I’ve always been an explorer at heart, ready to ride the waves and discover new adventures, new lands, maybe meet a few new people.
(Editor – Reading all of your reviews, you’ve had a lot of unfulfilled ambitions)
While I was never able to really do that (I get seasick in the bathtub), Embark sort of gives me that same feeling. Except, you know, you’re sending people instead of doing it yourself (which I would probably be better at anyway).
What is Embark? It is a 2-5 player game designed by Phillip duBarry with art by Robert Gonzales and Matt Paquette. It’s published by Tasty Minstrel Games and came out in 2018.
In the game, a number of islands have magically appeared and each player is sending out a number of voyagers to explore them, mine them, and set up homes there. This is done through a rather interesting hidden allocation system, where you will secretly decide which ships you want your cubes (voyagers) to be on.
But you won’t necessarily get everything that you want. There are other players who want to get in your way, you know.
How does it work?
Let’s take a look.
Each player is going to get a player board and screen, along with 30 voyager cubes of their colour.
They will also draft a starting “talent” that will give them a special ability that’s usable throughout the game.
This talent may help when you’re loading ships, off-loading onto an island, or even when you’re scoring points.
The number of islands available to colonize and master (thankfully there are no people on these islands) is equal to the number of players, and are double-sided cards so there is some variety in them.
As you can see, they’re laid out next to each other and each one has two docks where ships will be landing to offload their voyager cargo!
Each dock has a letter on it that matches a letter on your player board. Each turn, you’ll take five of your thirty voyagers (along with any that got sent back to your pub, as voyagers do when they’re bored), and secretly allocate them to whichever ships you want them to go to.
Once that’s done, everybody removes their screens and, beginning with the first player that turn, you’ll place one of your voyagers from your player board to a berth on the corresponding ship. You can choose any berth (I’ll get to what the berths mean in a moment).
Each island is split into three different sections. There’s the Exploration area (where your explorers will go), the Farming area (where your colonists will go), and the Mining area where your miners will go.
Each ship has a certain number of berths of varying types: Miners, Colonists, Explorers, Captains, and Warriors. When you allocate your voyager, you decide what you will be wanting them to do on the island.
Miners mine, Colonists farm, Explorers explore. Those are all pretty self-explanatory.
Warriors, however, do their warrior thing. “This island is ours! Get off of it!” They replace somebody else’s voyager. They must be kind of pacifist warriors, though, because they just get really angry, shake their sword at the other voyager, and send them back to their pub rather than, you know, killing them and all. The Warrior then assumes whatever role the voyager they intimidated was doing (they’re very versatile people).
Captains (the boat anchor symbol on the berth) can do any role except Warrior. They don’t have to decide until they get to the island, they’re that good.
Voyagers are allocated to their ships one at a time by players in turn order. If that ship is full when you have voyagers still in that letter’s box, they don’t get to go voyaging this turn.
Yep, you guessed it. They head to the pub instead, to wait until next turn.
The Landing Phase has any ships that are full sail to the island. They are then unloaded from front to back going to their respective spots (or replacing somebody if they are a warrior).
Ships that aren’t full will have to wait until next turn.
The ships that sail are replaced with new ships from the deck. The Miners take one ore from their mines, players get one point per Explorer they have on the various islands, and one more magical thing happens.
If you have four colonists in the Farming area, they form a Farm! That gets you 15 points right then and there, and those colonists are immune from other Warriors (which just goes to show you that they’re not sadistic warriors or anything…they’re kind of benign)
This continues for five rounds. In subsequent rounds, you take five more voyagers, all of the voyagers that are in your pub, and allocate them to ships.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
All Islands have one or more keys in the Exploration area. If Explorers reach a key, then something will be unlocked on that island. It could be an extra port! Or it could be, as above, that one ore is added to each mine.
Other unlocks have end game scoring, though. Maybe each Miner will count as a Colonist for the Exploration bonus?
Once the game ends, there is a little bit of end game scoring. You will get points based on how much ore you’ve collected. You will get points if there is an end game scoring unlockable bonus on the island.
Depending on how far voyagers have reached on the Exploration track, there will be a certain number of points for whoever has the most Colonists on the island. If players have reached far enough, there could be a smaller number of points for whoever has the second most.
Count up all of your victory point tokens and whoever has the most is the winner!
Is Embark a paradise island full of lovely beaches and musical nature sounds? Or is it Devil’s Island?
I’m not sure exactly how to describe Embark, though one way could be “there’s a lot in that small box!”
It’s not area control, and it’s not worker placement, but it’s kind of both? There’s also worker allocation.
I do know that it is a fun game with some interesting decisions behind the actions that you take.
Before I get into the full review, though, let’s talk about the components.
The player screens are pretty functional and I’m glad that they have the sequence of play illustrated on them (as you can see in the first picture way up at the top there). That’s very helpful. They also come in each player’s colour, so they’re unique.
The player and island mats aren’t thick, but they don’t really need to be. It’s not like they’re going to be handled much. The player screens don’t quite cover the entire player mat, but it’s close enough that it’s not too much bother.
The screens (along with the stands for them) take up a lot of room in the box, making for a very tight fit. You have to make sure everything is packed just so if you want the box lid to fit tightly.
Don’t even think about sleeving the ship cards!
Speaking of those, the colours are nice and bright, everything’s clearly marked on them. The card quality is good. I definitely like how the card shows you the disembarking order. Going from side to side was a little confusing for things such as when a Talent card mentions putting voyagers in “adjacent” berths and you’re not sure if that means the one behind it or the one next to it.
The Island cards can get quite cluttered with Colonists so it would be nice if there was a bit more space, but there’s no way the cards could get any bigger and keep the box size. It’s not too much of a hassle, though.
I’m not an expert, but it seems pretty colourblind friendly. The player colours are light green, light blue, black, yellow, and pink.
The rulebook is easy to follow, easy to reference, and explains the game very well.
The game play is quite intriguing. I like the hidden ship allocation and then revealing them. I found myself a few times wondering if I should put enough voyagers on a ship to make sure it sails, even though some will be wasted if anybody else puts voyagers on the same ship. Sometimes it seems like a waste but if you don’t and nobody else goes to that ship, those voyagers sit there picking their noses until next turn.
It’s all pretty straightforward otherwise. Embark is an easy game to teach and even if people aren’t quite getting it from your explanations, they will get it after the first round.
But the strategies aren’t quite as easy. Do you concentrate on one or two islands? Maybe you spread yourself too thin if you try to do something on all of them? What’s the best way to use your talent?
One of the talents lets you choose seven voyagers instead of five in your first few turns, meaning you have fewer at the end (though a bunch may be coming from the pub in later turns). Do you really go heavy on a ship or two?
One small issue I have with the game is that there’s really no way to catch up when you know you’re falling behind. The only way you can do that is if the people ahead of you get lazy or stupid.
If you’re lagging behind on points (counting the 45 points you will get for ore if you manage to collect 15 of them), you’re trailing in Colonists on all of the islands, there’s no way to really get ahead of them at that point.
Even if the ships going to that island have a bunch of Colonist/Captain spots that would let you make more Colonists, somebody else is probably going to take some of them.
It may be possible to catch up, but it’s unlikely.
At least the game looks pretty on the table! And it’s short enough not to really be an issue.
It also scales pretty well, though the strategies will be different.
There are only islands equal to the number of players on the table, so your spacing is limited.
That being said, if you’re playing a 2-player game, you have to spread out and contest both islands.
In higher-player games, depending on how the other players end up going, you can ignore an island or two if you need to. You might spread yourself too thin otherwise.
It’s fun at two, three, and four players (haven’t tried five yet).
One very small concern is variability if you play with five players a lot. With fewer players, you won’t see all of the islands. With five players, you only have five double-sided island cards, which means you have to choose either front or back. However, that’s not too much of a problem overall, as the combinations of islands will be different.
Embark is not an awesome game that will keep you coming back for more on a constant basis. You’re not going to spend the night after playing wondering what moves you could have made in your earlier game that would have helped you do better.
It is an enjoyable one, though. With three players (maybe four if everybody knows what they’re doing) it makes a great lunchtime game as it can be done in less than an hour.
I would definitely keep playing it, and it’s going to stay in my collection (the small box helps that last part).
This review was written after 3 plays. A review copy was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games in exchange for an honest review.