I have to admit, this one is a tricky one to write as I was looking forward to Encyclopedia for quite some time. While I’m usually more attracted by mid-to-heavy games, interesting use of dice is always something that gets my attention. The fact that a number of YouTubers were very positive in their previews and a slight reminiscences of the dice-buying action in Troyes for sure also helped. It was obvious this wouldn’t be a revolutionary new game design, but the pricing of Encyclopedia’s Kickstarter seemed very fair and my collection always has a space for games I can play with both casual as well as heavy gamers. And let’s be honest: the artwork just looked gorgeous!
As some of you may know, I like to dig deep and write about the story behind a game, the part that’s not obvious or in your face, some aspect that’s intriguing and fascinating. But it’s been a couple of weeks now since the Encyclopedia Kickstarter arrived on my doorstep. I’ve played it solo, 2 and 3 player, with expansion content and without. And to make a long story short, the most intriguing aspect to me is that I’m still trying to find that intriguing aspect. Why do I want this game to be great so badly? I have culled a lot of really good games this year without much of a second thought but found myself struggling with Encyclopedia. Why?
Structurally, Encyclopedia is a rather simple game which makes it the more surprising that the main board is quite frankly enormous. It shows six action spaces to place dice in, a market for experts to hire, another for animals to research, and a grid of spaces representing various aspects of publication such as a particular habitat. Shuffle the large animals, place a number (depending on player count) of them into the market on the board, and do the same for the smaller expert cards. At the top of the board are slots for six of the cardboard round markers, indicating both on which round the game is as well as which bonus all players will get at the beginning of that round.
Each player gets a player board showing a personal reputation track (producing onetime bonuses once certain fields are passed) and 4 slots for active experts (special abilities), a set of small wooden publication cubes, and two slightly odd side boards that slot into the player board. The left shows a character that for some strange reason neither has an effect nor is related to the player colour. The right part is equally strange as it shows the required dice value to publicise a particular aspect of an animal such as its natural habitat, which could as well have been part of the main board and the number of VP such a publication will bring (which is also printed on the main board). Its backside is more helpful as it contains information for final scoring, but still, most games would simply have put that on the main board. What is clever about the player boards is that any number of them can be flipped to their backside to be used as AI opponents. More games should allow adding more than just a single automa at once.
A hint of things to come are the two victory point markers each player gets, one for 0-99 and 100-199 points and the other for 200-299 and 300-399 points. Finally, each player gets some starting money, picks two animals from the market, and gets a single ship token, more on those later. In general, the components are well produced and look inviting. If the main board wouldn’t be as try-hard enormous as it is, I’d say this is a text book example of how to get casual players in a good mood for the game to come.
At the beginning of each of the six rounds, the round bonus marker is revealed and each player gets a small bonus such as a free animal card, some money, or a free expert. All dice used in the previous round are placed back into the bag. Each player draws 4 of them and places one one each on the four slots at the top of their player board. This is the claim to fame or party piece of Encyclopedia. Each of the four slots shows a different bonus: 3 VP, 2 reputation, 3 money, or no bonus at all. When it’s a player’s turn, that player picks any one die that is still available, either from their own board or one of the other players. If the latter, that player receives the bonus printed on the slot the dice was in. The active player doesn’t have to pay anything (e.g. money comes from the back), it’s more a case of do I want that particular colour/value so badly that I’m willing to give that player a push for their own plans.
A die can be used for one of six possible actions, each with their own section on the main board. Shipping produces ship tokens equal to half the number of pips on the die (rounded up), the bank produces 5 coins regardless of die value and gives first player to whoever used this action first. Placing a die at the expert market allows picking any one of the available experts, regardless of colour or die value. However, if the colour matches, the player receives a free ship token. Placing a die in the university (=animal market) allows picking up an animal matching the die’s colour and awarding reputation equal to half of the die value (again rounded up). All collected animals are spread out face open near the player’s board and thus become available for exploration. There is no limit or other restriction to the type, colour or number of animal card one can collect.
Animals and Publication
Before talking about the final two action types, let’s take a closer look at the animals. Each animal has 5 criteria: which of the five continents they are mostly associated with (also shown by their colour), their type (mammal, bird, reptile), food source (plants, meat, omnivore), habitat (grass, forest, water), and climate zone (hot, cold, rainy). Each of the 4 criteria other than continent is represented by a square on the animal to place publication cubes. There are also 12 boxes in the publication area on the main board, representing each possible instantiation (e.g. hot zone, cold zone, rain zone, vegetarian, omnivore, …).
To get cubes onto animals, the player has to place a die in the expedition area of the same continent on the main board. So a yellow die is required to research animals from Africa and the spot on the main board it is placed in shows how main reputation points the player receives as well as what value is added to the number of pips on the die itself. This sum (plus additional money or ship tokens) is the number of research points the player can spent on any animal from that continent they have in their collection. Placing a cube on the type of animal as opposed to for example its climate zone is cheaper but also produces less immediate VP.
The last type of action is to do a publication. The player places a die on any of their animals of that colour and thus dedicates that animal as the “reference animal”. The player can now take any cubes on that animal or cubes from other animals that share the same criteria (even from other continents) and place them on the main board to get additional VP. The player can also add any animal that is of the same continent (=colour) to the publication. All cards that match the colour of the reference animal are put into a private face down collection for end game scoring where animals from other continents that are also part of the publication are simply discarded. Note that publication cubes on other animals that don’t match the reference animal are lost and won’t be placed on the main board. However, there is always the option to leave animals out of the current publication and rather add them to a later publication.
So to sum up: get cubes on animals for some immediate VP, try to do publications efficiently to get most of those cubes on to the main board for more VP, and there is a balance between the VP something produces and the number of research points needed to research it.
End of Game
The game ends after the sixth round and final scoring will occur. I’ve left out a number of things like royal seals which can be used to boost dice or do an extra action. What is important to know is that both royal seals as well as ship tokens can be used to change the colour of a die, so the colour of available dice is important but not as restrictive as it might first seem. In general, players try to use small value dice to get money and experts to boost their effectiveness in later rounds as one can easily us up 20-30 research points in one expedition.
During final scoring, players check both the number of animals/cards they have for each continent as well as every one of the 12 publication boxes on the main board for the number of cubes they have collected there (e.g. how many cubes does one have on the water habitat). The higher the number, the more VP.
Expansion Content and Kickstarter Components
The Encyclopedia expansion comes in the form of a deck of cards, basically adding “more”. There are additional animals and experts with different effects, but none of them were things I would have missed if someone would have removed them from the game. The expansion also introduces event cards which are randomly drawn at the beginning of the round and reward or block certain types of actions for the round. I found them a bit annoying as it is up to pure chance whether or not they will benefit a player. For example, if the event blocks players from exploring a certain continent that round, this might be irrelevant or completely screwing you over depending on what type of cards you are happening to collect. There are some additional things included but those are the main features.
The kickstarter also offered upgraded components for the coins, ship tokens and royal seals. While the coins are nice and fit the theme well, I found all three to be highly optional. Usually I enjoy having upgraded components as can be seen by the large collection of metal coins I have. But for Encyclopedia, I kind of wished I had gotten the base pledge. The components are very well produced, but simply did not add to the enjoyment of the game for me.
The solo mode works quite nicely and in fact felt stronger to me than the multiplayer experience. Each automa gets a pair of cards that control what action they will perform when getting a die of a particular value (e.g. 5 = explore) and how they score at the end of the game. They completely ignore the whole publication mechanism. Instead, automa get a huge amount of VP by collecting cards of the same colour as they will get the number of animals times the number of animals plus experts in that colour as VP. This can easily be 100+ VP in a single colour if the human player doesn’t actively block the automa from snatching up particular cards.
The solo mode has a lot going for it. The different scoring of the automa and fixed behaviour according to dice value makes Encyclopedia a nice puzzle of ”if I take this die they will do this but I cannot give them that value or they do this”. Although the behaviour of the automa is decided by a card, don’t expect too much variety. In general they try to collect cards of their preferred colour or convert ship tokens to VP during expeditions. What differs is how strong those actions are and which one is associated with which die value.
When I decided to back Encyclopedia, it was with a strong awareness of how reasonable the publisher tried to be. It was obvious that this was a solid game for a fair price, not the component riddled over-the-top production of some other Kickstarters that wish they would become game of the year. The one outstanding feature is the lovely, lovely artwork. I was reminded of seeing Tokaido many years ago at Essen. I saw it in the bag of another convention goer and was so blown away by the cover that I immediately rushed to the publisher’s booth to get a copy, despite me knowing hardly anything about the game – and the announcement that the convention was in fact now closed!
Similar to Tokaido, Encyclopedia is a game I wanted to love but ultimately failed to do so. When stripping away the artwork and theme of Encyclopedia, a number of things become painfully obvious: for example, there is no benefit to lower die values and the colour of a die can be changed quite easily. This lead to turns feeling always the same, with high values going first into the acquiring of new animals, exploration or publication, then followed by using the lower values to get money or pick up an expert. What is odd is that it is surprisingly easy to work around the colour of a die, but on the other hand we found that pre-planning didn’t make much sense because another player may snatch up a particular card or die. This lead to a strange combination of both being AP-prone and no-preplanning.
There is also no real incentive to publish early in the game either. While a player gets a royal seal as a bonus for publishing, this usually doesn’t balance out that the player has to spent an action and a high value die. The publishing itself is highly counterintuitive and new players were struggling to a) understand it and b) use it efficiently. While I at first imagined Encyclopedia to be a great game for players that for example like playing Wingspan or Calico over and over again, in the end I’m afraid the publication mechanism will rather turn them off. Once internalised, it felt like less of a clever mechanism to utilise but something that is dominated by what animals show up in the market. Getting the right reference animal is crucial and sometimes none that would work become available, forcing you to do multiple publications (or loosing a lot of publication cubes).
What is interesting is that both going for volume (e.g. lots of animals and publicising only on the type of animal) as well as quality (e.g. publicising only climate zone) are viable strategies. Overall, it felt to us like the former is the more powerful one, but of course it depends on what opportunities your opponents leave you to snatch up.
The main problem for me is that the dice selection/bonus mechanism has such a little effect. In a game with scores easily going in the 200+ area, getting a fitting animal or expert can easily knock out the effect of giving another player 3VP for taking their die. The strongest bonus seemed to be reputation as that can put a little fuel on your own engine of creating even more VP. Overall, Encyclopedia felt more like a card collection game than a clever dice selection game to us. Add to that various usability problems (such as red and purple being virtually indistinguishable in all but great light) and it resulted in an experience that was unfortunately either unsatisfying or overstayed its welcome. While 2 player was okay, 3 player took way to long for my taste.
Which brings me to the top of this review. I really, really wanted to like Encyclopedia which makes me wonder how much this is the result of wrong expectations. For one, I imagine that this is one of those rare cases where I’d be happier with the retail edition since I neither derived joy out of the expansion nor the upgraded components. I’m also tempted to say that if the die-selection mechanism (which initially got me interested) wouldn’t have been there at all – or better – it would have been way more essential and the multiplayer experience would put more emphasis on blocking cards for your opponents, same as in solo, the result would have been much more enticing to me. I’m one of those people that liked the idea of Wingspan but not the game mechanics. I would have loved Encyclopedia to be my Wingspan, a nice, pleasant mid-to-low-weight card collecting (or even better cut throat die-selection) mixed with “something” game. Instead, it has unfortunately already left my collection, hopefully bringing lots of joy to the person I sold it to. I’m wondering whether I would feel different if the artwork weren’t that drop dead gorgeous. But the fact that I’m still thinking (and writing) about Encyclopedia leads me to believe there is something there. The execution just ultimately didn’t work for me…