The arbitrary tangle of Tapestry, a game that couldn’t care less about civilization

, | Game reviews

I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Tapestry.  I guess I could say the artwork is cute in some places. Okay, that’s that.  Let’s get on with the rest.

Although Tapestry is powered by iconography, it’s also brimming with words.  I will ignore these words because they have almost no bearing on what is actually happening in the game.  Eyeglasses, penicillin, battleships, the telephone, racing, clocks, concrete, the nail. Ah, yes, the nail, that most underrated piece of metal since the stirrup.  What does it do in Tapestry? It lets me draw a tapestry card. What did I draw? Theocracy! Thanks, nail.

One of the challenges for people designing games about the sweep of civilization, and one of the thrills for those of us playing them, is discovering imaginative expressions of epic ideas.  What do the Pyramids do? Gunpowder? The Enlightenment? What role does religion play? How is geography modeled? What happens when someone discovers the wheel, the printing press, or the cotton gin?  How does the internal combustion engine, the airplane, and the internet affect gameplay? When and how do paradigms shift? What were the defining moments in the sweep of civilization and what will this game do with them?

There are no such shifts in Tapestry, no such defining moments.  They have been ironed out like troublesome wrinkles. The stone age is no different from the space age: you move an increment on a track, then you’re done.  Along the tracks are words. Tapestry is a procession of words in a game that refuses to give them meaning. They shuffle along listlessly, dulled and inconsequential.  

Another thrill that comes with the sweep of history is how differently different civilizations might play.  What do the Babylonians do? Does England turn into the British Empire? Will Japan rule the world? How are Vikings different from Romans or Mayans?  Tapestry has no interest in these questions. Whereas it’s oddly and irrelevantly specific at most points — placing your fourth marketplace means you’ve discovered credit cards! — it’s coyly generic when it comes to who you’re actually playing.  You get a big card with a splashy title. Architects! Alchemists! Historians! Your people are then further defined over the course of the game by three cards — these three cards are the tapestry of the title — that don’t fit into any real world framework.

Last game I was the Nomads who 1) implemented terraforming in a swamp before 2) launching the age of sail and finally 3) closing out history as a steam tycoon who never even discovered trains.  It felt no different than the game when I was the Isolationists in the desert who progressed from cavemen directly into 1) dystopia, then 2) democracy, then 3) a plea for aid in which I earned victory points for being behind everyone.  Early in the game, after dystopia but before democracy, I researched battleships and time travel. I advance along a track and discover…rafts. Yep, rafts. I have battleships and time travel, but behold, I have invented the raft! Eureka?

Now I’m playing Militants who just discovered the telephone as a direct result of progressing from herbalism to biology to nutrition.  That’s how you discover the telephone. “Watson, come here, broccoli is good for you!” My Militants haven’t yet discovered bladed weapons, but we have telephones.  After a long push along the military track, another player availed his Merrymaker civilization (which has discovered bladed weapons, warplanes, and nuclear bombs) of the benefit of mechs.  Mechs let him draw a new civilization type. Now his people are Entertainers, as well as Merrymakers. With mechs and nukes. W00t. Meanwhile, my Militants have telephones, but no bladed weapons.  I conquer an Entertainer/Merrymaker hex anyway. So much for their nukes and mechs.

Does theming matter?  Does narrative deserve a place at the table?  Should a game appeal to my imagination? I think so.  Tapestry doesn’t. Tapestry doesn’t even try. It chucks words into a blender and presses puree and hands me a glass.  It tells me to drink my slurry. It tastes like paying one food and one culture to discover tunnels, which unlocks breeding.  I’m probably not supposed to think about it. My turn is over anyway.

There’s no real sense of building up an economic engine, because an economy is only three abrupt coughs, separated by incremental wheezing.  I scrape a tiny cube along some tracks until I sputter to a halt because I’ve run out of resources. Then I gather a few resources to do it again.  The map exploration is just a desultory tile-matching puzzle worth a victory point or two. Conquest is only ever a one-time option for an opponent to play a trap card.  No trap card? Okay, we’re done here. There’s an element of territory control tied into the exploration and combat — or “combat”, I should say — but it’s muted and often superfluous.  The discovery of warplanes is a rare moment when someone can airdrop a conquering piece in someone else’s way. Like as not, it won’t matter. The scoring, and therefore the importance of various decisions, is all over the place.  With final scores in the 100 to 200 range, I’m routinely puzzling over sums as low as three or four victory points at a time.  

Tapestry claims to support solitaire play, so I hoped it might be an interesting puzzle to get high scores with different civilizations.  As a solitaire game, the best thing I can say is that it’s snappy. Take a turn, then push the AI marker up a track. Maybe the AI kicks at something on the map, more often it lunges at empty air.  This is solitaire gaming at its worst. A game that already had minimal player interaction, slaved to a deck of cards that randomly pushes markers up score tracks independent of any of the actual game rules.  Stonemaier Games’ games claim to support solitaire play with their automa decks, but none of them do it well, because the automa is just an end run around the actual game design. It’s the equivalent of setting up a fake rabbit to run along a rail.  I chase the rabbit, but I’m hamstrung by actually playing the game, working in the context of its rules, while the rabbit glides along its polished rail, sometimes darting ahead, sometimes slowing to let me catch up. But Tapestry was already a not very good solitaire game I could play alongside other players.  Me and up to four of my friends, each working out our own scoring puzzle, occasionally racing each other for something, sometimes stumbling over each other, mostly just waiting for each other, waiting, waiting, what’s happening now has got nothing to do with me, waiting.

Even when it bogs down for decision-making of questionable consequence, Tapestry is still pretty simple.  You might say Tapestry is sleek. You wouldn’t be wrong. The interaction of tracks can be inscrutable at first, so expect a bit of new player analysis paralysis.  There is no solution for this beyond letting new players peer into the board with furrowed brows. Of course it will go faster once players learn the game. You can say this of any game.  But a game of Tapestry among players who know it should be a uniquely snappy process. So, sure, it’s sleek. But so is checkers. At what price this snappy pacing?

$99, actually.  Why so pricey? Painted miniatures.  Tapestry is yet another example of molded plastic foisted off on me because people are willing to pay for toys.  So here I have action figures for buildings whose only role is to take up space. Literally. The buildings are part of a simple grid placement system that dribbles a few points onto the victory point track.  The miniatures are more trouble than they’re worth, because flat tiles would have been easier to visualize. Some buildings appear in every game, some only appear if their invention card is drawn. There’s a reason the invention cards for buildings include an indicator of the building’s shape.  So why aren’t the buildings that appear in every game similarly indicated? Why not show on the board the shape of the building instead of expecting me to crane my neck trying to see what building is what shape for which stage of which track? There’s nothing like a touch of convenience where it’s least needed instead of where it’s most needed to make you wonder who was asleep at the wheel when a game crossed the finish line.

Someone was also asleep at the wheel during the design process.  Shortly after the release of Tapestry, Stonemaier Games decided it wasn’t balanced.  So now some factions start with extra victory points, some start with fewer victory points, some begin with a resource penalty, and some begin with a resource bonus.  None of this is included in the box.

How would you know you’re supposed to apply a “civilization adjustment guide” that changes more than half of the game’s civilizations?  That’s a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t know. You will most likely play Tapestry blissfully unaware that your Chosen should be up 45 victory points and your friend’s Heralds should be down 15 victory points.  It’s one thing to release a videogame with a “uh, we’ll patch it later” mentality, because videogames are easily and frequently updated. It’s something else entirely to design, presumably playtest, print, proof, and ship a $99 box of cardboard and plastic, only to decide one month later, “whoops…!”  Consider waiting for second or third editions before buying anything from Stonemaier Games.

So here is Stonemaier Games’ sweep of history, from discovering fire to exploring space and everything in between.  It’s all in here and it’s all equally meaningless, as evocative as Blokus or Azul. It feels nothing like any game about civilization I’ve ever played, because it’s pieced together out of aimless patterns and ornamentations instead of anything useful.  Tapestry is the warp and weft of arbitrary tracks into an incoherent whole characterized by pointless verbiage. Its manifest destiny is at the back of my closet.

  • Tapestry

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • A $99 procession of words in an unpatched game that refuses to give them meaning