The Ninth World Board Game Review (Lone Shark Games)

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In 2015, Lone Shark Games and Monte Cook Games raised $133,369 for The Ninth World: A Skillbuilding Game for Numenara. If that title seems like nonsense to you, it absolutely is. The Ninth World was intended to be released in October of 2016. The Ninth World was released just now. 

And it isn't a bad game; in fact, reviews of the game (which somehow landed in the online store before it landed to backers) have been generally positive. But The Ninth World is a game of strange choices -- choices that seem to lead to a volatile game of unnecessary complexity. The development hell that the game apparently went through -- and the end result -- altogether seem strange for an experienced developer like Lone Shark Games.

The Ninth World Board Game Details

Players: 1 to 5

Game Time: 45 Minutes

Age: 14+

Genre: Bidding / Deck Building

How is The Ninth World Played?

First, you need to understand that even though the Kickstarter completed in 2015, the developers hadn't finished the game design until late 2016 -- after the game was intended to be released. Essentially, the developers didn't have a game; they had a theme for a game. They were just starting on the art and flavor text moving into 2017, months after te game was expected to have shipped. It shows in the development of the game, which feels like a weird hodgepodge of concepts that don't quite mesh. 

You need a full table to play this game even though you really shouldn't. You can see that the optional play mat actually doubles up on the spaces for the 5 types of skill cards, which can be placed on the scoring track instead.

The Ninth World contains dozens upon dozens of generic cards, in order to create its skill-building mechanic. You start off with level 1 cards in a few traits, such as scout and focus. You can upgrade these cards as an action, so you end up with scout 2 or focus 3. These skill cards are important because the game operates in stages:

  • Scout. You reveal or mark a card (to purchase later) in the wilderness deck.
  • Tinker. You purchase a green card -- which is generally some kind of upgrade or action.
  • Combat. You purchase a red card -- which is generally a monster you have to fight.
  • Quest. You purchase a yellow card -- which is generally a quest you need to resolve.
  • Focus. You upgrade your skill cards. 

Each round is comprised of the above stages.

The top row is the purchasing row, the middle row is your current location ,and the bottom row is the "wilderness" which must be scouted to reveal cards.

As you can see, there's a lot of card purchasing going on, and you're purchasing those cards with your skills. If you play Tinker 3 and Combat 2 on the "Tinker" stage, you have 4 points to allocate -- 3 from Tinker, and 1 from Combat, because any skill you play outside of that skill's stage only counts as 1. 

However, that means you played 2 cards. You only have 3 cards left for the rest of the stages. You only ever have a hand of five cards, which makes upgrading your cards very important. If you spend all your cards on the tinker stage, you're effectively out for the rest of the round.  

It's a Bidding Game

The Ninth World was initially described as a technology tree game, but it's absolutely not; there's no "tree," it's more like technology grass.

All of these mechanics fit into place when you find out that The Ninth World is a bidding game. Before every stage, you select the cards that you want to play, and hide them under your play mat. You all reveal at the same time. The person with the highest amount gets to resolve their actions first, and spend the amount that they bid. 

However, any unused skills (for every player) will result in 1 VP at the end of the stage regardless. Everyone gets to take their turn, the bidding only controls what order they take that turn in. And these weird quasi-bidding mechanics all a very uneven feel to the game. 

  • The mat does not functionally work, at all. A flat mat cannot effectively be used to hide the number of cards you're putting down, and even when it can, it's cumbersome. And then, where do you hide the cards that you aren't using? Balanced on your lap? Why not a player screen?
  • The usefulness of bidding is mitigated somewhat by the fact that you'll get victory points regardless, somewhat limiting its strategic value. In fact, sometimes just getting raw victory points is better than what's on the board. 
  • As you progress down in stages, it becomes very apparent what other people still have in their hands, because there's only 5 cards. If someone already bid 4 cards, they're probably holding onto a Focus to upgrade later on.
  • Gaining focus early on is almost invariably The Correct Thing To Do. It's essentially giving you extra actions.
  • Oh, there's also a megalith. The megalith is a "first player" marker that controls who gets to go in the event of a tie. It is easy to lose track of the megalith.

And there's another problem. Every character has a couple of things they're good at, such as combat or quest. The character you select and the cards that come out have a tremendous impact. If it happens that you are a combat character and combat comes out early in the game, you will be able to lap the other players. If it happens you are a combat character and no combat comes out until the very end of the game, you may have some significant problems trying to claw your way back.

A Strangely Random, Strangely Controlled Game

There's a single die in this game. It's used to resolve combat or action situations; occasionally, you'll have to roll to see what happened to you. Other than this, the only randomness is in the decks. Something is going to come out, and there's going to be something that is clearly the right choice for you. What comes out is random, what your decisions are are not. 

Each of these stacks is a skill deck, and the large stack is a set of special abilities/wounds. Throughout an entire game, we used 5 of the cards from that large deck.

There's an inherent level of unbalance to this game that reveals itself as you play it. Some characters may want quests more than others, some characters may want combat more than others. But because one naturally follows the other, those who are invested in lower stages are repeatedly taking on lower levels of risk. 

If your character is tinker-focused, you are essentially the first stage after scouting. When you bid, you don't really know who has spent their cards. On the other hand, if you are combat or mission focused, you'll almost never be in competition with those who were tinker-focused. And there are still reasons that a combat or mission-focused player might want a tinker card; some of them have some excellent abilities, and nearly all the cards give VP.

Faith in the Developers

When a game mechanic feels unbalanced, you generally need to have faith in the developers that they worked hard to create some mitigating factors. For instance, it might be harder to compete when purchasing tinker cards, but maybe the tinker cards are also more powerful, or characters that are tinker-focused have a tendency to be stronger.

The problem comes down to the scoring. When we played the game, the scoring was intensely volatile, and primarily determined based on the cards that came out. It was very common that a character would trail behind and then suddenly get boosted halfway across the scoring pad, simply because a random sequence came out that would help them.

When we got better at playing, the scoring became more intense. We were all able to get large amounts of points every round (sometimes so many it was difficult to count them all up), and it became some kind of strange race more than a strategic operation.

One reason for this is that it's very easy to build a cascade effect, where one quest will satisfy another quest, which satisfies another quest, which lets you complete a combat, which gives you a tinker card -- and all of this creates a sort of Rube Goldberg machine that you are barely in control of.

Taking the Good With the Bad

None of this is to say that the game is bad, just strangely uneven. There are a lot of good elements to the game. The skills do give a very real sense of progression, There is a set number of rounds, and a tremendous number of locations and characters that you can play with. You can tell that a lot of work went into the game.

At the same time, the game just feels chaotic, with things often happening not because you planned them, but because they just occurred. And though the game is heavily themed, apart from the names on the skills, it feels like it could be virtually any high fantasy card buying game.

I won this game by a huge margin the first time I played it, by the way -- I feel like there's always some assumption that people complain most about the games that they lose. I'm the opposite: if I'm winning a game, there's something probably wrong with the game.

It's easy to be disappointed with a game like this if you're a fan of the setting. But it's undeniable that a lot of love went into the game, even if it led to some questionable decisions. There is a nice social aspect to the bidding, and you are always interacting with and in direct competition with others. It's a game that contains virtually no waiting and wraps up quickly.

Now, whether it's a game waiting 3 years for is another question entirely.

The Ninth World Board Game Review
  • PRO: A bidding mechanic game design that keeps players engaged through each round
  • PRO: A solid sense of progression in skills, in addition to a large number of special characters and settings.
  • CON: Strangely uneven gameplay that can make you feel as though the outcomes are mostly random.