Ex Libris is a game about running a library and, wouldn’t you believe it? Running a library is really fun!
It’s all about getting your books in order. Not financially, but literally. And not literature-ally but literally literally. Look, here’s what that means.
You’ll be collecting book cards, each uniquely titled with something suitably witty, and you want to arrange them in your non-creaking shelves (which you are also building) in alphabetical order. Screw you dewy decimal system! I have discovered that putting things in alphabetical order in games is incredibly satisfying. Like Alphabeticell (part of Wibbell++) that I reviewed earlier this year. You see, the alphabet is a long sequence that everyone intrinsically knows. There’s no explanation required, and the length of it allows you to create a push your luck element to proceedings. You can happily skip the odd letter or group of letters but you restrict your future options by doing this. It’s really, really good!
Ex Libris then pushes the challenge into more meaty territory by setting you set collection challenges and adding in shelving. You can build three levels of shelves at a time, but the books must be in alphabetical order from top left to bottom right. Additionally, you want to not leave gaps between neighbouring cards as this will compromise your score. Thus, shelves become both an opportunity and something else to manage. You get to build from multiple start points in the alphabet (maybe the Cs on the top shelf, the Js in the middle and a P on the bottom), but then you try to build them in a coherent block, and leaving gaps can help but demand you work to fill them. This whole personal player puzzle is wonderful.
The actual mechanics for achieving this construction are focused around some relatively simple worker placement with constantly varying spots available to visit. This is nice, and will certainly keep the game varied, but was also weaker than the shelving puzzle. It felt functional rather than inspiring. Spots rarely felt amazingly exciting, and the whole process was further dragged down by the terrible use of small white text explaining the action printed directly on to the colourful artwork. Naturally with repeated plays you’ll learn the spots but the first few games will involve a lot of frustrating squinting.
All in all, I totally get the enthusiasm that exists for this game. I love the bookshelves, the core point of playing the game. I wish the turn by turn actions held my attention so thoroughly but it’s a solid core off of which the game’s real highlight hangs. I’m looking forward to more Ex Libris!