Hamlet: The Village Building Game (Saturday Review)

Release Date: 2022Players: 1-4
Designer: David ChircopLength: 60-120 minutes
Artist: Yusuf ArtunAge: 12+
Publisher: Mighty BoardsComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: <1%Air to Components: 40%

It was a sleepy village in the middle of the countryside. The residents were hard-working, cutting down trees for wood and digging up rocks to construct new buildings and planting and harvesting grains to feed the population. Over time, more people were attracted to the village as it grew and grew. Eventually, it was time to build a church in this little Hamlet: The Village Building Game by David Chircop from Mighty Boards.

Yes, you’ve heard right. You’re all working together to grow your village. Everything you produce or build can be used by everyone else around the table. It all sounds rather harmonious and lovely – and it probably would have remained as such, if it hadn’t been for the hamlet’s residents’ desperate desire to build a church.

The term “hamlet”, as the rulebook tells us, refers to “a small village without a church”. So by building one, your little village will take a step up in the world – or at least that seems to be what the people of the village believe is going to happen. It all sounds like greed to me, to be honest – and it’s where all of the trouble starts.

Competitive Workers

Hamlet is a competitive game, even though what I said in the introduction is true: you do share resources and buildings. You even share roads, but ultimately everyone is in it for themselves. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. You get points for building roads, new action spaces or other locations, for delivering goods from the village to the market and, of course, for building parts of the new church everyone is so excitedly talking about.

There are two problems though, at least at the start: you have one worker meeple and one donkey meeple. Workers allow you to carry out actions, while donkeys allow you to transport resources from the locations where they were produced to the place where you need to consume them. So one worker won’t allow you to do much on your turn and the lonely little donkey won’t be able to carry goods very far.

Luckily, the village is quite small at the beginning. A single donkey is enough to get everything from one end of the village to the other. A single worker is also plenty, because there is only so much you can do at the start of the game.

As the village grows, the situation changes. It doesn’t take long and you will need another donkey. You also want to get at least one more worker out as quickly as possible. After all, the more actions you can take on your turn, the more you can achieve. That includes doing things that give you victory points.

Standard Opening

In fact, “buying” your second and third workers is basically a must. That’s why the first five turns of Hamlet will basically be the same. First, you do some work to get two coins. Second, you buy your second worker for five coins. Third, you send both meeples to work to get four coins. Fourth, you work some more for another four coins. Fifth, you get your third worker for seven coins.

Those first five turns might be slightly different, depending on player count and what others are doing, but unless you have three workers on turn five or six, you’re going to lag behind the others very quickly. I suppose, if nobody goes for workers early on, you will be all right, but if you’ve played Hamlet at least once, you will most definitely go for more workers, because they give you the additional actions to allow you to gain victory points.

That is, unfortunately, my first issue with Hamlet. If everyone plays to maximize points, they will, without a doubt, get additional workers as quickly as possible. It’s not really a choice for anyone. It’s a must. That means for the first five or so rounds of the game, you don’t really make any real decisions as a player. All you can choose from is how you get the money and at the beginning of the game, it’s most likely working in the quarry or on the farm or cutting some wood. You might be forced to beg at the church and maybe you can deliver some goods to the market, but that’s about it. Ultimately though, it’s not a real choice. There isn’t really any strategic or tactical thinking involved.

a green, red and blue donkey on a village tile, with two green bridges connecting to more tiles
everyone gets their own donkeys and can build roads

More Options

Once you have three workers, you don’t necessarily need the fourth straight away, if at all. You have enough options on your turn and can start to play more competitively. There usually is little anyone can do to slow down or interfere with you, depending on the situation.

With three workers, you will start to build new buildings and grow the village. You will deliver goods to the market and as a result, start to score more points. It feels like you’re building an engine and that the engine is slowly stuttering to life.

The engine-building element in Hamlet is actually really interesting. You’re not really running your own engine. You’re relying on resources to be available and that nobody used them before your turn. However, having three actions on your turn usually gives you plenty of options.

Saying that, you do have to plan a little ahead. Sometimes you can’t do everything on your turn, even with those three meeples at your disposal. If you can plan out your next two turns though, you should be fine. As I said, there usually isn’t much other players can do to stop you.

In fact, when someone builds a new dairy farm, for example, you can go there to make milk. Some else can then use your milk to do what they need it for, but you will still get a bonus. It’s almost positive player interaction and reminds me a little bit of Brass: Birmingham. Maybe you made the milk for yourself to use on your next turn, but if someone does take it, at least you get something out of it. Also, if you plan well, you can make the milk and ensure that it’s still there when the game comes back around to you.

Hamlet Building

Another big part of Hamlet is growing the village, by adding tiles. There are certain conditions as to how and where you can place these new buildings, but it’s fun to work out where best to add them so that you can reach them easily or so that you can score the most points. It’s a bit like Carcassonne in that respect.

Sometimes a new tile can only be placed, so that it is not connected by road to any other tile. That’s where you or another player can help. One of the actions you can do is to build so-called paths or bridges, depending on which terrain you build them in. Ultimately, they function like the roads already printed on the tiles. Everyone can use the paths and bridges you built, but only you will get points for them at the end of the game.

The game even encourages you to create really long roads that lead away from the village’s centre. It sort of reminded me of the longest road in Catan, except that there isn’t just one player who gets points for the longest road. Instead, everyone scores their own longest road at the end of the game.

The last thing you will do in Hamlet is to build the church. I say it’s the last thing, because, well, it’s something you’ll do right towards the end. The points you get for contributing a section of the church are usually less than you can achieve by adding a building tile to the village, even if you include the bonus for the two players who built the most or second-most sections of the church. It’s very expensive to build a church section. So, yes, everyone will leave the church to last and try and score as much as possible in the meantime.

a large collection of tiles making up the village in Hamlet: The Village Building Game
the hamlet is growing

A Sleepy Village

That leads to another issue I have with Hamlet: it outstays its welcome. There is no race to be the first to complete the church. Instead, everyone focuses on doing everything else first. The game really only ends when there are no more village and market tiles left to score and everyone has got their donkeys and roads out. Even then it’s going to take a while to get the resources or money together to complete the church.

Hamlet takes a little while to get going, which is fine and feels like it’s intentional. You all start in a sleepy village and slowly build your resource-making engine. As I said, the only issue I have is that you’re forced to get your workers out as soon as possible. However, putting that to one side, having a game start slowly isn’t an issue for me.

When your engine is finally running, Hamlet is actually a lot of fun. You’re starting to compete with other players a little and get excited about building the next tile or delivering a nice selection of goods to the market. You’re pleased when your plan comes together and you’ve worked out the best combination of actions to achieve your goal.

However, then Hamlet just keeps going. The village grows, more donkeys appear on the map, the market tiles run out and you’re still playing. After about an hour and a half, you’ve had enough and want the game to end. You actually just want to finish now and calculate everyone’s score. Building the church has become a goal that everyone has forgotten about, as they were busily growing the village into a small town.

Hamlet is Not the Scottish Play

I also often didn’t feel I had much agency in the game. It was much more about tactics than strategy. You usually don’t have enough money to afford a building tile you really want, so you just go for the free one and do the best you can with it. Similarly, you look at the market tiles and see what resources are needed to get points. You then spend your turn producing what’s necessary. It feels very reactive and very little proactive. So while your engine is purring nicely, you just respond to whatever the game throws at you.

When I first saw the campaign for Hamlet, I got really excited. Here was a game with shared resources, reminiscent of Brass: Birmingham, a tile laying element that reminded me of Carcassonne, a rather simple set of rules, gorgeous artwork and the obligatory metal coins that came with the deluxe edition. In my imagination, I could see myself playing this game with my family as well as my games group a lot and having a lot of fun, but unfortunately, somewhere along the lines, Hamlet didn’t live up to my expectations.

I really wanted to love this game. I kept thinking that maybe we were just playing it wrong. Maybe we should all have focused on completing the church, but there were just more points to be had in other places. If the game had a fixed number of rounds, maybe that would work. If new workers would just be given to you for free every so often, it might also be better. You would potentially end up with more money to help with building the church. I kept trying and trying to really make this game work for us, but I had to give up, unfortunately.

the church tile from Hamlet: A Village Building Game and a collection of donkey meeples, resources and other village tiles
building the church is a slow process and not as glamorous as you had hoped

Village Rails (Saturday Review) – Tabletop Games Blog

Release Date: 2022Players: 2-4
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. GilbertLength: 45-60 minutes
Artist: Joanna RosaAge: 12+
Publisher: Osprey GamesComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic (by weight): <5%Air (by volume): <15%

Nestled between hills and blanketed with beautiful fields of grass, where cows grazed happily, our village was in the perfect place. Country life was slow and relaxed, because nobody had anywhere urgent to get to. However, that was all going to change soon. Metal tracks were soon going to crisscross between hills and along rivers. They would connect our sleepy corner of the world. They were the Village Rails by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert from Osprey Games.

So there we are. It’s time for you to don your top hat and play the industrialist with their highfalutin ideas and grand plans of railways connecting every tiny village and hamlet, whether they like it or not. After all, the march of progress is unavoidable. Industry needs infrastructure, so you might as well join and see if you can’t make a few bucks and score a lot of points.

Build Your Own Village Rails

Let’s take a step back though and look at what Village Rails is all about. At the core, it’s a tile-laying game, not much different to something like Carcassonne. The difference is, everyone places tiles into their own little 3×4 grid. There is no blocking of roads, let alone any risk of placing farmers. No, it’s all quite civilized indeed.

Over 12 rounds, every player will have created seven separate lines. On your turn, you take a track card and place it somewhere in your grid, adjoining either an edge or an already placed card. Every card has two tracks on them, which either cross over each other by means of a bridge or which miss each other as they both veer off at a right angle. So there is never any risk that you can paint yourself into a corner. You will always be able to place a card and by the end of the 12 rounds, you will definitely have completed all of your seven lines.

The game is much more about getting the perfect card to score the most points. Each card represents one of five different terrain types and the two tracks on each card can have up to one icon on them, which are to do with scoring. So when you complete a line, you run along the track and score each icon in turn. There are four icons that score immediately, while one is scored at the end of the game. For example, tractors score one point per different terrain type on the line and barns score a point for a specific type of terrain on the line. I think you get the idea.

Analysis Paralysis

As you can see, you already have contradicting point-scoring potentials. A line with tractors needs to have lots of different terrain types on it to score lots of points, while barns want the line to mostly consist of the same type. You can imagine the amount of analysis paralysis setting in at this stage. Choosing card A will add another tractor to the line, but the feature of that card is the same as others already there. Card B has a barn on it, but the line has too many different types of features, so won’t score very high. It’s a real pickle. The situation gets worse, because every card you place will contribute to two different lines. So if card A is perfect for line A, it might really mess things up for line B. The level of analysis paralysis goes up another notch.

It doesn’t end there though. You can score even more for each line, if you buy the right trip card. However, ensuring that the icons on the line, the trip card and everything else works out perfectly for the most points will send your analysis paralysis through the roof. It’s no surprise that players may freeze and be unable to make any decision at all.

seven track cards and two terminus cards played in Village Rails
building the train network isn’t easy

The best way to play Village Rails is by using your gut. At least for the first game or two. Once you have played it a few times, you start to see that the game is actually trying to guide you a little. The scoring opportunities become a bit more apparent and things start to slot into place. You’ll soon start to make decisions that are intentional and considered and don’t just come from your gut.

Cut-Throat Randomness

I would say that Village Rails gets better the more you play it. It begins as an analysis paralysis minefield of contradicting scoring goals, then turns into a game where instinct and analytic thinking start to work together until it eventually becomes a game of cut-throat hate drafting and money hoarding.

Yes, as idyllic as it sounds, Village Rails can actually be REALLY cutthroat. If you watch what track or trip card other players need, you can buy them and add them to your own village rail network. It’ll really mess them up while probably still giving you a useful point boost. So if you’re playing with competitive players, watch them tear each other apart.

Saying that, you can continue to enjoy the fresh air and the green fields, if you aren’t part of a competitive group of players. Village Rails will continue to be fun and relaxing if you all just want to build a beautiful network and focus on your own thing. It can remain a proper multiplayer solitaire game – which is weird. I’ve not really come across another game that can be so cut-throat while also allowing for a completely solitaire experience as well. I suppose that’s a good thing. It means different groups of people will enjoy it for different reasons.

At the end of the day though, if you like a card-laying game with an element of route building that will squeeze your brain and that seemingly presents you with impossible decisions and hopeless situations, then Village Rails is definitely for you. At the same time, if you just want to put down some cards to build some lovely railway tracks and don’t much care about the score at the end, then Village Rails is just as much for you too.

Videos

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I bought and paid for the game myself.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Sound Effects: bbc.co.uk – © copyright 2023 BBC

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sounds by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/5877-sounds
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com/