GTM #207 - The Colonists
Reviewed by John Kaufeld

The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot in movies and books — epic adventures, epic battles, epic tales, and such — but we don’t see it applied very often in board games. The Colonists, from Mayfair Games, dramatically changes that.

Describing itself as an “epic strategy game,” The Colonists puts an innovative worker-placement spin on the classic concepts behind world-building computer games.

Here are the top five things you need to know about The Colonists.

~ Layering Mechanics to Drive the Story ~

The Colonists does some very innovative things with classic worker-placement concepts, but it builds those innovations with simple mechanics, making the game easier to grasp but strategically deep.

Players represent colonists sent into the wilderness by their emperor to build prosperous communities. The communities start simply, with just a pair of farms and farmers. As the years pass, players gather more resources, erect more buildings, and increase their status. Farmers give way to citizens, who eventually turn into merchants as the eras pass, technology improves, and the economy grows.

None of the individual mechanics are complicated by themselves. Instead, the game elegantly layers and interlocks the mechanics like the parts of a fine watch, creating a development system that’s simple to grasp while giving players endless strategies to explore.

~ Sending in the Steward ~

The game’s action takes place in two areas: The individual community boards and the shared hex-based game board. Community boards represent the player colonies, which include building spaces, three kinds of resource storage (more about that later), and some reminder information. Players build the game board during setup using a set of hex-shaped map tiles called “Places” and two double-length pieces known as “Markets.” The tiles represent builders, craftsmen, and natural resources that players can access via their Stewards.

The Steward pieces are a delightful innovation in The Colonists. During a turn, the active player moves their Steward around the board, space by space, taking actions wherever the Steward lands. Because the player probably needs actions to happen in a certain order, like gathering resources before spending them, figuring out how to move the Steward piece adds a combination of strategy and puzzle-solving to the game.

~ Randomizing for Replayability ~

There are so many randomizing elements built into The Colonists that it’s nearly impossible to play the same game twice. You start with two shuffled decks of cards, plus a shuffled stack of tiles that players use to build the board. Players also get to choose their starting mix of goods, which affects their first few rounds of strategy.

As the game continues, the players add new tiles to the board every couple of turns, even replacing older tiles with new ones or swapping the positions of selected tiles. This much variation practically guarantees a highly replayable game experience.

~ The Long and Short of It ~

To fulfill its destiny as an “epic strategy game,” a full playing of The Colonists covers several eras. The colonies grow from serene farming communities into powerful urbanized industrial centers. Of course, several eras of development demand a certain amount of time in the real world, and that can really add up. A full game of The Colonists can take six hours or more, depending on the number of players and their expertise.

Thankfully, the rules include notes on how to “save” your game so you can come back to it later. Likewise, it also tells you how to start the game in a later era, so you don’t have to repeat Era 1 over and over just because your real-life schedule is so busy.

~ Strategizing Your Storage ~

I alluded earlier that we’d talk about storage, and so we shall. The colony board includes three kinds of goods storage: normal storage, the warehouse, and the buffer. In this game, managing your storage makes all the difference. You can only spend goods directly from normal storage (not the other two), so you’re constantly juggling which goods are where. Between plotting your Steward’s moves and making sure you have the right goods in the right storage, The Colonists gives you a strategic run for your money.

~ The Verdict ~

This is an epic strategy game. Truly and seriously epic.

Nor is it a beginner’s strategy game. This is a massive title-placement game for heavy strategy game lovers. Players balance an endless series of trade-offs as they wrestle with limited Steward moves, limited storage spots, and limited time to accomplish tasks in each era. That’s a lot of thinking, but it’s worth the work.

With its innovative twists on worker placement, its design filled with mechanics on top of mechanics, and multiple layers of randomization, The Colonists will give you a fresh play experience for many years to come.

John Kaufeld often frets over whether the word "meeple" has a proper plural form. You can find him writing about board games, parenting, and other stuff on Twitter at @johnkaufeld and in his newspaper column, The Dad Game (http://dadga.me/column).