In the deeper recesses (and now actually on the BGG top 100) of board gaming lore exists a duo of board game developers who have built one of the biggest cult followings in the board game industry. Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga are Splotter Spellen, a small Dutch board game publisher founded in 1997. Splotter prides itself on making games heavy in strategy, but relatively low in rules overhead. Though their games are hard to find and expensive, four of Splotter’s most popular games are currently (or soon to be) available for purchase. You may soon be faced with the tough question: “Are these games for me?”. Hopefully this article will help you answer that.
At this moment of writing two of Splotter’s games are available for purchase: Food Chain Magnate and The Great Zimbabwe. Two others may be available soon: Indonesia has been reprinted and is slowly showing up in stores, and Antiquity has a reprint fabled for 2017. These games cost around $100 for a new copy, and tend to go for much more on the BGG marketplace when the game is out of print, so your chance to get a copy at a “reasonable” price may be short lived.
I can’t claim to be an expert in all things Splotter — I’ve only played Food Chain Magnate, Antiquity, and The Great Zimbabwe — but I do have a feel for what makes these games special.
Food Chain Magnate
My attention was first drawn to Splotter games by Food Chain Magnate (FCM), and since it currently sits at number 28 on BGG, I’m probably not the only person who falls into that boat. In FCM, 2–5 players compete to build the biggest, baddest fast food chain, and the winner is the player who, after 2–4 hours, has the most money remaining. You work as the CEO of a fictional fast chain and you’re in charge of hiring of employees, training your employees for new roles.
FCM has a complexity weight (a user voted on weight from 1–5) of 4.21 on BGG, but it’s really not that complex to learn. On your turn, you pick which employees to send to work, hire new employees, train the employees that you didn’t send to work, build new buildings and restaurants, begin new marketing campaigns, and cook food. After that, you sell to the hungry people of the city, pay your employees, and loop. Its that easy!
The two mechanisms that really stand out to me is the employee training and the milestones. When you train an employee, the employee needs to “be at the beach”, which is business language for not working. When you train an employee, you replace their card with a card on the next level of the hierarchy. This simple balance between wanting to use your employees and wanting to train them to a higher level provides a tension reminding me of the decisions between using workers or bidding on auctions in Keyflower.
The second mechanism which stands out to me are the milestones. Milestones are achievements bonuses players can reach throughout the game which give them a bonus, the trick is after the turn when a player reaches the milestone, all other players cannot receive the milestone. Milestones really speed up your ability to produce in the game and help to develop strategies. Being the first player to train someone gets you a $15 discount on salaries, if you produce the first pizza you get a pizza cook, if you market the first drink, all of your drinks sell for $5 more. These bonuses balance out different strategies and provide unique tactical advantages for the players who achieve them.
FCM is an amazing game and is one of my two favorite games of all time (with Keyflower). Its hard to get to the table and, after teaching it to new players, they don’t really have a good idea of which direction to go and often stare glassy-eyed for a minute or two. The game could really do with something along the lines of starting objectives for new players — but after your initial play you can begin to see different strategies you could follow.
The sign of any great board game is its need for a tackle box to store all of the pieces. Antiquity has over 1400 cardboard chits for resources and pollution, you’re going to be producing a lot of pollution. Antiquity is a game for 2–4 players where you and your opponents will be building cities in middle age Italy. Antiquity is probably the heaviest game I own in terms of gameplay depth, but like other Splotter games, the rules aren’t that deep and there are some novel and well-implemented mechanisms.
The first interesting mechanism in the game is a mechanism that may be familiar to fans of recent Uwe Rosenberg favorites: Patchwork and A Feast for Odin. Antiquity is the first game I know of which uses the “Tetris” mechanism. In Antiquity, you are placing buildings of different “Tetris-y” shapes onto your city. These shapes, for instance a cross shaped cathedral, represent different types of buildings which serve different functions. Houses provide you with more workers, Cart Shops allow players to build countryside buildings, Harbours extend the zone of influence players have to all water adjacent to their city. The most interesting type of building in the game is the Cathedral.
When a player builds a Cathedral, the second interesting mechanism occurs. The player who built the Cathedral immediately picks a saint to worship, from a collection of five options, and thus her winning conditions for the game and a special power they will have for the remainder of the game. If she chooses San Nicolo, she wins when she has 20 men and when she builds two houses, she gets the lower valued one free, if she chooses, Santa Barbara she needs to build each building once and she can re-arrange her “Tetris” area, if she chooses Santa Maria she gets all of the special powers but has to complete two victory conditions.
Antiquity may not have flashy minis, or even nice player pieces, but if a well-designed game with unique mechanisms interests you then you should check it out. The “Tetris” idea for your player area is a really interesting concept which benefits long-term planning. The option to choose your end-game bonus at any point in the game creates a lot of variability.
The Antiquity re-print hasn’t been officially announced yet, but when it does you should consider it as an option. Its the heaviest of the Splotter games I’ve played, but that doesn’t detract from the appeal of the game. I’d recommend getting either Food Chain Magnate or The Great Zimbabwe first, to get a feel for the ways Splotter games make you think.
The Great Zimbabwe
The Great Zimbabwe (TGZ)is the most available, and accessible, Splotter game right now. In TGZ you’re playing as tribes in Africa with the goal of erecting monuments through the development of a trade network. On their turn, players may choose a god to worship, develop a technology to help in various ways, purchase craftsmen to collect resources, and build monuments.
Two of the mechanisms in TGZ are particularly innovative to me. First, the gods you worship and the skills you develop increase your target score while giving you cool bonus abilities. At the start of the game you need to score 20 points from your monuments. Skills like “herd” let you spend two cattle (money in TGZ) to get three cattle on the next round, at the penalty of increasing your target victory score by 6. The god Eshu gives you a range of 6 for all goods transportation — the base is 3 — at a penalty of increasing your target victory score by 4. Your ability to use the power of the god you worship and the skills you develop directly relate to your ability to win and will drive your strategy.
The second really interesting mechanic in TGZ is the turn order sequence. To determine turn order, each player lines up a player mat. The first player then bids any number of cattle. For instance, if she bids two cattle she places the first onto her player space and the second onto the second player’s space. The second player can then bid three or more cattle by placing the first on the third player space, the second on the fourth player space, and so on. As players pass, they move their turn order marker to the next space from the end on the turn order track. At the end of the round, each player receives the cattle on their player area. This mechanism forces players to make critical decisions about how they spend their cattle and how much turn order matters.
TGZ also incorporates route building and resource conversion in a heavy economic game with simple rules. TGZ is the shortest Splotter game I’ve played and arguably the lightest, which makes it a valuable member of any gamers collection. The god cards and skills provide a lot of direction for new players. I’d highly recommend it as an introductory Splotter for the heavy gamer, though it’s still definitely not a game I’d recommend to new gamers or people who prefer shorter games.
Splotter has been fairly prolifically designing games since its inception in 1997 (they have even designed an 18XX style game). Unfortunately many of their great games will never see a print run again, and are all but lost to modern board gamers. Chameleo Chameleo only ever had 20 copies printed. All of the copies of Beest sold out in an hour at Essen 2001, and the designers even admit “It is a very experimental game, and most people do not really get the hang of it.” Bus has been out of print since its third printing in 2001. If you’re a fan like I am, many of their older, and possibly more raw designs, are available for Print and Play on BGG. I also have yet to play Indonesia, Bus, Greed Incorporated, Ur: 1830 BC, or Roads and Boats but I am on the lookout for them.
You can definitely say I’m a Splotter fan-boy. I love the minimalist artwork on many of the games, though that’s a reason for complaint of others for some. I find the integration of the theme with clever mechanics to be incredible and unparalleled. Each game finds new ways to challenge my opponents and me, and each innovates on mechanics I’m familiar with while expanding the breadth of gaming as a whole.
What makes Splotter games so amazing is that every mechanism in every game is simple. Food Chain Magnate gives you an obvious tech tree to follow and training is as easy as sending your trainer to work while your employee is at the beach. In The Great Zimbabwe, you can get more specialists, but that increases your victory point target. Though each of these mechanisms is simple, they create challenging puzzles which may not have a right answer.
The second really exceptional thing is the player interaction. Games like Keyflower, Great Western Trail, and Terraforming Mars all top my list of top games because of player interaction. On the other hand “dudes on a map” games are not for me, because player interaction and timing become the primary work-force of the game. Splotter games balance of player interaction with not making any particular move or interaction overly devastating. Also, the interaction, even in lower player counts, is generally not zero-sum (i.e. one point lost for you is exactly one point won for me). The nature of the interaction is great for me as a conflict averse euro-gamer.
If you like heavier games I highly recommend the games I have covered in this review. The Splotter designs that are available today are gems which belong in the collections of heavy gamers. Also, if you want to give these games a try before you pull the very expensive trigger, Antiquity and Food Chain Magnate are playable online (reddit user /u/MetalMrHat also pointed out that Indonesia is playable online here). There is a severe learning curve, though, so YMMV against the people playing online.
If you want to know more about these games, Heavy Cardboard has done a podcast on Antiquity, a podcast on Food Chain Magnate, an interview with Splotter, and a recent interview at Essen 2016. These interviews go deep into the Splotter games and do a great job digging much deeper into the games. Also, Shut up and Sit Down did a very humorous and informative review of Food Chain Magnate, which is worth watching just for the entertainment value.
I hope to play a few more of their games over the next few months and I’ll expand this review as I do. Also, if you want to sell me your copy of Bus, Ur: 1830 BC, Roads and Boats, or Greed Incorporated, I’m interested! Time to get back to working on my PnP versions of these games. Happy gaming!
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