Gutenberg – More than An Ink-ling of Fun?
As a Christian who values the Reformation, a strategy board game based on the invention of the printing press is pretty exciting for me personally. The historical timing of the printing press in conjunction with the writings of Martin Luther and subsequent prolific printing of Bibles seems beyond coincidence.
Many would say Gutenberg’s printing press is one of the greatest inventions in all of human history. Is Granna’s (Portal Games in the US) game Gutenberg designed by Cioch and Wiśniewski also a great invention? How will it rank?
In each of six rounds players will:
- Prepare their turn
- Execute the five actions in sequence
- Fulfill orders
During turn prep, players collaborate to set up the board for the planning and execution phases. Then, they’ll rotate any gears on their player board.
During planning, players use black cubes to simultaneously set their priorities for each of the five actions. These allocations are done secretly and all players reveal at once. The player with the first player marker has fewer cubes to allocate, but wins ties. (This player rotates each round during the game, and cube allocations change). A single cube guarantees the player participates in that action. Allocating zero cubes means they must skip that particular action this round.
This creates clever tensions in the minds of players as each decides how badly they want to pick first from among the various options available. A player may want first choice on an action so badly they are willing to forego taking another action altogether. When playing with four players you really experience the extremes of both; it’s really powerful having 10 black cubes to work with as the last player.
Once players reveal their cubes, players resolve each action. The first player in priority for each action has more options. The last player is stuck with what’s left.
Players will accumulate four categories of “resources”: money and inks are consumable, while typeface blocks and specialty levels are permanent. Players acquire resources directly or use money to acquire ink or typeface letters – a, i, o, u. They use all of these resources to satisfy the requirements of various patron cards.
Finally, and most importantly, players use typefaces, ink, and specialties to fulfill orders. Orders are a locked set of two cards with one mandatory (typeface letters) and one optional (refinement card requiring inks and/or specialty levels).
The winner has the most points after the sixth round and through final scoring – various actions accrue end-game victory points.
Gutenberg is about efficiently gaining resources at the right time to fulfill orders and patron cards as they become available. Players must try to acquire orders that will re-use the type letters they already have. Ideally, players fulfill at least one order every round, so typeface letters don’t sit unused. Which ‘special power’ gears players acquire and what “pie piece” of the gear they activate can be pivotal to gain resources or flexibility at the exact time needed.
In one game I realized during the patronage phase I could use my gear ability to advance my minimum specialty one level, netting me a patron card. In another I bought too many inks and was one coin short for a typeface to satisfy a patron card.
Gutenberg is a very tight game, especially because purchased typeface letters and awards for completed orders cannot be used to complete other orders on the same turn.
Most of your points will come through fulfilling orders, but acquiring patron cards and specialty bonuses can be significant too. You can’t just forget about them and reliably win.
A big part of the challenging fun deciding which order(s) to acquire and have on deck, and which orders to fulfill each round. This is especially tough when you can’t score both halves of a refinement card, which gives an additional bonus. It’s usually worth bending over backwards to get the entire value, but sometimes you just can’t do it.
In Gutenberg, you often need to hold your plans loosely. Have contingencies in mind in the event that someone else takes what you wanted (it will happen).
For me, Gutenberg is easily most comparable to the high-ranking game Fresco. With Fresco I do feel the theme a bit more while working to uncover Renaissance art.
In Fresco, the planning tokens behind my screen are actually workers which allow for multiplying my actions instead of merely choosing priority. Resource management depth in Fresco happens through mixing paints to get non-primary colors. Gutenberg delivers this by instead forcing players to manage four different categories of resources and adapt plans to game conditions. Gutenberg is much deeper here.
Players being able to outright own order cards after acquisition removes another stressor, too. It means others can’t swoop in and fulfill a tile they’ve been working to complete.
Gutenberg’s initiative cube system is much smoother, balanced, and flexible than Fresco’s system. This allows you to prioritize differently based on specific actions you care about more. I was constantly conversing with myself (in my head or even out loud!) – “Do I care about this? Yes, but I also care about this, too.”
This priority planning tension is grueling but fantastic for this very reason. Add in the ‘special power’ gears, the character powers, and the variety from the random draws from the many card decks, and Gutenberg easily wins the contest for replayability and tactical depth. Plus, unlike Fresco, Gutenberg has an automa which can be used for solo play or to add an automated player to spice up a two or three player game.
Gutenberg‘s amazing 3D type letter pieces and tuck boxes set it apart, too. Players do need to manage more things in Gutenberg so lighter gamers may still prefer Fresco… But not this gamer.
I love the priority planning in this game. I love the suspense of ‘simultaneous reveal’ in any game, and Gutenberg has it big time.
Gutenberg provides a great blend of tactical and strategic thinking. Tactically, there is situational decision making, with black cube priority planning and card/ink choices during the five actions. Strategically, you need to think more long term about the patronage cards available in the current game, more difficult orders, and building an engine. Your engine needs to have just the right collection of type-letters, track advancements, and gears to be able to fulfill better/more orders and maximize order refinement cards, assuming you can snag them.
Fulfilling two orders on the same turn feels epic, sometimes scoring over 20 points. In one game I was able to fulfill two orders on four of six turns which allowed me to win despite getting no patron cards. With four players, there are a lot more choices to pick from on everything. This can allow for better synergy for your scores, as long as you aren’t battling another opponent for the same thing.
The components are all excellent and well thought out. The mechanics are supremely fine-tuned and well play-tested. I would be surprised if any family (of medium-to-heavy board gamers) did not love Gutenberg.
And so, to answer our starting question, yes, the game Gutenberg is a very good invention. This is, of course, very appropriate, as it is based on one of humanity’s greatest and most pivotal inventions.
Portal Games provided The Family Gamers with a promotional copy of Gutenberg for this review.
Gutenberg – More than An Ink-ling of Fun
Age Range: 10+
Number of Players: 1-4
Playtime: 60-120 minutes