I had never heard of Century: Spice Road until the Press event at UKGE 2017. As soon as I saw it though I knew we had to get a copy. It looked gorgeous and the gameplay seemed similar to that of Splendor – that ticked all kinds of boxes in my head. Indeed, it has been described by some as the “Splendor killer”. I think that’s supposed to a good thing even if it sounds like the name of a spree murderer from the 80s. Since I love Splendor, I was pretty keen to try a game with similar but allegedly better game mechanics. We tried our best to test it out at the Expo, but it was in such high demand we never got close enough to try it out on the first day. By the time we had an option to give it a go, Mr Meeple had already bought it sight unseen. We got to try it out in the much more relaxed environs of the hotel lounge on the Saturday. Was it a good purchase? Is there any chance it can topple Splendor? Let’s find out!
The first thing I want to say about Century: Spice Road is that it is tremendously aesthetically appealing. Just look at this box art: it’s sumptuous. It’s evocative. You can almost smell the rich spices and the dry sands.
It doesn’t stop there. Open the box and you’ll find high quality components inside. The cards are more generously sized than regular cards: they’re also thicker and shinier and presented with beautiful artwork.
The cubes are pretty standard – there’s not much to be said about them but I was super excited by the inclusion of what are essentially bonus tokens. In Spice Road, they’re gold and silver coins which are used to make the first two victory points cards in the supply more attractive purchases. If you purchase the leftmost victory point card you get a gold token assuming they haven’t already all been taken. Purchasing the second victory point card of the five available will get you a bonus in shiny silver. In most games these would probably just be plastic or cardboard. In Century: Spice Road the coins are real metal. Not actual gold or silver unfortunately – my guess is that would make the cost of the game prohibitive – but the metal coins are a really nice touch that adds to the production value considerably. They have a satisfying clink when you throw them on your pile of riches, or when you jiggle them in your hands to taunt Mr Meeple and demonstrate how well the game isn’t going for him. That tinkling noise is the sound of victory – it’s one of the few times he gets to hear it when we play.
Century: Spice Road is a deck-building and engine-building game with a trading theme. You play a spice merchant, travelling the eponymous spice road with a caravan filled with saffron, cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon. These spices will be traded for victory point cards and bonus tokens, or used to buy production or transformation cards from whatever back-alley black market you encounter in your travels. With those you will gain the ability to produce and transmute your spices in order to get the required quantity and combination that lets you purchase victory points. The theme comes across in the art and the ‘caravans’ players use to store their spices. There is no game board though so there is no actual simulation of travel. This isn’t Tokaido – the journey we undertake is metaphorical. The ‘spices’ too are just square cubes and that is a little disappointing considering how we’ve been spoiled by games such as Concordia. I’d love it if the tokens were more emblematic of the actual spices and it would probably be beneficial from an accessibility point of view (spoiler alert). I appreciate though that Concordia is unusual in this regard and differently shaped wooden or plastic spice tokens would add to the cost of the game. It might have even resulted in the loss of the shiny, shiny coins. A deeper commitment to the theme in the game though would aid immersion for me. The cubes don’t even taste like the spices they’re supposed to be. I mean, come on, right?
Despite the theme being largely pasted on (much as with Splendor) there is a great game here and I’ve made Mr Meeple play it many times since we purchased it at the expo. We’ve played it a lot. We’ve played it with another friend as a 3-player game, and with other friends still as a 5 player game. We’ve played it fast. We’ve played it slow. With two players, you take turns until one player purchases six of the victory point cards which triggers the end of the game. With three or more players the purchase of a player’s fifth card signals the beginning of the end. More gold and silver bonus tokens are made available as the player count increases, but the supply of cards remains rigidly fixed. With every new player, the competition over these becomes ever more pointed.
To start with each player gets two cards with which to begin their journey. One can be played to produce two turmeric, and the other permits the player to upgrade two spices. The spices are ranked in value from least valuable (turmeric) through saffron then cardamom and then finally the most valuable, cinnamon. An upgrade two card can be used to upgrade two turmeric to two saffron, or one turmeric to a saffron and then again to a cardamom. Some cards let you turn cubes of one colour into other cubes of other colours. You might turn four turmeric into two cardamom, or one cinnamon in to four saffron. There are dozens of cards that permit permutations of this. Which spices will be better depends on what victory point cards are available, how many points they offer, what spices are required to purchase them, and what you think of your chances of getting those before one of your opponents does. The most valuable spices in Century: Spice Road might not be the ones most immediately obvious. You know that. So does everyone else. The value a spice has depends on how easily you can grab it and then convert it into what you actually need.
In each of your turns you can do one of four things:
- Play one of the cards currently in your hand to produce; or transform the spices already in your caravan.
- Purchase a trading card from the six available. The leftmost card is free but the second and subsequent cards have to be paid for by leaving one of the spices in your caravan on each of the preceding cards.
- Trade in the requisite spices from your caravan to procure one of the five currently available victory points cards.
- Rest and take your played cards back into your hand.
Those of you familiar with Small World and other such games will be familiar with how the purchasing works. This system can result in otherwise useless cards near the left becoming worth taking just for the sheer number of spices you can pour into your caravan. It can be hard to say no to enough turmeric and saffron to start up your own mid-range curry house.
As with Splendor this game is quite algorithmic. To play well essentially requires a programmer’s mindset. You need to look at every victory point card with the eye of an software engineer. You need to consider the production and transformation cards you have in your hand, compare those to the spices in your caravan, and work out how to get the card you want with the fewest number of steps. It’s an exercise in data manipulation. It’s an optimization challenge more than anything else.
As a programmer and someone who used to get excited when we got to do algebra in Maths class, I instinctively ‘get’ games like this. I don’t even care if it can get a bit ‘samey’. I don’t necessarily pay much attention to trying to memorise what cards my opponent has purchased and what they have available for play. I’m just confident that if I can see what’s in their caravan I can work out my chances of procuring a particular victory point card before they can. However if you don’t like mini-max games with little player interaction, or don’t get along with games of imperfect information, then this is probably not the best game for you.
I say ‘imperfect information’ but it’s not quite that simple. Technically Spice Road is a perfect information game because you can see what cards each player purchases and plays. Unless you have an eidetic memory and an obsessive interest in what other players are doing though you will only have a rough idea as to some of the key abilities they have at their disposal. You need to be wary of what your opponents can do, but you also need to be mindful of the task in front of you.
You have to be more flexible in your strategy than with Splendor too. Victory point cards get replaced as they are purchased. Only five are available at any one time and when one is picked up by some other bastards at the table the others move left and a new one is dealt out. This instantly shifts the value of every action to follow. A trading card which has been hitherto overlooked might become exceedingly valuable for the comparatively sparse turmeric sprinkled on top of it. Picking that up could be the difference between getting a card in one round or in two or more. You can always refresh your hand by resting for a turn, and you always have the ability to produce two turmeric from your deck. The question you have to ask yourself is if you have the time to do that or whether there’s a more expedient route.
You spend a lot of effort in Century: Spice Road managing spices. You also spend a lot of effort managing time. You are also working to a fixed number of victory card purchases rather than a points threshold. This opens up the option of playing aggressively to purchase the low value victory points cards while other players are distracted. Some only offer seven points, others may offer twenty. Your opponents will sometimes be too focused on the higher value cards to realise the danger presented by the lower ones. If people are distracted, they might not see you are going to get your fifth Tesco value card before they have got their second luxury Harrods one. Sometimes quantity over quality wins a game of Century: Spice Road, and the tempo that goes with reaching that pivot points is set by the players around the table.
As a two-player game it’s nice and speedy: we’ve got the time down from thirty minutes to around half of that in some instances. It just depends what trading cards appear. How efficiently one of us can purchase the needed number of cards depends on how much spice you can grind out of your engine. As a three player game it’s still fairly brisk, and the strategies that worked for you at two players can still be used well here. At five players though there is a lot of down-time, and you have to be much more flexible with your strategy. The card you were saving for might well have three other people chasing it, and they might have cards better suited to get it than you do. Production cards in particular tend to get snapped up quickly in a five player game. That often leaves the last player to basically paw through the bins looking for cast-off cinnamon and black market saffron left over from previous purchases. There is a decent living to be made as a spice hobo in Century: Spice Road but nobody would willingly choose that path if they had another option. Sometimes you buy cards just to deprive other players and watch them debase themselves in desperation.
One of the things I like about Century: Spice Road is that it requires more ability to be flexible with your playing style than Splendor because there is a lot more ‘churn’ in terms of the availability of victory point cards. With Splendor, nobles can really change the value of gemstones and once taken the nobles are not replaced. That can mean that your strategy to date can be invalidated because your engine is no longer designed for the distances it needs to travel. With Century: Spice Road, the victory points cards move as cards to the left of them are purchased by a player. This might suddenly make them worth a bonus for which they did not previously quality. A low value card that now comes with a silver coin merits a degree of reevaluation. Perhaps new victory points cards require more of a type of spice that was previously not in demand for the cards already available. This constant reinvigoration of your options means you’re always revising your approach in light of new evidence.
As an engine-builder though I think Century: Spice Road is still inferior to Splendor. With Splendor, all your permanent gems are kept and so you get this exponential growth in how quickly you can purchase cards. Things keep accelerating at breakneck speed towards the end of the game. During the mid-game of Splendor you’re adding new cards to your engine at roughly the same speed they can be dealt out. With Century: Spice Road you are saving to purchase one victory point card and that takes up most or all of your spices. You don’t accelerate to cruising speed and then enjoy the wind through your hair. Every time you shift up a gear your engine stutters and judders as it runs out of fuel. Your engine may become more efficient or better-honed as you get more powerful production and transformation cards. It still comes in spurts and starts in a way that I think is less satisfying and less exciting than Splendor’s runaway train.
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing Century: Spice Road to Splendor in this review, and that’s because it’s a game it shares a lot of similarities with. In the end, I find both games innately satisfying to play. Splendor is easier to set up and quicker to start but both games are very easy to learn, easy to get to grips with, and fun to play. If you have a larger family or gaming group then Century: Spice Road is the better option as it supports a higher player count of five.
If issues are not a consideration for you, then Splendor is the simpler of the two to set up, explain to new players as gateway game, and ultimately more satisfying as an engine-builder. Century: Spice Road though offers more options for divergent strategies, flexibility, and a gives more opportunities for creative problem solving. Splendor gives you a constant upwards trajectory of acceleration that is more exciting, but Century: Spice Road has a more interesting rhythm to its economy.
They are games that are easily compared but feel very different to play. Having one does not mean the other loses its value. You should definitely have one of these games in your collection, no question. If you really like engine builders and money is no object then get both! You’ll be glad you did. That would be my recommendation, really. Get both – dive in and remember always that the spice must flow.
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