Published on November 27th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Summary: As long as you're not running into production issues, Dreaming Spires is a really fun game!
The Dreaming Spires Review
To say that the University of Oxford has a prestigious reputation would be a drastic understatement. As the second oldest surviving college in the world and the oldest college of the English speaking world, it has a long legacy to maintain. With an almost 1000 year history, its list of alumni is a veritable who’s who of great minds from the English speaking world, spanning everything from science and math to literature and linguistics. Oxford has been the home of Thomas Moore, Margaret Thatcher and even JRR Tolkien. In Dreaming Spires, you are given the privilege of making your own college at the University of Oxford and you are tasked with forging your own intellectual legacy.
(In this review we will be going over the Print-and-Play version of of Dreaming Spires. The game currently has a Kickstarter project going, and the PnP is freely available from the Kickstarter.)
Reviewing the production quality of a print-and-play game is interesting to me, as the materials used in my version are completely unique to my house. Really the only part of the production one can judge is how easy it is to print, and here Dreaming Spires did hit a snag for us. We always print high quality images at our local FedEx/Kinkos, using their online tools to print the files we need in advance so that we can pick up the final product later. The problem we faced was that while everything in the PDF copy of the game is 8.5″ x 11″, not all of the pages are oriented the same way (some are landscape, some are portrait). While someone printing at home wouldn’t have any problem with it, sending the files to the printer like this meant that the people there couldn’t/wouldn’t correct the issue so we ended up with some cards that got a little cut off. This could have been prevented if the original PDF had not changed its orientation, which makes it easier to read, but ease of reading is hardly required when you’re printing the cards out anyways. This isn’t a big deal, but we thought it was note-worthy.
Given that each person who uses the PnP version will have different results, the focus then turns to the art of the game itself. The alumni cards have some great illustrations on them, each one a person from history who attended oe was very closely associated with Oxford. There is only one woman in the entire game, Margaret Thatcher, which was disappointing to some of our group members and seems like something that should be easily fixed. In general the layout is in-theme and very nicely done, but the choice of using only color as a way to distinguish tiles was a poor one. A member of our play group for this session is color blind, and trying to figure out which buildings were green parks or red bars was difficult, as was seeing the crucial gold resource symbol at all. I, myself, am not color blind and even I had difficulty figuring out which alumni were associated with which era- telling the difference between dark red and brown at our gaming lounge was not an easy task. Some simple considerations and changes made during the Kickstarter to resolve these issues in production would be a great idea.
(Note: Since publication, Secret Games Co. has informed us that both of these are known issues in the current prototype and will be fixed during further production.)
Dreaming Spires, despite its somewhat opaque rules, is actually a fast-paced, short set collection game. The game is played in eight rounds divided evenly over four eras. At the end of every round there is a special auction event, chosen at random out of four different types of bidding. At the end of the first three eras there is a scoring session where the winner gets additional money, while the final scoring round determines the winner of the whole game. On your turn you can take four actions, chosen from a list of four actions, though you can take the same action as many times as you’d like. You can either take and place a tile from the line up, take an alumnus from the line up, use an alumnus ability that you haven’t already used this turn, or take one money coin. Turns have limited options and they move pretty quickly, provided you don’t over think what you’re doing.
The scoring mechanic of the game was kind of peculiar to us at first. The game’s score score tracker has various categories labelled on it corresponding to the subjects in the game, such as: Science, Philosophy, Arts and Fellows. Constructing buildings gives you the resources you need to be able to recruit famous people to be alumni, and the famous alumni are what give you points in the various subjects (Lewis Carrol gives you +1 Art, for instance). When it’s time to score you see who has the most points in every subject, then the person who controls the least amount of subjects gives their points in that subject to the person who is next-lowest in that subject. You continue to do this until only one person remains. This method was really bizarre to us at first until we all realized that it’s modeled after the new voting system in the UK (this is a neat video that explains how it works). This scoring method encourages upsets and takes away much of the very strong benefits of going first in a larger game.
After playing through Dreaming Spires a couple of times, I feel like I have a good grasp on the game. The rules as written are fairly opaque and hard to follow and it really takes playing to understand what it is that you’re trying to do, how to place your tiles and even how to score the game. That said, the game isn’t complex, it has quick turns and not many of them. Dreaming Spires is kind of like a light, fun, fast Agricola with a much more shallow learning curve. After you figure out how to play it’s easy to get into the swing of things and go multiple games in a row. Dreaming Spires is definitely a game I’d recommend playing, especially to newer board gamers or people interested in a light game with innovative mechanics.