Emerging From the Vault – A Shapers of Gaia Review

Shapers of Gaia is a goofy game. The cover is a bit loopy, it’s a game for strictly two or three players, and the systems are foreign yet also vaguely familiar. Designed by Ian Cooper and Jan M. Gonzalez, it’s important to note that this is a Wizkids game. I continue to belabor the point that Zev Schlasinger selects weird designs. Unfortunately, I’ve found ‘weird’ has been the defining characteristic lately. That trait and the unorthodox approach has resulted in a mish-mash publishing philosophy that has almost reached an unlikely state of homogeneity. Few of these quirky designs have managed to ascend in the way that Sidereal Confluence or Fantasy Realms have.

Shapers initially reveals an elder style of Euro-design that hearkens to the German Family Game era. There’s a beautiful simplicity in just two types of actions, either place hexagonal tiles on the board to expand it or place a chunky animal piece on an existing tile. That’s really the entirety of how you initiate contact with the game’s loop. It’s refreshingly lean and synergizes with the austere wooden bits to clothe itself in that 90s Euro-game aesthetic.

It’s pleasing to find a moral goal. Players take on the role of Shapers, engineers emerging from a vault after millennia. The object is to restore Gaia and its ecosystem by planting seeds and working with the towering horror-bot Caretaker. This skeletal automaton does its duty silently, sculpting mounds of earth and helping to rebirth a lost world. There’s a brooding sense to it, however, and I can’t help but worry that it’s an Order 66 away from slaughtering us all.

Nevertheless, the facade of the game is one of serenity. A soothing atmosphere with pleasant vistas, herding of animals, and streamlined play. But this composure is subverted in several ways.

Firstly, once you begin to explore the wider design space, it’s obvious this is heavily influenced by the newer school of Euro design as well. There are choices a layer below that can be dizzying. After placing animals, you unlock new abilities on your asymmetric player mat and you select cards from a market to build your tableau.

That tableau element is probably the most interesting mechanical system in the game. When adding animals to the board you pay one of three resources depending on the environment you place the animal in. If you’re throwing them in a mushroom space, then you pay with spores. Choosing a crystal tile instead? Then you must cough up shards.

The animal you place narrows the selection of card you can add to your tableau, and the resource you pay determines which of three different rows you place it in. Effectively, you’re building three separate tableaus, each containing up to four cards.

What’s neat about this system is that these cards trigger abilities, their own as well as every other card you’ve previously placed in that specific tableau. This fosters lightbulb moments where you orchestrate the board and your action to claim a new card and then enact several powers in one fell swoop.

But it’s simply neat as I described. It’s not gripping or explosive. You only add new cards to a tableau a few times each session. It feels a mechanism wanting for more attention. Much of this game feels disparate and unfulfilled.

There are objective cards incentivizing you to place animals in patterns or under certain restrictions – a little like Cascadia. There are DNA tokens you pick up when building tiles near the edge of the board. These can gain you additional bonus points if you select tableau cards with those DNA symbols, but they cost you a penalty if you don’t. There are three basic types of resources and two advanced resource types. The advanced are triggered on certain cards and in certain abilities, usually allowing you to convert them to basic resources. When performing these conversions, if you don’t have an advanced resource you can take toxicity instead, which again will cost you points if you still have them at game’s end. You can also gain resources when you place tiles on the board, but there are two choices on the tile and your opponent’s get the one you don’t select.

It’s actually a little surprising how much is going on for a game that runs only 90 minutes at its longest. It feels a small thing when you crack it open. The constrained player count, relatively short time commitment, and modestly sized board all contribute to this. But there are a number of avenues you must strategically merge, despite each feeling rather workmanlike. It is a thoughtful and cognitively engaging design.

The trouble is that Shapers of Gaia feels in search of inspiration. Despite all of its systematic pieces, it never finds a strong identity. A large part of this is that the central themes are not invoked. There’s a simple furnishment of setting which broadly fits but there’s no sense of altruism or humanitarianism. It’s a very selfish endeavor – as competitive games typically are – where you swoop in and select cards or occupy tiles your opponent desired. Some loose sense of cooperation in one of the systems would have wriggled towards the rich themes this game decorates its pieces with.

It also contains the troublesome quality of point salad designs in that it lacks a strategic identity for players to clamor towards. When the game is over and the points are tallied, I can’t hang my hat on any specific dimension of play. I may have scored a few extra points from animals or accomplished a bit more with my DNA samples, but these point scoring variances are not substantial and there is no sense of specialization among the alternate vectors.

Everyone must pick up points with the objective cards, tableau building, and animal placement. You will perform all of these actions by basic necessity, so victory is determined by raw efficiency and subtle accomplishment. It’s not a prideful experience as there’s no option to specialize in any category. This establishes a strategic uniformity that persists across multiple plays. The game never goes in unexpected directions or presents surprises. It’s tame.

Yet, it’s a perfectly adequate design. One that is capable and will offer strategic challenge. This the type of typical modern title that a group may be pleased to fiddle with, but no one is going to demand a game night be built around it. And that’s unfortunate. I’m yearning for something triumphant and noteworthy, and Shapers of Gaia isn’t that. But it is quirky and casually fits alongside the oddballs of Wizkids’ current lineup. Expectedly so.

 

A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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