Buttonshy Games might just be the smallest game company in the world. Not because they're small in size, but because their games are small in stature. Buttonshy specializes in wallet games that are literally meant to fit in a wallet or purse. Most of their games are fewer than 18 cards and their upcoming "nano" line will be even smaller. Smaller isn't necessarily better though. Let's dive into one of their games and find out what makes it tick!
Ahead in the Clouds Overview
- Designer: Daniel Newman
- Artists: Bryan Fischer
- Release Date: 2017
- Player count: 2 players
- Age range: 10+
- Time range: 20 minutes
- Mechanism(s): Route/Network Building, Set Collection
Ahead in the Clouds is a worker placement and resource management game in only 18 cards. The game is set in the fictional world of the Empacta skies. Players act as industrialists, collecting dust particles from the air and water vapor in the clouds to convert them into hydrogen and oxygen. Players then trade those resources for contracts which are worth victory points at the end of the game. In addition to the cards players will need to provide a few coins or other markers.
How to play Ahead in the Clouds
In Ahead in the Clouds each player starts with a habitat card and 4 resource cards set to 0. Players share a number of buildings arranged loosely in the middle of the table. Each of the center buildings provide a certain type of resource. The basic buildings allow players to harvest water vapor and dust directly, while the more complex buildings convert them into more complex and costly resources like helium and hydrogen. Players mark the current quantity of a resource by rotating (and/or flipping) the corresponding card.
Players collect or trade for these resources by connecting their habitat card to the card containing the resource they want. They can then exchange resources they own for resources they want. Connections made through existing cards allow players to create long chains of buildings which can even include their opponent's habitat.
Players have a number of actions they can perform which include
- Taking / converting resources
- Cloudbursting (breaking up the established network of buildings)
- Claiming contracts
- Connecting their habitat to other buildings (to take/convert resources)
Lastly, every few rounds, the land dwellers send up a blimp to collect their taxes, which increase with each visit by the blimp. The player with the most completed contracts at the end of the 8th round is the winner.
What I Like About Ahead in the Clouds
As always I start with the visuals. The art on Ahead in the Clouds is fantastic. Illustrator Bryan Fischer did a superb job on the cards which feature rich colors and highly detailed linework. The cards themselves are thick and feel great in the hand.
I never would have guessed that a game including resource management and worker placement could have been condensed into a package this small. Still, Daniel did it and did it fairly well. In part this was accomplished by most of the cards being double sided. Each building has two sides, which feature different resource requirements and payouts.
The resource cards are managed by turning them to the correct value. The workers are simply routes to the various resource cards.
What I Don't Like About Ahead in the Clouds
While the graphic design and artwork is killer, the cards could really benefit from having the names of buildings printed on them. The rules tell you which buildings to lay out and which sides to have face up. In our first few playthroughs though it was hard to distinguish between the buildings. This could easily be solved by simply adding a label to each card.
The resource management cards are also double sided. Quantities 0-3 are featured on one side while quantities 4-7 are on the other. This means that you're constantly flipping the card back and forth. It would have been much simpler to have all 8 quantities on one side and allow the player to adjust a marker to indicate quantity.
In the games we played, the first player generally won, simply by virtue of being able to connect both water and dust buildings directly to their habitat and gathering those resources first. This forces their opponent to spend an action to Cloudburst leaving them with only two actions instead the 3 given to the starting player. I wonder if a solution would be to give the starting player 2 actions for their first turn. This is a common approach and could help balance out the gameplay.
Edit: After re-reviewing the rules at the request of the designer, we've noticed that we played the "first player gets 3 actions" rule incorrectly. Per the rules from the Kickstarter page
The first player takes 2 actions on their first turn instead of 3.
We apologize for the inaccuracy.
Final Thoughts on Ahead in the Clouds
I'm torn. I love the concept of the game and the artwork. But the gameplay felt mechanical. This might just be a symptom of resource collection style games: figuring out the ideal formula and doing that until you win.
I love Ahead in the Clouds' ambition and it's potential, but for me and the people I've played with it simply fell a little flat. The great thing about gaming is that 100 people can have 100 different opinions. Preorder Ahead in the Clouds. Try it for yourself and let us know what you think in the comments!
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