I scored myself an excellent “Like New” copy of Tapestry (Stonemaier Games, 2019) from a fellow local gamer. Like many Stonemaier Games, there was much pre-release hype and huge expectations behind this game. As I compose this post, Tapestry is ranked the #179 Strategy game and #239 game OVERALL on BoardGameGeek. However, there seems to be a very vocal crowd on BoardGameGeek and the like that never seem to miss a chance to criticize this game. After some consideration, I found that I like Tapestry in great part because it is both a “kinder, gentler 4X” as well as an efficient game with regards to rules, game mechanisms, and narrative building.
Civilization games are not actually a preferred category of boardgames in the RockyMountainNavy home. I have a few civilization games going back to Twilight Imperium First Edition (Fantasy Flight Games, 1997) which, while rated at four-hours game play time, never seemed to be playable in that short a time. Tiny Epic Kingdoms (Gamelyn Games, 2014) is a relatively recent acquisition and got a favorable reception from the RMN Boys for its quick play time. Space Empires: 4X (GMT Games, 2017) is another recent addition that promises to play in three-hours. Finally there is Enemies of Rome (Worthington Games, 2017) which is a huge favorite with the RMN Boys. My point here is that the RMN Boys and myself are predisposed towards smaller 4X/civilization games with streamlined game mechanisms and quicker play time. It is through the lens of those older, smaller and more streamlined civilization games we look at Tapestry.
Kinder, Gentler 4X
The classic definition of a 4X game is “Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate.” In Tapestry, Jamie Stegmaier takes that classic defintion and modifies it slightly into what I call a “Stonemaier 4X—Explore, Experiment, Expand, and Extrapolate.” In the case of Tapestry:
- Explore relates to the Exploration Track,
- Experiment relates to the Science Track
- Expand relates to the Military Track
- Extrapolate relates to the Technology Track
In Tapestry the classic elements of a civilization building 4x game are present but just renamed a bit. Could this be the cause of some people saying that Tapestry is something of a lesser civilization building game? For those “progressive gamers” does the renaming of exploitation or extermination stages make that much of a difference? As a wargamer, I kinda expected a combat mechanism in the Conquer Action but have to admit I don’t really miss the lack of a combat roll. Does this renaming and lack of explicit combat make the game less offensive to some players? Maybe Tapestry should get a Newspeak award!
Tapestry bills itself as a two-hour civilization building game. That’s a tall order, especially when so many seem to equate civilization building games to Twilight Imperium (rated 4-8 hours play). A very vocal crowd of critics claim that Tapestry lacks depth and is nothing more than an efficiency game.
Uh, yes. That’s the point.
Unlike many of the “it’s an efficiency game” critics, I embrace the efficiency of Tapestry. Jamie Stegmaier set out to create a two-hour, medium-weight civilization building game in Tapestry and he achieved his design objectives. A great part of the games success is a straight-forward, relatively uncomplicated, efficient design.
Play by Symbol – Efficient Rules
How uncomplicated is Tapestry? Let’s start by looking at the rule book; yes, all four pages of it. This may be part of why some people don’t like the game for Tapestry is extremely visual and
requires demands one to “read” and process the meaning of many symbols. Like some other symbology-heavy games I’ve played (One Small Step from Academy Games immediately comes to mind) to learn Tapestry requires reading of a different sort. The rules as written actually recommend you don’t read everything in advance. Take for example the rules under “advance:”
The core benefits associated with each track are explained on page 3, and all benefits are explained in detail on the reference guide. We recommend teaching new players the core benefits before starting the game, but not the other specific benefits until they are reached (emphasis mine).Tapestry-Gameplay-Advance, Rule Book p. 2
In addition to having to learn to “read” the language of Tapestry, in many ways the rule book tells you what game mechanisms you have at your disposal, but almost nothing about why you do certain actions. I think many critics want to see rules written in the language of the narrative, not the game mechanism. For instance, the rule for each of the core actions (Exploration/Science/Technology/Military) is exclusively the game mechanism explained; there is no hint given to the theme behind the action.
Strategies of play is absent in the rule book for Tapestry; it is up to the players to discover (very much) on their own strategies of play. I found in our early games that players tended to start the game focused on one track, only to discover that a second or third was also needed. For example, in our first game:
- The Militants began by focusing on the Military Track, but quickly discovered they needed the Exploration and Science Tracks to remain competitive.
- The Architects focused on the Technology Track, but quickly discovered they needed to add in some Science.
- The Nomads focused on Exploration, but also quickly discovered they needed Technology and Military to stay in the game.
What each player quickly discovered while playing Tapestry is that, while it may look to be the most efficient to focus on one track, the effectiveness of that approach drops off if other tracks are ignored. Finding the right combination and building an efficient engine that generates resources to move ahead on several tracks is the core of the game.
An Equity Game of Efficient Game Mechanisms
In Tapestry, Jamie delivers to us a game that captures the essence of civilization building though the use of multiple game mechanisms that all players have equal access to. Yet, while all the players use the same Actions, each civilization has unique ways to alter those Actions and, as one plays theirTapestry Cards, one further alters how their civilization uses those Actions. Like any engine-building game, how you use your asymmetric or special scoring powers to maximize the efficiency of your game engine is fundamental to winning. In our house at least, games like Tapestry or Scythe (Stonemaier Games, 2017) often come down to which player is the first to discover and implement the most efficient set of actions given their starting position and asymmetric powers. Just as important as finding your strategy, when another player frustrates your strategy the ability to work around the obstacles while not allowing your game engine to become totally derailed is just as great a challenge. At its core, games like Tapestry come down to the challenge to find and execute your efficiencies.
For instance, in or first game of Tapestry the Militants and Nomads began on the same continent. The Militants score by conquering territory, and the Nomads score by exploring new territory and placing buildings there. At first the Nomads tried exploring, but quickly discovered that all their new explorations were at risk of being overrun by the Militants. So the Nomads had to “fight back” and build a buffer of conquered territories to keep the Militants away so they could explore (Exploration Track) and build (Technology Track) unmolested. At the same time, the Militants realized they needed to be able to conquer from a distance and thus tried to move down the Military track quickly, only to discover they also needed to explore away from the Nomads to have the territories needed to advance. If the Militants were able to access some useful Technology it would make the job that much easier. Of course, at the same time the Architects were minding their own business and trying to get more buildings, which the Nomad also needed. Thus, each civilization came into conflict with another, usually in unexpected (or at least not immediately obvious) ways.
Efficient Puzzler Leads to Narrative
Other people complain about the capital city mats in Tapestry, declaring they are nothing more than a puzzle. In a two-hour game, just how complex a sub-system do you want? To me, equating city planning to a puzzle is actually a great analogy. It’s a game mechanism that is evocative without simulation. You can build your capital city haphazardly or you can plan efficiencies. In Tapestry all that city planning is reduced to a puzzle. I even like the rule that landmarks need not be placed all within the city limits (i.e. they can go off the edges of the mat). How many times has the gov’mt build something outlandish and it just doesn’t fit the area right? My bottom line on cities is in a two-hour game that simple sub-system should be appreciated for its efficiency instead of criticized.
End of Civilization
One aspect of Tapestry that many people see as inefficient is the different end of play times. In Tapestry gameplay ends for an individual player after their 5th Income Turn. Since this event can happen at different times for each player it is possible that some players will be “waiting” for others at the end game. In practice the “wait” doesn’t seem excessive and, if the player was able to plan ahead, they still might score based on other players actions. Admittedly, this approach seems to fly in the face of many game design lessons which favor play balance with an end-game trigger where all players either get an equal number of turns or a last chance to play.
The seemingly obvious use of Income Turns in Tapestry also hides another efficiency of play. In the early stages of our first games the standard approach for Income Turns was to wait until all resources are exhausted before taking the turn. About mid-game something changed as players started looking at the Tapestry Cards in their hand and thinking about when would be a good time to play them. Do you wait until you are resource exhausted and then unlock that special Tapestry Card action? Or, do you take your Income Turn now to access that Tapestry Card? Once again, the goal is efficiency and playing Tapestry Cards at the most opportune moments is another way you tune that efficiency engine.
In the RockyMountainNavy home, we try to get a weekend Family Game Night in on a regular basis. A game night is usually the RMN Boys and myself, meaning three-player games are preferred. We also look for games that we can play in 2-3 hours (or less) of time as we usually start after dinner and go into the evening. By the nature of our requirements, the games we tend towards are medium-weight without too many complicated subsystems. Tapestry is a perfect fit from a game weight and play time perspective. Just as important, it delivers enough of a narrative experience that it is not reduced to a meaningless, unconnected game of simply taking actions, but a bit of a story emerges to engage the players.
In our game, the Militants and Nomads confronted each other often and both seemed to be neck-and-neck in points. The Architects seemingly fell further behind, but several mid-game actions brought them up to the others. At that point the Militants and Nomads realized the Architects could not be ignored, and attempted to pivot their engines to meet the new threat. The main confrontation of civilizations became the Nomads versus the Architects as both tried to get buildings and landmarks out ahead of the other with the Militants looking for spoiler opportunities. All this play created a fun story in the postgame talk as one can look back on the “story” of their civilization and see pivotal moments of discovery, conquest, growth, and even falls.
This is also as good a time as any to discuss the components of Tapestry. Critics seem to love to complain that Tapestry is overproduced. The major complaint seems to revolve around the painted landmarks that some apparently see as too cartoonish. I disagree; the painted landmarks are just fine. Their size, which some seem to complain about, is perfect for viewing across a game table in less-than-optimal lighting—you know, like many family dining rooms! They also are great for grabbing across the table. Further, the gritty mats that protect against the occasional (accidental) bump are really welcome!
With 16 different civilizations and six different Capital City Mats, there is plenty of replay variability in Tapestry. Add into the mix 50 different Tapestry Cards, 33 Technology Cards, and 48 Territory Tiles and a further 15 Space Tiles the chances of any two games of Tapestry ever being the same is very, very small.
Critics of Tapestry cite the lack of a civilization-building experience as a drawback of the game. They point to the apparent randomness of tech development (conveniently missing the fact that certain tech cannot be upgraded unless in the right era). They point to the medium-weight rules and efficient game design as creating a game that fails to build a narrative of civilization building. I disagree; Tapestry is a “lite civ builder game” that allows one to build a civilization in two-hours. The narrative of play is not out front in the rules, but rather requires one to “read” the board as one progresses up various tracks or lays down a Tapestry Card. Granted, the narrative of Tapestry may not create a Game of Thrones epic, it doesn’t try to (and remember too how the TV series of GoT ended…not pretty). While many people seem to expect the Myth Arc of a civilization game to be expansive, in Tapestry it’s small and efficient much like a single TV season series…
…and I’m ok with that.