(Art and components shown are not final.)
Stop me if you’ve played this game before. There are some actions, but through an arbitrary process, you can’t play the same action back to back, so you have to plan out action routes in advance. Polyominoes are displayed in a spiral on the center of the table. You draft them. If you don’t want the first one you have to pay increasing amounts of money for what’s behind it. You place these pieces down in particular arrangements in order to fill contracts. There’s a secondary resource that you store on a player board, but only so many spaces in which to store it for no apparent reason. One of your actions generates money, and you can do things in the game to make it so you get more money whenever you take that action. One of the actions feels like an excuse to develop some “player interaction” but it’s not particularly consequential.
In the hot and exciting world of board game twitter there was some discussion last week prompted by some tweetings that said the author would prefer ambitious games that failed to games recycling the same bucket of mechanisms that work fine. I’ve expressed similar sentiments in the past when I’ve grown particularly tired of the games I’ve been playing, though it’s typically a “derivative” game that brings me back. I mean, honestly, how many board games are really, truly pushing boundaries? We operate within a fairly narrow spectrum of originality, and part of the reason I love reviewing games is to pull out the small little details that separate a great experience from a mediocre one. So no, I’d rather not play an ambitious failed game, but I’m glad they’re made because they help us all reconsider the boundaries of our medium.
That said, am I biased against the unoriginal because I’m often playing new games as a reviewer? Does the critic slowly fall out of touch as they seek out something they haven’t seen before? Does it matter if they do? Honestly, I want people out there who are wading through the failed passion projects to find the gems. Others, I think, do not feel the same. I don’t think I’m to the point where I can’t find pleasure in the familiar, but I do worry about it, especially when I play a game like Curators, where all of my playing partners enjoyed it more than I did.
As I played I started counting the other games in which I’ve seen all of these parts before. Consistently I found myself wanting to play those other games instead. In a world where hundreds and thousands of new games arrive each year, a game can separate itself from the pack by either a new innovation or a certain level of depth and polish. Curators slides right into the game mass, neither standing out in any way nor affecting anything around it.
Take, for example, the process by which you fill your museum with artifacts to score points. First you draft your polyomino pieces–great! Polyominoes are fun and so is drafting. You try to match the colors and shapes to your secret goal cards, so there’s some spatial puzzling in there too. Then you have to get relics, which you can do by sending someone out to get one of them, or by paying for more. The relics come in three colors, and there’s no rhyme or reason to what the colors mean or why you’re only collecting three things or how they relate to your museum configuration. It might as well be completely abstract. Nothing about any of this relates to being a museum curator in any way. It’s simply some steps you take because the game tells you that’s what to do.
Your actions are selected via some nifty chips. When you take an action you flip the corresponding chip over, revealing a different action underneath. What you want to do is plan out a path by which you can take a number of double actions (by flipping two of the same), thereby increasing your efficiency.
The tiny amount of “engine building” in Curators is developed via its most interesting strategic decision. The amount of money you get from the money action is determined by how many visitor pieces you have on your board, and those are determined by how many “wings” (read: polyomino pieces) you’ve filled with stuff. The wings range from 1-4 squares and the trade-off is that the larger wings give you points. So do you go for smaller wings for early income, or try to snag the more action and point efficient larger pieces? I admit this question did hold my interest for a time.
But after a couple of plays the “game” of it all slips away revealing a raw mishmash of basic calculations, neither complex enough to hold interest as a puzzle nor interactive enough to be a cutthroat competitive endeavor. Instead I found myself going through the game motions–puzzling out my action path, figuring out which museum pieces I need to fulfill my goals, and then doing the things that result in those pieces getting relic chits in them. Do I care about what my opponents are doing? I may be frustrated if they grab the ideal museum piece, making me shift my plans a bit (but only a bit!) Other than that I don’t really care, nor can I interfere. Is my brain engaged by the problems before me? Enough to distract myself from the outside world, but barely so.
The puzzles presented to you are occasionally interesting, but nothing will ever be a surprise. Curators doesn’t understand the concept of surprise. It’s a combination of well-tested game mechanisms that work. I mean, it doesn’t not work. It’s fine.