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Century: Eastern Wonders makes cardboard spice trading fun again

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Owen Duffy
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In 2017, newly founded tabletop studio Plan B Games released Century: Spice Road. A tight, brain-teasing card game, Spice Road cast players as merchants trading spices on the overland route between Europe and Asia, and it combined the mechanical minimalism of hit gem-trading game Splendor with just a hint of Dominion-style deckbuilding.

Plan B Games

What was intriguing to many fans, though, was that Spice Road was just the first installment in a planned trilogy. Players would be able to combine it with the future games in the series, mixing them to create a variety of gameplay experiences. Now the second release in the lineup has arrived in the form of Century: Eastern Wonders. But is it a rewarding game in its own right? An engaging add-on to an established hit? Or, is it just a gimmick that sounds great in theory—but doesn’t hold up once it hits the table?

Eastern Wonders’ action unfolds in the Indonesian Spice Islands, a scattered archipelago rich with precious cloves, tea, chilis, and ginger. Players take command of cargo ships, sailing between islands, establishing trading posts, and competing to export the most lucrative collections of spices.

This is a similar premise to Spice Road. You begin the game with a modest collection of spices, here represented by color-coded wooden cubes. Some are plentiful and easy to obtain, others are harder to get your hands on, and as you play you try to accumulate collections of cubes shown on a set of “objective tiles” in order to claim victory points.

But there are also differences to discover. The most noticeable is that where Spice Road revolved purely around cards in players’ hands, Eastern Wonders introduces a board—a modular hex grid of island tiles that you randomly assemble every time you play. You make your way from one island to the next, trading spices as you go. Each island offers a different deal for enterprising captains: five ginger for two tea, two tea for two chilis, or two cloves for half a boatload of less valuable goods.

The game becomes a clever puzzle of efficiency and optimization, and you’ll scour the board looking for the quickest way to collect point-scoring sets of spices before cashing in your cubes at one of four port tiles. Thoughtful as this process is, it’s also a deceptively competitive race. You’ll need to keep a close eye on your opponents, trying to work out which objectives they are aiming for—and deciding whether you can snatch them first.

This adds an interesting spatial dimension to the formula laid down by Spice Road, and the combination of trading and navigating your way across the board takes some careful planning. But what really makes Eastern Wonders shine is the collection of extra mechanisms it bolts to its slick mechanical core. To move additional spaces on your turn, you can play extra cubes, laying them in your wake across the board. However, other players can pick up your discarded spices. This makes for some tricky decisions about the goods you can afford to throw away and the ones you want to avoid handing to your opponents.

The Eastern Wonders player board.
Enlarge / The Eastern Wonders player board.
Owen Duffy

Then there’s the game’s trading system. Before you can exchange spices on an island, you must establish a trading post there. The first player to build a trading post on any tile does so for free, but any subsequent players must hand over some of their cargo for the privilege. This results in an early-game land grab as players rush to establish a presence on as much of the board as possible; later, it throws up dilemmas about whether it’s worth paying the price to open up much-needed trading opportunities.

Finally, a selection of upgrades provides new abilities over the course of the game. You’ll choose between making your ship faster, increasing the capacity of your hold, or harvesting spices more efficiently. And while your new powers are subtle, they can be critical to victory when used to their full advantage.

It all comes together to create a series of multi-layered decisions, and working out your best course of action is rarely simple. But mechanically, Eastern Wonders remains straightforward. Its rules are just two pages long, and after you’ve played a few turns they become second nature, leaving you to concentrate on your tactics. The game also has a tendency to produce nail-bitingly close games with only a couple of points separating winners and losers.

But as impressive as the game is on its own, this isn’t the best way to play.

Also included in the box is a set of rules for an advanced “Sand to Sea” mode, which incorporates the cards from Century: Spice Road. In addition to travelling around the board, establishing your hold on different islands, and trading with their inhabitants, you can buy and play cards which let you upgrade the spices in your hold, representing a mercantile empire that stretches around the globe.

The crucial difference between the two setups is that, to move your ship, you’ll need to discard a card from your hand. Thus, on every turn you’ll need to weigh your options, deciding whether the cards you hold are more valuable for the trading advantages they offer or the ability to sail between islands. This adds little to the game’s mechanical complexity, but it does add an entirely new element to the decision-making. And to intensify things even further, the combined game mode also introduces some blank board spaces representing stretches of open sea. This means that navigating your way around the board becomes simultaneously more important and more difficult, and it ratchets up the sense of pressure as you try to gain the slightest edge over your opponents.

Having played all three currently available iterations of the Century series, I have no hesitation in saying that “Sand to Sea” is my favourite. In fact, I don’t see any real reason to go back to playing either game on its own. And with the final game in the trilogy set for release in 2019, I’m looking forward to seeing the resolution of this rich and elegant series.

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