When discussing how to plant crops, most of us tend to think of the same process: find some halfway decent soil, drop in seeds, water regularly, and then wait a few months for the tasty results. In the meantime, try to avoid pests and weeds.
Farming rice is a little different. See, it requires that the ground be heavily watered if not flooded entirely. Rice loves water, soaking most of it up over its growth span. Otherwise, rice is much the same as any other plant, wherein it needs a little help in the form of weed and pest management, whether it be from humans, animals, or your friendly neighborhood nature spirits.
Oh, do you not have friendly nature spirits? Well your job just became a whole lot harder…
Luckily, they are available to you in Spirits of the Rice Paddy, the latest game by APE Games and designer Phil duBarry. This rice production Euro asks you to strap on your galoshes, hook up ox plow, and get ready for an intricate exercise in water conservation.
This lesson in being waterlogged begins earnestly enough with each player receiving their initial farmland. Although everyone begins with ten workers and with an initial walled-in hex (a paddy), Spirits adds some pleasant variety by including asymmetrical starting conditions.
That is, each player gets a Setup card that provides you with bonus starting resources such as extra walls, workers, livestock, or rice, as well as randomly dictating which hexes your four rock piles will appear on your farm. Rocks provide one of your first farming obstacles in the game, needing to be removed via livestock from those spaces before they can be used for all that white gold. They are, quite literally, an early game stepping stone.
Of course, you and you fellow farmers also have a longstanding tradition of looking to the local spirits to help you, and their presence is felt throughout the game. Indeed, it is the game’s most novel aspect.
Twice during the game’s seven rounds you are treated to a visit from the land’s spirit helpers in the form of Spirit Cards. Spirits like these:
Here we are privy to both the poignant mystical side of the game’s theme, as well as a couple important implications to how the game unfolds. Beyond adding a bit of fantastical flavor to an otherwise grounded exercise in making rice, each Spirit Card offers special abilities that help you throughout every round of the game they’re in play. At the beginning of each round, a Rain card determines how much water will be showing up for the season, and then everyone plays one of their Spirit Cards. The trick here is that Spirit Cards also have a numerical value, and the turn order every round is determined by the lowest values amongst the highest numbered Spirits everyone has played thus far.
In a practical sense, it means that while the higher valued Spirits are more powerful and offer better long-term benefits, the lower valued ones help you act first. This can be very important, as going earlier means you have better access to the limited pool of available water. Case in point: once the turn order is set, the first player takes all of that precious Rain water for themselves. The greedy bastard.
After the water is allocated and Spirit gifts bestowed, then us humans get to work by allocating our stock of workers and livestock to a variety of farm actions, from building new walls to removing weeds, to harvesting grown crops. Farming is not an easy task, though, so although starting off with 10 workers sounds like a lot, your allotment can run out pretty quickly as you try to get the place up and running. Do you shoot for planting crops right away, or do you plan more for the long game and create bigger paddies for a bigger payout? Such strategic choices are up to you.
Action resolution in Spirits of the Rice Paddy break down into three groups: building new paddies, Water Out actions (available only if there is no water on a hex), and Water In actions (available only if there is water on a hex). Thankfully, much of the worker allocation and action resolution in Spirits is done simultaneously, as unlike more traditional Worker Placement games, everyone is assigning actions to their own farms as opposed to a central board. This avoids having to watch each person resolve a myriad of individual farm actions, which would get tedious. The one exception to that is, well, the water.
Managing the water is the game in a nutshell, after all.
After a build option, players in order choose to drain some or all of the water in their fields. Everyone must be a bunch of terrace farmers or something though, because water flows from one player’s field into the water reserves of the player after them. Draining the water is necessary to perform weeding, fertilizing or the all-important harvesting, this trickle-down process of water sharing can be highly problematic for those later in the turn order requiring a lot of water. Thus, this is the where the bulk of the strategy in Spirits of the Rice Paddy comes in: trying to balance what you’re trying to accomplish on your farm while also attempting to gauge how much water will be available to you.
The biggest component of the Water Out stage is harvesting, wherein you collect rice. Rice yields vary wildly, depending on the things like size of the paddy harvested or the prevalence of weeds and pests. Rice also serves a dual purpose, doubling as both the win condition and the game’s currency, and this duality of profit versus spending it at the end of a round for more laborers adds yet another item to manage.
Once resolved, players then use their water reserves to flood their paddies so that they may plant and grow crops, with any excess water once again traveling downstream to your opponent.
Each playthrough also comes with a handful of randomized achievements that can be worked towards each game. These achievements can be claimed once per round, but as only one player can claim each one, you have to carefully watch turn order and the activities of your opponents to see if getting one is possible. The payoff is worth it, however, since offer valuable rice in exchange for your trouble.
At the end of the game, whoever is sitting on the largest pile of rice is the victor. Oddly, though, none of that goes to the spirits that helped you…
From start to finish, Spirits of the Rice Paddy is an economical puzzle game that can be as fluid as the water it circulates around. There are quite a few decisions to make every game, and the margins of victory between shrewd planters can be quite close. Even though the fields may be a bit watery, Spirits is a solid game.
Yet in many ways, Spirits of the Rice Paddy plays in a lot of familiar mechanical territory, administering a healthy dose of Resource Management, worker placement, and even card drafting to its farming processes. It exists in the rather same safe planting molds as Agricola, Takenoko, Viticulture, and Keyflower: the Farmers, as well as Uwe Rosenburg titles such as Gates of Loyang or Glass Road. And, like these games, some may consider it a bit dry even with all of this H2O swirling about.
That said, what Spirits of the Rice Paddy does particularly well is create a farming atmosphere with a flavor all its own. Between its focus on rice and the inclusion of Eastern spirits aiding the farmers, the game ventures out of the well-trodden thematic fields of Europe for something distinctly different. (The Spirits themselves are particularly interesting in terms of their impact on the game.) Sure, Spirits of the Rice Paddy doesn’t wholly reinvent the plow, but that doesn’t mean this watery game is all washed up either. Spirits of the Rice Paddy is ultimately about seeing if your strategic farming skills – with a little help from the spirit realm – can propel you to be the most affluent planter this side of Bali. If you think you have the grains for it, then float on down to its Kickstarter!
Photo Credits: Charlie Brown and G.I. Joe by Wikia.