Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Review: Around the World in 80 Days

London in the late 19th century. You and a group of close friends have been passing the evening in the exclusive Reform Club, discussing the new wonders that the industrial era has bestowed upon humanity. You boast, "Why with today's modern steamships and steam locomotives, I'll bet that a man could circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days!" Someone else voices doubts. "Pshaw! It can't be done my good man!" "I tell you it can! And more than that, I'll prove it! Who's with me?" Five of your club mates say "I'll take that bet!" and the race is on to see who, if anyone, will be the first to travel Around the World in 80 Days!

Around the World in 80 Days is the latest game from Kosmos and Rio Grande Games. Some are saying that this game is a strong contender for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award. I think one could make a strong case for that. It has all the right ingredients. It's a game that the whole family can play. The rules are not too hard; not to easy. It plays in the right amount of time: about an hour. It's very attractive. It has a strong, enjoyable theme that doesn't intrude upon or spoil the elegant mechanics. And it requires players to make some interesting choices without being overwhelming or difficult.

The game board is a very attractive map of the world in the late 19th century. Around the edge of the board is an 80 space scoring track that records each player's travel time in days. Players start in London's Reform Club and must travel to nine other cities in turn as they circumnavigate the globe, ending back in London. Each location is connected by a route that requires players to travel either by train, by steamship, or some combination of the two (with one exception: the route between Bombay and Calcutta where players either walk or travel by elephant).

On each turn, players add a travel card to their hand of cards. Each travel card has either a steamship or a locomotive on it, as well as a number. To travel a route that has two steamship symbols, a player must play two steamship cards. The numbers on the cards represent travel time and their sum is added to the player's days on the scoring track/calendar. If a player is able to play two of the exact same card (for example two locomotives with fours on them) then they complete that leg of the journey in half the time (using only four days instead of eight). That, of course, assumes that the route can be completed using two of the same type of travel cards. Some require only one. Some require different types. Players are not required to travel on each turn; they can wait for better cards if they wish and in fact, they'll certainly have to wait at least once in a few places.

At the bottom of the board are six action spaces which are filled from left to right with cards at the beginning of each round. Each space is associated with a different action. Players take turns by first drawing a card from one of these action spaces and adding it to their hand. Then they may, at their discretion, choose to execute the associated action. One action space allows players to draw event cards which may give them an advantage. Another allows the player to take the starting player marker for the next round. Another allows the player to use a balloon to replace a travel card (you still have to play the travel card but you roll a die to determine how many days that part of the trip took). And so on. It's a very good mechanic that adds some spice to the game because when you take a card, you're not only interested in the card, you're also interested in the action associated with the card. Sometimes you'll want to draw a worse card because the action is so helpful. Other times you'll take what at the time seems to be a useless action because the card is so attractive. Each of the actions is advantageous in certain situations.

The victory conditions for the game are interesting as well. Players must balance progressing on their journey against the time they're spending over each leg of the trip. Once the first player makes it back to London, no matter how many days it took him, the clock begins ticking. At the end of each subsequent round, each player that hasn't made it back to London will be penalized one day. So while it isn't crucial for your pawn to reach London first, you'll not want to lag too far behind. Also, the final round of the game is the first round in which all but one pawn is back in London. At the end of that round, if the last player's pawn isn't back in London, that player is eliminated from the game no matter how many days are on their calendar. The winner is then determined in one of two ways: if anyone has made the journey in 80 days or less, the winner is the one who used the fewest days; otherwise, the winner is the player who was first to get their pawn back to London no matter how many days it took them.

Around the World in 80 Days is a fantastic family game. This isn't a deep gamer's game but it's got just enough strategy and fun elements to make it quite appealing to a broad range of players. You might call this a "Goldilocks game". It's not to hard. It's not to simple. It's not too long. It's not too short. It's just right. It supports from three to six players (although the rules do contain a variation for two players, it's really meant to be played with at least three and it's really best with four or more) ages ten and up. I'm sure it'll be a Speil des Jahres nominee. The question is: will it finish on top? We'll have to wait and see. I think it has a good chance. You owe it to yourself to give this one a try.


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