In a hopefully distant future, humanity as we know it is gone. Earth has been discovered by alien races who are now scavenging our junk and selling it to other aliens for a profit. It’s good to know that toxic capitalism isn’t limited just to us humans!
In any case, that’s the premise of Excavation Earth. So let’s dig into how it plays and discuss if this is a relic of humanity that you should go digging for? Get it?
The board in Excavation Earth is divided into regions with dig sites, markets, and black markets in each area. There will be a random assortment of artifacts placed on the board during setup and others placed in the game’s black market. The six markets are across the top of the board and each has three buyers (who are helpfully colored matching the type of artifacts they want). You’ll have three explorer pawns that you can move around the map during the game.
Dávid Turczi has mentioned Brass as an inspirational jumping off point for Excavation Earth. While I don’t necessarily see a lot of parallels one thing is undeniably true: this game revolves around a deck of cards that you’ll draft from each round. Each card has three important pieces of information: a color, a symbol (that relates to the six markets), and a number of fuel icons. On your turn, you can take up to two actions and you must play a card to take any action. (That is very Brass-like.)
The most important actions include (all require discarding a card):
- Excavate — Move up to two artifacts matching that card’s color to your player board.
- Market — Add a trader of your color to that market. You can also add buyers to the market matching the symbol of the discard card. You can add a white buyer (who will buy anything) and then a buyer of your choice.
- Travel — Move your explorers a number of steps equal to the number of fuel icons.
- Sell — Sell up to three artifacts. The artifacts must all be of the same color and be sold to different markets. To sell to a market you must have a trader there and there must be buyers matching that artifact’s color (or wild).
Generally speaking, selling earns you money and money is how you win. Selling to more than one market in the same action also gets you a card from the deck and even more money. The more buyers in each market when you sell, the more money you make. There is also a demand board and the colors of artifacts that are most in demand (and therefore have the most buyers in the markets) will earn bonus credits. After you sell, all buyers you sold to are placed back on the mothership. One of your traders from each market will also go to the mothership as an envoy. Any buyers already on the mothership will go back to the market, adjusting the values for all the artifacts.
There are a couple of other actions you can take. The black market allows you to buy and sell goods as well, but by just paying for them. Any time you acquire an artifact though, you can take a sample of it and earn bonus credits at the end of the game for completing sets of the same color or type of artifacts. The mothership also has three command modules—essentially action cards—that, when you have envoys there, you can use by removing your envoy to take that action. Between rounds, you’ll score points for having majorities in envoys so sometimes it’s best to leave them if you can, but you forego potentially powerful actions.
After the third round, the game ends. Credits for completed samples are added to money on hand and the most money wins.
If I am making a checklist of things I like in games, this is a good start:
- Multi-Use Cards
- Player Controlled Markets
- Variable player powers
- Card drafting
Excavation Earth has all of these things. And it uses them in a smart way. Between rounds, the action cards are drafted, two at a time, giving players a better chance to craft a strategy around which markets they can interact with and what artifacts they are able to dig up. Sometimes you will need to make sure you can get an orange card to excavate the things your explorers are standing on, but you may have to take less preferable markets to make that happen.
But the card play aspect is possibly too nice. If you can’t get orange artifacts there are certainly other colors to get. Maybe you already have a trader at one market so you’d like to find more with that icon, but adding traders elsewhere isn’t very difficult. The game gives you plenty of room to still perform most of the actions you want to take with a less than stellar draft. In some respects that’s great as you don’t feel locked out and frustrated but, if you are going to compare a game to Brass, I would have loved to see that be a little tighter and harder to manage.
What I find most interesting in Excavation Earth is how your profits from the sell action depend both on the buyers in the markets themselves and the overall demand on the market board. The market board itself is a little easier to manage. For example, if you and another player are both collecting red artifacts because it’s the most valuable, but they sell before you do… it’s not really a big deal. The red buyers who leave the markets go to the mothership and don’t yet impact their value relative to other colors.
But, the buyers do leave the market. So if your traders were in the same market and you wanted to sell to those exact same buyers you are out of luck. Given that you get two actions a turn you may be able to do the market action to add more buyers and then still sell, but might end up with a few fewer credits afterward.
So while some of the mechanisms in the game pressure you to make efficient and well timed decisions a lot of the rough edges are removed. While I sometimes enjoy making very mean plays in my euro games, I can appreciate overall that Excavation Earth finds a bit of a middle ground here.
Where I do find a bit more fault is the repetition that seems to happen from round to round and game to game. While the theme (which is admittedly thin to begin with) is all about getting artifacts and selling them off, mechanically you just do a lot of the same things over and over. Excavate. Market. Sell. Sometimes you’ll market, excavate and sell. Maybe you’ll excavate, excavate, market, market, sell.
The set collection mechanism of taking “samples” and the option to buy from the black market to help round out your sets feels like it was designed to alleviate this, it just doesn’t do enough. The points there aren’t the make or break type of points and were often used only later in the game when there wasn’t enough time (or the right action cards) to do more profitable selling.
Excavation Earth does a lot of things really well and ticks a lot of boxes for medium-to-heavy gamers. Especially those that like economic games. And it manages to do so in a way that takes off some of the direct interaction and meanness that might get in the way of some player’s enjoyment without losing it entirely. Where one might say Brass Birmingham is the nicer version of Brass, this is another leap in that direction.
Excavation Earth would certainly benefit from some more interesting options for money outside of the collection system to give players something new to consider in subsequent plays. But there is a ton of variety in the command cards and alien powers, so if you like what the system has to offer there is a lot of variety.
Final Score: 3 Stars – Interesting economic games where player interaction is high, but not incredibly harmful. A bit one-note mechanically to keep long term.
• Multi-use cards, player controlled markets… hits a lot of high notes for economic games.
• Lots of variety in variable player powers and special action cards.
• If you find opponents messing with you frustrating, the impact here isn’t backbreaking.
• Gameplay is a lot of rinse-and-repeat of the same process.
• If you like your economic games to be mean — it’s a little nicer than normal here.