Category: Euro Game
Designer: Jason Harner & Matthew Ransom
Publisher: Brotherwise Games (2017 English edition)
Year Published: 2017
Playing Time: 45 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
500 years ago, the Cataclysm rained down upon the world. Cities filled with marvelous wonders were buried under mountains of ash, gravel, and rocks. The survivors eke out a meager existence on the surface. But the elders pass on tales of the wonders buried deep below, and some young villagers join the elders in a quest to unearth these ancient marvels. They are: Delvers.
You will control a band of five “delvers” represented by five dice: 1d4, 3d6, and 1d8. The ruins of the ancient civilizations are pictured on large tarot cards. To excavate a ruin, you pick a die and a ruin, roll the die, and then place the die on the ruin. When the sum of the dice on the card equals the number on the top corner of the card, the ruin is excavated, and the player who played the highest number die claims the ruin. Essentially, the value on the die corresponds to how far down the delver digs.
At the end of the game, players score victory points for how many ruins they’ve claimed in each of 5 colors, plus bonus points for finding one of each color. That means that if you roll high numbers, you’ll claim more ruins and earn more points. But then it wouldn’t be much of game. There are also mysterious stones buried in the soil, likely relics of the same ancient civilization. If a delver rolls between a 1 and a 3, they’re digging slowly enough to uncover a stone and add it to their band’s collection. Once a player finds six stones and arranges them into a ring, they can claim a Wonder: a powerful remnant from the lost civilization that grants bonus points, unique powers, or other bonuses to the player.
So is that it? You roll dice and hope you get lucky enough to roll a high or low number? Not quite. There are plenty of games where you can just roll dice and see who wins. Unearth adds one extra layer that pulls everything together into a delightful bow.
Each player begins the game with a small hand of Delver Cards. You can play as many of these cards as you like on your turn before you roll, which can give you much more control over your strategy. One card lets you roll your die before you pick which ruin to try to dig, instead of after. Another card lets you roll two dice that turn and place them on the same or different ruins. A third lets you re-roll dice that are already on ruins, potentially improving your odds to claim a critical ruin.
The only way to get more delver cards is to help someone else unearth a ruin. Yes, you heard me right! When a player wins a ruin, each other player with dice on that ruin gets to draw a delver card for each die they had placed. So, if one player keeps winning ruins, they’ll be hampered with too few delver cards later in the game, while the other players will have more tools to give them an advantage. It’s an excellent catch-up mechanic!
The game ends when every ruin has been excavated. A fun twist in this game is that there are five “End of Days” cards, and one is randomly selected and placed at the bottom of the ruin deck. Each has a unique effect when it is revealed that dramatically changes the style of the game for the last few turns. Some are extra ruins that must be excavated, while others are one-time effects that are then discarded. Not only does this make the game longer or shorter, it can really change a player’s strategy at the last minute. And it adds some nice replay value by making the end of the game slightly different every time!
Unearth’s scoring mechanism provides some delightful tension. At the end of the game, you score points based on how many ruins you have of each color. There are only 5 ruins of each color in the game, and before the game even starts some are removed from the deck, meaning it’s possible for there to only be one or two ruins of a color in play. But you also get bonus points for having at least one ruin of each color. So if one player takes the Green 17 as their first ruin, the next Green ruin will just even more tempting for all the players. The player with the Green 17 wants it because it will give them more points to have more green ruins. The other players want it to try and complete their sets of five colors. Who will win? That’s up to the dice.
The real highlight is that moment when a ruin is just a single lucky roll from excavation. Since the ruin goes to the highest number on the ruin, your d8 is a critical part of your arsenal. Will you roll it early to hope for a high number and stake an almost unbeatable claim to the ruin? Or will you save it for the very end when you can snatch a ruin with a lucky roll from the hands of a player who has patiently started digging. The drama of rolling that icosahedron and praying for a 7 or 8 feels amazing when it goes your way and absolutely crushing when you just get a 4. It’s a beautiful moment repeated over and over in this game.
And let’s talk about this art! Oh my gosh! David Pietrandrea and Jesse Riggle absolutely knock it out of the park with this game! I love the sparse images of the ruins and wonders, all depicted from an isometric angle. And everything is drawn with a blocky style that brings to mind an older style of video game art. I would go so far as to say that the nostalgia inspired by the art style contributes to making the ruins feel ancient. And then the delvers themselves are these adorable little silhouettes! If you can, pull out a card and just admire the sheer personality each little character showcases!
Unearth is the complete package. The game is fun, fairly easy to learn, and looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s only real flaw has to do with the fiddly mechanics for claiming and scoring ruins. It takes a little while for most players to break the internal shortcut that associates the large number on the card with how many points it’s worth at the end. Scoring-wise, there’s no difference between a Green 9 and a Green 17, it’s just a question of how many dice it takes to unearth the ruin. Once you kick your brain enough times, it’ll adjust, and then you can just enjoy this awesome little game. You should play this game.
This week's game was chosen by my Twitter followers @OrNotToPlay. Or it would have been, but the pool ended in a tie. So . . . I guess we'll do the other game next week! But if you want to help choose which game I review in the future, follow me on Twitter so you can have your voice heard too. See you next week!