This Is Hardcore – Craftsmen review

Craftsmen COVER

We’ve had a couple of weeks sabbatical here on the site but are back with a vengance. First review this week, Emma checks out Krzysztof Matusik’s Craftsmen.

When a copy of Craftsmen, this season’s newest Polish cubefest, hit my proverbial desk (Michael, can I have a desk yet? [No Desk For You! – Michael] ), I’ll admit I was worried. I’m not usually huge on Euros, especially the more hardcore ones, and even those I do enjoy I’m usually terrible at, so I was foreseeing hours trying to grasp all the intricacies of some arcane system and coming out at the end of the evening with like three points (an experience anyone who’s played Caverna with me will recognise). Then I spent a while trying to get a preliminary idea of what the game was like by reading the rulebook and checking it out online, and I was orders of magnitude more worried. Everything I could find advertised it as incredibly long and complicated and horrendously counterintuitive, with first games taking upwards of four hours if even playable, and the rulebook didn’t do much to dispel this feeling of dread. I’ve read a lot of rulebooks of varying levels of dodginess, but the awful translation from Polish puts Craftsmen’s firmly among the worst.  Between examples that make things more complicated without actually explaining anything, dizzying levels of confusing nomenclature (the game is divided into three turns, which are divided into four rounds, which are divided into three phases (except every fourth round only has two phases) of which the second is divided into six stages, and if you understood that you deserve a medal) and joyously incomprehensible sentences like “NOTE: Meat is a special kind of half-product.”, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that, if you go into it armed only with the words inside the box, Craftsmen is more or less unplayable.

While it was tempting to give up there and go and do something less taxing (like a graduate degree), a little bird told me I was meant to be reviewing games, rather than rulebooks, so I decided to persevere. Armed with a new understanding of the game courtesy of Rahdo’s remarkably informative run-through of it, I sat down with my brother/part-time guinea pig to try it out. And six hours later, we emerged from the game, brains leaking from our ears and only able to speak in monosyllables, even…

What? Two and a half hours, including learning it? Alright then.

Seriously, coming out of my first game of Craftsmen, my main thought (alongside my usual one of “Wait, I need to play that again and do fewer stupid things”) was “Was that it?”. I don’t know if I’m just peculiarly suited to the challenges of administrating the economy of a small Central European town, but the whole thing really didn’t seem that challenging. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but that’s to be expected from any game where half the weight is made up of multi-coloured wooden cubes.

“But Em,” I hear you cry (and you’re talking to your computer again, I’ve warned you about that) “You’re 500 words into this review and you haven’t actually told us anything about the game yet!” You’re right, of course, but that was kind of the point – as I’ve been describing thus far, there’s a good game here, but there’s a lot of words to get through before you get there. So that was what I was doing there. Parallel structure. Literature degree. Nailed it.

Craftsmen is a fairly hefty Euro for 2-5 administrators, in which you try to revitalise the economy of a small nondescriptly-European town by convincing its six guilds to actually work together and make things. These are:

-The bankers, where you can collect money cards (a neat little set-collection mechanic where sets of money of the same colour are worth more than they would be otherwise)

-The builders, where you can add buildings to your part of the town (everybody starts with a lumber mill, and can expand from there depending on a surprisingly punishing colour-matching mechanic)

-The notaries, where you can buy building plans (provided your money is the same colour as the plans you want – I’ve had far too many turns where my plans were dashed by my apparent inability to simultaneously count to six and recognise the colour green)

-The titular craftsmen, where you can use your buildings to make products (as suggested, this is where the meat of the game is, as your basic buildings make products that go to other buildings to make more advanced products, which go to other buildings to make finished products, which get loaded onto the ships – an extra area-control game which generates most of the points)

-The merchants, where you can buy advanced products from the storehouse to fill any gaps in your production chains

-The town hall, where you can change turn order or buy tokens that do various things (seriously, this is pretty much just the ‘everything else’ space)

This sounds simple enough – get money, buy buildings, build buildings, make things, export things, profit – but the important thing to remember here is that, after you’ve done your worker placement for the round, the actions are always carried out in that exact order, so you’re always buying building plans the turn before you can build them, necessitating a bit more forward planning.

And that’s pretty much it. Sure, there are a few more little rules – some worker spaces are worth extra benefits, there’s a market so you can trade your basic products for other ones, you get bonus points for completing production trees – but I just summed up the overall flow and idea of the overcomplicated game that everybody’s been freaking out about in like half a page. And that’s including sarcastic asides.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that Craftsmen really isn’t as scary as you might think. Sure, there’s a decent amount of stuff to think about, but if you’ve played Agricola or Caverna (and statistics suggest that applies to literally everybody in the world) it’s really no more complicated than that. And the board is lovely and elegant (my usual gripes about insufficiently-long victory point tracks notwithstanding) and efficiently manufacturing candles for export has never been this satisfying.

So sure, if you don’t like big Euros or anything that’ll stay on your table longer than an hour and a half (I could see games of this with more players lasting at least four hours), this probably won’t change your mind, but if anything in this review sounded interesting, don’t let Craftsmen’s intimidating reputation and horrendous rules put you off giving it a go.

Craftsmen was designed by Krzysztof Matusik and published by G3 in 2013. Between two and five people can play with games taking around two to three hours. This review is of the multilingual first printing which was provided by the folks at G3. Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow Emma on Twitter for more of her desk-less writings.

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