My first Essen was extremely ad-hoc. I’d submerged myself into gaming and was blissfully gliding through the deeps of the hobby. I’d just moved to Germany and knew enough of its geography to know that it contained Essen. Everyone in gaming talked about Essen. Two weeks before the event I scoured hotel websites looking for something cheap and rose from the Mariana Trench of the internet with something that cost me 22euros a night. I shared a room with a man and his teenage daughter. Not a word passed between us in the days we spent together. They were sleeping when I left and they were sleeping when I arrived back. The only sign that I’d ever been there was the steadily growing pile of games and the blood curdling screams from my congenital night terrors.
Millions of words have been written and digital vats of virtual ink have been spilt eulogising Essen, Gen Con and conventions in general. Barns full of innocently hyperbolic paragraphs containing adjectives like “awesome” and “life-changing” cover the internet landscape and reap bushels of upvotes. This isn’t one of those pieces. I’ll leave those pieces to the people who enjoy the devotional adjective more than me. Safe to say I broadly agree with those sentiments and welcome the billions of words that will cover that well trodden ground in the future.
I mention my first Essen for two reasons. Firstly, it was where I bought, on a whim, five minutes before leaving, the game I’m writing about in this piece and secondly because I’m incurably prolix and need a three hundred word run up on any topic I choose to handle.
This is a piece about a game I love. A game I have had many hours of enjoyment from and I game I still play. This is a piece(as you will have already guessed by the title) about Spyrium by William Attia.
Spyrium is little remembered today, a scant four years after its release but it was quite the thing at the time. This was the follow up from the person who had designed the titanic, Caylus and that was a big deal. This game’s subsequent descent into the annals of obscurity is a shame, an understandable shame but a shame nevertheless.
But why is it understandable I hear you ask. If you love the game so much you should be bemused at its fall from grace rather than accepting, shouldn’t you? SHOULDN’T YOU!!!!
I shouldn’t and if you’ll calm down for two minutes I’ll explain why. There’s the theme, it exists but barely. There is nothing to grab on to. Nothing that plunges hooks into the flanks of your imagination. The players are people and doing something for Queen Victoria with some new mineral. Or something. There is a lot of muddy brown and men in steampunk spectacles. In fact if muddy brown is your thing then you have found Xanadu. Everything is caked in it and what isn’t caked in brown is smeared with the grey and black smut of the factory. It seems the graphic designer had taken Friedrich Engels and George Elliot as their jumping off point and just got drabber from there.
Also the game is modest. It comes in a small box and doesn’t boast the kinds of toys that are so in vogue. It doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t have any “shelf presence”(I take a pause to scrub myself after using that phrase).It uses a fantasy theme but barely and has components that do their job rather than drink the entire Caledonian oil reserves in their production. It’s an exquisite and quiet game so subsequently gets drowned out in the neon roar of plastic and apps; it is wonderful though so in my small way I want to try and amplify it and bring it to a wider audience.
I love crunchy decisions. The crunchier the better. I absolutely hate it when someone leaves the bag of decisions open over night and they go all soft. I want my decisions to be audible ten rows down in the cinema and Spyrium is just one big plastic bag full of crunchy decisions.
Game designers like to reiterate systems and William Attia is no exception. Worker placement rests on the twin pillars of Agricola and Caylus but Spyrium shows a greater departure from the subtle steps forward that Uwe Rosenberg makes in his reiterative designs. There is worker placement in Spyrium but the system has been gutted and rebuilt from scratch. The chassis is old and battered but the engine is running on hyper-kenetic-cryo-fuel.
Cards are placed out in a grid and workers are placed in between giving players an option of which card they can activate. Couple that with the fact that removing a worker can also furnish you with the cash needed to do the actions in the first place, the simple act of plopping down a meeple becomes a tactical game of chicken where the person who blinks first can lose vital coins or have the one building that completes their plan swiped from under their nose.
Placement and activation are separated into different phases here like in traditional worker placement games but the decision of when to make the transition between phases is decided on by the player independently. Do you place all of your workers and get more actions but run the risk of being gazumped or do you pull the trigger quickly, giving you fewer options but letting you operate quicker?
The cost of actions are determined by the prices on the cards but also the amount of workers that surround it so waiting is cheaper and money is tight but if you wait someone could jump ahead of you steal that vital component of your machine. Timing is everything in Spyrium and it is in that that the joyous crunch of Spyrium emerges.
I have to declare a bias here. Those games that I bought at that first Essen are tainted with the gossamer corruption of nostalgia. It’s as if they are smeared with Vaseline and bathed in candle light so that whenever I look at them they appear in eighties soft-focus but, importantly, most of them haven’t been played since. Spyrium has and recently too and I can say, without reservation, that it is as good and crunchy now as it was that first night when, punch drunk and booze drunk, I tore off the cellophane, laid it on the table, started the machine and watched it chug under my inelegant fingers. I recommend that you do the same. I recommend you go to wherever you can find this game and buy it. Spend hard cash on this game that some rando on the internet is gushing about. Don’t look at the cover or the size of the box. Give the person behind the counter your money and then rush home and start up this wonderful machine. I promise you, you won’t regret it.