Ceylon — Time for tea?

Aside from wine, cheese, a wide variety of carbohydrate based snacks and perhaps chocolate, there are few things that supplement a board gaming session as well as copious amounts of tea. Games that handle the subject of actually cultivating and shipping tea are few and far between, but Ceylon (from publisher Ludonova) is one such title that looks beautiful and plays in a fast, fluid manner, whilst simultaneously delivering complex choices that require considerable forward planning.

Ceylon supports between two and four players, but in my experience, it’s a case of the more the merrier, thanks to the way in which the game works and because of how there are relatively few rules tweaks to accommodate more or less players. The core mechanic in Ceylon is based on a card driven action selection system that has players playing cards from a hand of three onto a specific location on the board. Each card shows an image of one action at the top and one at the bottom, with a couple of default actions in between.

The interesting thing about Ceylon is that players only have access to the three cards (and therefore six actions) in their hand. On a player turn, they will place the card down in the orientation that allows them to use the one action they want (or either way to use one of the default actions) and then they will take that action. The twist here is that each other player, in turn, may then take the other action on the card, or do either of the default actions. This follow mechanic has been used in a few other games, but in Ceylon the actions are so fast that downtime is almost entirely eliminated.

The game itself rapidly begins to feel like an area control game, but it actually uses several clear, simple and independent mechanisms to enable players to score points. Players can score points at any time during the game by completing contracts or through certain other unique circumstances (like advancing technology or obtaining certain agreements with local leaders) but all end game scoring is based on majority. For example, having the most presence in each area will score ten points, second most six points, then three and then one. The same applies to the Technology Track and the number of individual contracts. Players are also penalised for failing to put out their tea-leaf tokens.

The actions that drive players towards their eventual goals in Ceylon are relatively few in number, and all very fast to execute. Plant is a fairly self explanatory action that simply allows a player to take the leftmost tea-leaf token from their player board and to place it on top of a plantation token. This action (like several others) costs five rupees and is essential to claiming majority in each of the four regions. A second, complementary action is Harvest, which allows the player to claim tea cubes from the space they are on, as well as any adjacent spaces – including those of opponents. Claiming tea from an opposing plantation allows the other player to score a point immediately.

As a brief segway away from talking through the actions, I’d like to mention at this point that Ceylon uses an interesting method of differentiating different kinds of tea (black, green and white) based on the altitude at which they grow. Not only are these cubes essentially worth different values for the purpose of fulfilling contracts, but the board itself is also built up in three tiers, giving it a really attractive presence on the table. Each region will only ever have four mid-altitude spaces and one high altitude space, so ensuring good access to the higher spaces can be quite important.

On that note, the two default actions and perhaps the next most important, and they include moving and drawing income from the bank. Movement always allows the player to move their pawn one space for free, but each subsequent space will cost a rupee. Drawing income is a fairly underwhelming but occasionally necessary action that allows the player to take two rupees. A more efficient way to earn money is to use the Fulfill Contract action, which enables a player to trade three tea cubes to complete a contract that requires them. Doing so allows players to take either money or points, which is a decision that can prove pivotal.

There are a two other actions to consider, the first of which is to contract with the local leader in region occupied by your pawn. This action costs five rupees, but it allows the player to place a token in that region that provides the player with access to a permanent ability that is randomly drawn and placed in each of the spaces associated with a regional leader. Benefits include additional warehouse space, more money for completing contracts and so on. The final action is to advance on the Technology Track. Again costing five rupees, this action is half about scoring the most points in an isolated race and half about gaining the technology tokens that allows players to perform any action at any time on their turn, effectively granting them a second action – or an action that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access because their cards in hand don’t allow it.

There are several small variations and subtleties in Ceylon that combine to make it more interesting and mentally taxing than it might appear. Firstly, surging up the technology track will be costly and could hold a player back in terms of board presence, but reaching the top will score at least ten points (due to milestones) and probably twenty (because they’ll also take the majority) which is equivalent to controlling two full regions. Conversely, focusing heavily on planting, harvesting and completing contracts is the heart of the game, but there is a subtle difference between going for majority in regions and simply attempting to collect the right cubes.

Players are always driven to place tea-leaf tokens on the board because each is worth minus two points at the end of the game, but just as important, a player may only contract with different investors based on how many open slots they have on their player board. More tea-leaf tokens on the board means more slots for new contracts. Ceylon also features some random features that add variety – the regional leader bonuses are randomised, as are the starting bonuses for each player, should they be used (these are considered a variant on the standard rules.)

The most interesting thing about all these actions and interesting things to watch out for is that you’ll need to consider what actions your opponents can do based on the cards you play, just as much as those you’ll want to complete yourself. Planting might be exactly what you’ll want to do, but chances are one (or more) of your opponents will want to take the Technology action on the bottom half of the card. Even though it feels satisfying when they take one of the two default actions, you still realise that your card is their gain when they draw two rupees or move into a prime spot just ahead of their next turn.

The rapid card play in Ceylon is balanced against the challenging decision making that has much more to it than initially meets the eye. I enjoyed Ceylon at two players, but I also found that the players will feel themselves a little more restricted on cash (because they’ll take fewer default income steps than in higher counts.) At four players, the opposite can be true and the game can feel a touch chaotic because the board can change a lot from one turn to the next – although granted, no one is excluded from making their mark. These two factors meant that I found three player to be the optimum number, which is a rare and pleasant surprise.

Overall, Ceylon is a very beautiful, very simple to learn and play game that actually does a fantastic job of appeasing both newly minted and veteran gamers alike. Less experienced players found it to be occasionally frustrating when they couldn’t take the actions they wanted, but personally I enjoyed the balance of luck (of the draw) and player agency (through forward planning, use of technology tokens and so on.) Overall, whilst it can attract some analysis paralysis, Ceylon is a superb go to game if you want to show a mixed audience what modern board gaming is all about without reverting to a “simpler” game like Ticket to Ride. It is highly recommended as a result.

A copy of Ceylon was provided for review purposes, and can be purchased from all good local games stores. For online purchases, please visit 365 Games

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