The elaborate, high-end strategy game Tapestry is the latest brainchild of Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of Charterstone (my #2 game of 2018) and Scythe, and the owner of Stonemaier Games, which published this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres winner Wingspan. With painted miniatures and other quality components, the game carries a hefty list price of $99, further adding to the expectations set for the game as Stonemaier started fulfilling Kickstarter orders in September. It is, fortunately, a very good game, tightly designed and easy to learn as you go, although I don’t think it is as much a civilization-building game as it would like to be.
In Tapestry, players will compete to do … a lot of things, actually. There are four advancement tracks around the main board with twelve spaces each; players can expend resources to move up a space on each track, gaining set benefits and sometimes paying another resource for a bonus, with additional rewards for players who are the first to reach the fourth, seventh, tenth, or final spaces on each track. There’s a map in the middle, a smaller one for 1-3 players and a larger one for 4-5, where players can explore new hex tiles and conquer them, sometimes even taking a hex controlled by an opponent. Players can research technology cards and then upgrade them twice over the course of the game, gaining benefits with those upgrades. Each player gets a civilization card that brings some unique ability or bonuses throughout the game, and each player gets a city map that they’ll try to cover up with buildings and larger landmarks, gaining resources for every 3×3 square completed and points for every nine-square row or column completed.
As in my #1 game of 2018, Everdell, Tapestry puts each player on their own unique timeline, where you move through four eras (and score at the start of your fifth, ending your own game) at a pace of your choosing, and you might end your era several turns before another player does so. You begin each era by taking income, which includes gaining resources, scoring some points, and later in the game gaining additional bonuses. You start eras two through four by placing a tapestry card that gives you a special ability or power for the duration of that era, then upgrade one of your existing technology cards and take all of the goodies coming to you for your income, including increasing victory point totals as you uncover multipliers on your personal board.
You can accumulate points in myriad ways across the course of a game, but Tapestry doesn’t feel point salad-y in spite of this because there are enough interactions across the advancement tracks and technology cards that push you to diversify your strategy. You’ll gain points for filling out your city map, conquering territories, upgrading some technology cards, trading in technology or tapestry cards you don’t need, placing more of your 20 buildings, reaching the end of any advancement track, exploring space, and more, although you won’t get to do much of everything in any single play. Because resources are limited, especially early in the game, I have found myself naturally adopting a strategy of majoring on one track and minoring in a second one in the first half of the game, so that I get to some of the bigger benefits earlier and don’t fall behind any opponents trying to race up their own tracks.
As good as Tapestry is as a moderately complex strategy game, it doesn’t feel at all like a civilization-builder. The theme is civ-based, but the actual turns feel like nothing that. You do advance on four separate tracks, but there isn’t the same sense of building something, gaining territory, or evolving your own little society. The technology cards don’t really form a tech tree, and what you draw from that deck is just a little better than random. Although you play a new tapestry card when you start each new era, the cards themselves aren’t tiered, so you don’t acquire stronger powers or abilities through those cards across the game, and there’s a good chance the last tapestry card you play will bring little benefit because of how advanced you are on the board. The goals also feel abstract and the civilization cards just bring different powers, but again don’t tie in well to the text.
With up to three players, player interaction is likely to be low; you can try to compete directly with another player on a particular track, but it makes more sense for everyone to play on separate tracks and grab the landmarks and first-to-finish bonus for themselves. With four or five players, you’re more likely to compete on the tracks, and there’s more reason for at least one player to play the conquering hero and start mucking around on the map, although even then the immediate benefits from taking over another hex are modest compared to other options later in the game.
Tapestry also comes with an Automa solo mode, as is now standard with Stegmaier’s games, which actually has you set up two bot opponents, one Automa that will score (a lot, as it turns out) and one Shadow player that doesn’t gain points but advances on various tracks to take rewards that you might have otherwise claimed. The Automa rules are not very well-written, and rely on a whole new set of icons on the separate deck of Automa cards, but I think I followed the rules well enough since the Automa scored 215 points and I lost.
The main rulebook says 300 points is “a great score” for Tapestry, but no one has gotten close to that yet while I’ve played; I assume it requires more experience and a greater understanding of the synergies between different tracks and strategies in the game, which is fine but hardly necessary to enjoy it. (If anything, I’d rather not see an artificial benchmark like that in the rules. Don’t make me or anyone else feel like we’re not playing it well.) That rulebook is very concise, just four pages of actual rules plus a two-sided reference card that explains every space on the four tracks and every technology card. Learning the game isn’t hard, although I think learning to play it well will be.
As for the miniatures, they’re nice, but that is one aspect of game art that has never done much for me personally. Each landmark building is unique, with three tied to each of the four advancement tracks, and the remainder tied to specific technology cards. I do think they’d benefit from some kind of stamp or label to make it clear which building is which, as that was easily the most confusing part of setup, and it matters since many landmarks have unique shapes that you’ll use to fill multiple squares at once on your city maps.
Tapestry’s box says 90-120 minutes for a full game, but I’ve played two-player games of Tapestry in under an hour, even when first learning. I’m sure games could run to two hours if you had five players, some of whom liked to ponder their moves for a while, but there’s no intrinsic reason why it should last that long. The recommended age range is 12+, but it’s closer to midweight than heavy; it’s lighter than Uwe Rosenberg’s worker-placement games, and much lighter than other highly-regarded civilization games like Through the Ages and Terra Mystica or Stegmaier’s own worker-placement game Scythe. The price point may deter many buyers, but there is a worthwhile game inside here with very high-quality components and a pretty high replay value too.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.