It’s the ancient kingdom of Lydia and King Croesus has minted the world’s first coins, which are emblazoned with the visage of a lion. These coins will very quickly replace the previously used bartering system and by using these so-called lions, citizens can improve their properties and their personal standing in Lydia.
That’s apparently the theme of Johnny Pac’s Lions of Lydia, the engine-building game from Bellwether Games. (Spoiler Alert: This game has no theme. Go no further if that matters to you.)
Players take on the role of leaders in the kingdom and every turn they must draw one of the four meeples (called merchants) from their bags and place them either at one of the gates on the edge of the kingdom or near the central fountain. Placing a merchant near a gate grants resources matching the color of all the merchants already there as well as the gate itself. Any pairs of meeples at a single gate are then cycled into the central fountain.
Placing a merchant at the central fountain, however, allows players to purchase one or more properties from the side of the board. Most of these cards cost resources to purchase, although some of the higher-value ones will require lions (those are the coins, remember?). At the end of this action, players must grab an available merchant to add to their bag.
As part of the buy action, players can also develop any of their previously purchased properties by paying its cost once again. Doing this not only improves the bonus ability the cards have, but also increases the cards scoring value at the end of the game. This developing action is also the countdown clock for the end of the game, since the final turn will be triggered when any player develops a certain number of their properties (depending on player count).
Along the way, players will need to increase the maximum size of their tableau so they can keep adding properties to it. The most straightforward way to do this is to acquire six of any type of resource, which allows you to advance on an influence track thereby increasing the properties cap as well as offering you the chance to develop one of your previously purchased cards as a free action.
Gold meeples will enter the fountain area whenever a gold property is purchased, and once players hit the first level on their influence track. (That’s the track that increases the number of cards players can hold. See? Very thematic.) These gold meeples are the Lydian merchants (more theme), who will be introducing the lions to the game. This is the mechanism by which players can acquire the coveted lions. Any time you put a merchant of any color at a gate with a Lydian, you can take coins instead of the gate’s standard resource. Lions are not only necessary to acquire certain cards, but they also act as a wild resource.
For the most part, that’s all the rules to the game. Once the end game is triggered, players will add up all the points on the cards they’ve acquired. The winner is the player with the most points, who—grabs rulebook to see how this is expressed thematically—“is declared the winner!” Well, that was a letdown.
If it wasn’t clear by this point, this game is a themeless endeavor that would rival even the most Feldian Stefan Feld game. At no point did I ever feel like I was trading or buying items in a market and I’m not even going to try to justify why each turn starts with you grabbing a random merchant out of a cloth bag.
Putting that aside, the mechanics of the game are interesting. You need to monitor your tableau closely to maximize the meeples you have in your bag so that no matter what you pull out, you’ll get a decent bonus out of it. (An included module ramps up this concept by giving players a “standby” meeple that can be swapped in at the most opportune moment. More on modules in a bit, but everyone you add makes the game slightly better overall.)
That being said, there is a bit of overload in the sheer number of resources you’ll acquire just from the normal actions of the game. Since buying the properties remains relatively cheap throughout the game, I found myself burning through resources and the titular lions with reckless abandon in a race to trigger the end game. For the most part, this is fun, but it does cut into the depth of the game’s engine-building aspect since there always seems to be an abundance of resources available.
In addition to this, the property powers could also have been more varied overall. They’re all fairly similar (put green meeple near the yellow or blue gate and get two resources, etc…) and none are especially exciting. The purple cards that score at the end of the game give you some direction late in the game, but by then it’s such a mad dash that maximizing those scores can be hit or miss.
Production-wise, things are solid if rather spartan. (“Spartan,” incidentally, is also not the theme of this game. At least I don’t think it is. I’ll double-check after I publish this.) The lions are made of a thin wooden material and feel great when you’re slinging them around the market to buy things.
The game also includes eight modules that add very little complexity to the gameplay. One allows you to move a special meeple around (he’s the king, I think) to get bonus resources and another introduces a simple and abstracted chariot race to the proceedings that is moderately interesting mechanically, but a real head-scratcher thematically. The rules say players should never play with more than four modules at a time, but the game is so light on rules to begin with that adding seven of them simultaneously was pretty easy and made for a more complete game. (I would have played with all eight at once, but two of the modules are printed front and back on tiles so it’s not possible.)
Designer Johnny Pac has put together a streamlined experience with Lions of Lydia, one that will appeal to people looking for a slightly different approach to an engine-building game. It doesn’t take the chances that something like his Coloma design does, and as a result, things tend to get repetitive throughout the game. The engine building, such as it is, never really ramps up in a satisfying way and the final turns amount to a sprint to develop all your cards in time.
The core mechanism of Lions of Lydia—drop a meeple to get resources, pull one back—isn’t exactly innovative, but it is the best part of this design. It’s simple and keeps turns moving quickly, which is important in a game where the mechanics never ramp up as things progress.
Final Score: 3.5 – Despite lacking a thrilling game arc and having a disconnected theme, Lions of Lydia is a breezy and enjoyable game that won’t ruin your evening.
• Simple to play and teach
• Quick turns
• Decent number of choices each turn without inducing analysis paralysis
• Included expansion modules improve the game
• While all good, the expansion modules feel like they should just be part of the game’s normal rules
• Distractingly themeless
• Engine building is a bit of a letdown