are Level 3 cards worth 14 points. That’s a lot of points. The same thing happened to me in Space Base; you need to make sure that you’re gaining points and keeping pace with your opponent, even if you think you’re buying more cards per turn.
- Don’t try to start a race you can’t win. If your opponent can beat you to a building, let them. It’s very bad to lose a race in this game, because it’s built pretty tightly. If you do lose the race, then now you’re stuck with two wasted turns, which is essentially a disaster.
- Play for efficiency. Every tile you cover with another tile is a wasted opportunity, especially in the solo game. You should be avoiding waste at all costs. Try to make sure that you’re keeping an eye on what certain placements will set you up to do and build towards them.
- If you don’t build at least one Level 3 card, you’re likely not going to win. The only real exception to this is if you manage to somehow end a game where nobody has bought any Level 3 cards. In that case, yeah, well, you’d probably still have done better if you had built a Level 3 card. They’re just a lot of points, and you want points.
- Don’t forget your player powers. If you’re using them (playing Advanced Mode), you really don’t want to waste your Buildings when you can construct a building and get a sweet player power, to boot. Make sure you’re keeping track of those as you progress.
- You don’t need Levels to win. The Level +1 cards are nice (the ones that let you use the dark squares), but they’re not explicitly necessary. Don’t bend yourself out of shape trying to get them.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Limiting Level III buildings until you buy at least one Level II is smart. I kind of wish Splendor had done that; just make certain cards of a color that doesn’t exist. It’s a neat way to enforce progression in the game and it makes the game feel tightly designed.
- The art is really great. It’s very reminiscent of Mystery of the Temples, but a bit more personable (since it actually features a person). Plus, I don’t own a lot of Magical Desert-themed games, so that’s pretty exciting. I’m definitely a fan, and the buildings look really cool as well.
- I really enjoy tile-laying games. This one is particularly nice because you’re laying tiles on tiles and cancelling old ones out; it’s like a more satisfying Barenpark, at least, to me.
- Seems expandable. I could see more buildings / disks being added on later as an expansion, though I’ve never seen EmperorS4 expand one of their games. I mean, that said, there’s always a first time for everything? Maybe this is the one that takes off.
- Having an experienced player use the Advanced Side of the player boards is a sufficient balancing mechanic. I felt challenged by the change in layout of the available space and trying to smartly leverage the player power to my advantage, and focusing on those two things kept me away from certain plays that my opponents could make on the basic boards. I think the games ended up being decently close, but I got some good moves in with my player power to swing the game my way. Overall, it didn’t feel like I was running away with the game; far from it, actually. I only ended up winning because I managed to beat my opponent to a card that would have ended the game for either of us, but with the extra disks I could play slightly more efficiently than he could. At that point it was just disk management.
- Not a terribly complex game. I think this also sits at a gateway+ level; it’s a game I’d buy for all of my friends who love Splendor so that I wouldn’t have to keep playing Splendor all the time. Nothing against Splendor; I’ve just been playing a lot of it and I’m ready to move on.
- The solo mode is satisfyingly difficult and still similar to the base game. It’s good practice if nothing else. My high score is 30; once it’s widely available tell me what you’ve got in the comments so I know what I have to beat!
- The rules are pretty well written. I see you, Travis.
- I wish the player boards were … boards. The kind of paper-thin mat that they have going on makes me always worried that I’m going to mess it up pretty badly. I’d prefer some thicker tile or something, sort of like what you have in Factory Funner.
- I’m not entirely sure why the discs didn’t come with stickers for both sides. Now I have to make sure all the discs have the right side up whenever we play, which is a low-key hassle. Screen-printed discs would be ideal, but at least having stickers for both sides (or pre-stickering them, lemme tell you that was also a hassle) would be nice. At the very least, they’re double-coded (color + symbol), so that’s a plus.
- I wish there were more of a catch-up mechanism. I suppose having to clear your board is kind of a catch-up mechanism, but since everyone has to do it and you often get discs (which allow you to have more optimal placements) it can be hard to come back from behind, which is a bummer. Thankfully the game is short, so that doesn’t matter too much.
- Again, weirdly enough, I wish the game were a bit longer. We’ve discussed playing to 20 Hourglasses but haven’t pulled the trigger on it. Right now, at 10, it feels like one mistake might knock you completely out of the game, and I wonder if at 20 it would be possible to recover? I’m not entirely sure, which is why we haven’t tried it; I think (again) a more explicit catch-up mechanism would make me more enthusiastic about trying to extend the length.
Overall: 9 / 10
Yeah, so, overall, I kind of really like Realm of Sand. The theme is cool, the art is nice, and the gameplay is solidly in my preferred area: it’s puzzley without being a brain burner, it has satisfying tile-laying elements, and it’s a game I feel like I can get better at the more that I play. Once you’re getting comfortable, the game opens up even further and provides you with advanced boards to really get your brain working; how will you use these new player powers to overcome the changes in layout? In that way it’s a lot like Factory Funner, actually, but with less setup overhead; each of the player boards is unique, allowing you to vary your experience each game. I think FF has the better player boards (since they’re also leveled, allowing you to really challenge yourself), but that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. The circle of tiles is definitely reminiscent of Patchwork, but I think this game owes a fair bit of its DNA to Splendor, with the card tiers and the engine building aspects of the game. To that end, I think it’s a great game for fans of Splendor that want to broaden their horizons. It’s challenging, but familiar, and great all-around. If you’re looking for a relatively easy game to pick up that’s pretty challenging to master, I’d definitely recommend Realm of Sand! I’ve had a ton of fun playing it.