Euphoria: Building a better dystopia


When you really get down to it, the theme in board games should be superfluous. Whether you’re meant to be founding cities in Settlers of Catan, saving the world from ancient demons in Eldrich Horror or setting the inflation rate in a parliamentary democracy in Poleconomy (a game brought to Canada by the Fraser Institute that’s every bit as much fun as it sounds), you’re really negotiating with a set of gameplay mechanics. Wood, magic totems or cold hard cash, they’re all just arbitrary names for resources that need to be managed.

And yet, when a theme works, it makes everything so much better. In board game speak, Euphoria is a worker placement game with a heavy dose of resource management — you start with a certain number of tokens that you place on different areas of the board to take actions, and the more tokens you have, the more actions you can take. You use your workers to gain resources, which you can use to buy more resources, or more workers, which will then let you take more actions. So far, so dry.

In Euphoria’s world, though, each of those workers is a drone in your dystopian society. From the moment you shock them into submission in the worker activation tank, they’re yours to use as you please. Control them carefully and they’ll serve you well. Let them get too smart, and they’ll run off, leaving your plans in the dust.

Really, it all boils down to dice rolling, and on a pure gameplay level it’s an interesting twist. Having more workers makes you more likely to lose one of those workers, meaning the turns you spent acquiring it were for nothing. Not having more workers means watching other players take extra actions while you’re stuck two steps behind. And there are ways to keep your workers ignorant, but that takes up actions, too. It’s a great balance of risk and reward, but the fact that it’s so tied into the game’s theme makes it that much better of a hook.

Not all of Euphoria’s themed elements work so well. Every player is given an “ethical dilemma” card that lets them choose whether to rebel against the dystopia or embrace their inner evil, but it’s a one-off action with no future consequences. Not that you expect a board game to genuinely make you feel guilty (well, maybe Cards Against Humanity), but without the follow-through it’s probably best not to introduce a concept as intriguing as an ethical dilemma.

Still, Euphoria is a well-considered game. The rules are daunting, but after one play-through it clicks into place. The two- and four-player games are quite different, with more players making for a more deliberate approach and less of a mad rush for resources. The components are fantastic — at least in the deluxe Kickstarter edition that you can borrow from the Sentry Box, which has some of the nicest playing pieces I’ve ever come across. That one’ll run you at least $200 on eBay right now, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tempting.

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