Gaming Unplugged: Endeavor

April 25, 2010

The “Age of Exploration”, when European nations spread their influence pretty much all over the world, is a common theme in modern board games and even a few video games. Endeavor, from Z-Man Games, is one such title, combining area control with a worker-placement mechanic into a neat seven-round package for three to five players.

Setting up Endeavor involves randomly assigning one of the 104 tokens to each of the circular spaces on the board; it’s best to do this face-down to keep things unbiased before flipping them all over. The distribution of these tokens will dramatically affect your strategy in playing, as building up your Industry, Culture, and Economy will be key to your development and collecting these tokens is one of the ways to accomplish this. Each region of the board also has a stack of cards numbered from one to five (in order) with a Governor card (or 0-value card in the case of the Europe/Mediterranean and Slavery areas) placed on top.

Each player begins at level one in each of the four statistics (the three mentioned above and Politics), with a single “occupy” action available to them. Beginning with the start player (which passes each round), players purchase one building per round, with their available options based on their level of Industry. Buildings often increase one of your stats in addition to providing a potential action for the action phase. Once buildings have been purchased, each player generates a number of workers as defined by their current Culture threshold. In all rounds but the first (because obviously no actions have been used at that point) they can also buy back a number of workers used for previous actions based on their Economy level. This is the only way to free up a used action space, barring gaining access to a “payment” action, so it pays to be able to pay your workers if you want to be able to maximize your options each round.

With the workers available to them, players then progress to the action phase. In turn, each player either performs one action or passes for the round. Actions are usually represented by open spaces on your buildings; in order to perform the action, you must place one of your workers on that space and often an additional worker — or more — somewhere else. The actions include Occupy (place one worker in a city in an area that is open to you, collecting the token there as well as the one on the connecting “trade route” if you own both ends of the route), Shipping (place a worker on the discovery track of an area, collecting the token there), Combat (sacrifice one worker to replace another player’s worker in an area where you have a presence), Payment (return another worker from one of your buildings to your available pool), and Draw (draw one card in an area, but only if you have enough influence in the area to obtain the current card there); some advanced buildings might either give you a choice of actions (“occupy or ship,” “ship or draw”) or combine/double actions (“occupy and ship,” “draw and draw”). Tokens you collect via Occupy or Shipping can either increase one of your statistics or provide you a “free” one-shot action to use at your discretion. Any workers left over once you have either exhausted your available spaces or passed are retained for future rounds. Finally, you must discard any cards you have collected in excess of those allowed by your current Politics level, adjusting your statistics accordingly; each player can have one “free” Governor card and one “free” Slavery card beyond their limit (up to a point in the case of Slavery).

Initially you can only use the Occupy, Draw, and (later) Combat actions in the European/Mediterranean region, which includes the Slavery deck. The five-value card in the E/M deck, in addition to its normal bonuses, also represents the “abolition of slavery”; each slavery card owned by all players when that card is drawn is lost (along with its benefits) and represents a negative point at the end of the game — as does a slavery card discarded for any other reason. Slavery cards are a quick and cheap way to rapidly increase your Industry and Economy early, but can potentially be a double-edged sword later on; whether or not you go for the risk is an important strategic decision.

Once an outlying region’s discovery track is completely filled it becomes available for non-Shipping actions only to those who have at least one worker on the track; you can still place a worker on an already-filled track via a Shipping action to get around this restriction. Whoever has the most workers on the discovery track is declared the Governor of that region and claims the appropriate card; in the case of a tie, the tied player with the worker closest to the last place on the track earns the honor, which can create some interesting strategic tension as these cards are often quite powerful/valuable.

At the end of the seventh round, the game is over — even if there are unclaimed spaces on the board (which is especially common with fewer players). In addition to the points scored by buildings, cards, occupying cities, and controlling trade routes, each player also scores points dependent on the levels of his statistics as indicated on the boards as well as one point for every three workers they have available but unused. The rules suggest using the various tokens to keep track of the scores but this is completely unnecessary and way too fiddly; counting up and then writing down each player’s total in turn is far simpler (and makes the included 50-point tokens something of a waste of cardboard). Scores are often very close as long as everyone has at least a vague idea of what they’re doing, and the winner is typically only a handful of points away from the player with the lowest total.

This tightness in scoring is perhaps my favorite aspect of Endeavor, as these scores are often achieved via wildly differing strategies, which indicates that pretty much any well-executed plan is viable rather than there being just one dominating plan that other players need to disrupt before someone can execute it. In fact, you have to be able to adapt your strategy on the fly thanks to the random distribution of tokens and other players beating you to certain actions, which keeps you active (but can lead to some paralysis if your house of cards gets knocked over by a single unexpected move). Another huge plus is the short play time, typically 90 minutes at the very most; other games in this genre can take two hours or more to complete and can drag on towards the later rounds when options are at their peak. A quick-playing game with dynamic strategy is always a sure bet in my book, and Endeavor fits that description neatly.