Tapestry: It’s Not a CIV Game, and That’s Okay
This is not going to be an easy review to write. The short of it is this: I see the flaws, recognize the mistakes and know where improvements could have been made. Yet, I still love Tapestry and enjoy every chance I get to play it. It's mildly broken, not the game everyone thought it would be, and it could really benefit from an expansion that aims to fix some things. Still, it's also intriguing, genuinely enjoyable to play, even while you're losing, and very easy to see the diamond through the rough. After several games, experiencing nearly all of the civilizations and reading reviews describing the game from the best to the worst of 2019, I've come to a conclusion. It's not the civilization game we believed we were promised, but that's okay.
Typically a Stonemaier game announcement is met with astronomical hype upon its announcement. And, once released, it finds a fan base that matches that initial excitement. Wingspan is the best example of this, representing the pinnacle of their unique marketing campaigns. It starts with months of press and publicity focusing on art, components, and production to draw in their fans and guarantee a sold-out product for months after its release. Stonemaier may be a decisive company, with many not agreeing with the boundless love given to the quality of their game's mechanics or prices. Still, no one can deny that Jamey Stegmaier's approach to publicizing his games is impressive.
So, when he announced Tapestry, the board-game community came to a stop and held their breath in anticipation. This seemed like it would be Jamey's magnum opus, a culmination of his years of experience designing and publishing some of the most well-received games in the industry. Unfortunately, when the game finally made it to retail, it was discovered that Tapestry was not the civilization game the fans thought they were promised.
I guess that promise is where we should start.
I think the most significant problem Tapestry is facing, is the words "A Civilization Game," which are found on the front of the game's box. Mentioning themes and mechanics while describing a game will naturally fill a person's head with expectations. If I hear "deck-builder," I will likely form connections to games like Aeon's End and the Legendary Encounters series. Worker-placement games will generally be compared to Lords of Waterdeep or Agricola. The 4X space genre is best known for the games Twilight Imperium and Eclipse. When these terms are used to describe a new game, it will be compared and contrasted against popular games that used the same theme or mechanic. So, it's no surprise that comparisons to Clash of Cultures and Sid Meiers Civilization were made when Tapestry was announced.
In its simplest form, a civilization game is a variant of a 4X game, which consists of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating. Each of these actions is usually quite different from the others. And, in a civilization game, each focus typically culminates in a unique win condition tied to it. This is the most common complaint levied against Tapestry.
In Tapestry, you take the role of one civilization out of sixteen, each with asymmetric abilities. The game plays out over a series of five Eras. Each Era ends with an income round that begins with activating your civilization's abilities. Next, you play a tapestry card that generally provides you with a one-time bonus or an ongoing bonus for the following Era. Lastly, you upgrade a chosen technology you've invented, score round victory points and accumulate resources, new tapestry cards, and exploration tiles to use during the next Era. The meat of each Era will be the actions you take to move along any of the four advancement tracks surrounding the board. The exploration track lets you explore the map in the centre of the board. The science track provides random advancement on any track through dice rolls. Moving along the technology track provides inventions that can be upgraded for bonuses. Finally, the military track provides the only player interaction in the game by conquering lands on the central map and possibly toppling another player's outpost.
Excitingly, this description has all the signs of a typical civilization game. Unfortunately, that image quickly falls apart when the game is played. It doesn't take long to discover that each track leads to the same outcome. Getting more resources, placing more buildings, acquiring one-off landmark buildings, and collecting new tapestry cards, all result in victory points. The appeal of a civilization game is the several unique win conditions. In Sid Meiers Civilization, a game is won through a culture, tech, economic, or military victory, which all feel different. Compare that to winning Tapestry by having the most victory points, and it's easy to understand why some people felt cheated. When "A Civilization Game," is written on the box, it's not surprising that many people were expecting a game that followed the pacing and mechanics of a civilization game.
So, with that out of the way, I will continue this review by recognizing Tapestry as the game it really is - a euro game. I will no longer bring up the controversy over a game that wished for loftier mechanics. With the wishful-thinking glasses finally removed, it's much easier to write a non-biased review for Tapestry.
Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the disappointments surrounding Tapestry. Shut Up and Sit Down famously builds up a game, before tearing it down. But in this case, I feel I like it's easier to continue tearing down Tapestry before I reveal why I love the game so much. Here we go.
The game relies heavily on the unique civilizations dealt out at the beginning of the game. And, with their different powers and abilities, it's essential to choose wisely, which tracks to advance along. Some tracks mesh better with specific civilizations. The tracks may all lead to victory points, but each one provides those points in different ways. And many civilization abilities rely on a particular track or two to effectively score points. This is easy to take advantage of, as long as the civilization and the different tracks are understood. But those damn tapestry cards usually throw a wrench into any plans for scoring big. At its best, the tapestry cards can skyrocket the points earned, if the right ones are drawn. More frequently, though, it will provide an ability or one-time bonus that means nothing to the strategy already committed to. And with these cards being dealt out blindly, it's impossible to plan for them. And if one player gets a fantastic set of tapestry cards, while the others find no luck, there's nothing they can do to win the game, outside of cheating.
Euro games are meant to be won through strategy with a tiny bit of luck thrown in. I want to feel like I won because I played smartly, instead of random chance. Still, a game shouldn't feel like it could be solved with enough fore-thought and problem solving, so some random chance is needed. In Tapestry, however, strategy can help me play a civilization well, but the way the tapestry cards are implemented means I can be beaten by chance far more often than is considered fair. Even worse, the different civilizations seem to be unbalanced out of the box. As they are handed out blindly, this means winning the game based on chance is more likely than strategy. To Stonemaier's credit, they have released updated civilization adjustments on their website. These include changes to abilities, nerfing or strengthening powers, and altering starting resources or victory points. But, this will only benefit those who know where to look, or frequent the Board Game Geek forums. Until these adjustments are included in a reprint or expansion, this won't be a solution for the majority of Tapestry players. With that being said, I found the updated rules shortly after their publishing, and have been using them ever since. And I'm happy to say that they make for much more balanced game, no matter which civilization you play.
The biggest disappointment to me was the shallow use of the landmark buildings. These are obtained by advancing on the different tracks and completing various tech cards. Once gotten, they are placed on the player's capital city card, covering several empty grid squares along with the 1x1 player income buildings. Cover a 9x9 section, receive any one resource. And, if a line or column is completed, points are scored for it during the income phase. Unfortunately, in their current state, their use feels unfinished. As each building is tied to a specific track or invention, I would have loved to see unique abilities if placed on a capital city board. But as of now, they only provide points. Hopefully, something can be done through an expansion.
Lastly, the actions available with the central map also feel unfinished or too simple. Exploring only provides resources or points while conquering a tile only gives a random dice roll that provides, you guessed it, resources or victory points. You may need to topple another player's outpost to conquer a land, which provides the only player interaction in the game, but I never find it satisfying. It's never a weighty decision and offers no disadvantage to the toppled player other than a few lost points later in the game. It feels like another missed opportunity. Or maybe an early look at a more fleshed-out exploration and extermination option to come in the future.
I've said a lot that makes Tapestry look bad and not worth anyone's time. I admit it doesn't look good so far. But when I looked past these flaws and searched for a gem, I found it in Tapestry.
The easiest praise I have for Tapestry is the same for every Stonemaier game I have had the pleasure of playing. The production quality is terrific. Every game they publish either stands toe-to-toe with the best in the industry or sets the bar for what other publishers would love to achieve. And Tapestry is no different. The rules book is made with a linen finish. The card are satisfying to hold and shuffle, being neither too thick or thin. The player boards, capital city boards, and civilization cards have a texture that makes it less likely for cards and player pieces to move around when the table is bumped. The entire game is illustrated with colourful and beautiful art. But, the most unique feature of Tapestry, when compared to the full line of Stonemaier's games, are the pre-painted 3D buildings. They are beautiful, tactile, and create a truly wonderful tabletop presence. None of this is too surprising though. A high level of production quality and attention to detail is synonymous with Stonemaier. It's no longer a surprise to see what they have done to separate them from the other publishers; it's simply expected now.
Once I made it past the beautiful production and got to play Tapestry, I was treated to quick and concise gameplay, which leads to the game feeling sharp and without the fluff. Many games add a ridiculous amount of time to their length for every player. A game may play up to 5 players, but 3 is only advised for an enjoyable game with little downtime between turns. Tapestry doesn't have this issue. Sure, every player adds some time, but with turns taking mere seconds sometimes and turns becoming faster as a player understands the game and their strategy better, a 4 player game really doesn't feel much longer than a 2 player game. At a little under 2 hours, the game never overstays its welcome.
And it's those actions and mechanics that are the real gems of this game. When I play Tapestry, and everything goes right, little else is quite as satisfying. When several turns of planning lead to a massive scoring phase, I'm elated. I can feel my heart flutter when I'm finally ready to place the perfect building into my capital city, which will net me an extra 40 points for the remaining income phases. I was able to achieve something that felt impossible during the first and second income phases, when I only gained 10 or so points. It's not a slow burn. It's exponential. Forcing my way past an invisible barrier that I couldn't breakthrough for the first couple of rounds, and I'm finally able to understand why the score track has a 400 point spot.
All of this excitement starts with the choice between two civilizations at the start of the game. The feeling of experiencing a new faction and learning how to best use their abilities is even more exciting than seeing my score drastically jump in rounds 3 and 4. I love the concept of asymmetric games, but hate trying to teach them to other players. Root sat on my shelf for months while I tried to figure out how to show it to my game group. So, games like Tapestry are a blessing. It gives me the chance to play a game where every player has a different path to the same goal, while still allowing the teaching portion to be short and manageable.
And even though these asymmetric civilizations and different tracks all lead to the same outcome, I love the freedom of choosing my own path and civilization. Sometimes it's nice to play a game where you have one route to take, and you don't think too deeply about what you're doing. The linear gameplay is about the destination, not the journey. Other times though, I like the feeling of choice, choosing whether I am going to struggle down a track with other opponents or stay away from conflict and walk the path less travelled. It may all lead to points, but it's the journey that matters here.
Finally, the game is incredibly accessible. It's surprisingly simple to teach, play, and feel like you're doing well in. The rule book is famous for being a mere four pages for a game that offers so much content and strategy. Unfortunately, the rules book didn't work for me, though it should be noted that I don't have the best of luck with them, even at their best. As simple as the game is to teach and learn, I find the manual a hindrance. In an attempt to make it thin and quick to read, they left out sections that could have been added to make the game even more accessible. Certain concepts and rules were challenging to find due to the way the manual is laid out. And, some things are only explained in the player reference sheets. A revised rules book with one or two more pages would make Tapestry one of the more accessible euros games on the market. Until then, I highly recommend learning from someone who already knows how to play or watching a how-to video on YouTube.
If you haven't noticed, future expansions have been an ongoing talking point in this review. Like I said, the buildings and their connections to specific tracks and invention cards are begging for specific powers associated with where you gained them. The differing civilizations are already better balanced but are kept from the masses until they are included with the game. The central map, exploration tiles, and the concept of conquering lands already show signs of a more profound and involved player interaction framework. I think everything lacking in this game could be fleshed out and fixed through a fantastic expansion. It could save this game that truly deserves more, instead it being permanently labelled as a missed opportunity.
This will never be the civilization game that everyone had hoped it would be. The number of expansions and fixes needed to bring in the mechanics required for that would be too numerous. A whole new game would be necessary. But, judging the game for what it is and not what people hoped it would be, a compelling and enjoyable euro game begins to emerge. It has its problems, but so do most other games. Still, I can genuinely see this game becoming a classic in its own right, with some fixes and additions introduced through an expansion. Until then, I'm going to still enjoy Tapestry and recommend it but will be eagerly awaiting more.