Quick Look: Buru
Designers: Stephen Wren, Alex Flagg, Taran Lewis Kratz
Artists: Enggar Adirasa, Dann May
Publisher: Crafty Games
Year Published: 2021
It is not very often that I have the chance to try games with an Indonesian theme or background. While I have congklak (a relative of mancala) and Indonesia by Splotter games in my collection, being that I am married to someone from Jakarta and now have two children with an Indonesian background, I am always looking for new opportunities to expand my knowledge of the island chain’s history and culture.
So when I heard that Crafty Games was making Buru, I was quick to make sure we could reach out to them and not only research the game for my own educational and entertainment purposes, but also inform readers on what I thought about the game before their Kickstarter launches.
While I always love to evaluate a game for its mechanics, this time around I thought it would be interesting to officially consult my wife for an evaluation of the gameplay and theme, being that she is more of the expert when it comes to Indonesian culture and history.
I will say that my wife was immediately quite captivated by the artistic style and presentation of the game—from the standpoint of board game art, it was not quite like anything she had ever seen (in terms of authenticity) and it stood out for its use of colors and being non-generic— not just another old and boring square or rectangular game board. It was both colorful and faithful to art forms that she grew up seeing. So far so good!
In addition, the language and terminology that is used in the game is also well-rooted in tradition, employing words and terms that harken back to dialects that originated with the more indigenous/tribal factions that have existed on the islands—given that this game largely revolves around appeasing and paying tribute to various island spirits, or leaders such as the Majapahit, this meshes well. For me personally, I am grateful to learn any new words , so I can now add Manuk (birds), Gunung (mountains) and Banyu (water) to my vocabulary!
Moreover, the resources that one can acquire in the game (Ebony, Palm Leaves) are true to what one would expect to obtain in such a setting.
When it comes to assessing the gameplay itself, it should be stated that generally speaking, neither my wife nor myself are enamored with worker placement and resource collecting games. So from that standpoint, Buru would immediately face an uphill battle.
The central aim of the gameplay is to achieve the most favor and Esteem (victory points) to become the new governor of Buru.
The circular game board itself is divided neatly into four quadrants or regions that each has distinct places to place game pieces. Each quadrant has its own actions that can be taken there, and several game pieces can be placed within each quadrant that can occasionally benefit whoever controls the region.
These regions are:
Forest—resource cards are placed here
Village—villagers can be acquired here
Shore —this is where you must activate any villager abilities you wish to use
Sacred Lake — pay tribute to spirits here to gain Esteem
Each player takes a game board that is used to track their resources such as palms, ebony, fish and clay. In addition, each player received five double-sided explorer tokens in their own respective color, which each have a number from 1-5 representing how much power or influence they wish to exert when it comes to choosing actions.
One player received the “Emissary” meeple, which signifies the first player within the round—this token can change hands during the course of the game, and it can be advantageous possessing this title and status, because it can be used to break ties—which can happen quite frequently!
Players will then start the game day.
For Dawn, each day the new forest cards are drawn, a varying number (depending on the number of players) is placed within an appropriate slot in the Forest Quadrant. 10 Decree tokens are placed in the center of the game board, and two are drawn at the start of each game day—consequently, when all 10 are drawn (on day 5), it signifies that this is the last round/day of the game.
Morning Phase : Players attempt to assert control over a region and take turns placing one of their five numbered Explorer tokens in a region of their choosing. For example, if you wish to acquire a villager to put to work in a later phase, and you really want a particular villager card you see, you may wish to allocate your token with the value of 5 on the Village wilderness area ; if you are not so interested in what you see there, you may just place a token valued at 1 there. The values of these tokens are kept secret for now, and are placed until each player only has one Explorer token left. This is carried over to the Noon phase
Noon Phase :
The Value of your last remaining token is the number of fish your explorer caught on this particular day. Add this number to your fish total, a maximum of 20 obtainable per player.
Afternoon Phase : Value of explorer tokens are revealed in each region of the board. Whoever has the most total power as reflected by their explorer token values becomes triumphant in the respective region, taking the wooden totem meeples for that region (which gives esteem bonuses to the controlling player whenever tribute is paid to this spirit, even by other players!) and any situational bonuses generated from Decree tokens that were revealed in the Dawn phase. Then, proceeding in order of player dominance, players take actions in the Forest Region by placing the tokens used their bidding into slots designated within each region, most of which allow players take actions that are varying in power—players who go first have a better opportunity to use spaces that are more valuable—until all players have resolved the actions they wish.
As an example for the Forest region, some cards on a particular area may generate only 1 resource, while another area in the Forest may generate 2, and another 3. The player who scored highest and was Triumphant in the region earlier can capitalize on the situation and easily gain the space that offers the highest resource value, other players are essentially left fighting over the scraps.
For the Shore, Village, and Sacred lake regions, this same basic principal is in effect ; the highest ranking player in the Shore gets the premier pick of villagers; the highest ranking player in the Village can put more villagers to use to generate more resources than other players ; and the prevailing player in the Sacred Lake has more opportunities to pay Tribute to the Spirits of the island, garnishing more Esteem/victory points essential for victory, as well as possibly gaining more Elder cards that give you conditional end-game bonuses.
The Dusk phase essentially resets the game in preparation for a new round ; previous Decree tokens are discarded, as are Forest cards. In addition, tasked workers and villagers are reset so they can be utilized once again on the subsequent game day.
And thus, a new day in Buru begins, until 5 rounds are played and all Decree tokens have been exhausted. Final points are tallied, adding any conditional bonuses granted by Esteem cards, and the player with the Highest Esteem becomes the new governor of Buru!
Initial Impressions ; Positives, Negatives, and room for development.
Let us remember that the copy of Buru that I received was a prototype, and as such, the final game is subject to change, so bear this in mind as I summarize our thoughts.
First the good ; my wife and I loved the art style. My wife again emphasized and highlighted the authentic feel of the art, even within the game manual. The circular board did not feel boring at all, and is laid out in such a way to make the flow of the game intuitive and easy to proceed within each region and game round.
The rules are relatively easy to follow, once you understand them. Reading the rules may sometimes make a game seem more difficult than it actually is, and this was true of my experience ; my wife was scratching her head during our first game trying to understand what the objective was in the context of the game, but it only took a few rounds for her to understand the flow of the game, and how to subsequently utilize the mechanics of the game to gather more Esteem. So on a fundamental level, I would say this is an easy game to teach at heart.
However, that is not to say that the game is not a challenge against experienced players ; besides learning to optimize your cards and gains in the game (you really can’t discount any opportunity to net even a seemingly “meager” one point of Esteem), it needs to be said that there can be a good deal of human interaction when it comes to outwitting your rivals—you may need to work on your poker face if you are not in practice, and you will likely be scrutinizing other player’s facial expressions in trying to determine whether they are trying to deceive you into believing that they are vying for control of one particular region of the game when they really have no regard for the area whatsoever. So I would highly encourage witty dialogue and banter for this game, if only to throw off the competition!
The game also plays surprisingly fast, but I do not feel that this is a disadvantage, it does sit at a sweet spot of about 45-60 minutes, which definitely leaves me more satisfied than some other recent and shorter offerings I have tried from other publishers ; conversely, I do enjoy that we do not have to set aside an entire 2-3 hour block of time, either. Buru plays sweetly, swiftly and with substance.
I would also personally like to thank the developers for taking the theme of the game seriously ; for people like myself who are trying to make this an educational experience as well as entertaining, the fact that they made an effort to be grammatically correct with the Indonesian language should feel like a no-brainer, but I have had the experience with another Indonesian-themed board game that had a few typos and errors in Indonesian words that they refused to correct in rule books for later revisions of their game, even knowing full well that they were there! (In their own words, this as done for “nostalgic value”). So thank you to Crafty Games for treating the language properly from the get-go!
Things that I felt could use some improvement in the final production copy would be the following:
—It would be nice if the player boards could have recessed spaces for the fish meeples to keep them from getting bumped around and causing you to lose track of how many fish you had.
—a few bits of clarification on the card iconography would be nice! This is expected to be addressed, given that a players’ aid is mentioned in the manual (but was not included in the prototype).
—The game can not only be short, but potentially low-scoring. Not a deal breaker for me, by any means, but don’t be surprised if no one breaks 20 points on the first few games.
—At its heart, it is still very much a worker placement game. Not a negative, per se, but if one has an aversion to the style, don’t expect to have your feelings swayed. My wife ultimately still prefers to bash heads in a Gloomhaven / Tainted Grail style, but I personally found myself enjoying the experience more than other Worker Placement games that I have played.
—My wife loved that the game had an Indonesian theme, but was a tad disappointed that the game to her felt like the story and background was sort of tacked-on, and the game could have thematically been anything. She would have preferred perhaps a bit more background information, but for what it is, she still appreciates the thought that went into the game, as it it is not often enough that we have an experience like this for us to share and for me to learn from.
Ultimately, the core experience of Buru is the most important factor to consider when looking at a game for me ; if the core is good, it can be said that any subsequent content and developments for the game should enhance and bolster the good that is within the game rather than supplant it with a new style—all too often, I have found that due to inherent issues in a base game, expansion content is often used as a band aid to patch up flaws in conceptual design. Fortunately, my experience with the core of Buru is solid, and I would expect the Ambelau expansion to be of the type that adds a nice new layer that adds to the original experience quite nicely after perusing the rule book—the additional Canoe board looks to integrate with the the main board very nicely from both an aesthetic and functional level!
Stay tuned for my thoughts on Ambelau shortly, but for now, I would say that Buru is a game that my wife and I would enjoy playing again!
Jazz Paladin- Reviewer