WBG Score: 9
Player Count: 1-4
Published by: Mighty Boards
Excavation Earth is an intriguing game. When I look at the board and rulebook for this game I see a modern classic euro game that looks fantastic, offers interesting rules and mechanics, and plays incredibly smoothly. When I play it, I see that is only touching the sides of what is a delightfully simple but at the same time, wonderfully complex game. A huge contradiction? Sure. But that is the intrigue of this game. As such, I am baffled by opinions such as this. It leaves me wondering what am I missing? As subjectively and objectively, this is a great game. I can certainly see why it wouldn't be for everyone. It is a little confusing for the first game, and understanding the complexities of the trading mechanic does take a game or two. Not everyone will want to do that. But that's a good thing. We don't all need to enjoy every game. And reviewing this game from an objective view point, this is a great game. No question. Let's get it to the table and see how it plays.
Lay out the board, and give each person around the table a player mat and the player pieces in their colour. The game comes with the player pieces separated by type, but if you pack away each colour component into its own bag, it's a lot easier to then in later games, just give out the one bag to each player. The mats all show an initiative score on the left side; set the turn order for round one accordingly, placing the turn order markers onto the turn order track on the main board. Each player starts with eight credits. Place the remaining credits into a pool. I find it easier to split the money into two groups either side of the table to avoid people having to over stretch. You will be taking these, and exchanging credits a lot. Shuffle the action card deck and deal six or eight to each player, depending on if you are drafting or not. If you are, players will draft two cards from their hand of eight, passing the remaining six cards to the left. Then take two from these six and pass along again, before finally taking two from the final four, and discarding the remaining two cards leaving each player with six cards. If you don't want to draft, simply keep the six cards you were originally dealt. Each player is then given one of each of the three fuel cards. Then place three, four, or five face up cards into a surveyor forecast row, depending on if you are playing with two, three, or four people, placing the remaining cards in a face down deck next to this row.
Next place the mothership board next to the main board with the commander cards next to it. They will be used in round two and three. Place the initiative tokens next to the board, based on player count. All four for a four player, just the one and two token for a two player, etc. Then separate the artefacts by colour, (again it is a lot easier if you packed them away into individual bags!) shuffle each pile and lay them face down off the board by the bottom left. Reveal three or four artefacts based on if you are playing a two or three, or a four player game, and place them into the matching space on the board. The matching space refers to the colour and symbol. So, some may end on the same space. Then reveal two, three, or four more artefacts (again based on player count) and place them into the matching stacks on the bottom left of the board which represents the black market.
Next, place all the coloured meeples into their respective tracks on the buyer board, placing this next to the main board. Fill up all the rows removing one wild white meeple and one of each colour for a three player game, returning them to the box. And one wild and two of each colour for a two player game. Next shuffle the buyer cards, remove the top two cards, then use this deck to fill the market queue on the main board. The top of the board shows six space ships coming to earth, with different buyers ready to be on board. Reveal buyer cards to show which buyers are in which positions. Filling in from left to right, front of the queue to the back. Draw three cards for each ship. As new buyers join a queue, they join from the back, pushing the rest forward. Later in the game when a fifth buyers joins, they will push the front buyer off the ship. They return to the buyer board via the Mothership. This is a crucial part of the game as it affects the cost of each artefact and the number of interested buyers. More on that later.
Finally, each player will place two of their three explorers onto the first and fourth market space, shown by the symbol on the first and fourth ship, which is located on the top left of the board and the top middle. On each players first turn of the game they will place their remaining explorer, before then doing whatever they choose. So, let's have a look at those choices.
How To Play
In round one you will skip the preparation phase, so we will come back to that shortly. The game therefore starts with the first of three action phases, where players take it in turns to play cards to take two actions. Although, as we discussed, the first action must be to place your third explorer. I will go through the other available options now.
Travel - This is how you will move your explorers around the map. Each card has three fuel icons on it, meaning you can discard any coloured card to move three spots. You can split your movement up between explorers if you wish or move just one of them. Your second options is to discard one of your three travel cards which have two, three, or four movement power. Each Alien race has it's own unique player power and the Dal-Harraii Corp can move one of their explorers for free at the start of each of their turns.
Excavate - This is how you will take the artefacts placed on the board and move them onto your player board which acts as your own ships cargo hold. You must discard a card that matches the colour of the region you are in and where you want to remove the artefact from. If you have two explorers in two separate locations but both in the same coloured region, then you could excavate twice with one card for one action. So long as there are available artefacts in both locations, and you have at least two available spaces in your cargo hold. Although, if you are playing as the Kuti Kuti Union, you can take two excavate actions with the same explorer from the same location, or an adjacent one. Pretty handy!
When you bring the new artefacts into our possession, you can "take a sample" of each new unique one, that matches an uncovered space on your ships gallery. So if you took an orange artefact with a value of four, you could place a crew cube into the space in the top right of the board shown below. When ever you complete a column, you can draw a new card as a free bonus action and at the end of the game each cube contributes to each row and columns' scoring as shown on the mat. For example, two cubes in the yellow column scores four end game points. Does that make sense? I find myself saying that a lot when I explain this game!
Market - This is a fun one, and how you can start to really mess with the game. As we talked about in set up, each of the six ships on the top of the board has different buyers. The colours of the buyers matter, for example, a red buyer only wants red items. The white buyers are wild and want anything. You may want to manipulate this during the game. Also, you will certainly want to modify the current market value of the artefacts you want to sell, or the artefacts you see an opponent is about to sell. These two things are intrinsically linked. The market value is set by number of buyer meeples on the buyer board. The less their the better for that colour. And it will also mean that there are more buyers out in the market.
When you take the market action, you play a card matching a market (ship) you want to interact with. Each market has a symbol on it, that is also seen on one space on the map. You must also have an explorer at a matching space on the board. Then you can add one of your coloured cubes to the ship to act as a trader, meaning you can now sell to this ship. Crucial for the next action, sell. But, you can also add a white wild buyer and any other coloured buyer to the buy queue on this ship. Taking them from the buyer board. Meaning you will not only adjust the current value of an artefact by reducing the amount of buyers here, thus increasing its value against the other columns, but also adding a new buyer to the ship you just sent a trader too, increasing the amount of people you can trade with. Lets say you had purple artefacts that you wanted to sell. They are currently valued at two as the joint third most popular colour. But move one purple buyer into the buy queue on a market of your choice, and off the buyer board, and it moves from joint third, and a value of two, to joint second, and a value of five.
Any buyers you push off the buy queue when adding the two new buyers on, will be moved onto the mothership. Any buyers currently on the mother ship would then be added back to the buyer board. So, if there were a few yellow and red buyers on the mother ship, purple could then move up to the top spot and now worth nine each. Big swings can happen with this action. But plan carefully. You only have two actions each turn. If you set this up to then sell on your next go, the market could look very different by the time is comes back to you. It is best to do this with one action left this turn, so you can immediately take your sell action before the market moves against you. This sort of planning and how much you enjoy it will largely dictate your enjoyment of this game.
Sell - This is how you sell the items you have acquired, and make the credits in the game that act as points. Most credits at the end of the game wins, and you can gain top dollar with this action if you plan right. There are a few steps though, let's take a look.
To sell, you must discard a card from your hand. It can be any card, so this is more about deciding what you need to keep rather than what you need to play. Then choose a region you want to sell artefacts from. This doesn't need to match the card you played, just the artefacts you intend to sell. You can then select up to three markets to sell to. The markets need to be ships where there is a matching buyer to the region and type of artefact you want to sell. Remember, whites count as wild. You must also have a trader in any market you wish to sell too.
Unless you are playing as the Aquilla Collective who have a special power that allows you to sell to a market that matches the card you played, even if you don't have a trader there. This is a big advantage for this player and one of the best player powers in the game I would suggest. Although, the Gul Cartel rival this power by allowing their player to buy one black market artefact before a sell action as a free action, at the artefacts base cost if you have an explorer in a black market location, (more on that later) which you can now sell.
OK, back to the sell action. Once you have selected your market(s), then you need to work out the current sell value of the item you are selling. Multiply this by the amount of artefacts you are selling, then add on two credits for each buyer matching the colour of the artefact you are selling at your selected markets. If you are trading with two markets you will also get a bonus of three credits. And if you traded with three markets you will get a bonus of eight credits. So, if you sold three artefacts across three markets, one at each, and there were six relevant buyers across these markets you would earn up to 47 credits. Not bad for one action!
You can then draw a card f you interacted at two markets, or two if you sold to three. Although if you draw two, you can only keep one. But you do get to choose. Think the sell action is over? Think again! You will then take all the buyers involved in the sell and move them to the mothership, adding any existing buyers there back to the buyer board. You will then move one of your traders involved in the trade from the market to the mothership, matching the location of the market they moved from to the space in the mothership. This will become relevant later when we talk about end of round scoring. Finally, discard all artefacts bought back to the box. And that, dear friends, is one single trade action. In round one anyway. Although, there will be an extra step in round's two and three. Phew!
Command - This is a nice simple way to get your crew onto the markets as a trader, and/or onto the mothership as an envoy. Unlike the market action, you cannot affect the buyers by adding new meeples to the ships, but you have more flexibility as you simply have to play a card that matches the market or command centre you want to interact with. Rather than also having to have an explorer at the matching location as well. The action is a little less powerful, but a lot easier to do.
Smuggle - We have talked a little about the black market already, but let's now get into it. During set up, you would have added artefacts to the black market. The Smuggle action is how you can get to them. First, discard a card that matches the icon of one of the black markets and where you have an explorer present. You can then either offload to the black market one or two artefacts you currently have, gaining credits for the shown value on the tile. Or, you can buy from the black market, paying credits equal to the shown value, plus one. If you take this second action, you can take samples as you would in the excavate action.
Survey - This is a very interesting part of the game that not only affects the first player for the subsequent round, but also influences the colour of artefacts that will be added to the board. To take this action, first discard a card. The colour is important, but you can use any card you like. The card you discard will replace one of the face up cards in the surveyor forecast row. The discarded card is placed into the discard pile, so is out of the game for now, but it is relevant in terms of it now not affecting the next rounds preparation phase. Whereas the new card added, will. Plan ahead, choose wisely! Then, add a crew cube of your colour onto the card you added, to show the card has been interacted with and cannot now change. This stops this action being taken too often each round. If you have not taken this action yet this round, you will then claim the next available initiative token, showing your turn order for the next round. Thus, the first person to do this action each round will become the next rounds' first player. If no one does this, the turn order remains as it. But generally, someone does do this, because, as well as deciding the turn order, and the colour of artefacts that will be added next round, you can also draw two artefacts that match the colour of the card you played and buy one for double is price, and place one onto the board now. This is even more juicy if you are playing as the Is'sisinui, as you can draw three artefacts instead of two, and claim one for free.
Pass - I will let you figure this one out for yourself. But, once everyone has done this, the round ends. You can pass with cards in your hand if you want to keep certain cards back for a later round.
Player will then move to the end of round scoring phase, where using a simple area majority rule, the player with the most envoys in each of the three command areas on the mothership will earn points based on the round you are in. In round one, the leading player gets five credits. In round two, it will be ten, with the second player getting five. And in round three, you will get fifteen if you are in the lead, with the second player getting ten and the third player now getting five. This is clearly shown on the bottom of the mothership, as you can see two pictures above.
If this is round one or two, you will then move into the preparation phase. If it was round three, you will tally the final scores based on your credits in hand, and the rows and columns formed on the ship gallery. Most credits win. But, for now, back to the preparation phase.
In the preparation phase you will carry out six important actions. First, you need to add the command cards. In round two you will add three white cards, one to each command area. In round three you will flip these over to their yellow side. Now, when you send crew members to become an envoy you can carry out this new action. They are all good, and a fun way to make the sell action now even longer!
Second, you will reset the buyer queues meaning you need to remove the front buyer from any market with four buyers. With any market with two, one, or zero buyers you need to add new buyers using the buyer deck, until each market has three buyers. Markets with three buyers already in place will remain as is.
Next, resolve the surveyor forecast by adding three artefacts for each card, matching the colours of the cards to the new artefacts. Two will go onto the board, and the final one will be added to the black market. If you managed to plan accordingly, you could now be adding artefacts into regions you are present at, that are worth the most they can be, with traders in markets where those relevant buyers are located. Or, more likely, none of those things just happened! That's a lot of planning to make happen, but you will do it every now and then, and it will feel great.
The forth step is to set the turn order for the next round based on the initiative tokens each player gained in the previous round. The fifth step is to deal eight cards to each player and run a draft again. Each player will be left with six cards which they can then add to any cards they had left over from the previous round, and the travel cards which can be added back in, even if played previously. These cards can be used over and over each round. And sometimes more based on command powers. Finally, you will cycle the black market and move the top tile to the bottom, so things stay fresh there. You are now ready for the next round.
Is It Fun?
This is very much dependant on if you like market manipulation games or not. If you do, I would wager this could be one of your favourite games. It looks great and has a delightfully smooth engine to the game flow once it gets running and all players become familiar with the core mechanics. Excavation Earth has one of the most intricate and intuitive market manipulation systems I have ever seen in a board game. However, this is exactly the opposite of what Tom Vasel said. So, if you don't like this mechanic, or if you are not able to take the time to make this system familiar to you, then it could be a tough experience.
I love how the game has multiple moments of cascading events. In that, you often realise that in order to sell at the right price, you need to first manipulate the market. Which means getting your explorer to the right place. But of course, before this, you need to have excavated or acquired from the black market the right artefact. And if you want to sell them, you need traders in the right markets. Lining this all up so that you can sell the right thing at the right time is hard. But when if comes off, oh my does it feel good! And this is this feeling that I encounter at least two to five times each game. It makes we wonder how anyone who gives this a chance couldn't be left with any other feeling than fascination and delight when playing this game.
Scoring large amounts of credits feels great too. I don't are if I win or loose. Just give me a few turns where I get to take loads of credits and I will be happy. And doing all this feels hard. Getting all your pieces in the right place isn't simple. Other players will inadvertently, and sometimes quite deliberately, mess with you. It is not a simple process selling artefacts in the distant future. The reward for getting it right is high because the journey is rarely smooth.
I adore the way the game looks. And the components are all fantastic. The duel layered boards mean everything stays in the right place, and the colour and iconography in the game is all very clear and easy to understand. The learning curve for game one is high, and it does take a while to teach someone. They will look confused a lot, and it will take a moment to all sink in. But by game two you will be flying. And I found I was not looking at the rule book at all from game three. But it is a process. However, don't be put off if you like the sound of this. My son (10) was able to play this game after a 30 minute teach from me, and he won the first three games. You certainly need to plan ahead, and see the patterns quickly to do well in this game, which he is good at. But Excavation Earth rewards players throughout the game with many moments of joy and satisfaction, that you will have a lot of fun regardless of the final score.
I very much look forward to checking out the expansions for this. More to come on that very soon.