I don’t normally play, much less review, early access games. There are far too many finished games I have yet to try. So why would I faff about with someone’s beta? Just let me know when you’re finished. I’ll wait. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy in the meantime.
Oh, look, what’s this? A review of an early access game called Sumer? What gives?
The folks who made Sumer say it’s only in early access because the online multiplayer isn’t working yet. They say it’s otherwise complete, with all the rules and gameplay systems 100% in place, playable against the AI, or against your friends in the same room. I was skeptical. But once I tried it and realized, yep, this is a full-on game, I couldn’t keep my hands off it.
Sumer is one of those rare “how come no one thought of this before?” designs. The developers call it a worker placement videogame. But how is that any different from the videogame versions of Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep? Those are worker placement boardgames transliterated precisely onto the iOS. Ergo, worker placement videogames. But when Sumer uses the term, it’s not transliterating some boardgame’s rules into 1s and 0s. It’s an edifice built from the ground up as a videogame. That uses the dynamics of worker placement boardgames.
Sumer resembles Agricola and Lords of Waterdeep in that there are only so many things the players can do each turn, and they’re competing for the same limited pool of actions and resources. What happens when you put three hungry people in a room with only two sandwiches? Gameplay, that’s what happens. But unlike Agricola and Lords of Waterdeep, Sumer features minor platforming. Very minor. Some mild jumping and thematic elements. You’re moving a guy around a 2D ziggurat, starting from your little house every turn, with servants tagging along behind you to carry your resources. Drop off the clay at the pottery kiln, drop off the wheat at the temple, leave the first servant to work the goat pen and leave the second servant to work the wheat farm. There, you’ve spent your resources and placed your workers. Now go back home and call it a night/turn. Go to bed.
The challenge in Sumer is that you’re doing this simultaneously with up to three other players. First player to get home and call it a night gets a goat bonus, which serves as a bit of incentive. The extra goats aren’t a game breaker. They’re just a little bonus. A reason to optimize. No need to scramble too much. This isn’t about speed or reflexes. It’s about deciding what you’re going to do and weighing whether it’s worth the risk of attempting something that someone else can reach more quickly. While you were delivering resources, what if I put my servant in the wheat farm you were going to use? Worker placement games are all about blocking and being blocked, so maybe you should have held off delivering the clay to the kiln until a later turn. How badly did you need that wheat? And did I put my servant there because I needed wheat, or did I do it just to block you? You can ask me, because I’m sitting right next to you. Sumer doesn’t have online multiplayer yet.
The ziggurat — our board — begins with a dirt-simple economy. Wheat farms and goat pens and lots of empty space among them. Between each stage of the game, the board gets built up as we bid on tiles. You want the win the important tiles so you can put them close to your little house. Then they’re easier to reach ahead of everyone else. By the time the game is over, the ziggurat is crammed full of statues and kilns and breweries and Sumerian pied-a-terres and foiled adjacency bonuses. From wheat farms and goat pens, civilization has happened.
Again, let me stress that this isn’t a game about speed or reflexes (it can be tricky figuring out the sweet spot where you drop a servant onto a tile, so I recommend a quick practice round). It’s a game about geography. Before the turn begins, we have plenty of time to study the board. Nothing will happen until everyone has pressed his button to wake up. At which point, the sun begins a slow arc across the sky, giving everyone plenty of time. Once we’re each in bed for the night, it’s back to studying the board until everyone’s ready to wake up. This day/night cycle plays until a certain amount of resources have been cashed in for points, representing religious rites at the top of the temple. Scoring tiles stack up for each player. Face down scoring tiles. Who’s in the lead? How good is your on-the-fly math? It’s a perennial question all us boardgamers have to answer.
The real-time auctions between each stage are a real joy when playing with other people. If you thought of MULE when I said “real-time auctions”, you’re not alone. The Sumer developers call themselves Studio Wumpus. These gamepad-driven auctions are where the game board is built. They’re where players focus on different scoring priorities. They’re where some people get magic wings to move faster, or an extra servant to carry more resources, or extra storage for more flexible resource management. The auctions is where Sumer grows out of simple goat herding and wheat farming into a ziggurat brimming with gameplay decisions.
And of course, you want to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing, which is singularly convenient with a board on which every shred of information is readily apparent on one screen. Ponder the lushly informative and sexily Sumerian visuals as you bake bread and make beer for a cooing fertility goddess who peers in from above like someone’s mom asking who’s winning. It’s going to be close.