Category: Worker Placement
Designer: Adam P. McIver
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios (2017 English Edition)
Year Published: 2017
Playing Time: 45 mins.
To Play or Not To Play? PLAY
Would you like to play a game about alphabetizing a library? Obviously, the answer is yes! Ex Libris is fun, funny, and surprisingly quick for a worker-placement game. While some worker-placement games can feel like an endless slog, Ex Libris’ brisk 45 minutes keep it light-hearted and approachable. Most games end long before I want them to, which keeps me coming back for more!
Each player is a fantasy librarian with a group of assistants to help them create the best library. To do this, players have to shelve cards depicting various books in their library. Each card has 2-4 books lined up on a shelf. There are six genres of book, and each genre appears an equal number of times throughout the deck of cards. Your assistants take actions either in your home library or out in the town to help you acquire more book cards, shelve cards into your library, or do other useful things. The game ends when a player's library contains a certain number of cards. Then the library inspector examines everyone's library and gives them a score based on the results.
All of your points come from your library, so shelving books is critical. First and foremost, you must keep your library in alphabetical order. Before anything else happens during scoring, you have to check that everything is alphabetical, otherwise you have to remove some books. You are also rewarded for making a structurally stable library. You can have no more than three rows of shelves stacked on top of each other, and books have to be shelved orthogonally adjacent to an existing card. You get one point per card for the largest "stable" structure. This is hard to describe in writing. If you have a 3x3 card square, that's worth 9 points. But if for some reason that center card never fit, leaving you with a loop, your largest stable structure is a 1x3 column or row, for only 3 points. Basically, try to avoid overhangs, holes, or other shapes that aren't rectangular.
At the beginning of the game, one genre is declared this month's hot topic, and one genre is officially banned. At the game end, the player with the most hot books gets a bunch of points, then second place gets some points, and third gets just a few. Then each banned book in your library is worth one minus point. Also, each player has a secret objective, which is a genre they are specifically trying to collect. Each book in their library from that genre is worth 2 points. But players also need to have a diverse library, so whichever non-banned genre they have the least books of is worth 3 points per book.
Confused? That's okay. The game comes with a cute Library Inspector board where the players can tabulate their scores with a dry-erase marker. It not only makes scoring pretty fast and easy, it also has tons of jokes scattered across it. Like the tie breaker list which starts with "most books in the library" and ends with "next player to finish a book."
In fact, the entire game is filled with jokes. Every single book in the game is a joke or reference, from "Nancy Druid" to "The Unofficial Guide to Ex Libris" But I've completely overlooked the best part! Each player gets three assistants: two generic gnomes and one library-specific piece with unique powers. There's the Gelatinous Cube, which can make worker-placement difficult (other workers can get stuck in it), or the Ghost that can use the same space as another player's worker, or the Wizard who can rearrange your library after books have been shelved, or the Bookworm who can take additional actions by eating worthless book cards from your hand . . . it's a wonderful execution on the theme.
On your turn, you must assign one of your assistants to a task. You have several choices. You can always send your assistant to work in your home library. There they can draw you one card, or shelve one card from your hand. But it’s much more exciting to go to town! Each round, four locations are laid out in town, each of which has a unique ability. Some let you acquire more cards, some let you shelve books, others let you play special mini games with the other players to acquire more books. And some let you rearrange your shelved cards incase you need more space or messed up the alphabet. After every assistant has been placed, the round ends and everyone retrieves their assistants. The location tiles are removed from the table and placed under the stack except for one. Each tile is numbered, and the lowest numbered tile remains on the table to become a permanent location players can visit each round. Thus, as the game goes on, more and more locations will become available to the players.
Ex Libris has 152 cards and 18 different locations. You cannot expect to find certain locations when you want them, or to acquire the specific cards you need. You can watch other players’ boards to try and guess what type of book they’re collecting, but they may also just have bad luck drawing the right cards. And you never know when you shelve a card in the Ts next to a card in the Ss if you’ll then draw four more Ss that you can’t place anymore. Ex Libris is all about variance, which could be a major turn off for some people. Even if you play optimally, you could still lose. This is not a game where you can develop specific strategies and opening moves. Ex Libris is all about improvisation and luck mitigation.
Personally, I love high variance games. I don’t enjoy memorizing openings or recycling the same strategies over and over. I want to improvise and adapt to changing situations. And fortunately, Ex Libris is so short that when my plan crashes and burns around me, there’s plenty of time for a second game. Ex Libris is a game that lets you create order from chaos. A lot of chaos. And for that reason, you should play this game.