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Review – Unearth

Review – Unearth

This is a review of Unearth designed by Jason Harner & Matthew Ransom. It plays 2 – 4 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 30 – 45 minutes.

Unearth is a set collection game fueled largely by dice placement – these are the two core mechanics that drive the bulk of the game and I’m urgently struck by how elegantly rolled together these two mechanics are here.

The field of play is stocked with ruin cards (numbered objectives in five suits) and the turn consists of a player rolling and assigning a die to a single ruin card. When the dice on a ruin card add up to the printed threshold, the card is claimed, the winner being the player who had the highest valued single die on the card. All other players with dice on the card get consolation cards, which can be played before dice are rolled and provide status effects (altering dice, etc). End game points are awarded for building sets of these completed cards (one of two main ways to gain points).

One of the most important functions of this die placement, though, comes in that players who roll low are given tiles, which are used to develop their personal tableau. Low rolls of 1, 2, or 3 allow you to develop your wonders, which are the second path to victory. These two ways to bank points are equally viable strategies, as dice sizes are vary in your pool from d4 to d8. Subsequently, players rarely feel bested or completely screwed out of a certain strategy – the elegance of player interaction devoid of a “take that” mechanic works well here.  You don’t fall far behind your opponents unless you’re playing haphazardly and making objectively poor decisions.

Perhaps the most engaging and intriguing thing about Unearth is its elegant simplicity. The game is so wonderfully simple that you’re rarely detracting your focus back to the mechanics of the thing, instead you are solely focused on the gameplay. I really can’t state this enough – grace and simplicity are the strongest selling points of this game.

The claim value is in the top left, and the number of stones that are placed on the card is in the bottom right.

Probably my sole criticism of this game is the flatness of a two player game, but this criticism is minor. You generally need at least two participants to clear a ruin quickly, so in a two player game, you’ll see more ruins being cleared by a single player more often simply as a function of the numbers. Each player only has 5 dice in their pool (1d4, 3d6, and 1d8), so you’re either playing as a reaction to the other player, or focusing on ruin cards on your own. With multiple players, the responsibility of the claim will generally be more spread out. Expect a two player game to have less player interaction. I think this could have been offset by adding a slightly lower claim value to every ruin, specifically for use in a two player game. For example, claim value of 17 for 3-4 players, and a claim value of 14 for 2 players.

Unearth has a delightful little themed wherein players are excavating ruins of fallen monuments of the past. As bits and pieces are discovered, players are cobbling them together to gain control of generic and named wonders.

This isn’t a thematic game by any real stretch, but you do feel thematically connected to the mechanics in a way that I did appreciate. Playing dice and exploring ruins feels like scavenging among forgotten architecture. Likewise, constructing the wonders on your tableau feels like piecing together remnants of the past. This is really as deep as the theme needs to go and I would say it’s right on the mark.

Let’s cut to the chase. I did as much digging as I felt inclined to do and can’t seem to find any relation between this game and Monument Valley. They don’t appear to use the same artist…and the games don’t seem to be connected in any way, but Unearth borrows fairly obviously from Monument Valley at basically every point. The isometric ruins look like a map straight out of the mobile game and really the only thing missing is Princess Ida. Realistically, the designers could have just really wanted a game about an IP they weren’t able to license – an homage of sorts.

Aside from the implied shittiness of any sort of rip-off that may be happening here, I love this art. Beyond the elegance of the game, the art is likely the other main selling point for Unearth. And, honestly, the art fits the theme and the feel of this game. Together, these elements create a surprisingly visceral experience during gameplay – which I don’t feel can be said about many games. There were times that I felt like I was actually hearing a peaceful, meandering soundtrack…

Unearth moves super quickly. And not in the sense that you feel rushed – it’s just that there is very little down time. Name a card, roll a die out for it, and check for the claim. This takes as long to execute as it does to explain. Play passes back and forth very quickly and the game state doesn’t shift drastically enough to really paralyze players in thought. This creates basically no choke points and the ruin deck seems to run out (the almost end game condition) just when you feel you’ve peaked.

My one recommendation is tied into the criticism I had above, that there could potentially be a lower claim value on the ruin card for a two player game, promoting more player interaction. As it stands now there are too many ruins that require a player’s entire pool of dice to clear. I would offset this by adding a second slightly lower claim value to the cards specifically for use in a two player game.

Just the right amount of content in this game – not overcomplicated or overpriced.

I bought this at full retail in a comic shop for $30 or $35, which is a fair price for what is a beautifully artistic, accessible, and stimulating game. The component quality is great and there’s really nothing that needs to fill this game out.

Unearth is intuitively accessible. Players can basically see all of their options laid in front of them and the main mechanic of rolling and placing dice makes a lot of sense on all levels. You’re rewarded for contributing to ruins and it’s very hard to fall behind or feel hopeless. Gamers at all skill levels will find something to really enjoy in this game. Realistically, you could probably teach Unearth in about 5 minutes. Between beautiful art and accessible gameplay, I expect this game to hit the table a lot.

Players should be able to “get” Unearth within a play or two, and there’s the potential that this could stale the game, but the designers have actually built in an elegant response to this. First, there’s a small variety of randomized End of Age cards that alter the final few turns of every game, such as altering die rolls after the card has been revealed. Second, the named monuments are dealt randomly into each game which provide small, divergent strategies for tableau building and strategic claims. Again, elegant is the word. This feels like such a natural and fitting way to have extended the life of Unearth.

Final Thoughts
I really did love this game a lot. The art is cool, the game feels really good, it’s very peaceful, and I really can’t wait to expose more people to this gem.