Full disclosure: A review copy of Umbra Via was provided by Pandasaurus Games.
I keep talking about this weird phenomenon that makes games difficult to write reviews for, and I’m not quite sure why that happens. I think it may just be me trying to get writing done when I’m not necessarily in a writing mood, and that’s fine. Oh well! I’m making some progress on games, this week! Trying to see if I can power through four reviews this week so that I can be better prepared for next. The goal is to eventually get back to four reviews a week, but I don’t think that’s going to happen until we kind of fix the whole “how do we get games played” pipeline. Either way! More from our friends at Pandasaurus! I’ve been excited to check out Umbra Via, so let’s get right to it!
In Umbra Via, players take part in a shadowy ritual meant to guide the lost fragments of their souls out of darkness. Combining soul flowers and energy flowers, players build and ultimately try to control these pathways, knowing that failure means that more than the game is lost. Will you be able to bring all the lost pieces together? Or will the game just end in darkness?
First, place the main board in the center of the table:
Next, place the Altar Board nearby:
Shuffle the Path tiles (and rotate them as you shuffle them), placing them nearby:
You can leave out or include the Special Tiles: up to you!
Place the Placement Order counters above the Altar Board:
Give each player their player stuff. This includes a screen:
A bid board:
Some Energy flowers (dark) and Soul flowers (light):
Each player takes one Energy flower and places it next to the Altar Board. Randomize the order to create the tiebreaker track. Finally, each player places their Soul Tile below the main board:
Each player places 11 Soul flowers on the Soul Tile. Have each player set up their player area by placing their bid board behind the player screen and dumping their remaining flowers into the bag, and you should be ready to start!
When playing with two players, choose a third, neutral color, and add 3 Soul flowers and 16 Energy flowers of that color to each player’s bag.
Also, place the 11 neutral Soul flowers on the neutral color’s Soul Tile, just like you would for an actual player. They don’t get a tiebreaker token, though.
A game of Umbra Via takes place over several rounds, as players attempt to earn Soul Flowers and ultimately take their Soul Tile. First player to do so, wins!
To start a round, reveal four tiles from the top of the tile stack and place them face-up on the Altar Board. Don’t rotate them when you reveal them; the orientation should be randomized by the shuffle.
Now, you bid over two rounds before moving on to placement. In each round, players will draw three flowers from their bags and secretly place them on their private bid boards. You must use all three flowers, and you can place them all or each on any of the four spaces; no limit.
Once every player is ready, reveal, and place the flowers on your bid board on the tiles on the Altar Board. Once every player has done this, repeat the auction one more time (secretly) so that every player ultimately has placed six flowers.
Once the Bidding Phase is complete, it’s time to determine tile winners. First, assign each tile a resolution order based on the number of flowers on it. If a tile has 0 flowers on it, discard it. If there’s a tie for number of flowers, break ties from left to right.
Now, tiles can be claimed! The player who places the tile is the player with the most flowers on it. Energy Flowers count as one flower, and Soul Flowers (the lighter-colored flowers) count as two. In the event of a tie, the player whose tiebreaker marker is higher on the tiebreaker track wins the tie, and their flower is moved to the bottom of the tiebreaker track. Once the winning player is decided, all players with Soul Flowers on the tile return those Soul Flowers to their bags.
Next, the tile is actually placed. The winning player puts the tile anywhere on the board that they want, provided it’s adjacent to another tile (the ends of the paths on the tile do not have to connect). Keep in mind a few things:
- The new tile cannot be rotated. You pull it off the Altar Board how you got it.
- If there are no tiles on the board, the new tile must be placed in one of the four center spaces.
- If your new tile placement completely closes a path, the Summoning occurs. More on that soon.
When a path is closed, the Summoning happens immediately, before other tiles are placed. During a Summoning, players earn Soul Flowers based on their rank (determined by how many Energy Flowers they have on the path). In the event that players tie for a rank, they are both deemed to be that rank (no tiebreaker), with the next player getting the next rank.
Once the ranks are determined, the top-ranked player(s) get to claim one Soul Flower per tile in the path from their Soul Tile. The next-ranked player(s) get half as many Soul Flowers, with each subsequent rank getting half as many Soul Flowers as the rank before them (rounded down). For a 4-tile path, players would earn 4 / 2 / 1 / 0. For a 7-tile path, players would earn 7 / 3 / 1 / 0. After giving out Soul Flowers, the tiles in the path are removed and players get the Energy Flowers in their color on those tiles back before the tiles are discarded. All Energy Flowers and gained Soul Flowers are placed into players’ bags.
If one tile completes multiple paths, they are all resolved, even if completing one path reopens another path.
The game ends once you’ve claimed your Soul Tile! But that’s easier than it sounds. Once all the Soul Flowers are taken from a Soul Tile, you can claim it as long as you successfully are ranked 1st on a path at least 2 tiles long. Note that this means that if you have one Soul Flower left and you are ranked first on a path 3 tiles long, you win! And also note that this means if you have no Soul Flowers left and you are ranked second on a path 4 tiles long, you do not win, even though you would claim two Soul Flowers! Tough stuff.
So this will play pretty similarly to the standard game, with a few changes in each phase.
You still bid as you would in the usual game, just now, if you bid with neutral flowers, you place them on the side of the board closest to you (to distinguish them from your opponent’s neutral flowers). These count as your flowers, for bidding, so you can win tiles with them as your bid is the sum of your neutral and player color flowers.
When placing a tile, you still discard all soul flowers, but now the neutral flowers belong to a neutral player once the tile is placed by the winner. This means that the Neutral Player can now win paths, if the flowers are placed correctly. Either way, when a path is won, one player will take all the neutral flowers:
- Player wins the path: The winner takes all the neutral flowers.
- Neutral wins the path: The player who completed the path takes all the neutral flowers.
Note that the Neutral player wins Soul Flowers as well, which are taken by the player who takes the other neutral flowers. In the event that the Neutral player runs out of Soul Flowers and wins a path of at least length 2 (a win, under normal circumstances), flip their Soul Tile over instead of claiming it and commence Sudden Death.
During Sudden Death, every path is worth twice as many Soul Flowers upon completion. This means that if you’re out of Soul Flowers, any path completion of any length will win you the game. So that’s fun. The neutral player no longer earns Soul Flowers, but players still take Neutral Energy Flowers upon path completion.
Player Count Differences
Mechanically, the game doesn’t change much (beyond the two-player variant outlined above) with additional players, but there are definitely changes to how things shake out. There are just … more players to deal with, which means that longer paths tend to be riskier (since you can get a comparatively smaller portion of that if you’re not the winner) and you have less of a guarantee that you’ll be able to take certain tiles. At two, an individual tile can be expensive to win, but by and large there will only be 12 tokens on the board by the end of the bidding phase. At four, there will be 24 tokens, so your average tokens per space will be higher just as a function of there being … more tokens. This makes the bidding phase a bit more hectic and frenetic, which may be your speed. For me, I feel like there’s kind of a sweet spot at three, though two players with the variant accomplishes something similar (just without a third player to annoy you). Four might be a bit more crowded than I’m looking to play, on the regular, but that also fits in with my general apprehension around most higher player counts. Either way, I’d probably stick to Umbra Via at 2 – 3 players, but that’s a soft preference; there’s nothing in the game that makes me particularly anxious about four players.
- It’s worth deciding early on if your plan is to take a tile or to control it. This will give you some insight as to what to do with your Energy and Soul Flowers. If you’re looking to control a tile, use your Energy Flowers to get the edge. If you just want to choose where the tile is placed, your Soul Flowers count double, so adding a few of those should tip the scales in your favor. There are also times where you want to do both! Just keep in mind that overloading a tile with flowers will push it later in the turn ordering, so you may miss your chance to get a big payout if you get too greedy.
- Also, keep an eye on the tile ordering; you might be able to get or control a path if you take a tile early enough in the rotation. As mentioned, tiles are placed in order from least flowers to most flowers, so if you end up with the first tile, you may be able to change up who controls a path that’s about to be completed! Or, better yet, split it up or cut it off so players banking on a long path for points end up with path pieces that they can’t score.
- Similarly, if you go after tiles that your opponents don’t want, you might be able to get them for cheap, meaning you’ll also get to place them first. This is a really great thing to look for after the first round of bid reveals; are there any tiles that nobody else went for? It might be worth throwing a couple flowers onto them so that you might be able to score them for cheap. Plus, if you get them cheaply enough, you’ll also get to place it first, which, as we’ve already established, can be pretty helpful.
- You can also bog down tiles with your own flowers to push them later in the ordering, meaning that you may be able to sneak an earlier tile into a desirable spot. I wouldn’t necessarily endorse this, since you have to use your own flowers to do this, but it did really work out for me exactly one time (a tile that would have won my opponent the game ended up farther back in the ordering, and a tile that only I claimed went first and I won), so I have to at least pay some deference to the concept of weighing down tiles with your flowers to move them later in the placement ordering. I just don’t think you can build a cohesive, full-game strategy around it; it’s more the kind of thing you take advantage of when it asserts itself.
- Early in the game, if you can, claiming corners with tiles that resolve immediately and let you take a free point aren’t bad. You can’t do this too early, since you have to play in one of the center four spaces, but in general placing tiles that you can immediately score isn’t a bad idea, especially if it blocks other players who placed on that tile from scoring. Half of 1 is 0, rounded down, so other players with fewer Energy Flowers on the tile will end up getting nothing. It’s a good gig.
- Building a large path can be a good distraction, but if anyone actually scores it, you might end up losing the game. Large paths are compelling because they’re almost always worth fighting for, but you’d ideally use that as a way to junk up players’ tile placements by absorbing them into the big path. The problem is, once someone scores it, they likely win, so you need to win the game before the big path gets scored, if you can! Or take it for yourself, if that’s more your speed.
- You can occasionally use the Special Tiles to change the calculus of a round, so don’t ignore them entirely! The tile that allows you to move its tokens onto an adjacent tile can be especially useful, if you manage to get it set up correctly. The tile that just prevents bidding on it is weird, because it effectively just means that the other three tiles will become more densely populated with tokens. But it’s good to be prepared for that!
- Keep in mind that you can’t keep winning just one tile at a time; you need to eventually take two to win! The best thing you can do to players who are about to win is to keep giving single-tile paths to them; since they’re not at least length 2, they can’t score the final tile that they need to win, meaning that you’re potentially wasting their bids and their turns on tiles that they can’t take. If you can do that, you can usually keep them at bay while you catch up and (hopefully) turn things around.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the theme. It’s kind of post-spooky? Like a spooky ritual happened here, but a while ago, so now it’s gently overgrown? Honestly, I kind of love the “gently overgrown” aesthetic as a game theme on just about any setting. I could see fantasy, sci-fi, whatever being cool with a bit of extra vines and some flowers. It’s not quite “mournful”, but it gives a game a subtle melancholy that suggests a sadder story than we, the player are exposed to. That little bit of mystery sticks in my brain and makes me more curious about the game. It doesn’t happen all the time! But it definitely happened here.
- Also love the art style. I’d call it ornate! It reminds me a bit of Illimat, in a way; while Illimat gives the sense that you found it in your grandparents’ attic, Umbra Via seems like the kind of game you discover inside of an old graveyard or in the shadowy undergrowth of a forgotten crypt. Aesthetics can tell stories, too! I’m just a big fan of this game’s aesthetic.
- I’m actually not normally a fan of bidding or majority games, but I do like this one. I think that while I’m still so-so on the majority elements, this game does a lot to help ease my bidding anxieties by having that double-phase bidding. This means that over the course of the game, I can get an explicit sense of what my opponents consider to be “valuable”, and the real value of a tile starts being a more tangible and less abstract thing. I struggle with bidding games when I can’t convert the real value of a currency to the abstract value of what I’m bidding on, so I tend not to play them, as much.
- The path-building elements are interesting. I like that the shadowy road you create isn’t really limited by practicality or adjacency rules; it just kind of is where it is and when it is, and when it’s not, it’s not. It feels consistent with the aesthetic the game seeks to cultivate.
- I also like the distinction between tokens that make it easy to take tiles and tokens that make it possible to score tiles. I like the most of the time, at least. It makes for an interesting catch-up mechanism, since you’re essentially bag polluting (rather than bag building) by adding tiles that don’t contribute to your ability to control paths to your bag. That means that players with more Energy Flowers will have a better shot at actually controlling paths, and may have a bit of a leg up with respect to catching up. I don’t always love getting only Soul Flowers, but more on that later.
- It’s also nice that most of the game rules are printed on the inside of the player screen. That’s just convenient, especially for players who tend to forget rules (like me!).
- My favorite part about this game is that it’s decently possible to force a tie, ensuring multiple players win. Always into that. I just love when as many people as possible win. It’s very gratifying, especially because it takes work to tie, in this game. I’ll usually try to force a tie, when I can, as a result. Had one game where two players coordinated a tie to win the game so that they both won and the third player lost. Sucks for that guy, I suppose.
- The tiles are kind of slick on top, so be careful you don’t jostle the table and send any flowers moving to other spots. Not much to be done here; more of an advisory warning. The texture of the tiles is just kind of … slippery, so flowers on them can slide around if the board is jostled and the game’s state can get kind of messy. So don’t do that.
- I do like the catch-up mechanism, but boy howdy is a triple Soul Flower pull unsatisfying. Funny, but it stings, a bit. I laughed when it happened, but it was gently annoying. That’s why it’s a useful catch-up mechanism, though; that round, I got to pick where a lot of the tiles went, but I couldn’t control anything, so I just kind of moved them out of the way so that nobody would score too well, from them.
- Practically and intellectually, I understand why you need to score at least two to take the final tile, but it can lead to some annoying outcomes. Particularly dedicated players can stall you for a while by making it impossible for you to control more than one tile, which slows the game down. It doesn’t quite violate my rule of “once a winner is determined, the game should end”, because you can still technically lose, but it usually requires some pretty concerted dogpiling to work, and I hate that. I do practically understand why you shouldn’t be able to single-tile your way to victory, but the ability to stall the game can be funny at first (and ultimately a bit more on the frustrating side, depending on your players).
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I quite enjoyed my plays of Umbra Via! I talked with Ruel Gaviola a bit today on Twitter Spaces about it before I got to writing this part, and I listed Umbra Via off as an example of games I like with mechanics I dislike. I’m not a big fan of bidding or area control, typically, and yet, I find Umbra Via to be fun and compelling. It helps that the game feels relatively short once it gets going and you can start building paths, for sure, but I think the critical element of the game is that two-stage bidding. Getting what is, essentially, a hint for how other players are prioritizing tiles in the game helps center me, in a weird way, and I think it lowers my stress around how I value tiles. That’s my main struggle, in auction games: valuing abstract items with real currency. I just have a lot of difficulty conceptualizing it, so I tend to enjoy games where that’s the crux of gameplay a bit less. I really like how Umbra Via incorporates the bidding elements into tile selection, and I like the distinction between placing a tile and controlling a tile. It makes for an interesting form of area majority, since you may want to try and place tiles differently depending on your ordering in the tile placement process, what you need, and what you think your opponent needs. That’s a good tension! I’m unsurprised that this won the Cardboard Edison in 2019; Umbra Via has a very solid core. Plus, I’m usually a sucker for games that mix two very different-feeling mechanics together. It makes the game feel fresh and dynamic. The biggest thing about Umbra Via, for me, though, is the aesthetic of the game. I love the art and theme and how they blend together to create this overgrown, shadowy-feeling game. It’s like discovering an old Ouija board that’s started to fade, or something, and it gives the game a pleasant air of mystery. Solid aesthetic and good gameplay nicely meet in the middle for Umbra Via, for me, and if you’re looking for a game that’s easy to pick up and looks great, I’d recommend checking it out!