Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 27 June 2014

Psssh-ti-cooff Fun

If you have never watched Ivor the Engine, then you should watch this video before reading the rest of this review. Made by Smallfilms, also responsible for other classics such as The Clangers and Bagpuss, this BBC children’s television classic told the tales of the adventures of a small green locomotive who lived in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and worked for The Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited with the help of his driver, Jones the Steam. Most of us will remember the colour episodes from the 1970s, but the original six episodes were made in black and white in 1959, making the series fifty-five in 2014. So it seems as good a year as any to celebrate the series by us helping Ivor the Engine out. Which is exactly what we get to do in Ivor the Engine, a new board game designed by Tony Boydell—whose previous game, Snowdonia, also involved trains and railways, and also happened to be set in Wales—and published by Surprised Stare Games.

Illustrated by Peter Firmin, the illustrator of the Ivor the Engine television series, the Ivor the Engine game asks the players to come to the aid of Ivor the Engine and Jones the Steam in rounding up lots of lost sheep and do any number of good deeds. Designed for three to five players, aged eight and up, Ivor the Engine is a game of tidying up sheep and fulfilling tasks that can be played in about an hour or so—arguably much quicker once the players know the game. The winner is the player who at the end of the game has the most sheep—gained in  rounding up sheep and completing jobs. 

It is played out over a map of forgotten corner of north Wales, with various locations such as Grumbly Gasworks and Gwynaudolion Halt, Mrs Porty’s House and Pugh’s Farm, Tan-Y-Gwlch and Dinwiddy’s Gold Mine, and towns like Llangubbin, Grumbly Town, and Tewyn. All of these locations are connected by branch lines. In addition, a main line runs between Llangubbin and Tewyn which allows direct movement between the towns. Most of these locations consist of a single large hexes, although some consist of two, so the players need to be careful with their movement.

Besides the board with its map, Ivor the Engine consists of a rulebook, several cardboard Trucks (the players' pieces), cubes of gold and coal, plenty of wooden sheep (sheep meeples or  ‘sheeples’!), wooden tokens to represent flocks of sheep, and various cards and cardboard pieces. The cards consist of Sheep Pens for the players and a mix of Job Cards and Event Cards. The cardboard pieces include lost sheep tokens, a pair of Sleeping idris tokens and a pair of Runaway Sheep Tokens, and an Ivor the Engine Token. 

At the start of the game, the map is seeded with sheep—the number on each location determined by the random placement of the lost sheep tokens; each player receives three Job Cards, a Sheep Pen and matching Truck, plus a single piece of gold and coal each. Each player also places his Truck on the board starting with the youngest player, who also receives the Ivor the Engine Token. Three Job Cards are laid out face up alongside the board in a Card Line.

On his turn, each player does three things. The first is to take a sheep from his current location and place it on his Sheep Pen. Second, he moves his Truck. He can move from his current location to an unoccupied adjacent location along a connected single-track branch line. He cannot move into a location if another player has his Truck there and he wants to move further, he must steam up and shovel more coal into the boiler, one piece of coal for each extra location. If a player starts at either the towns of Llangubbin or Tewyn, then a player can use two coal to travel from one to the via the main line. If a player needs more coal, then he can purchase more by spending gold.

Before or after a player has moved his Truck, he can play a Job Card. Each Job Card has a task and a location, a reward for completing the task—anyway from three to six sheep, and an action that a player can do instead of completing the task on the Job Card. For example, “Fetching  Mr Brangwyn’s pigeons from” … “Llangubbin” instructs a player to travel to Llangubbin where in return for fetching the pigeons, he will be rewarded with three sheep. Alternatively, the player can use the Job Card for the action, “Make 2 extra moves.” and discard the card. Other actions enable a player to take coal or sheep or gold, put sheep back onto a location (from the supply or another player’s Sheep Pen), or take cards from the Card Line. More special actions temporarily force another player to give up any sheep he collects as they run away—this is what the Runaway Sheep token denotes, or allow him to take extra Job Cards from the deck. He also takes a Sleeping Idris token to indicate that he misses a turn for taking this special action.

What is important to know is that a player cannot complete a Job Card on a particular town or village until it has been cleared of sheep—the player who does so, also receives bonus sheep. What is also important to know is that when a player completes a Job Card he must read out the details of the Job Card. (A Welsh accent is not required for this.)

Lastly, a player takes a new Job Card from the Card Line, which is then refreshed. If the new card added to the Card Line is an Event Card, it has an event that takes effect immediately, is seeded with a single sheep, and a reward that takes effect at the end of the game. To select an Event Card from the Card Line, a player must pay a single piece of gold. For example, the “Bani Moukerjee” Event Card forces each player to move his truck to Llanmad or discard a sheep—this is the only time that the players’ trucks can be on the same location. If selected, this Event Card will reward a player with an extra sheep for each Job Card completed.

The end of game is triggered when one player ends his turn with a certain number of sheep, the number dependant upon how many players there are. Then everyone else receives one further turn to ensure that everyone has the same number of turns. Once done, everyone counts up their sheep and the player with the most is the winner.

Physically, Ivor the Engine is a lovely game. The artwork is delightful—both on the cards and on the board; the rulebook—which initially looks intimidating—is well written and easy to grasp; and the wooden sheep are, of course, delightful.

There are exactly two things wrong with Ivor the Engine, both to do with the components. First, the cardboard pieces used to represent the players’ Trucks are disappointing and add little to the game—wooden locomotives would have been far more in keeping with the charm and feel of the game.  Second, the flat wooden pieces used to represent the flocks of five sheep are equally disappointing, not to say dull, and add nothing to the game. It would have been nice if larger wooden sheep had been included to represent sheep. Of course, including such components would probably have increased the cost of what is otherwise a very reasonably priced game, but then, there is nothing to stop the owner of Ivor the Engine from replacing them himself.

At first glance, Ivor the Engine looks like a children’s game—no surprise given the source material. It is not that though, although it can be played by children. Given its length and subject matter, it offers a surprising degree of complexity that adult gamers will enjoy. There are plenty of choices to make—what sheep to take, which places to visit, and what Job Cards or Event Cards to select. The game is primarily competitive, although one player can block access to a location and some of the Job Cards give actions that target other players, so adult games can get cutthroat...

Unsurprisingly, given its theme, Ivor the Engine is also a train game, but in terms of complexity it lies somewhere between Ticket to Ride and a more traditional route-building, pick-up-and-deliver game such as Canalmania or Age of Steam. Although in Ivor the Engine there is no route-building, in effect a player is building a route by rounding up the sheep—once the sheep have been rounded up deliveries, or rather Job Cards, can be completed. Whilst there is no ‘pick-up’ aspect to the game, there is certainly delivery in the game in the form of the Job Cards. 

The complexity of Ivor the Engine means that it is not quite an introductory game—the game is more complex than say Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan, but not much more. For younger players that may mean that it is is more of a challenge, but for seasoned gamers, Ivor the Engine is pleasing light filler. Utterly charming, Ivor the Engine  is a delight, offering enjoyable play for casual and enthusiast gamers alike.

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