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Zinc or Swim – Rockwell review

Rockwell COVER

Guest writer Emma has returned from underground, covered in coal dust like she’s in some Rammstein video, clutching a box tightly in her hands. Seems like she’s hit a Rockwell seam…

A couple of days ago, I spent an entirely enjoyable evening ritualistically casting my employees into the fiery depths of the Earth, and if that’s the kind of thing you’ve always wanted to do…you should probably call the police or something, cos that’s kind of worrying. While you’re waiting for them to turn up, however, consider passing the time by cracking out Rockwell, the new competitive/grudgingly-cooperative mining game from Belgian publishers Sit Down!. (The exclamation mark is part of the name, so that’s totally how you punctuate that. I r good writer.)

Rockwell came out on Kickstarter last December, and it pretty much suckered me in the moment I saw it, due only partly to my poor impulse control, but also a good concept (rival mining companies competing to exploit the maximum amount of non-renewable resources and/or drill to the centre of the Earth), solid-looking mechanics and lovely lovely art. As with all the previous games by Sit Down!, the art’s by Yuio, probably more widely known for illustrating Takenoko and making our hearts all melt with the most adorable panda, and the art in Rockwell is easily up to the same standard. The prettiness of the game continues when you open the box (despite the eight sheets of punchboard – this is very much a million-tiny-tokens game) thanks to both the player privacy screens, each with different colour-coded illustrations showing your new persona as a drilling magnate and occasional Bond villain, and the board. Now, I’m kind of a sucker for modular boards, but even so, this one is lovely. It’s very satisfying to start every game by assembling the planet out of concentric circle tiles, and while the modularity doesn’t really add that much, since the relative positions of certain tiles doesn’t matter in any way I can see, it just looks fantastic. (Also, thanks to my misreading the setup instructions, one game included me stopping play to say, “Sorry, but can we just rotate the Earth about thirty degrees?” At which point we felt like wizards.)

Another Journey to the Centre of the Earth begins... What will be found this time?

Another Journey to the Centre of the Earth begins… What will be discovered this time?

So far so pretty, but if the gameplay makes you think longingly of that summer you earned pocket money by working in a Siberian salt mine (hey, we’ve all been there), all the delicious art and innovative boards in the world aren’t going to make you buy it. Luckily, Rockwell succeeds handily in that department too, with a number of mechanics that I haven’t seen in nearly enough games and that really make this one stand out. First up is the aforementioned aspect of grudging cooperation, brought about through a lovely balance of effort and investment. When you start the game, your drill crews are on the planet’s surface, and have the choice between two tiles of strength 3 and 4. However, all of your drill crews have a strength of 1, meaning they have no hope of shifting that much dirt on their own. Sure, you could send all your crews to the same tile, but then you’ve wasted two rounds while the rest of the players romp ahead, and it’ll probably be an explosion anyway, just to mock your weird fixation on that one patch of dirt.

So instead, you start moving your crews onto tiles with your opponents’ crews, but when you cooperate, you have to split all the loot between everybody involved. However, there’s an edge to this that makes it more complex than it sounds at first – when the resources are divvied up, any remaining cubes are given to the player with the most drills present, and failing that, to the player who triggered the extraction. Suddenly, the game turns into a contest of strategic movement, both of your own crews and the crews you’ve bribed away from the other teams, and putting the least effort into getting the greatest reward. And trust me, there are few better feelings than sneaking one tiny drill crew into a deadlocked tile, triggering it, and walking away with that crew’s weight in little wooden cubes.

So many pretty pieces! And the game's damn good too. (Thanks to Ray Reviews Games for the image: http://www.rayreviewsgames.com )

So many pretty pieces! And the game’s damn good too. (Thanks to Ray Reviews Games for the image: http://www.rayreviewsgames.com )

Also, Rockwell does one thing better than maybe any board game I’ve seen, and that thing is achievements. Now, I’m a console gamer as well as a board gamer, and I love me some meaningless pictures and numbers to stave off my encroaching ennui at the boundless, all-consuming abyss of Time. And don’t lie, so do you. But in Rockwell, they aren’t just pointless – in fact, by the end of the game, they will probably constitute the majority of points. Doing various tasks like collecting enough of the various resources, levelling up your drill crews, and, yes, hurling your faithful miners into the roiling mass of molten metal at the heart of the world will all earn you a related little clipboard token, which is worth a certain number of points at game end depending on how early you got it compared to everyone else – sure, collecting ten silver cubes is impressive, but doing it by the time the game economy has evolved to the point that people are trading wheelbarrows of silver for a loaf of bread, it’s slightly less so.

It’s kind of fitting that I should come to achievements this late in the review, since that was the trap I fell into when playing the game too. Sure, it’s fun to excavate and level up your drills and make obscene stacks of cash, but the main endgame condition is one player getting at least six achievements (including the three hardest) so if you aren’t consciously shooting for these, the game will never end. And I’m fairly sure that’s why my first game of what is meant to be a 90-minute game took nearly four hours, so make sure you read the rules properly first and get a feel for what you’re aiming for, or it’ll drag.

So, overall, this is an extremely pretty game, but, appropriately for such an industrial game, it lives and dies on its mechanics. Normally, this is where I’d write one of those wussy conclusions where you should play it if you’re interested in this kind of thing but otherwise you shouldn’t. But I won’t. Honestly, Rockwell’s a fantastically solid game, and when it gets a general release, I would unconditionally recommend it to pretty much any gamer. So give it a go if you get a chance – you might find out you like rocks a lot more than you thought.

Rockwell was designed by Bruno Crépeault and published by Sit Down! in 2013. Art is by the enigmatically named Yuio, and is rather lovely throughout! Between two and four people can play with games taking around 90-120 minutes. Finding copies of the game can be a bit tricky at the minute, but they are popping up here and there – hunt well, my friends!

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