The first step on the Road to Enlightenment

, | Games

I’ve only played Road to Enlightenment, the debut boardgame from Conquistador Games, once. So this isn’t so much a review as it’s the breathless enthusing of a kid who wants to get back in line to ride the rollercoaster again.

After the jump, can we, dad, can we, huh, can we?

All I needed to know about Road to Enlightenment I knew from a few seconds of listening to designer Dirk Knemeyer promote it in a Kickstarter video. The setting (Renaissance and colonial era Europe), the theme (cultural expansion being every bit as important as military conquest), the card mechanics (deck building is the new hotness), the asymmetry among the nations (ha ha, everyone hates France, so they get a penalty), the streamlining (it takes longer to set up Small World than it takes to set up Road to Enlightenment), the personality (European history is like soylent green: it’s people!). I was right on all counts.

The first surprise with Road to Enlightenment is the production value. The board is beautiful, rugged, and even elegant once you understand what the numbers are for. The cards are just the right combination of informative, ornate, and atmospheric, with colors that contrast nicely with the almost muted pastels of the blocks and the map. It’s as if the map wants to be sepia toned, but knows it needs enough color to tell Sweden from England and Austria from France. The cards, on the other hand, have no such limits.

The later and greater surprise is how well the theming works in Road to Enlightenment. One of the real delights of a first game is discovering how the pieces fit together: piracy can cripple an empire, the wealth of the Catholic church goes a long way to supporting military conquest, artists are unreliable (Keep toiling in obscurity, Vermeer! You’ve certainly earned it in this game!), and wars are almost never as easy as you think they’re going to be at first. It contrives to paint a vivid picture of great men and women (three of them, to be exact) cobbling together the fate of Europe. In my game, these great men (none of the three women made an appearance) let England rise to power because 1) the Catholic church was corrupt and lazy, 2) the English navy was incomparable, and 3) Athanasius “The Last Renaissance Man” Kircher and Robert “Prolific Dabbler” Hooke kept buddying up to glorify English scientific pursuits even though France got there first, dammit.

I wasn’t playing England, by the way. I was France in a three-way game in which me and Spain each figured the other guy would do something to advance Catholicism instead of letting England’s Protestantism (even if they don’t call it that) run amok. The Spanish slackers did no such thing. And if they weren’t going to raise a finger to advance the One True Church, why should I go out of my way to pull Popes Alexander VII and Clement X from their fund-raising duties? After all, I needed that money to support the empire of France, which included Savoy, The Palatinate and a few failed stabs at Switzerland, which would have been more effective if English hadn’t thrown a few coins into the fray to keep another Protestant nation from falling under Catholic rule. So Catholicism pretty much ran out of steam, which left England and John Bunyan to advance “anti-Catholicism”, as the game calls it, with little resistance.

Then there’s the issue of wars. I love how unpredictable they are. You’re basically shoveling resources into the war effort, never quite sure how much is enough or how much the other guy might shovel back at you. Each point you spend on an attack earns you a die roll. You need a certain number of sixes to conquer someone. Anyone who’s ever tried to research heavy bombers can see where this is going. Let’s say you need four sixes to conquer Switzerland. Twenty rolls should do it, right? Right! And don’t try to bring fancy math into the equation to convince me that four sixes out of twenty die rolls isn’t a reasonable assurance. Dice is hell.

The card system is also aces. The hard part for new Road to Enlightenment players comes early, as you’ve got thirteen cards dumped into your lap. That’s thirteen people, each ready to do his or her part for the greater glory of your nation. Thirteen pieces, all unique, ideally chosen from categories you expect to help you win. In the case of my France, these were mainly military and science types. It’s like the first day at a new job, trying to learn everyone’s name and position.

You’ll eventually come to know these guys well. Some of them you’ll hate. Rene Descartes, for instance, is supposed to be a powerful card. But the way our game shook out, he didn’t help me once I’d used him for an early — and eventually unsustained — rush to scientific glory. Once I’d half-heartedly retooled to make a push into the world of art, England’s Hook/Kirchner combo unseated me.

And over the long run, these characters appearing and reappearing makes Road to Enlightenment what it is. Where’s that idiot Danish scientist Romer when I need him at the last moment to contest England’s top spot on the science track? I’ve been holding the Duke of Orleans in my hand hoping to slap down a foreign response, so would someone try to hit me with a pirate hunter or something already? Aha, just as England tries to grab Denmark, I’ve got Calico Jack ready to intervene with his naval prowess. England, say hello to Blackbeard and the Blockade of Charleston. Now you have no money and must withdraw your forces from Norway! And, oh my sweet Popes, keep raking in those ducats. At the last moment, my minister of foreign policy, Johan de Witt, lets me declare war on England with a single card. Too bad Henry Ireton’s valiant charge (double military power during attacks!) wasn’t enough to drive the English out of the Netherlands, which would have totally won me the game by making it a tie score decided by wealth. And if there’s one thing my popes were doing instead of furthering Catholicism, it was amassing wealth.

There are a few issues that were apparent as soon as I started reading the rules. Firstly, the rules themselves. The manual is horrible, mainly in terms of how it’s poorly organized and how it fails to explain certain fundamentals. I find it telling that Road to Enlightenment doesn’t have a turn marker. This isn’t a big deal, which explains why Conquistador Games forgot it. You can just stick a penny on the turn track. But it’s the sort of oversight that explains other oversights, such as how the markers for controlling territory obscure all information about that territory, or how the mechanics for arranging cards are a godawful mess, or the confusion about what’s allowed to be hidden and how, or inconsistent or poorly thought-out terminology. A game this sleek deserves to be more polished than this. Instead, Road to Enlightenment was designed a bit too much for the guys who are already playing it, and not enough for those of us who haven’t yet played it.

But the fact of the matter is that I love this game. It’s a great example of a complex historical period vividly realized through simple gameplay that’s all but shattered by crazy cards with lots of character. See also Twlight Struggle, 1960: The Making of the President , and Labyrinth (and possibly A Few Acres of Snow, based on what I’ve heard about it). Road to Enlightenment is also eminently social in that you’re constantly interacting with the other players, jostling for position on the map, on the science and art tracks, and on the religion gauge. And it turns out the map may very well be the least important arena for jostling. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I lost despite having far more military success than England or Spain.

Of course, it doesn’t help that immediately after playing Road to Enlightenment, I was savaged by Marauding Pixies in a game of Small World. I need to go shoot something in a videogame now. But after that, I’m totally ready for another game of Road to Enlightenment. And this time, you can bet I won’t leave it to those layabout Spaniards to glorify God.