Snowdonia is a pretty complex board game with a strong theme and some interesting innovations.
The main gameplay mechanism is worker placement (players place their discs, or ‘workers’, on board spaces that let them do a particular action – such as gain resources, draw cards etc), but the real meat of the game is in seeing and taking opportunities when they arise – both through taking and using cards and placing those workers.
Collectively (but competitively – this ain’t no co-op!) you’ll be building the famous railway up the side of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain – when it’s complete, the game will end. The board background is a watercolour mountain-scape painting (I like it, some don’t), with spaces for cards and resources overlaid. There are 66 cards (with a lovely whimsical art style), a bunch of wooden bits and bobs, score pad and a very nice train-shaped wooden start played marker. All in all, Snowdonia is produced to a high standard.
The rulebook is very well laid out, with the first double-page spread dedicated to the game’s set up. Usefully, once you know the game enough not to need this, the bits you may forget are printed on the board so you won’t need to go back to the rulebook. Also worth noting here is that set up is slightly different depending on the number of players; one of many testaments to how rigorously the game was playtested.
While complex, the game is relatively easy to teach. This is helped by both the theme and board layout, as all the things you do make sense both visibly and thematically.
Snowdonia has lots of moving parts, which may be too fiddly for some (new cubes and cards come out each round, which can have a knock on effect to other parts of the board), but doing this kind of upkeep also keeps player’s involved and helps drive home what all these little things do.
The theme really is a big help. Players are building a railway up a mountain: the actions let you grab resources (iron, stone, coal), clear rubble, upgrade resources (iron to track, rubble to stone) , place track, build stations (with various resources gained), take trains (which use track and coal) and take ‘contract’ cards (which give bonuses to the above actions, and also bonus victory points at the end of the game if you complete certain conditions – build ‘x’ stations, lay ‘x’ track, collect ‘x’ rubble)*.
But don’t get me wrong; there’s a difference between a game being reasonably easy to teach and being able to play it well, see the nuances, and win on your first play.
I would very much recommend telling people that the first game is a training game and that they shouldn’t worry about their score the first time out.
Most of your points will come from cards you use actions to take – and then hopefully fulfil the requirements of – during the game and you’ll be lucky to nail this at the first attempt.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: I love worker placement games, but there’s a lot of them about. You have to do something to stand out and Snowdonia does it not once, but twice. Its weather mechanism effects every round of the game randomly, doing anything from improving some actions for the round to making others obsolete (you get a few rounds to prepare though). On top of this, the game actually plays itself; if you draw white cubes during restocking each round, the game can complete parts of the railway. These mechanisms ensure every game is genuinely different.
- The thinker: There’s a lot to like here and while the random elements are very strong they affect everyone in the same way, so don’t feel unbalanced in a competitive way. You soon see certain point strategies are higher risk, while the old adage of getting out of sequence and ‘doing what others aren’t doing’ can be a real winner here. And while it isn’t the deepest worker placement game on the market, the constant moving of the goalposts makes Snowdonia one of the most constantly engaging ones.
- The trasher: If you like to try and cope with whatever a game throws at you each round, Snowdonia could be a good pick. You can normally plan a round or two ahead, while the contract cards give you little bonuses to actions that can really improve a turn – despite whether you manage to complete them by the end for points. There’s little, but subtle, player interaction too: some actions have multiple spaces that are resolved in order, making clever placement key to blocking others while sweeping in with your own combos to snatch points.
- The dabbler: Snowdonia takes a bit of getting used to, while rough luck with the weather and white cubes can be a bit of a downer for everyone; you’re not working together, but are all in the same boat after all. It’s not a game I’d choose, but I am happy to play it. The changing fortunes keep everyone invested, while picking the random cubes from the bag and seeing the reactions makes it nicely interactive too. Finally, as the theme fits the mechanics so well, its simple to pick up again after not playing for a while.
While the weather and ‘game playing itself’ mechanisms are clever and work extremely well most of the time, they can lead to plays that feel a little underwhelming – even to experienced players who will have a better chance of coping with the conditions. Some will relish the challenge, but I can see others being left very cold by the experience.
Hundreds of people had given the game an ‘out of 10’ rating on BoardGameGeek and the vast majority of these are positive. The game sits proudly in the top 400 and has a very respectable average rating of just below 7.5. But a look at the comments allied with grades of four-out-of-10 or below paints a very telling picture: if you get a duff first game, which is very possible, you’re not overly likely to come back.
Designer Tony Boydell has been buoyed (apologies…) by its success and a raft of mini expansions are on the way, alongside a reprint which should see the game get better reach in the US and elsewhere.
Maybe he can also spend a little time working out a slightly less punishing introductory game option, even if it simply means removing some fog cards (which scupper some actions) and having an alternative beginner white cube track for the the first few times people play, to help stem this possible exodus.
I’m a big fan of Snowdonia, which I currently rate a nine after about 15 plays. It sits in my top 10 games list alongside other worker placement favourites The Manhattan Project and Tzolk’in, and ahead of Stone Age, Caylus, Troyes, Agricola and the rest.
I’d still recommend Stone Age or perhaps Lords of Waterdeep as introductions to the genre, but experienced players looking for an interesting alternative should certainly give Snowdonia a go. And not just the one play either; it needs a couple of goes to see how the game can play so differently each time (something that will no doubt hurt it a little).
But no, it’s not for everyone. It can feel attritional on a bad day and this is a collective feeling too. You’re working together to build this railway,so a bad game can feel tough for everyone. If you don’t like a challenge, it can suck a bit of the life out of the room for the wrong group. Me? I love the challenge of trying to eke out the win in dire conditions, although do still prefer it when the sun shines and the white cubes stay nicely nestled in the corners of the bag.
Finally, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a bit of play-testing for one of the forthcoming expansions, Mt Washington. It adds snow to the weather mix, which takes the action-stopping fog away and replaces it with re-rubble-laying white stuff.
This adds an interesting new challenge, some nice variety (there are plenty of new cards) and the chance to sled down the mountain at the end…
* NOTE: there is another action space, the Surveyor, but this plays differently depending on the version of the game you play and I don’t think it needs explanation here.