Editorial note: Patchwork was originally given three and a half stars in its review. This was upgraded to four stars because in retrospect (and in comparison to other games in this same area) we think the rating is a little miserly for the sustained enjoyment it has given. The text of the review has been left the same.
You can find our accessibility teardown of Patchwork here.
Patchwork is going to lie to you.
That box! It looks so cute, so calming, so relaxing! What could be a more pleasant way to spend an evening than building up a beautiful quilt with your friends? No, it’s even better than that because you don’t need to actually do any stitching! It’s for two players too – a game for couples, or for dear friends looking to pass a few minutes in carefree fun.
Don’t fall for that! Patchwork is Little House on the Prairie as seen through the lens of the Hunger Games. It’s a viciously sharp, pointedly passive-aggressive puzzle game. It fits into a loose twenty minutes in your schedule and turns each of them into a tense contest over off-shaped bits of mismatched quilt. It’s like Tetris as re-imaged by the Tories for Austerity Britain – your progress is built on the back of an economy that only the rich have the ability to influence. Everything is purchased with buttons, and if you don’t have buttons you better be prepared to spend time making them. There are no welfare buttons in these hard, unfeeling times.
It starts, as many games do, with a board:
Yeurgh, that’s as ugly as a manky horse’s fetlocks. Probably. I don’t know what a fetlock is. All I’m saying is it’s like a unicorn vomited a rainbow right into your eyes. It’s so visually cluttered, a point to which we’ll return in the teardown. But, in a beautiful Usual Suspects type reveal, it turns out that it’s a two-sided board:
We start off at the top left part of this spiral. The little squares on the grid are patches – if we pass those, we get them. The buttons, we’ll talk about later.
This isn’t a score track, it’s a time track – when we reach the centre of this we’re done and all that’s left to do is admire our handiwork. The current player is always the one that’s furthest behind. When two players share a space, it’s the one on top of the other that’s still to go.
We also get a quilting board each:
To fill our quilt, we’re going to have to buy patches from a shared supply. Except we don’t get to pick the ones we want, we get to select one out of a small, unsatisfying selection.
This is our shared battlefield. It’s our job to fill up as many of these squares as we can before we run out of time, acquiring the patches we need at the expense of our opponent. Every square we leave empty costs us two points at the end of the game. And where do those points come from? They come from buttons. But not only do buttons determine our scoring, they also determine our wealth. We start with only five, and we use them to buy the patches that circle the time track:
Each of these patches comes with two elements of cost. One element is a cost in terms of buttons – we must return the right number to the supply to purchase the section. The other cost is in terms of time, or in other words the number of spaces we move along the time track. The best shapes will be expensive. The worst shapes will be cheap in the short term, but cause us trouble in the future. Once we place a patch, it’s there for the rest of the game. There are no do-overs in Austerity Britain.
This is how the game looks when we begin – all the patches are arranged in a circle around the board, and we start off our neutral marker at the 2×1 block. Every time we buy a piece, this marker will move to the piece after it in the wheel. Opportunities come our way quickly, but if we don’t have the resources to take advantage of them our opponents will.
We can buy the piece the marker is at, or the next one, or the next one. That’s it. If we can’t buy any, well – Workfare is always an option for the likes of you. What do you want, a handout? This isn’t supposed to be fun – you’re battling for the glory of your District here.
The 2×1 piece costs two buttons, and one time. The next is two buttons and two time. The third is three buttons and six time. But see the buttons on the third one? Oh, those are buttons of power. Just like in real life, you need buttons to make buttons, and the buttons on our patches are our main source of income. Those two buttons mean ‘When we pass a button on the time marker, we get two buttons in income’. The more buttons we have, the more buttons we get. The buttons we get, the better the patches we can buy. The better the patches we buy, the more buttons we have. At the end, a savvy early investor in Button Futures will be raking in a dozen or more buttons every time they get income. This wealth will allow them to splurge on the most ostentatiously extravagant designer patches on the board, and flaunt them before the faces of the less wealthy.
The first player buys a patch they can afford:
And then places it on their quilt:
They move themselves two spaces along the time track. Just like in life, time only ever moves forward. You’ve got a limited number of spaces to traverse until you get to the end, and you need to make the most of every single turn.
Our second player is now farthest back on the track, so they get to keep buying pieces until they take the lead. It’s perfectly possible, indeed likely, that a player may find themselves taking several turns in a row. This allows for them to set up clever progression patterns if they have the resources, and space on their quilt, to make it happen.
Having purchased a piece, the neutral marker moves on to the next patch after the one that was chosen, and the second player decides which one they want:
They select a piece:
And then they place that piece:
And then move down the time track
Yellow has mounted green, and just like in real life that gives the yellow player dominance. Yellow gets to take a second turn, and select another patch from the new selection revealed by the moving neutral marker:
Our yellow player picks a piece with a button. Yeah, that’s the good stuff. At a cost of three buttons, it’ll wipe out her savings, but you have to speculate to accumulate.
That’s then added to the quilt:
And after having finished mounting Green, Yellow moves on two more spaces. She reaches the button, but doesn’t cross it. That tantalizing income will need to wait until her next turn.
Green buys a piece that neatly complements the one he already has on the board:
And places it in the quilt:
And he moves on. Now green gets to mount yellow! This is everything Green dreamed it would be! Unfortunately…
Only one piece is affordable. Green has blown his button pocket money on whimsical patches and ice-creams, so there is no money left to buy any of the good patches. Look at the first one, too – three buttons are on that, but it needs ten buttons to acquire. Nose pressed up against the shop window, Green can only look and long. So Green does what we all do when we can’t afford the good things in life. He settles for the Lidl version of the luxury extravagances on display in Fornum and Mason.
Still, placed on the quilt it adds to a nice block – the quilt is coming together rather well, all things considered. It doesn’t matter that it’s all mismatched – we’re scored on buttons and blank squares. The only other scoring opportunity comes from the player that is first to complete a 7×7 section of the quilt – they get 7 points for that honour.
Moving along the time marker two points, green passes the button! Eagerly, he counts up how much money he’s got for new patches, and it’s… none. Nothing. Not a button. Not a curdie. Green has no buttons, and no income, and so in true Conservatives fashion must be taken out and humanely destroyed by the state. Unless…
We’ll come back to that, because it’s now yellow’s turn, and she has gotten into the Tory spirit a little better. She only has one button, which isn’t enough to buy a piece, but there is a second action players can take. They can spend their time to make money. They can move their player token in front of the first player, and get a number of buttons equal to the number of squares they moved. In yellow’s case, this is three buttons. But she also passed the button marker, so she gets the one button her quilt gives her.
Green, having resigned himself to living a life as a human chimney brush in the Neo-Victorian workhouses of the British Welfare State, sees this and says ‘Hang on!’ and leaps ahead of yellow. He gets two buttons for the effort. Two lousy buttons. So much for aspiration. SO MUCH FOR THE MERITOCRACY. WAKE UP SHEEPLE.
Yellow, flush with buttons, buys another nice patchwork piece that gives her some more income, and places it on her quilt. Now every time she passes a button on the time track, she gets two buttons. And she’ll use those buttons to buy more button generation, until all the buttons in the land belong to her. But, Green is wise to it now, he sees the way society has stacked the deck against him. He’ll be as savvy about button accumulation in future as yellow.
A few turns down the line, and both the quilts are coming together nicely. But now we’re about to encounter our first leather piece – these are 1×1 squares that can be used to plug gaps in our quilt. We need to play them immediately, but they’re useful because we can otherwise easily leave chunks of our quilt impossible to finish if we play our pieces too greedily.
Remember, at the end of the game every unfilled tile is a two point penalty – that 1×1 tile then is worth at least two points, and perhaps more if it allows for flexibility of patch placement elsewhere. It’s a juicy plum, and it goes to the first player to pass it. Green is in the lead, but that’s worth nothing – Yellow will overtake with a patch that is of three time or more.
She goes for a five time patch – it also has two buttons on it. She leaps ahead of Green, gets the leather, and places it on her quilt:
She’s been careful in her play here, so she doesn’t have any gaps to plug. She can though give herself more options for the future by reducing the number of squares a patch must fill in order to join everything up – she can pre-emptively patch the holes that would otherwise exist in the quantum entangled space-time of the next ten minutes. And that’s what she does.
Play continues this way, with each player taking turns, buying patches. Placing them in the quilt, and relinquishing control to the other. Each player is working alone, and in contention with the other. Each is attempting to fill as much of the board as they can. As cleanly as they can. They work So as to ensure that they limit the number of dead spaces in their quilt they can’t fill with later selections. But…
See, there comes a time in the game where priorities change. The early game is about getting buttons, because if you don’t have those you don’t have anything. But you slip down that time track so quickly that it soon becomes a case of looking at the quilt, looking at the time, and looking at the patches on the board. You think ‘Oh god, I can’t fill this quilt in time’ and then it becomes a frantic dash to achieve quilt acreage rather than raw income potential. Each button you have at the end of the game is worth a point, but each unfilled square is worth a penalty of two. There is a mental tipping point where patches cease to have value in terms of income potential and convert into point differentials.
‘This is a tile of six squares, and it costs seven. So, I’d lose twelve points for those six squares, which means that it really costs me one point at the end. But it’s also got two buttons on it and there are two buttons to pass on the track, so really this tile gets me three points at the end. A bargain!’
You look over at your opponent. He’s going to get the 7×7! How on earth is he going to do that? You were screwing him to the floor a mere five minutes ago He’s going to get it! Or is he? He might! But he might not! He’ll get if that perfect tile five ahead falls into his possession, but maybe you can stop that happening…
There is so much to worry about at the end stages, and so little time to get it done. You find out that what you wanted at the end wasn’t more money, but more time. There’s a morality tale hidden into the narrative of this game.
The stars align. BAM. You stole the tile he needed to get the 7×7 , and you’ve accumulated so many buttons during the course of the game that you’re almost drowning in them. Turns out, money *can* buy happiness after all. There’s a second morality tale hidden in the game.
Except in all the stress and panic you missed that there was an empty square that would have prevented him getting the 7×7 anyway. You shot yourself in the quilt just to prevent someone else’s happiness. What have you become? You propelled yourself to the end, but missed out on the opportunity to maximise your score. Who’s the real monster here?
And the end, the game area has the look of a discount supermarket in a neglected Northern region during the heights of Thatcherism. The shelves are bare, the choices slim, and all you have for your effort are some tasteless lumps of cardboard that will add fibre, but not flavour, to the thin gruel that makes up 95% of your daily caloric intake. And then comes the calculation – who won, in the end? In a real sense, both players won because they had a fun time playing a game together!
But in a much, much, much realer sense there’s only one winner because only one person gets to go home alive from the Quilting Games.
Green, with sixteen empty tiles, takes 32 points away from his button score, which is one. Negative thirty one points is the score to beat.
In a stunning propaganda win for Tory values, Yellow takes her fifteen empty tiles, and subtracts thirty from her button supply, ending up with a surplus of 13 points. Her quilt, hastily slapped together out of panic and pre-emptive schadenfreude is something of a mess, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the result. Yellow brings glory to her District, and Green is sent kicking and screaming off into the sluicing mines to be made into a delicious, nutritional paste.
Yeah, It’s pretty good.
At the heart of the game is a very engaging, satisfying puzzle – we all know how addictive Tetris is, and this is Tetris the Board Game. We also know how satisfying it is to build up an economic engine with which to crush your foes, and we have that too – an engine that is sharper and less forgiving than most. We know the transient joy of stealing exactly the right resource from another player, and Patchwork enables that in spades. It rewards forward thinking and a killer instinct – traversing the wheel of patches is a job of juggling buttons versus time commitment versus turn order. With a few plays that are sub-optimal to you, you might end up lifting exactly the piece your opponent needs to win and placing it triumphantly into your own quilt. Every game of Patchwork is an episode of Game of Thrones told in thread.
It’s also a game of breath-holding suspense. Each piece is unique, and each is a logic exercise to assess – some are cheap but very costly in terms of time. Some are eye-wateringly expensive in terms of button, but can be stitched into your quilt in a matter of moments. Each time you take one though, you’re leaving some behind and in doing so you lose your chance to acquire them in the short term. The real cost is in opportunity. In the long term, you may just be setting your opponent up to get a fabric windfall that should be yours. After all, both of your boards are public information. They can look over, see what you need, see what’s coming up, and draw their plans against you.
But then there’s all the 1×1 patches! There are big rewards to be had by moving quickly around the board. You get the leather, you get the buttons, and then you get the patches. But there are also big rewards to being slow and steady – it’s always the player in last place that goes next. They might be able to set up clever, satisfying combos that bring them in the right ways to the right pieces and snap them up while all you can do is gnash your teeth and wait for your turn. It’s made all the worse by knowing the agent of your downfall was own impatience and greed.
It’s tensely competitive in all the right kinds of ways, and it’s small enough to fit into even the shortest of time-slots. Our games have been nicely rounded fifteen to twenty minutes. Much like a 1×1 leather piece, it’ll fit nicely into the tightest gaps you’ve left in your schedule.
All of that said, I do have some reservations. As clever as the key game mechanic is, and as replayable as the random setup allows it to be, it’s not a game that I see making its way to the table all that often.
It’s just a bit too easy to ensure the prudish perfection of your quilt. For all the potential for long-term strategy and backstabbing in reality you’re always bound by the context of your own board. The availability of pieces, the buttons you have available, and the spaces you have on the quilt create a massive filter that may limit your feasible choices down to one, or fewer, options regardless of how cleverly you could potentially play. The wheel of pieces is a nice system, but it’s one that to my mind reveals too much of the future game state. Sure, you don’t know what your opponent is going to pick and thus you don’t know for sure what three pieces will be on offer. You can usually make a realistic guess though – if they’re low on buttons, they’re going to go for income. If they’re flush with buttons, they’re going to go for coverage. On the whole, they’re going to avoid as many enclosed spaces as they can. You won’t always be right when assessing intention, but it’s a game that doesn’t offer a lot of strategic flexibility. As a result, it doesn’t encourage a lot of surprises in play.
In the end, the key strength of Patchwork is its ease of play. It also happens to be its biggest weakness – there are no bonuses for colour matching, pattern matching, or for ensuring contiguous coverage of the quilt. It means that in the end you’re just pursuing exactly the same macro-strategy as the other player. This is often a problem with games that offer no opportunity for multiple routes to victory, and especially in games where play is entirely synchronous.
I suspect you will find many opportunities to play Patchwork if you buy it, and I’m sure you will enjoy it each time. I doubt though that in many cases you’ll play it because you really want to make a Tetris quilt. I suspect most of those plays will be driven by its comfortable length rather than its inherent ability to satisfy.
Don’t feel bad, little buddy. I can relate to that. :-/
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