I had read only a little about The Builders: Middle Ages, but when I was buying myself some birthday presents at my friendly local game store, I saw it on the shelf and picked it up for less than $20. I figured it was small so it would at least be a good filler game to throw in a bag. I was not expecting the deep experience I got from it.
What you get
42 Worker cards
40 Coins (25 silver, and 15 gold worth 5 silver)
42 Building cards (larger and square)
1 start player card to track who started
Short rule book
This game has surprisingly few components, which is a good sign of its elegance. They all fit in a little tin, could be transferred to a smaller bag, in case you want to take it anywhere (and you very well might). The art in this game is fabulous. I didn’t even realize until after my first game that the backs of the buildings all had different artwork from the front. The front shows the incomplete building, and when you flip it to show it is complete, you reveal the completed building. Each worker has a unique look, too. The thick plastic coins are great, because you will be sliding them back and forth a lot.
What you do
The goal is to earn the most points by sending workers to complete buildings. There are four resource types: stone (yellow), wood (green), knowledge (gray), and tile (blue). Buildings show 0-5 bars in each of these resources down the right side. Workers show combinations of 0-3 bars of each of these resources down the left side, with the total number of bars equal to the worker’s cost. In order to complete a building, you must place enough workers so that the total bars of each resource type exceeds the number on the building.
You start the game by giving each player one Apprentice card and 10 coins (five silvers and one gold). Shuffle the remaining apprentices with the other workers, and reveal a line of 5. Shuffle the buildings and reveal a line of 5 of them, too.
On your turn, you get three action points that can be used in four ways: Take a building from the display and put it in front of you to start construction, take a worker from the display and put it in front of you, pay the cost for a worker and move it onto a building, or use actions to collect coins. When taking coins, the first time you take coins in a turn, you receive 1, the second time, you receive 2 (for 3 total) and the third time you receive 3 (for 6 total). You can generally do any of these actions in any order you want, including repeating actions. You can also buy extra action points for 5 coins each.
When you place a worker that completes a building, you take the coins listed on the building, flip the building to earn points, and set it aside. There are also special buildings that don’t earn coins, but have resources on the back like workers. These can be used exactly like workers, but don’t cost anything to send to a building. Importantly, the only way to get a worker back from a building is to complete it. There is a penalty if you want to send multiple workers to the same building in the same turn. The second worker costs two actions, and the third worker costs three actions. But workers sent to different buildings, or the same building on a later turn, only cost one action.
The game ends when one player has at least 17 points in buildings (remember to count your machines) and all players have gotten an equal number of turns (hence the card to track who was the first player). Each 10 coins at the end is also worth a point.
In terms of strategy, small buildings are good for quick money, large buildings are for earning points, and one or two machines can help support a weak resource category, but going too heavy in machines can slow you down. The Master workers who produce the most are not always the best option because you will be paying more to use them, so sometimes you want an apprentice to save those extra coins. You need a good balance of resources and strengths in your workers. But the real key to the game is having good cash flow. This is important to keep you building with extra actions. Once you can finish a building each turn, you will have enough money to pay for an extra worker or two. And being able to finish the building that puts you over 17 points is a real key, so watch where the other players are point-wise.
What I liked
This game manages to combine elements of worker placement, engine building, resource management, hand management, and time management all onto just two decks of cards and a handful of coins. It captures the feel of a heavier economic euro game with much shorter play time, and really fills the niche of a tiny yet deep and robust city-building game. The way of tracking resource costs is elegant and intuitive, as it immediately shows you everything you need to know without requiring any math. There are a lot of tough decisions as you try to squeeze the most out of your workers. It feels like there is room for expansion, which I’d be excited to see. But at the same time the game includes only what is necessary, giving a tight core experience in a small package.
What I disliked
Interaction is a bit light, and the theme integration is also a little light, but is probably pretty average in comparison with other euro-style games. The artwork makes up for this, but you may not spend much time looking at it, unless the other players suffer from analysis paralysis, which is also about average for euro-games.
I’m not sure what to say about the balance between 2 and 4 players. It’s a great game with both numbers, but 3 is probably ideal. There is a little bit of downtime with 4, but it isn’t too bad. With 2 players, it is a little more luck based, because you don’t get to see as many cards, and it is easier for the display to get clogged with less valuable buildings and unhelpful workers. But it has a very quick play time and little downtime with two.
The one thing I kept mentioning in my likes and dislikes is that it plays like a much bigger euro game, but in 30-45 minutes, and in a small box. I think this game is going to be one of the small-box classics, and I can’t wait to see if we get more games in the series.