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Era of Inventions - a review by Neil Walters

This is one of about a dozen games I had earmarked on my shortlist of highly probables before I went to Essen. I had already read the rules online so I had a good idea of how it played, and a game about the development and production of inventions at the turn of the 20th century was thematically appealing and unusual as well. I’ve now played this game three times, a 4 player and a 5 player twice. All have been different and although there is nothing significantly new in the game play, there is a subtle re-mixing of the usual ingredients that gives the game a different feel that I like. The box advertises a playing time of 90 minutes and for once such a claim is pretty much spot on.

Era of Inventions is a game for between 3 to 5 players that uses that quite recent favourite and well trusted euro mechanic of “action selection” (“worker placement” if you prefer). Describing how the game works is simply done. You place two action tokens (three in a 3 player game) one at a time in an empty slot in one of the six action areas on the board. Each action area has two slots available, so twelve slots all told. You then carry out those actions one at a time in any order. Both activities are carried out in strict player order. In addition, players also start the game with between one and five extra action tokens again depending upon the number of players. One of these can be used at any time and in any area after a regular action. Apart from the odd bit of end of turn tidying up and preparations for the following round that’s all there is to it. In a sentence, stick your tokens down and do the actions. Which is actually quite a pleasant change.

The simplicity of the mechanics leaves you free to concentrate on the interesting bits such as deciding what your best selections will be bearing in mind what other players are doing, your position within the turn order and how best to manage your scarce resources. Turn order is important as first player rotates clockwise after each round. This means that the first player in turn one will be the last player is turn two, so there is definitely an element of forward planning required here, as actions that you would ideally like to take next turn will not necessarily be available. For me this adds to the challenge.

The idea of the game is to turn your scarce resources into a combination of factories (to produce different resources), designing new inventions (for mainly VPs or possibly cash) and producing the aforesaid new inventions (for VPs or cash). It is not sufficient to concentrate just on one of these activities alone, but equally spreading your actions too thinly across all three activities will likely dilute your overall potential. There is a finite number of regular actions in the game so you need to make them count.

Two of the action areas relate to factories, one to buy factories and the other that allows you to produce with all the factories you currently own. Two more areas specifically relate to the inventions. The first is the design area where you make your claim for one of nine different inventions ranging from a typewriter up to an aeroplane; the latter takes more resources to develop but earns far more prestige (VPs) as you might expect. Players can also develop a secondary (upgrade) of the same invention for VPs and possibly cash later on if it is produced. An alternative action in this same area is to buy patents for instant and possible end of game VPs and also gives some protection if you opponents produce fakes of your own inventions. Each invention is represented by three cards (two real and one fake) and once developed these will be shuffled together into the mix of existing invention cards for inclusion in the next round. This is where the second invention area comes in. Seven invention cards are laid out in the ‘produce inventions’ area at the start of a round which are available for production by any player. A nice feature here is that you will earn extra VPs if another player produces one of your inventions. However one of the things that you cannot guarantee is that your own inventions will turn up. This random element might bother some, but is not an issue for me.

As to the final two action areas, one lets you buy groups of resources for cash while the other is an exchange mechanism for trading up your cash and/or resources in exchange for other resources, cash, VPs and even additional extra action tokens. As an alternative to exchanging, you could just acquire a ‘development cog’ (required for developing inventions) instead.

Along with many other games, this is an exercise in efficiency and timing, and a very good one at that. I have seen a game won with loads of factories, and in contrast another where the winner has not bought or produced any factories at all. But for some reason Era of Inventions has sadly been lost in the plethora of new Essen releases. Some criticism has been levelled centred on games that people have played just the once with 5 players, and mainly around the assertion (misplaced I think) that players sitting in 4th and 5th position at the start of the game are at an acute disadvantage. While I don’t agree this is necessarily the case (two of my games have in fact been won by the player in 4th start position), I do think it is unfortunate that new designer Anthony Daamen advertised the game for five players. Had he stuck to a 3 to 4 player format and posted a health warning if you wanted try it out with five (much as Uwe Rosenberg did with Le Havre) then I feel Eof I would be getting a more positive press.

It is fair to say though that the five player version is a lot more challenging to play and less forgiving on mistakes. Here you have 20 regular actions total plus just the one extra action token, whereas in a four player you have 16 regular actions and five extra actions. Without knowing the reason why there should be such a disparity, it is clear that the four player version allows far more flexibility not only from the increased number of extra actions available but also because there is less congestion for available action slots. In three player with its whopping 27 regular actions and three extra actions, I suspect that the game is likely to be even more forgiving to play. I’m now really keen to try the game with this number.

A final word on the artwork and components. The graphics are a touch on the wrong side of arty for my tastes. The action slots blend in with the artwork on the board and could have been a little more conspicuous. For clarity, some of the colour combinations on the wooden bits could have been better (the white and natural colour resource cubes for example), but you get used to it after a couple of games.

These minor reservations don’t detract and ultimately the game’s the thing. As a Winsome season ticket holder for many years, you’ll know what I mean. Hopefully the above will give you a good idea of whether the game is for you. I’ve really enjoyed my games so far and I’m looking forward to playing again soon.

Paul's note : Era of Inventions was published in a limited edition English run of 500 copies that sold out at Essen 2010. I am selling the German version, will provide English rules adn as the game is language independent thats all you need to get playing

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