It’s not uncommon for a game to be rejiggered into a slightly different form, which sounds like a bad thing. But it can often lead to a game that is much-improved, or at least excellent in its own way. In the past few years, games like Small World, Imperial 2030, and 1989 have taken systems established by old games and made them into something fresh. They may be recognizable, but they have much to recommend them on their own. It was with this optimism that I approached Carl Chudyk’s Uchronia.
I consider Chudyk to be something of a mad scientist of game design. His two most famous games, Glory to Rome and Innovation, are among the most creative and excellent card games I’ve played. Both games utilize strong card effects to produce tension and depth, and it’s a very powerful tool. Uchronia is a reworking of Glory to Rome. On your turn you pick a card from your hand and execute the action associated with it, or you “plot” by drawing cards from the deck. Any card played goes to the middle (called “the forum”). From there it can be moved to your board to perform some function. The most basic role is that of construction material. Using a specific action, you can move a card from the forum to your “stash,” where it can be used to build cards that will give you a lasting effect.
That part sounds a lot like Glory to Rome, and it is indeed the most obvious shared DNA. Uchronia alters a lot of the other parts though, and the result is a game that feels familiar and different at the same time. In the original design, you were always given the opportunity to play an identical action and copy what someone else is doing. That’s not the case in Uchronia. Instead, you can move a card from the forum to your “Activities,” which allows you to copy actions that other players use and to play actions even when you choose to plot and draw cards. The person who has the most of a specific type of action has a “monopoly” in that type of actions, which makes those activities worth victory points. The other big change is the endgame. Instead of playing until the end is triggered, Uchronia has a VP threshold that will end the game automatically.
As you can see, it’s difficult to separate Uchronia from its origins. That’s the challenge with reviewing one of these “remake” games, particularly if the reviewer is familiar with the first title. To its credit, almost all of Uchronia’s changes work very well. My favorite is the separation of the buildings into their own deck of cards. It makes selecting a building much easier and more intuitive. There are now fewer colors of cards, which means there are fewer types of actions to explain. These changes feel make the game more accessible, which isn’t a bad move. Glory to Rome has always been notorious for its learning curve. A deck of cards with numerous effects and multiple uses makes for a difficult game to comprehend, and Uchronia is much easier to suss out right away. None of the alterations have drastically affected the balance either. Every move is well-considered and generally well-executed. It’s not a situation where a balance issue is compensated for with a drastic swing in the opposite direction.
But I’m not sure I like the overall effect of the changes. The removed action was a way to add materials to buildings directly from the players hand, which gave a player a lot of flexibility. Now every construction material must come through the stash, which adds a step to every building the player attempts. The result is fewer buildings in play around the table, which means fewer unique effects and a more staid environment. It feels much more ordinary, which is a depressing thing to do to Glory to Rome. Not only that, but it makes the game more about efficiency and engine-building through activities, rather than building synergies and combos. The buildings themselves are similar, though not identical. There are a number of changes there, particularly the removal of the auto-end cards. I see why those were taken out, but it just reinforces my gut feeling: it works, but it’s not nearly as interesting.
In fact, “works, but is less interesting” is a good way to describe the Uchronia experience. As can maybe be expected, the players who I’ve seen respond best to it have either not been fans of Glory to Rome, or haven’t played it at all. I suspect it won't work so well for people who already love the first game. I know that’s the case for me. I really liked the challenge and bizarre situations of the Glory to Rome, and Uchronia is different enough to draw attention to its changes, but not good enough to make me forget about the old game.
The one change that I absolutely do not support is the theme. More accurately, I don’t like that Uchronia tries to do a setting that I’ve never seen and then elects to ignore it for the entire game. It takes place in a city where the ancient meets the new, where dinosaurs roam through fancy classical architecture. It brings to mind the old children’s book Dinotopia, and that’d be a theme I can get behind. Unfortunately, it’s expression is limited to some saurian faux-Latin, and a few tiny dinosaur illustrations on the cards. It’s the definition of a missed opportunity. The other awful decision was to make the different building materials the exact same graphic with a different color. Wood, clay, marble, doesn’t matter. It’s all expressed by a little colored brick, and the colors don’t often line up. Why is wood yellow? Why is marble blue? It reminds me a little of the cubes in Lords of Waterdeep, but in that case the game referred to the adventurer cubes with little graphics, so there was never any confusion. Here a card may refer to “wood,” and even though it’s in a colored text, there’s still an unfortunate moment where you wonder which colored brick they mean. It’s a big usability fail in an otherwise pretty-looking game.
So is Uchronia a good game? Technically yes, but it’d be foolish to praise its adequacy. It’d work best if Glory to Rome wasn’t a hit with your group but you still want something like it. I already have something like it, which happens to be the original game. Uchronia strips away a lot of what made the design special in the first place, and the result is something that fades into the background rather than standing out.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.