Boardgame Reviews

Noria Review – You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Right Round

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Designed by: Klemens Franz, Michael Menzel
Published by: Pegasus Spiele
Players: 2-4
Playtime: 70-120 Minutes

Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK

Noria is a deceptive game, its lovely artwork which features a massive floating mountain hanging high in the sky producing a myriad of thoughts about what its theme could be, but a wheel-building game of politics wasn’t quite what sprung to mind when I first saw it, I have to admit. But that’s what we’ve got.

So, the game’s big selling point is the sizable, plastic three-tiered wheel on which three cardboard rings sit and can be rotated. Into these rings, you’ll be inserting little cardboard discs that control the various actions you can take throughout the game, with each ring being spun around to the next segment at the end of your turn and thus changing what you’ll be able to do on the next turn.

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The rules, though, do not adequately explain how activating your actions works. The general concept is that you get to activate three discs per turn, only one from each ring can be used, that they must all be in the active bottom half of the wheel and…uh, well I played it as there being a left segment and a right segment, and actions within one or the other could be used with anything falling in the middle being applicable to either. The problem is that on Youtube some people have interpreted it differently while others are playing the same way I do, and nobody seems entirely sure about who is right. The confusion stems from the adjacency rule which states activated discs must be adjacent to each other, which according to the rulebook is when you are able to freely draw a line between them without crossing over another potential line or an empty space. The examples given, though, are poor and even the official tutorial video glosses over this subject. The point is I’m still not sure if I’m actually playing the game right, and the fact that the rulebook makes this an issue is insane. It’s a surprisingly dense tome of rules considering the actual game isn’t that challenging to learn once you’ve got it all figured out.

Everything revolves (hehehehe, crappy puns) around this wheel and how good you are at looking ahead to see what you’ll be able to do in the coming turns and whether you perhaps need to adjust things in your favor. By paying Knowledge tokens you can do two things before taking any of the actions; move either the largest wheel or middle wheel one notch clockwise, or move one action token to another open slot or swap two actions around. Cleverly, though, these Knowledge tokens are the key to earning more points, but we’ll come back to that later as well as how you actually get more Knowledge tokens.

There’s a lot of chunky, thoughtful goodness going on in Noria, all thanks to this triple-tiered wheel of brain-bendiness. No other player can ever screw with your wheel, either, which means you can concoct long-term plans. It also helps alleviate boredom between turns because while other players are busy taking their turn you can be planning your next couple of moves. Should you activate the resource gathering disc first? Since it’s on the outside ring it’ll be around for another couple of turns, so maybe you should use the City action now before it disappears for a little while? But then again a little use of Knowledge could shift things around.

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I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s talk about how you win, first, and then get into the nitty-gritty of doing just that. The goal of the game is to acquire resources and then invest them into one of the four Great Projects, as represented by the four tracks sitting at the top of the board. For every level you advance you’ll score points, but only if you’ve also gone and influenced the politicians in the chamber below the track. On top of that from left to right the projects take harder to acquire/make resources, so early on you want to choose where you’re going to focus your attention. The game gives you the chance to get on the first level of any track right at the very start, though.

Let’s kick off with the most basic types of action you can take, which is gathering up the low-level resources. There are three of these resources and whenever you take the action needed to gather one of them you consult your player-board and for each matching type of flying ship you get one of that resource. Simples. You start with one of each ship, so in your first turn or two you’ll only be picking up a single resource at a time.

Okay, so how do you get more of these handy-dandy resource grabbing ships? Well, you need to go exploring using the Explore action which lets you either flip an Island tile from the pile and place one of your ambassador tokens on it or travel to an already discovered island, although if there are already other players on the island you wish to travel to then you have to pay a resource for each of them. Each island will have a stack of two different ships and you can take one of them to add to your private fleet. Simple as that.

Islands do have another thing you can do, too, which is to construct a factory on them. On your player-board, you have eight factories, and for every two you construct on an island it reveals a Knowledge token symbol that will increase your Knowledge Token generation which occurs at the end of your turn. Since these tokens are so useful it’s a very tough choice to make between taking a ship or building a new factory.

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When you do build a factory you’ll cover one of four slots on the island that provide you with either one or two tokens for the more advanced goods in the game. These tokens get added to the side of your player board, but the goods they show aren’t yours just yet as you’ll first need to use action disc with the hammer symbol to spend resources to actually construct the item, as indicated on the token. For example, a set of wings need two pink resources and one green.

That hammer symbol can also be used to upgrade other actions, flipping their disc over to the golden side which indicates that you can use that action twice when selecting it. There is a small limitation in place that means you can’t do more than four actions in a single turn, meaning you can either use one upgraded action and a regular one, or two upgraded action discs.

There’s also the Bonus disc which when used will let you select a different disc and use it twice. If you select an upgraded disc you’ll get to use that one action a whopping three times.

The final action is the City action which lets you do one of two things; either pay resources to advance up one of the project tracks, or purchase a new action disc from the store. All three of the basic resource gathering discs are free, but if you fancy the more advanced actions such as Exploring then you need to pay in the form of resources. Placing these new actions presents a fantastic decision because the innermost ring contains just two slots that alternate between turns, but a bigger ring provides more space yet fewer opportunities for that disc to come around. Anything placed on the large outer ring will only appear a few times, barring any tweaks made using Knowledge tokens.

Simply moving up the four project tracks isn’t enough, though, as you also need to influence the politicians in order to increase the value of each step on those tracks. To do this you get a chance near the end of your turn to spend Knowledge tokens, and what that lets you do is twofold; firstly, you select one of the small tracks underneath the project you want to influence and then you move the leftmost grey cube from the top slot to the bottom. At the end of the game you’ll take the uncovered number to the right of the leftmost cube and use it as a multiplier for the level of the project your ambassador is on, thus if you’re on level four and have a multiplier of five you’d score twenty points, bearing in mind, however, that ALL players on that project track will benefit. The second part of this action lets you remove the rightmost, top politician cube from any track you want, which obviously means you get to limit the scoring potential of other players.

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It’s an intriguing system but one that only really works with three or four players. With two players vying for political influence isn’t varied enough since of course you’re going to increase your scoring potential and slap down the other player, but with extra people around the table there’s a lot more fun in deciding how to shift the cubes, especially as players begin to invest time in other projects as well, deliberately leaping onto the same track as you in order to benefit from your hard work.

In fact, there’s a small penalty for doing just that; every time you want to advance up a project that has other players on it you must pay one basic resource per player provided you’re behind them on the project track. So, do you maybe just leap onto the first level or two of a project just to score some bonus points? Or do you really invest in progressing up it in order to capitalize on the work your opponent has already done and accept the fact that you’re going to have to pay extra resources?

There’s also two extra political tracks that provide points for your lowest and highest ambassadors on the projects, again something every other player can benefit from so before influencing any of the politicians on these two tracks you’ll need to do some mental math.

It’s a little bit of a shame that influencing the politicians doesn’t feel a bit more thematically fitting. I can’t help but feel that my Knowledge tokens are basically me blackmailing people into supporting me. Then again, despite the beautiful artwork depicting floating islands and resource-transporting airships Noria is pretty light on theme, which is a shame because it feels like a lot of love went into the aesthetic.

There’s also an occasional problem where the political maneuvering clashes with the engine-building of player’s rings. If one or two players suddenly decide to start removing cubes from the politician chamber under the project you’re focusing on trying to rework your whole engine can be a slog. Noria is a slow game in the sense that it takes a while to build up your rings in order to gather all the resources you need and then convert them into more complex stuff like wings, but despite that it’s very easy to get shafted and wind up trying to rework everything.

Y’know, going into Noria I really wasn’t sure what the outcome was going to be, but to my pleasure, it wound up being a satisfyingly meaty game with an intriguing gimmick. And yet….Oh, man, I feel bad for saying this but it didn’t connect with me personally. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe it’s a rather excellent game, but I never managed to click with Noria, unlike many of my gaming chums who had a blast with it. The wheel mechanic proved to be a hit with them as they enjoyed the tactile nature of it and how they could visualize future moves. So, despite how it didn’t quite manage to click with me I believe Noria to be fully deserving of a recommendation.

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