Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia also builds a better worker placement game

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Euphoria is an intricate machine, slow to get under way and a touch inscrutable at first. But once you’ve dribbled a little fuel into the tank and turned the crank a few times, it starts humming confidently, building in strength, spinning faster and faster, positively purring. It might even run away from you, yanking the handle out of your hand and — oops! — someone else just won.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia is just another worker placement game. I mean, it is, but not in the sense that you would dismiss it because you already have Agricola, Lords of Waterdeep, and Carson City. It has its own sense of identity, a wonderful approach to pacing, and a lovely long-term sense of discovery that comes from seeing how its meticulous clockwork interaction pieces together. It is an ornate marvel of gameplay and interaction.

After the jump, cannibals, burning teddy bears, and zeppelin meth labs

The appeal of many game economies, and particularly worker placement economies, is that they’re intuitive. Workers eat fish, they use stone to build buildings, iron is smelted into steel which builds ships. We know all this, so we have only to learn the procedural rules for any given game. Place the meeple, move the marker, click the icon, whatever. Fishing is fishing, masonry is masonry, and smelting is smelting. But the economy of Euphoria is a freshly imagined clockwork beast of people, tunnels, electricity, unearthed pre-Fall artifacts, and a fleet of traders in zeppelins happy to sell you their happy-making drugs. Furthermore, the upper end of Euphoria’s economy is always a mystery with a weird name. What will this game reveal? The Apothecary of Productive Dreams, hungry for happy-making drugs? The Cafeteria of Nameless Meat processing as much food as you can throw into it? Or Bemusement Park in search of a single sad balloon?

When you first sit down to put this engine through its paces, it will seem clunky and maybe even overbusy. It might take a couple of games before that goes away. But the a-ha’s and the oh-I-see’s will come and they’re especially gratifying for how they reveal an imaginative new economy, peppered with special exceptions and bonuses based on which markets and especially which recruits come into play. Euphoria stands out among worker placement games for how it’s willing to let everyone break the rules a little with their unique recruits. Jacko the Archivist trades artifacts for political power. Esme the Fireman burns artifacts for extra resources. Lee the Gossip spreads knowledge among other players’ workers, which is never a good thing for the other players since the goal is stupid workers. Pete the Cannibal can eat his workers.

The overarching point of Euphoria is to be the first player to place his ten “authority stars”. This might seem awfully abstract at first, but the idea is that you’re trying to grab the reigns of this splintered dystopia by applying political power, economic power, social power, and — in the end — a touch of subterfuge with your “ethical dilemma”. This last bit is really a cherry on top of the authoritarian sundae, and it’s a great example of how Euphoria reveals the unexpected importance of tiny pieces. Your first reaction to the “ethical dilemma” cards might be “well, that’s underwhelming”. Just keep playing a few times. I lost a game due to the fact that I was unable to provide the specific artifact for my ethical dilemma: marry my true love or submit to the arranged match society had set for me? Yeah, it’s just the flavor text, but the game was lost for want of a teddy bear, because I had used it earlier at the Incinerator of Historical Accuracy. True story. Be careful what you burn.

Ethical_dilemma

There can be a lot of analysis paralysis early on, but the machine of this dystopia will not be held back. The Euphorians with their power generator, the Subterrans sucking water from their aquifer, the Wastelanders growing food in their expanse of wet clay, and the Icarites high overhead doing whatever it is they do in their drug lab zeppelins. These factions will all get under way, they will advance their power, they will start unfolding new ways for players to exert authority, and then suddenly you’re in the last two or three turns of the game puzzling out how best to play your final authority stars before anyone else.

One of the things Euphoria does exceptionally well is sidestepping the usual dry exchanges in a worker placement game. I get two wood. You get one cloth. I get one stone. You get two fish. I spend two wood and one stone to build a house. Now I get two gold. I pay the two gold to buy two food. By representing each worker as a die that is constantly rerolled, these pieces are more dynamic than the usual meeples bringing wood home. There’s a consistent risk/reward calculation based on how many workers you have, folded into the idea that you want happy dumb workers. But the more workers you get, the more they start talking to each other, and the more likely they are to get fancy ideas about “hey, authoritarian society sucks, so I’m outta here!”. Each faction’s basic resource generator is a changing engine based on how heavily it’s being used. If we all want electricity, we’ll get plenty of electricity. But our workers will get smarter in the process. You gotta keep ’em separated. Furthermore, some of your actions have an effect on a powerful reputation track for each faction, which feeds into which players have recruits from which factions. Even the hidden marketplaces which determine and tune the late-game economy come with sometimes subtle but sometimes powerful penalties against certain players.

In terms of its economic flow chart, Euphoria reminds me most of Le Havre, the punishing worker placement game of players relentlessly and ruthlessly blocking each other in a small ship building town on the cusp of its industrial revolution. Le Havre is brutally capitalistic, with the same survival horror bent as Agricola. Oh god, I wasted four turns getting these fish and now the other player is blocking me from smoking my fish at the fish smokery! Woe, wrack, and ruin! Plenty of games allow you to visit hard-hitting economic misfortune on your friends, but Euphoria isn’t one of them. For its structural similarity to Le Havre, it doesn’t have any of that game’s cruelty. In Euphoria, you can always do something to get your own economic engine underway. In fact, that seems to be the mandate for Stonemaier’s games, which include Viticulture, the winery worker placement game on which these two guys in St. Louis cut their teeth. Worker placement minus the frustration, with a snappier and friendlier approach. It’s more of a race than a brawl over limited resources. Fewer elbows thrown.

Not to say Euphoria is one of those can’t-we-all-just-get-along entry games that might as well have the name Days of Wonder on the box. It’s got its share of dirty tricks threaded into the economy, based on each player holding recruits like the aforementioned Lee the Gossip. One of the recruits is face up, reaping important benefits as his or her faction gets stronger. The other is face down, a sleeper agent waiting to be awakened, possibly by the hard work of one of the other players. The rules tweaks introduced by the recruits, and the subterfuge and interaction involved in advancing and revealing them, is enough to make Euphora stand out against other similar games.

Euphoria_board

And it’s such a pretty game. The image at the top of this review is the actual artwork on the board. So colorful, with such an intricate and ultimately elegant interface. What first looks scarily complex will shortly reveal itself as a carefully calculated engine processing food, electricity, water, and drugs to unearth gold, stone, clay, and artifacts, which are then processed into political, economic, social, and ethical influence. The gameplay mechanics and the flow of the economy are lovingly baked onto the board for all to see. With its precise and clearly written rules, this is one of those rare games where you won’t have to consult the rules book much; just leave it in the bottom of the box where it’s settled. The pieces are lively, bright, and tempting to pop into your mouth. Those electricity symbols have got to taste like pineapple. I just know it. In fact, the theme of dystopia is almost swallowed up by the bright cheeriness of it all. Euphoria is as visually endearing as Agricola, but with less built-in frustration, far better pacing, and a unique new place to place your workers.

Purchase Euphoria here to support Qt3.

  • Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • In Euphoria, you lead a team of workers (dice) and recruits (cards) to claim ownership of the dystopian world. You will generate commodities, dig tunnels to infiltrate opposing areas, construct markets, collect artifacts, strengthen allegiances, and fulfill secret agendas.
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