A bit about my history with Ambar: Meeting Alberto Cano was not in Meeple Eksyen’s agenda during Spiel Essen 2018. This Spanish man is the co-founder of Invedars, a company that develops not only mobile games but also board games. One of the board games they brought to the booth was Ambar. On a first glance, I felt that the medieval theme artwork looked familiar and turns out my assumption was true; Ambar was on Kickstarter this year. Because I have missed it, the same mistake will certainly not be repeated. I then approached the booth and tried the demo of this game. After a session, Alberto kindly offered a demo copy to be reviewed.
Thus our journey back to the medieval era began, contending to become the richest amber trader.
An Overview of Ambar: The Background and the Rules
Ambar, also known as amber, is a precious stone with yellowish, honey color. This stone is a result of fossilized tree resins. Because of its color and natural beauty, many traded them as jewelry in the medieval age. In this game, players act as the trader who produces and transports the amber to the villages, selling the merchandise to get coins. Tons of obstacles and dangers roam through the path in becoming the most successful amber merchant.
Ambar fares in two rounds, a session needs approx. 30-40 minutes and playable for 2-4 players. Shuffle the journey cards and set it in the middle to set up the game — separate the Serpent, the Red Demon (for the second round), and the Treasure card. Then, each player takes the four initial cards: The Forest, the Laboratory, the Traveler, and the Village. Shuffle the Event cards as well; the cards from this deck may give advantage to the user or to hinder other players trying to reach their goals.
The interesting part: The number of action points in this game depends on the courage of the player, the number of cards drawn from the Journey deck decides this. Player can produce, ship, or even trade amber with coins. If the player draws three black cards, then he/she can only take one action. Several black cards may be repelled with the Soldier token.
After the Action phase, players enter the Trading phase to sell amber without spending action point. In the Upgrade phase, players may upgrade the four cards they have. Heads up, in this phase, other players can also trade and upgrade as long as the related cards are still available in the center.
The first round ends when there’s no more card in the Journey deck. Cards for the second round is then shuffled with the previous cards to create a new Journey deck. Then, the second round proceeds just like the first until no more cards can be drawn. Then players tally the coins they have collected.
Ambar’s Game Play with Tips and Tricks
The push-your-luck is the core mechanism in this game; it is agreeable to be greedy by drawing more cards from the Journey deck to gain more action points; but player needs to know when to play safe too, especially when two black cards are drawn. Ambar is also combined with action point system and a touch of engine building.
Three types of amber are categorized by color: yellow, blue, and red, with red being the most expensive of them all. The Laboratory and the Forest need to be upgraded to get more expensive amber. Initially, the Traveler can only carry a few amber for the initial village alone has demands that limit the amount of amber that can be carried before it’s sold. It’s a good idea to upgrade the four basic cards as soon as possible in this kind of engine building game.
Players may only sell amber if the Trading card is drawn. Players may alternately sell during the Trading phase without spending any action point; but if necessary, he/she can still do this in the Action phase to hinder the others by using the Trace card if required. The Trading card is really limited in the Journey deck, so it’s wise to sell the amber as fast immediately since any amber left on the board is not converted to coins.
Artwork is an integral aspect for me to decide the purchase. The medieval touch in the artwork by Roman Kucharski suits the theme really well. Ambar is really easy to play; the pointer on every card is designed to make it intuitive and language-independent. It’s suitable to be a gateway game, but the 30-40 minutes duration is still a bit too long to be a filler.
A duel session felt a bit too long and not that exciting; I’d suggest to play Ambar with three players to enjoy it optimally. In my most humble opinion, a game with 4 players might be fun but too crowded.
The mechanism implemented is really interesting; players gets action points based on the drawn journey cards. I cannot find any comparable board games with this system. The courage (or… greed?) to draw from the journey deck is usually rewarded with bonuses but it comes with the curse from the Serpent. When a player draws the fifth card, the serpent will follow as an additional black card in the next round. This might be a consideration for the players to draw the sixth and perhaps the last card to make it worth it; player gets one Event card and one Soldier token for it. This challenging bit is my favorite. Bravo!
One important note for the designer, there are too many Upgrade cards in the Journey deck! Well, of course it gives variety to enrich the game play; but while we’re playing in the second round where most players have upgraded their engines, other upgrades shuffled back from the first round would be dead cards. Nobody would like to touch dead cards. In contrast, the number of Trade cards is pretty low, it’s not rare that in the late game players tend to just play carefully because they are afraid they cannot sell their amber, giving the game an anti climax.
After 4-5 times playing the game, the repetitive sessions helped me and other players to somehow memorize the cards. When it happened, it made the game lost its fundamental basis: the press-your-luck part. I can say that Ambar does not have a high replayability rate, but it’s a different case if you played it over a certain interval of time.
Ambar has been fully funded in Kickstarter and is currently in the production phase by Invedars. The deluxe edition exclusive for backers at the same platform is still open for pre-order, so don’t miss it guys.
We’d like to thank Alberto Cano who did a good job as our personal game coach while trying the game in the Spiel Essen 2018; he also gave us the chance to review Ambar that led you guys to this article. ¡Muchas gracias!