Crystal Palace Review

In Crystal Palace, players take on the role of a nation at the time of the first World Fair in London (1851), trying to create a buzz with spectacular inventions and the support of famous and powerful people.

Crystal Palace is a dice-placement game in which the players themselves determine the stats of their dice at the beginning of each round. The higher the number, the better — but it comes at a price. In the course of the game, dice are placed on eight action locations (Patent Office, Reform Club, London Times, Port of London, Waterloo Station, British Museum, Bank of England, Westminster) in a competition for the best resources, patents, and brains.

In a world of slightly weird inventions, you will meet people like Phileas Fogg, Levi Strauss and Amelia Edwards, and invent gadgets such as the Thinking machine, the Beer glass counter or the Climate changer.

—description from the publisher

I had never even heard of this game before I was told about it. Didn't know it was on the horizon, who was making it and had you not shown me the cover or the publisher blurb, I would have imagined this was a football manager game. And even if you showed me those, I'd have likely passed it by.

But a fellow mate on the UK Facebook groups recommended this game to me and said I had to grab it when I visited Essen. Not sure why I caved in to that alone especially with the stiff competition for other heavy Euro's that year, but I was at Essen, I had spare Euros and figured, what the hell, let's see if I can find a hidden gem in this heavy Euro....

....were mistakes made?

Let's go into more detail........




D-URATION


I've heard people boast that it's a sub 2 hour game, however I don't know what timey-wimey variables are in effect here, but outside of a 2 player experience (possibly 3 with repeat players), that is unlikely to occur when you consider that it's not the easiest game to teach and nor is it a quick setup. New players or any game with 4 players and over should be easily going over 2 hours and possibly closer to 3 hours with a combination of both.

There's plenty to think about and resolve each round as it is and more on that in a minute, but here's the kicker. The one unique aspect to Crystal Palace which intrigues many Euro gamers is the act of pre-selecting your dice in advance of the round before you place them as "workers". As interesting as this is, it's also a brain burning exercise that causes many to suffer from analysis paralysis. After all, you got no idea what your opponents are going to do and your money is super tight so it's tough. It's simultaneous but I guarantee you'll be waiting for somebody and this phase of the round takes longer than I'd like it to especially with more players.



But even when you get past that hurdle - it's not a short task to place all the dice out, resolve all the different location boards and then reset everything for the next round. You could have a plan laid out for your dice, but all it takes is for one jerk to block your space and then you got to think about another plan on the fly. Get 4-5 people doing this repeatedly and it's going to be a long game with downtime rearing its ugly head frequently.


E-ASE OF PLAY


Crystal Palace has a fairly steep learning curve overall. There's a lot of rules to get through, bear in mind you've got 8 locations and the side boards to explain plus your player board, plus the dice in general. Thankfully the rulebook is adequate enough that you can cope with it, but a lot of referencing mid-game is required. The plethora of iconography all over the shop also makes everything look like a complete mess on the table. Just look at the photo above and tell me that's not a pretty messy player board. Now times that by 8 locations, add a buzz board and black market board........oh and a ton of cards. I get the craze with trying to be language independent these days, but my god, you better have a solid reference aid handy.

I wouldn't put a non-heavy gamer near this or anyone who's not into restrictive games period - certainly this is best played by heavy punishing Euro fans and if that's your bag you should do fine and will probably get sucked in more.

But if you're new to the experience, this game has a high chance of beating you repeatedly as you learn the hard way. I'll talk later about the meanness of dice placement, but this game won't hold your hand nor even make you feel like you're been rewarded for a job well done. You already have a bunch of negative VP spaces to start the game with on your board. Take a loan, here's some negative VP and even if you pay it off, it's still a negative! How are you for income? Not too good? Well lose another 3 income every round for "expenses" (never explained, just stuck in there for meanness sake), have a horrible next round and lose a couple of VP while you're at it. It's like the Gallerist but in reverse. When it's not beating you down, it's idea of "rewarding" is to say "your bonus for enduring being shot in the kneecaps is to be shot in the arm next time" - gee err... thanks?



Restrictive is a good word to use, both for setup and for play. If your table isn't a behemoth, have fun trying to get 8 locations, multiple player boards, the buzz board, the black market and all the other pieces out in any kind of organised chaos. On top of that, some resources in the game are really hard to come by yet you need them in bulk. Money is super tight unless you're lucky enough to grab some income boosts in the early game. Energy is literally only obtained from one location space and not even in good quantity. Probably in a bizarre twist the easiest resource to get is actually more dice, yet ironically you usually don't want more dice because you haven't got the money to afford to put them out!


T-ACTICS & STRATEGY


Euro fans will get a kick out of the brain burning aspect of deciding on your dice and then deciding on the best way to place them while considering your opponents. The problem with determining your own dice however is that you've got no idea what your opponents will do unless you can see they're skint. So a lot of your decision is based on guesswork. Are they going to have 5's and 6's or a bunch of 2's? And even then, are they going to use a high one where you want to go? You don't really know. Yet watch the table fall victim to analysis paralysis trying to decide. Honestly I feel like you could have just done a "Kingsburg" and have everyone roll off applying costs/bonuses/penalties based on total value. It could shave off a good 20-30 minutes off the game length.

The placement of the dice, you can do them in any order you want and you're adapting to what the opponents do. We've seen this before so nothing original here. Of course Crystal Palace is definitely a mean game in this aspect. For me, too mean, but for others it's a good thing. Some of the location spaces are so limited that you can be easily screwed with a whole die getting you nothing on a regular basis, particularly if you're falling behind on income already as it means you can't recover easily (yes you can take loans, but good luck recovering those VP). And this isn't fun frankly to have several dice pushed aside when you don't expect it. You've only got 5 rounds in this game, being messed over can really hold you back.



My favourite aspect are the cards. Each triggering bonuses and potentially more points if you can link them together. Though the latter is very luck-based as you could have 3 patents to hand and never see the corresponding character cards to go with them in the game. Bit of a downer when the person next to you bags another 8 points because the stars aligned for them.

Now if Crystal Palace was simply the dice and cards, I think you'd have it fine, but it feels like the designer had the game sorted and ready, but then contracted what I would now like to call "Pfistertitus" and threw in some random mechanics at the end that don't add much to the game and just add to the fiddliness. Firstly why is the Pocket Watch a thing? This little side trinket which can either be really powerful or really rubbish depending entirely on when another opportunity to take it presents itself out of the cards. If a player gets it early and can hang on to it for several rounds, the income bonus is game-breaking. But if another player next round nabs it it's a wasted bonus and the VP it can give you isn't worth the cardboard it's printed on.

Secondly the Black Market. Ignore the spare cogs, that could have been pasted on any board (and seriously why not just mix it with the board that gets you energy?), I'm talking about the abstract ladder climbing aspect where you place assistants, move them up and down occasionally and then after all that effort, get a pretty insignificant bonus (unless you pay a packet to get to the top) for the trouble at the round end. It seems a complete waste of time and I've yet to see it reset from the "rozzers" raiding it when it becomes full because assistants drop off the bottom too fast.


Even the Buzz Track seems like it takes up way too much space for what it is. You move up and grab the odd bonus and a few VP, of which there's little to no reason to not place your limited two discs earlier rather than later. A basic mechanic, yet it has to take up a third of the table.

And why are the patent abilities a mix of good and bad allowing you to play them on opponents? If you're struggling in a particular aspect and someone burns you further with a patent it is table-flip inducing. Why have a space where you can throw a die away for victory points? And why is there a random factor to the loans? You take a loan and the negative VP isn't consistent. What? You're marketing this as a deep strategic game, yet these randomised and "take-that" elements detract from that. How can I plan for someone being a jerk and robbing me of my last 3 bucks putting me in debt for the next round?

All of these odd design choices add up to what feels like unnecessary bloat on top of a half decent template. Like a movie that needs some time in the editing room pronto. Crystal Palace could use some streamlining, no doubt in my mind about that.


A-ESTHETICS


Eye of the beholder and all that, but I'm not overly fond of the look of Crystal Palace. The nicest part are the cards, which at least have some actual colour on them. But everything else looks very muted and bland. Maybe that's what they were going for, but it doesn't make for a very pleasant looking table with lots of browns, greys and tracks everywhere. Note to publishers, tracks aren't interesting to look at, see Arkwright, unless you do something cool and unique to disguise them, see Cooper Island.



Components are pretty standard, nothing screams out as bad, but again, nothing particularly good either. You have some basic tiles, a couple decks of cards which will wear fairly quickly, really the budget went into making a ton of boards, which are sturdy enough, just wished they actually looked interesting for the amount of table real estate they cover.


I-MMERSION


What immersion? No seriously, Crystal Palace does nothing to justify its unusual setting of preparing for the World's Fair. Half the real estate on the table is a glorified "track" to move up. Buzz is just a track which occasionally gets you a bonus. The Black Market is just a track that has pieces shuffle up and down. Influence is a mini-track in itself. It just feels so generic.

So really it comes down to the cards to try and save the day. But even they don't measure up to anything immersive. The only glimmer is that some patents and inventors link together for more points as mentioned before, but other than that, I have no urge to grab a weather forecast machine over a unicorn storage solution other than pure mechanical benefit. One game I went mad on the buzz track and ironically I felt so actual "buzz" in doing so, I couldn't even roleplay it I felt so emotionally drained.

Essentially what you have is a very dry affair. If you're in this game, you're in it only for the mechanics, which for many will be fine and if so, fair play to you.



L-ONGEVITY


Replay value also takes a dive here. The only ounce of variability is when the cards will appear during the game - otherwise, you'll see everything that your player count wants you to see. And it's not like you'll be trying out a ton of varied strategies each game either. Or caring about what nation you play (probably the biggest waste of potential for this category) given that the only difference between every board is which aspect you can score a few points on which aren't even substantial.

So unless you love the game for what it offers first time out - you're not going to be shown a whole new world the next time or the next.


THE FINAL WORD...........


Crystal Palace's only semi-unique aspect is also the cause of one of its biggest issues. And when you pass that hurdle, you're not left with anything that stands out from the modern Euro crowd other than some bizarre design choices.

It doesn't look or feel uplifting to play and it's a mean, restrictive affair. It's on that precarious tightrope between emotionally draining and rage inducing.  If the dice aspect entices you, give it a try, but it simply gave me nothing to recommend it over other Euro's whether in 2019 or otherwise.


3/10

"Remember, it's only a game"


Complexity Rating










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