Gaming Unplugged: Arkadia

March 31, 2009

“Each turn of Arkadia forces you to answer several strategic questions, as there is nearly no random element to speak of in the game.”

Arkadia is one of those games that appears to be fairly straightforward: you earn gold by cashing in seals you earn from completing buildings. Yet it is so layered in strategic choices that it can be impossible to get a good grip on it without several plays under your belt. Arkadia also has the unusual complication of requiring completely different tactics depending on the number of players, as plays that will probably be available to you with one opponent will most likely be stolen in larger groups. As a result, it is not as family-friendly as most board games, but deeply rewarding for those who enjoy more strategic fare.

Players represent master architects as they expand a town with a central castle, with three workers initially available to them and four cards in hand. Each turn, a player can place a Tetris-like building on the board by discarding a corresponding card (and then drawing a replacement at the end of his turn). Any tent spaces on the board covered by the placement of a building earns the player a neutral worker. Each building is endorsed by one of the four families and is marked with that family’s colored seal, to be claimed as an additional reward by whichever architect completes the building. A building is considered completed once it is bordered on all orthogonal sides by either other buildings or workers. Instead of placing a new building, a player my opt to place as many workers as he chooses (both of his own and any neutrals he may have) around a single existing building. Whoever completes a given building scores that building’s bonus seal, and each allies worker adjacent to a completed building scores his player one additional seal of that color.

Completing buildings also lets players place castle pieces on the central plaza, which can affect the standing of each family and in turn determines the value of each family’s seal at any given time. The plaza’s ten spaces initially weight each family evenly, with two seals of each family represented (plus two blank spaces). Each family also has three castle pieces that can be placed per level; the more a given family’s color shows when a player scores, the more that family’s seals are worth — from zero to six gold pieces per seal (as each level’s maximum value per family is three and the first level must be filled before the second can begin). Once the second level of the castle has been completed, each player gets one additional turn and then the game ends with one final scoring phase. Whoever has the most gold at the end of the game wins.

Each player has four opportunities to score before the final scoring phase and can choose to do so at the end of any turn; in addition to gold for traded-in seals, using a scoring opportunity also bestows two additional friendly workers to that player’s reserve. As the “market value” of each seal is constantly in flux, players must anticipate when to “cash in” and when to hoard for greater potential returns. Try to keep track of who is hoarding which seals (all such information in this game is private) and see if you can manipulate the market to screw them out of a huge windfall while shoring up your own investments. Additionally, it may be prudent to “score” without cashing in any seals at all, just to get more valuable friendly workers to place; if you don’t use them, then they’re just wasted!

Each turn of Arkadia forces you to answer several strategic questions, as there is nearly no random element to speak of in the game. Building or workers? Where to you place whatever it is you’re going to place? If a building, which one of the four in your hand is the best play? If you’re placing workers, how many will you put down — both how many non-scoring neutrals, and how many of your own precious scoring ones? How will you adjust the market if you complete a building — or two? Do you want to burn a scoring opportunity now? Will that awesome play you see still be there when your next turn rolls around or will someone else jump on it?

It’s a lot of thinking, and it can seem daunting. If that’s the sort of game you really love sinking your teeth into, then Arkadia won’t disappoint. If not, then you might want to look elsewhere. Playing Arkadia can easily instill an unwary player into feeling like he’s just along for the ride and not really sure where he’s going or what he’s doing, which is just a recipe for frustration. Arkadia is a great strategic game, just like Chess; but like Chess, it’s just not for certain types of people.


Images by GamerChris