Game Review: Unearth

Unearth is a 2-4 player game created by Jason Harner and Matthew Ransom. It’s put out by Brotherwise Games, whose claim to fame is Boss Monster.

I had the unique opportunity to demo this game for others at the Brotherwise Games booth at both Origins and GenCon in 2017. It was a situation I kind of fell in to and had an amazing experience. There are stories of not being able to get my badge and given the run-around, but I’m sure most of you that have attended other conventions or festivals have your own horror stories about badges, wristbands, tickets, etc. So, I’ll skip those, and move on to the happy memories: demoing Unearth.

When I first heard I would have to demo Unearth, I was disappointed. The whole reason I signed up for the Brotherwise demo team was because I loved Boss Monster. Truth be told, I don’t get to play Boss Monster as much as I’d like, since my kids aren’t quite old enough to play it. I was excited to have the opportunity to teach others Boss Monster while getting to enjoy it myself for a few hours. So, when I showed up to the Brotherwise booth and found out I was running Unearth, I was met with a mix of disappointment and worry. I got a crash course on how to play Unearth about 10-15 minutes before the doors to the convention opened. I had a nervous pit in my stomach. “What if I mess up the game for people who want to play it? What if I end up being the reason someone has a bad impression of the game? I’m not a gamer. I’m just a guy who happens to enjoy some games. I’m not qualified to actually teach anyone how to play this. Ahhh! What am I doing?!” Ready. Set. Go!

As you can imagine, it went better that I had envisioned. Part of that was me being able to teach the game better than I initially gave myself credit for. The bigger part of that is because Unearth is such a fantastically designed game. Let me run through my spiel that I used during the 28+ total hours of Unearth demoing.

Ah-hem.

Unearth is one part set collection, one part worker placement. Like most games, the winner will be determined by who has the most victory points at the end. You earn victory points by completing sets of like colored Ruins, or building Wonders. Each turn you will select one of you dice, or Delvers, to send in to a Ruin. You will choose you Delver, then choose the Ruin you are sending him to. Roll the die and place it on the Ruin card. If the total value of all Delvers on a Ruin are equal to or greater than the number in the upper left corner of the Ruin card, the Ruin is claimed. It goes to the player with the single highest die value on that card. So if the red player has a 6, and the blue player has a 4 and a 5, the red player claims it because they have the single highest value, regardless of whose Delver was just placed. In the case of ties, the Ruin goes to the player with a die that has the greater number of faces. So, a 6 on a d8 beats a 6 on a d6. If it is still tied, you look to the next highest die of either of those players. If it is STILL a tie, the Ruin is removed from the game. No one gets it.

If you roll a 1, 2, or 3, you get a Stone. When each Ruin is put in to play, Stones are randomly selected from the bag to place on them equal to the number on the lower right corner of the Ruin card. If you complete a circle of 6 Stones, you get a Wonder. Some Wonders are worth victory points, and some give you abilities for the rest of the game. All Wonders have specific color requirements. So keep that in mind when selecting which Stones you are picking. After you complete a circle of 6 Stones and build a wonder, you can build off of that circle, when completing your next set of 6.

So, high die rolls will help you claim Ruins, complete sets, earn victory points. Low die rolls will let you pick stones, build Wonders, earn victory points. These two methods of getting victory points are very balanced as I’ve seen a game where one player did not complete a single Wonder, but claimed the majority of the Ruins while another player only claimed 1 or 2 Ruins, but built 5 Wonders. They finished within 2 victory points of each other.

One last thing. Each player starts the game with 2 Delver cards. You can play any number of Delver cards on your turn, before you make your roll. You cannot play them after the roll is made, so you have to decide if you want to use the card before you see what your die roll is. The only way to get more of these Delver cards, is when you have dice on a Ruin that is claimed by another player. If that happens, each Delver that returns to you comes back with a Delver card.

The game ends when the last Ruin in the deck is claimed. I think that’s everything, so unless anyone has any questions, let’s go ahead and get started.

It’s funny how well I remembered that little speech. But seriously. I said it a lot.

So, now that I’m not working at the Brotherwise booth, I can tell you what I really think about Unearth. I think it is a tragically underrated game. In a day where expansions, and stretch goals, and tiers of depth are praised, there’s such great value in a simple, engaging game. At times it feels like I’m playing a game that been around for years. I don’t know how, but Unearth has a timelessness about it that is hard to describe.

Some players might shy away at first, seeing how much randomness of die-rolling affects claiming ruins. However, I think the stone/Wonder method of gaining victory points can mitigate the difference between “good” and “bad” dice rolls. That, and I think that there’s enough strategy behind other decisions in the game that bad luck can be worked around, to some degree.

There’s so much replayability with the varying End of Age cards (the final card in the Ruin deck that changes up how the last few turns of the game will play out) and the multiple Wonders. Every game will use both the Lesser Wonder and Greater Wonder tiles. In a regular 3-4 player game, you will randomly select 5 or 6 other unique Wonders for that playthrough as well. With 7 different End of Age cards, and 19 different unique Wonders, strategy can change pretty drastically each time you play.

The artwork mimics the “simple but beautiful” gameplay design perfectly. Many of the players who I demoed the game for commented that the artwork was made them first take notice of Unearth. The smooth, geometric design of the delvers, the ruin cards, even the Wonders, all flow together seamlessly.

Are there things I would change? Obviously. I’ve never played a game that I couldn’t nitpick to some degree. For instance:

  • The Ruin colors. There are 5 colors of ruins: Orange, Green, Teal, Light Purple, and Dark Purple. While teaching the game to others, there were a few moments where I had to point out that the Light Purple and Dark Purple were in fact different colors, not part of the same set. If it were up to me, I probably would make the Light Purple a White or Yellow. I think both of those colors could fit within the palette of the game’s artwork.
  • When playing with 2 players, it can lack interaction at times. If each player is happy going after different Ruins, because they are after different sets right out of the gate, it could get a little monotonous taking turns, trying to claim your individual Ruins with no competition.
  • You tend to gravitate towards which End of Age card or Wonders are your favorites. Sometimes it’s hard to NOT use those ones every time for the sake of variability.

That said. There is so much to love about this game, as I mentioned above.

  • Simple/elegant gameplay
  • Artwork
  • Replayability
  • Can win with both high or low die rolls
  • Turns are fast paced. Very little downtime waiting for other players’ turns.

I’m a little shocked that I’m not seeing this game get talked about much. I know there was some fanfare before its release. And it seemed to be one of the more popular games at GenCon 2017. I think part of that is because very large scale, hours long, games are dominating the spotlight right now. Unearth comes in a lightweight box. It doesn’t boast complexity. There are no expansions to speak of, reminding players of the base game. It’s a fun game.

After guiding players through countless play throughs, I still willingly play this game. I think it’s great. I have no doubt that this will see play for years to come in my house. I highly recommend it.

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