I hate 4’s. 4 is definitely the most overrated number. 1, 2, 3? Great stuff. Stellar work, the world wouldn’t be the same without them. 5+? Solid. Dependable. But 4? Urgh. I mean, I bet there are people out there who actually like 4! But they won’t after playing Unearth.
Like digging a diamond from the ground, Unearth is a shining box emerging from the recent archeological digs over at GenCon, now ready to grace your tabletop with its luscious isometric art. Is it forever? While said art style has clearly been influenced by iOS game Monument Valley, the gameplay is all of its own. Let’s dig a little a deeper.
You lead competing archeological expeditions looking to Unearth the many ruins and wonders of a bygone civilisation. Running down the centre of the table is a row of delightful, colourful ruins, that are sure to become premier tourist destinations once you are done with the unearthing. Surprisingly, unearthing a ruin is far from complicated! It’s just a matter of rolling your lovely dice.
On your turn you choose a die to roll and a ruin to work on, then make the roll and add it to that ruin. Simple and quick. Once the total value of all dice on a ruin equal the value written at the top of the card, that ruin has been fully unearthed and is claimed by whoever had the highest value die sitting on top of it. Yes, you could have been the first to discover this ruin but a lucky interloper makes a big find and steals all the glory! But Unearth does a lot to mitigate this luck.
Firstly, any other player on a ruin when it completes gains a delver card, which offers some bonus abilities that let you manipulate the dice, and your fate. But more importantly, low rolls will earn the little hexagonal tiles that are placed out on the ruins. In an undeniably abstract mechanic, you form rings of these tiles in your player area that, when completed, can be filled with one of the points scoring, or power offering, Wonder tiles. It’s as if you’re some kind of architectural bee.
This takes a lot of the potential frustration out of Unearth. Rolling high or rolling low can be equally beneficial. The game leans into this by offering you a choice of dice types, from the pointy D4 to the gem-like D8, letting you try to go for a particular approach. But nothing is going to stop you rolling a damnable 4! Neither small enough to earn you a resource tile nor typically large enough to keep control of a ruin, it is the most annoying number to see.
So how much of Unearth is buried under luck? A fair bit, but not too much. It walks a fine line. On the one hand you do think carefully about your decisions each turn. You choose a dice and a target. To make that choice, you need to weigh up what you might want to claim. Specialising in particular colours of ruin is beneficial. Get all of one colour and you’ll earn a ton of points, but good luck with that. 5 are discarded from the game at random at the start and every player will get a secret one to start with. It’s quite possible for someone else to have the same secret card as you, leaving you both having to scramble after other sets.
The resource tiles also come in different colours and the ones you’re interested in depend on the available wonders. Named wonders, which tend to come with special bonus rules, can only be built with a specific combination of these tiles. Greater Wonders are always coherently coloured so need a ring of identical colours, while lesser wonders don’t care at all, but are naturally worth fewer points.
So ideally you’ll be able to target a ruin in the colour you want, featuring some tiles you’d like to have, so that whatever you roll you should be in a position to benefit. But that doesn’t take into account your opponents. As the distribution of dice on the cards changes, you’ll be adapting to the opportunities that present themselves. When is a ruin going to trigger? Could you steal a ruin with a good roll? Is it worth taking a risk or going for something a little safer?
The delver cards you collect as ruins trigger give further opportunities, boosting the value of your dice, letting you roll first and then decide where to play, re-rolling all the dice of a particular value, amongst others. You end up with a good amount to think about as your turn comes around! Solid going, for a pretty basic game.
However, there are still those 4s waiting for you. As much as Unearth tries to mitigate the luck of the dice the fact is you are still at their mercy. A turn can result in you getting nothing (well, delver cards aside but they don’t compare to those hexy tiles) and that can be frustrating. But that’s what dice do! They give you those emotional highs and lows. More disappointingly it means you can’t plan to go after a particular strategy. Whether you are gaining wonders or ruins is not up to you, you just have to try and make choices to benefit you no matter how the dice fall.
Unearth is a thoroughly grounded title. It offers a simple system that mostly smooths over its inherent randomness but leaves enough to keep things exciting. While you can lose out simply because of an unerring ability to roll 4s (no bitterness here!) Unearth is so quick you want to jump back in and try and do better. That’s the mark of a good game!
But I am left wondering whether, once the aesthetic lustre has worn off, Unearth will really have the staying power to keep visiting your table? I don’t expect it will if only because it doesn’t have the depth to dig into. It’s some light fun, which isn’t exactly how I expect to describe archeology but hey-ho. I think I will always be happy to play it, and then I’ll lose and probably want to play it again! But I’m not desperate to bring it to the table in the mean time. There’s just not that much to unearth beneath its admittedly beautiful surface.
Rating: Lesser Wonder