As a longtime player of cardboard civilization games, I’m always looking for titles that break the mold. From the moment it was revealed, Jamey Stegmaier’s Tapestry looked like it might fit the bill. With its pre-painted buildings, non-historical civilizations, and the hieroglyphic script that runs the perimeter of the board, it seemed to promise a civilization game that wasn’t quite like any other.
And, well, it certainly delivers on that front. Tapestry is indeed unlike most of its civ-game peers.
But not everyone loves it. A couple months after its release, the game has proved surprisingly divisive. And there’s a reason for that—it just happens to be more complicated than “this game is good” or “this game is bad.”
A (non-traditional) civilization game
Let’s start with the positive. In a genre packed with over-complicated (and over-long) entries, Tapestry fulfills its promise of a two-hour civilization game with minimal rules. To some extent, the low learning curve is a smokescreen; the rulebook is only four pages long, but it offloads a number of concepts onto a dense double-sided reference sheet. And as anyone who’s shared a table with a friend named Geoff knows all too well, two hours can quickly stretch to three once some decisions need making.
Still, that’s pretty slim. For the most part, Tapestry really is lean. Nearly every turn is neatly handled by pushing yourself up a single space on one of the board’s four advancement tracks. These are the hieroglyphs I mentioned earlier, representing concepts like warfare, exploration, science, and technology, and they’re even more important than the hex-grid map that dominates the board. You pay a resource or three to move into your chosen track’s next space, gain a benefit, and occasionally pay for a bonus. Easy. All the better that these tracks spit out incremental rewards faster than any free-to-play app.
This is also where Tapestry’s non-traditional nature begins to show through, along with some of the issues that have proven disappointing to those who want “theme” in their board games. The advancement tracks exist in isolation, freeing the player to move along any track of their choosing as long as their resources hold out. This can feel liberating when it comes to potential combinations, letting you maximize your returns as often as possible. But there’s really nothing stopping you from developing neuroscience before stone tools, or boarding a space shuttle to distant worlds before figuring out that exploding powder can hurl objects at lethal velocities in an enemy army’s direction.
Is this a problem? It depends on whether you play games to knock systems against each other for points or because those systems support a coherent narrative. One of the hallmarks of the civilization genre has always been the sweeping narratives it produces, often leading to those aforementioned complicated rules.
We built this city… on advancement tracks
If the point hasn’t already been firmly stated, Tapestry avoids this traditional direction. There are tech cards, but they don’t create a “tech tree” like any you’ve scrutinized before. Inventions like eyeglasses and anesthesia are cool to see on the table, and they raise questions over which technologies were crucial to human development. Was the wheel really such a big deal? Tapestry isn’t actually interested in such musing, just as it isn’t interested in explaining why plumbing gives you an armory or why warships dole out extra workers.
Perhaps the most overt indicator of this approach comes in the form of your capital city. As your civilization grows, new buildings are gradually added to your personal board, transforming it from swampland to city. Or, from mountaintop to metropolis. Or, from desert to deserted, if you’re too slow to grab the right landmarks. (Speaking of which, landmarks are awarded for being the first to hit certain spaces on the advancement tracks. Train stations and tank factories, lighthouses and shuttle launch pads—these stand out as a momentous reward for your hustle.)
What do these landmarks do? Fill space. Really, that’s what they do. Don’t get me wrong, filling space in your capital city is an important process. When sectors are completely filled, you get an extra resource. Completed rows and columns, meanwhile, award points. Some gamers are disappointed that an “academy” landmark does nothing more thematic than block off a 4×2 grid. Fair enough. (Although it wouldn’t be the first government project that did little more than clog up some city’s downtown.)
Like everything else in Tapestry, the city building is perfectly functional, if weirdly remote from its subject matter. It’s possible to target landmarks that will propel you ahead of the competition, whether economically or score-wise. Unfortunately, your capital might also resemble a circuit board, a weird latticework settlement that no human mind would ever willingly create or inhabit.
Unraveling the tapestry
At this point it would be easy to argue that Tapestry is mechanically sound but narratively empty. Easy, but an oversimplification.
Both assumptions are undermined by the titular “tapestry” cards. Think of them like a national identity, something that lingers across generations to form the backbone of your culture. Maybe you’ll host the Olympics and bask in their prestige, or marry into another player’s royal family to leech off their advancements, or embrace terraforming to make your capital city look less like a Borg cube. Each player uses just three of these cards over the entire game, and the cards endow each civilization with a sense of identity and history. A diplomatic neighbor can genuinely feel like an old pal, while dictatorial oil barons with a history of pillaging are best avoided. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.)
But tapestry cards are also wildly divergent in their effects. You’ll draw many more than you can play, but not always in time and not always with options that mesh well with the shape of your civilization. Bad draws alone don’t make the game unwinnable, but Tapestry does seem to set different point ceilings for the cultures clashing at the table. In other words, these cards take a wrench to any easy statements about the game, providing both much-appreciated dashes of narrative spice while also frustrating the best-laid plans.
Tapestry is complicated to assess. I’m certain its ideas are clever, even innovative, and it effectively reduces the civilization formula. But that word carries a double meaning. The game is reduced to essentials—a point-chaser that rewards both careful planning and outright chance. But it is also reduced to its bones, stripping away the interactions and narrative that make a two-hour civ-game such a holy grail among board gamers.
The game is divisive, then, and likely to stay that way. I’m glad Stegmaier tried to take the civilization game beyond its comfort zone. Experiments are worthwhile, even when their results are imperfect, and this may be right for you. But when it comes to the reasons I play board games—the interactions between players, the narratives that arise from play, the thematic statements—this Tapestry is bare of the threads I value most.