Board Game Review: Arkwright – Long, but Fun | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Arkwright – Long, but Fun

Ark - Game

The industrial revolution is underway and it’s time for you to make your mark on history – by making huge sums of money. In Arkwright, the players become factory moguls that hire and fire, ship products, and try to increase their company’s net worth. The one with the most valuable holding – not necessarily the most cash on hand – will be the winner.

The Basics. Arkwright is a deep, long, economic game. And it comes in two main flavors: Water Frame and Spinning Jenny. The Spinning Jenny version is a moderately simplified one with fewer rounds played. Water Frame is the full shebang. But the basics are the same.

The game starts with a setup round where each player will be able to buy two factories. Players start with 15 shares and a starting share value of 10. In order to pay for those initial factories, and have some starting cash, the players will need to sell off a good chunk of shares to start the game.

You had me at individual player boards

You had me at individual player boards

From there, the game proceeds through five rounds of play. In each round, there are four production phases in order: food, clothes, cutlery, and lamps. First, players choose one of six actions and place it on the administrative costs table. That table will dictate how much the player must pay to take the action. Once all players have taken one action, all food factories produce.

The actions allow you to buy new factories or modernize old ones. You can also increase the quality or distribution of your goods which will increase demand for them. You can hire or fire workers, or replace workers with machines. And you can conduct financial maneuvers by buying or selling shares or making contracts with the East India Company.

The poor shlubs you'll hire and fire

The poor shlubs you’ll hire and fire

Each action also gives you a bonus. You either get to adjust your prices or you can take a special tile. Special tiles might give you a bonus power or allow you to do an action more efficiently, or they might be new actions which cost less or allow you to do more.

When a factory produces, the players must first sell their goods to England. The more workers that have collectively been hired or fired, the more goods they will demand of each type. But England wants what it wants and goods will be distributed in demand order. If one player’s goods are more in demand than another’s it is likely he will sell more. Excess goods must either be stored or shipped.

As players sell to England, their company’s worth rises. Meanwhile, shipping contracts with the East India company are viewed as risky and will make share price decline. At the end of the game, it’s not about cash on hand or even how many shares you bought. It’s the value of your holding. So it’s number of shares times the price per share. Whoever has the most of that is the winner.

Hey! who's this neutral player coming in to screw everyone up?

Hey! who’s this neutral player coming in to screw everyone up?

The Feel. Deep, thinky, brain-burny goodness. Arkwright really excels for players who want to engage in a lengthy economic analysis fraught with strategic concerns and tactical manipulations.

One of the best aspects of the game is the balance between strategy and tactics. Strategically, you need a long term plan. Without one, you’ll eventually flounder and the other players’ engines will catch up and surpass your own. You also need a little discipline. There are lots of great choices, but you need to focus on your goals and the best way to get there. If you start to dabble, you’re likely to fall behind.

But this isn’t (solely) an economic snowball game where you set yourself up at the beginning and the later turns just play out to see who has maximum profit. On any individual turn, opportunities may present themselves. When taking a special tile, you might think about grabbing one to prevent another player from having it. Or perhaps you hire workers you don’t need in order to increase the wage price and decrease the profits (or force into the red) another player who has a lot of workers. These tactical opportunities aren’t necessarily present on every turn, but you definitely need to watch out for them and pounce when appropriate.

Arkwright also does a good job of allowing different competitive strategies. One strategy is to stick with only one or two factories, but continuously upgrade them and advance their quality. By doing so, you’ll have the finest factories and should be able to not only bump your stock price on their production, but also sell to England for some good cash.

Only five rounds? The game must be short, right?

Only five rounds? The game must be short, right?

Another strategy might be to run three or four factories. Sure, they won’t be fully upgraded (ain’t nobody got time for that), but producing four times each round will definitely allow your stock price to soar rapidly. Or you could go the shipping route. Shipping to the East India Company keeps your stock price low and gives you huge cash. So you can buy up the majority of your shares cheaply and then pivot to increasing share value.

While the gameplay experience is pretty phenomenal, there are two major negatives about Arkwright. The first is the rulebook. It mostly does a good job. But when it comes to describing how selling to England vs. storage vs. selling to the East India Company works, it fails miserably. In fact, it has an example where it specifically says that a player moves goods to their warehouse when, under the rules, the goods aren’t actually placed there until several phases later. This leads to confusion and, if done incorrectly, can really break the economic game.

Every action is going to cost some coin

Every action is going to cost some coin

The other isn’t a bad thing, per se. It’s just that the game takes a long time to play. A long time. My four player games typically clock in between 3.5 and 4 hours. Now, it’s engrossing almost the whole time. And it doesn’t really outstay its welcome. But if I have to set aside 4 hours of game time, it’s now competing with some heavy hitters like Mage Knight and Through the Ages. And if I’m going to play a four hour game, I’m not sure Arkwright is the one that I would immediately jump to. If this could take place in a two to three hour time frame, it would be epic.

Despite these issues, Arkwright succeeds amazingly well. For a deeply economic game, it really pulls you in. Although you’re constantly analyzing efficiency and profit, it never feels like a spreadsheet. It has an organic feeling to it, rather than merely ministerial. And if you like economic games, then this is one to try out.

As a society, haven't we moved past paper money in board games?

As a society, haven’t we moved past paper money in board games?

Components: 4 of 5. The pieces are solid and up to the standard for euro games. It’s unfortunate that there is only one kind of good cube even though the game has four different kinds of goods. And the rulebook has one atrocious issue. But everything is serviceable. Plus individual player boards. So you know it’s going to be good.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Beyond setup and initial turn order, there are few random factors. The only randomness is in seeing how the neutral importer and the workers shake out. But the variability is rather minimal and doesn’t have a huge impact on the game. I do think just a hint more of randomness would actually increase the decision space and prevent players from locking into strategies too early. But it’s a minor quibble.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Once properly explained, the game is amazing in this department. I love the way there are so many interlocking pieces, and so much you want to do, but the game forces hard choices. Plus, it’s great that actions always cost you money. That way, there’s a constant tension between using your cash to buy shares and keeping enough on hand to pay for your turns.

Replayability: 3 of 5. There are two things that can hurt this title a bit. The first is simply the play time. In my group, that isn’t a small investment of time and it can be hard to justify. The other is that players are mostly able – at least initially – to decide on a strategy and then run it. So if you get stuck in a rut and tend to do the same thing every time, the game can lose its flavor more quickly than it should. Still, the amazing variety of variants helps. Not only are there Spinning Jenny and Waterframe versions, but the rulebook also puts out a hybrid as well as variant rules for changing up the game.

Spite: 3 of 5. Spite opportunities are low. There are no “take that” cards and nothing you can do to destroy someone else’s factory. But there are a few critical moments in the game, where you can do something really mean. Snapping up the last ship so that someone can’t fulfill a contract can be huge. So can pushing up the wages on a player reliant on workers. These things can and do happen.

There are more than a few special abilities

There are more than a few special abilities

Overall: 4 of 5. Arkwright is an engaging economic game. It’s filled with tough decisions and long-term thought. While the playtime is perhaps just a bit too long for this title to see the kind of play it deserves, it nevertheless delivers a fantastic experience and with enough variation to satisfy most.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *