I Like Big Buttons and I Cannot Lie

If I had a personal Mount Rushmore of game designers, Uwe Rosenberg would be on it.  I own eight games (and one expansion) designed by Herr Rosenberg, and though I have yet to play them all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one which I’ve gotten to the table.  This includes Patchwork, a game I was given last year by my friend (and the other half of Up With Meeple), Austin.  Patchwork is a bit of an anomaly among Uwe’s more recent games. In Patchwork, there are surprisingly no livestock to breed.  No vegetables to sell.  No buildings to build.  No ham to export from Russia.  Just… quilts?  And admittedly, because it didn’t share many of the thematic traits that made Uwe’s other games such big hits with me, I initially gave it a pass, electing not to pick it up myself when it was first released in fall 2015.

But now having played it, was I wrong in my initial assessment?  Is this another Uwe Rosenberg classic?  Does Patchwork, well… work?

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The Gameplay

Patchwork, a game for two players, is very simple on its face.  The goal is to sew as complete a quilt as possible, filling an individual 9×9 player board, by purchasing and placing patches of various sizes and shapes.  Each turn, a player has the option to purchase one of three quilt pieces in front of them on a circular track surrounding the main board (the track includes all quilt pieces in the game, and is arranged randomly before each play), then moving the track marker one space forward after their purchase and changing the three patches available for their opponent.

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Each quilt piece not only varies in size and shape, but also in cost.  In Patchwork, cost is expressed in terms of both buttons, the game’s currency, and time (marked by an hourglass symbol), the number of spaces you advance your player marker on the central gameboard.  Since the game ends for each player when they reach the final space of that central time track, a high time price can be just as costly as an expensive price in buttons, as it moves you closer to the end of the game, with fewer opportunities to add pieces to your quilt.  For the most part, larger patches cost more, as do more regular shapes that are easier to fit into an existing quilt, although there are some interestingly ‘priced’ patches, some costing several buttons but little time, and others with a higher time cost but requiring no buttons at all.

Some patches also feature buttons ‘sewn in,’ which represent additions to a player’s income.  Each time a player moves their piece past one of nine spaces on the central board featuring a button, they collect income equal to the number of buttons appearing on the patches in their quilt, resources which not only allow them to buy bigger and better patches as the game progresses, but that also count as victory points at game’s end.

If a player cannot buy one of the three quilt pieces in front of them on the patchwork track (or does not want to), they can also advance their piece on the central board until it is one space in front of their opponent’s piece, collecting one button in income for every space traveled.  Five additional spaces on the central board feature 1×1 patches, awarded to the first player to reach that space, which can prove quite handy at filling odd gaps in your quilt.

When both players reach the last square on the central board, each player tallies their buttons on hand, subtracting two buttons for each open space remaining in their quilt board.  The person with the most buttons is the winner.

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Your nemesis.

Patchwork: Sew What?

I freely admit that I was wrong about Patchwork.  There’s a lot going on in this seemingly simple game which, much like an actual quilt, has many layers to it.  One distinctive feature is its spatial management aspect – you’re always trying to choose patch shapes which best fit into your existing quilt, and which leave spaces, gaps, nooks and crannies that you hope will be easiest to fill with the patches you’ll purchase in the future.  In that respect, I can’t think of another game in my multi-shelf collection that requires spatial thinking and planning to such a degree.

At the same time, you’re also engaging in resource management, weighing the cost of each patch in terms of time and buttons.  This is no simple tradeoff, either.  The medium-size patches, requiring a moderate amount of time but few buttons, seem very attractive at the beginning of the game, when your starting button supply is low and you have plenty of time left to play; but you also need to recognize that, later on, you’re going to need income, and might be well-advised to save up for those pieces with buttons sewn in which, despite their high up-front cost, will pay out over the long run.  This is actually a mistake I commonly make when I return to Patchwork after a layoff, sacrificing long-term gains for cheap pieces that fill spaces on my quilt in the short term, but which will end up constraining my income in the later stages of the game.  Given the steep penalty for incomplete spaces on your quilt, if you want to win, you’ve either got to out-quilt your opponent by a significant margin, filling substantially more spaces than they do, or generate plenty of buttons and build a cushion to mitigate that end-game penalty.  With the simplicity of its rules, yet the comparative strategic depth and interesting nature of the tradeoffs one has to consider, I’d go so far as to call Patchwork an elegant game – a term I try not to throw around lightly.

In addition, Patchwork’s simplicity and lightness (at least on its surface) makes it both quick and approachable.  With a game taking 15-20 minutes, it’s a great choice if you want a game to play while you chat, or as something to play for the first two players arriving when you’re planning to get a group together for an afternoon of gaming fun.  Its streamlined ruleset also makes it easy to enjoy for people who are not gamers (or who think they’re not gamers), or who might otherwise be put off by more complex or heavy-seeming options.

Patchwork: Any Holes?

On the whole, Patchwork doesn’t have a lot of glaring deficiencies.  Perhaps the most notable one is that it’s only for two players.  While not a deal-breaker for many people (including me – about two-thirds of the games I play involve myself and a single opponent), more variability in player count is usually better.  For example, because I usually play games with only two players, I know that a lot of games I own requiring a minimum of three players have a harder time getting to the table, and I can imagine that larger groups might face a similar difficulty with games that only accommodate a low player count.

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I also suspect Patchwork might begin to seem repetitive if played too much in a short period of time.  Despite its surprising depth and strategic complexity, it isn’t like other Uwe Rosenberg games, where you’re presented with multiple paths to victory, each of which represents an avenue you could plan an entire game’s strategy around.  In my first play of Le Havre, for example, I spent a lot of time catching and smoking fish, mostly ignoring other advanced goods, like bread, meat, leather, and steel; but when I play a second time, I’m already planning to challenge myself and see if I can win by choosing a different good to focus on producing.  In Patchwork, conversely, there’s pretty much one path to victory – sew the most complete quilt while amassing as many buttons as possible.  You can be more or less efficient in pursuing that path, and the random layout of the available patches challenges you to think a bit differently every time through, but in the end, there’s only so far you can take that single path.

Austin’s Thoughts

What a fantastic little game.  I bought this game for Andy as part of a gift, and after enjoying our plays, I got a copy for myself in the hopes my wife would play with me (once counts, right?).  I quite like the game, it’s simple, but there is a cleverness hiding that if you really want to get cutthroat, you may.  Do I take an optimal piece for myself, or do I take a lesser piece in order to give me an extra turn (or two), and move the Pawn so that my opponents choices are harder for him to purchase (the answer is B)?  The different sizes and shapes of the Tetris-y pieces give you everything you need to reach the 7×7 grid bonus tile, or just enough rope to paint yourself into an odd shaped corner where you can’t cover any more tiles to avoid the end game penalty, let alone sniff at the bonus.

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Doo dee doot doot doo doot doo dee doot…

Patchwork is great for a couple plays before or after more involved games, a lunch break, or a quick game with your partner after dinner.  It’s not a game to build a game night around, and it’s not going to crack the Top 10 of Board Game Geek, but it’s great for what it is: cheap, light, fast, fun.  As an added bonus, you don’t have anyone you need to feed at the end of your turn, like so many of Uwe’s other games.

The Verdict

Despite its simple appearance, Patchwork is a very good game, one which might stick out on your Uwe Rosenberg shelf (yes, I really have a whole shelf devoted to his games – who doesn’t?) in terms of theme, but not in terms of quality of design.  Still, its fixed player count and lack of multiple strategic pathways prevent it from quite being able to crack that upper echelon of elite games where I’d argue so many of Uwe’s other games reside.

Up With Meeple Rating:

Silver-Medal

Silver Medal

Silver medal games are great games, games you make a point to play.  They’re a ton of fun, and usually stand out because they do at least one thing really well, like having tight mechanics, unique gameplay, or outstanding production value.

Patchwork
By Uwe Rosenberg
Mayfair Games

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