The explosion of the spice trade in the 16th and 17th centuries was the catalyst for the creation of what became world commerce, setting the scene for European dominance across the globe. Turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron abounded, as merchants traversed the great spice roads of the Middle East and Southeast Asia to ply their trade.
Emerson Matsuuchi has somehow managed to masterfully condense this concept down into a simple yet compelling card and cube game, which is as accessible as it is intense. Check out the full Century: Spice Road Board Game Review below.
Brief Overview of Century: Spice Road
Century: Spice Road is the first in a trio of game installments by Emerson Matsuuchi. Players take on the role of spice merchants on the old spice routes. They take their caravan and aim to gather enough spices to trade on the market in exchange for victory points.
The game’s extremely simple mechanics make it easy for gamers of all levels to pick up. However, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Players have a set of cards in their hands that allows them to acquire, upgrade, or trade spices. As play goes round, each player will have their own strategy for building their spice empire.
It’s a fast-paced game that can go from zero to eleven in just a matter of minutes.
Other Century Games
The Century Trilogy
Eastern Wonders: We return to the spice trade, but instead of land we set sail. With the discovery of exotic spices on faraway Indonesian islands, the next spice race is on. Command your ship to source the best quality goods.
New World: The trilogy is finished as players move on to the 16th-century Americas to explore the New World for riches and glory. Century: New World implements an all-new worker placement mechanic into the mix to enhance the solid gameplay from the previous two games.
Century: Golem Edition
If the spice trade theme isn’t doing it for you, Century has been completely re-skinned as a fantasy crystal trading game in the world of Caravania. Currently, the first 2 games in the trilogy are out, but keep an eye out for the finale coming soon.
Unboxing Century: Spice Road
Century: Spice Road is a straightforward game based on cards and cubes, so has a small list of components. But, what you do get is of impressive quality.
- 36 Scoring Cards
- 53 Merchant Cards
- 5 Caravan Cards
- 105 Wooden Cubes
- 4 Plastic Spice Bowls
- 20 Gold and Silver Coins
- 1 Rulebook
My first thought on the box was that it was perhaps a bit bigger than it needed to be. A few cards and cubes don’t need to be stored in anything larger than a deluxe edition DVD case, surely? But this is just a small gripe and I am a little biased towards games that I can easily travel with, so I appreciate this is only really an issue for me.
That said, the box is very intuitive, with the lid smartly designed to keep the cubes inside the spice bowls without going everywhere. Neat!
The core of the game – the cards – are well made and larger than what you’d perhaps typically expect. These are split into three groups: merchant cards, scoring cards and caravan cards. Without much opportunity to set the scene elsewhere, the artwork on the cards is bold and eye-catching. So, while you will only have a few cards and cubes on the table, it still looks like a colorful and exciting setup.
You’ll get plenty of wooden cubes, of course. Four colors representing four different spices:
- Yellow (Turmeric)
- Red (Saffron)
- Green (Cardamom)
- Brown (Cinnamon)
As mentioned, you also get some plastic spice bowls, which, while very basic, are nicely thematic, setting the scene of the game.
My favorite part, though, is the coins. While most other games would simply supply cardboard tokens, Plan B Games, who produces it, has made them out of metal. They’re nice and shiny and, I think, a great touch.
How to Play Century: Spice Road
Setting up the game is really simple. Follow the instructions on the rule sheet, making sure you properly layout your spice bowls in order of value (Turmeric > Saffron > Cardamom > Cinnamon).
The Object of the Game
The aim of the game is to score the most amount of points. The main way you can do this is by collecting enough spices to trade in for the orange point cards in the middle of the table. Once someone has reached five-point cards (or six in a 2-3 player game) then the game ends and all the points for each player are tallied up.
Each player has one action per turn. You can:
- Play a card
- Acquire card
Playing a Card
Merchant Cards – Merchant cards are the key to power. They dictate what you can do throughout the game to build your stock of spices. There are three different types you can play:
Spice Cards – Quite simply, take as many spice cubes as are shown on the card. For example, if it shows one yellow cube and one red cube in the top left-hand corner, then you can add one turmeric and one saffron to your caravan.
Conversion Cards – This allows you to, you guessed it, convert spices in your caravan. The number of grey cubes in the top left-hand corner represent the number of conversions you can make. Bear in mind, each new level you move up costs one conversion. So, say you have two conversions. One option could be to convert one turmeric cube by two levels to cardamom. Or you could choose to convert one yellow to saffron, and one cardamom to cinnamon.
Trade Card – These let you exchange spices in your caravan with another spice, based on what’s shown on the card. For example, it might say you can trade two turmeric in exchange for one cardamom. You can do this as many times as you like in the same turn (eg. six turmeric could become three cardamom).
This action lets you take a card from the merchant deck in the middle of the table. To do so, place a spice of your choice on each of the cards to the left of the one you want to acquire. Then, take your card and any spices currently sitting on it into your caravan.
The leftmost card can simply be taken for free.
Slide the Merchant cards left to fill the space and place a new Merchant card from the deck in the space on the far right.
This means you can take all the cards you’ve played so far in the game back into your hand. This allows you to build a really strong collection of cards over the course of the game.
Should you have all the spices depicted on one of the scoring cards, you can cash them in to claim that card. The spices you spend go back into the spice bowls and, like with the merchant cards, the remaining scoring cards are moved left to fill the gap, with the last spot populated with one from the deck.
If the scoring card you took had gold or silver coins on it, take one. These mean even more points!
The cards vary in value quite dramatically. For example, a card with eight points might need two yellow and two green cubes to be claimed. A card that scores 17 points, on the other hand, will require two yellow, two green and two brown cubes.
Winning the Game
Once a player gets a fifth point card (or sixth in a 2-3 player game), the round finishes and the scores are tallied. You can score points in the following ways:
- The number of points shown on your scoring card
- Three points for every gold coin
- One point for every silver coin
- One point for every spice cube, except turmeric, which scores zero (sorry turmeric, you’re not spicy enough).
Whoever has the most points wins the game!
Your First Game of Century: Spice Road
Everyone has their own way of playing the game. There’s no sure-fire strategy that I’ve found yet that’s bound to win. It’s one of the things that makes Century: Spice Road so fun. However, I would advise first-timers not to spend too much time focused on the value of the spices. Instead, observe what scoring cards are in play and what might be easy ways to build up points based on your own inventory.
And remember, the game ends when someone has five scoring cards. So, while there’s definitely value in playing the long game to score that 17 pointer card, if someone gets their fifth sub-ten scoring card before you get there you might find yourself coming in a little short.
Don’t miss out on multiple exchanges
In terms of rules, it’s a very straightforward game, so hopefully, it should be easy to grasp. However, the first couple of times playing we did miss that you can use the trade cards to make exchanges as many times as you like in one go, providing you stick to the ratio on the card. Make sure you don’t miss this as it makes these cards much more powerful and can take you from being miles away from completing a scoring card to on the verge of victory in just one go.
Don’t worry about limited stock
Otherwise, bear in mind that, unlike some other cube games, the spice stock is not limited and you’re welcome to supplement the spice stock with other objects. Personally, I’d recommend actual spice mills, CDs by the Spice Girls, or James Bond and George Smiley novels (they’re spies…).
Pros & Cons
- Easy to pick up for gamers of all levels
- Fast-moving gameplay
- Great for groups of five
Century: Spice Road is a fast-paced game that, as each player only takes one action, keeps everyone on their toes. This makes it particularly good for groups of five, as, often, with so many players it can be a bit frustrating waiting for so long for everyone to take their turn. In this case, you’ll be back in the driving seat in no time.
It’s also a great game if you have a group of players with mixed gaming experience. It’s very simple to pick up with few rules, so, once you’ve had a round or two, everyone should have a good grasp of it.
The simplicity of the game rules, however, doesn’t take away from the complexity of the game. The strategy of each player can go very deep as you begin to work out some of the mechanics and different tactics for scoring points. As a result, the replayability is a lot higher than initially meets the eye. You could quite easily play 50 games of this and still be fleshing out new ways to win the game.
- Limited player interaction
- Not the strongest of themes
One slight disappointment was that, for a game based on the concept of trade, there’s actually very little interaction between players. It’s less wheeling and dealing and more medium-term tactical card play, focused on building your own stocks.
I don’t really fault the game for this, as I’d built up my own assumption of how it would work based on the theme, but it’s worth bearing in mind for those gamers that like a bit of debate and bartering – the game’s a little more rigid than that.
Similarly, because of the game’s simplicity, there isn’t a great deal of opportunity to put meat on the bones of the spice merchant theme. It’s telling that Century: Spice Road wasn’t initially crafted with this theme in mind, instead of taking on a fantasy facade in its early years.
This won’t be a big concern for everyone, but it certainly doesn’t transport you in the same way that other games might. You could quite easily slap on any old theme you liked and it would work just as well (this makes it an obvious target for a franchise crossover – I’ve got my fingers crossed for Crazy Frog).
Regardless of the theme, though, the strength of the game mechanics means you’ll have a great game, whatever face you put on it.
Century: Spice Road Review (TL;DR)
Century: Spice Road is a fast-paced card and cubes game in which players look to build a spice empire. With little opportunity to take your mind off what’s going on, this makes for a pretty intense period of gameplay whether you have two or five competitors.
The rules of the game are extremely simple to pick up. However, there’s still a real depth to it, with players able to form many complex strategies as they begin to work out some of the mechanics and different tactics for scoring points and winning.
Century: Spice Road fits comfortably into the underpopulated center of a Venn diagram of games that require both a lot of strategic insight and that can also be taught to a newbie in a matter of just a few minutes.
It may not knock the strategic pants off an expert gamer but it still packs a real punch when it comes to thinking tactically about how you’re going to build your spice stocks and collect those points cards.
The game’s accessibility and speed mean it sits neatly alongside Nightmare Before Christmas and a KFC Bargain Bucket as a safe-bet for pleasing all the family. Whether it’s a quick game between two or part of a longer gaming session with up to five people, you can be sure of an action-packed half-hour.
Have you tried Century: Spice Road or any of the games in the trilogy? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think!
Find more card games to play below: