Asara is a family-strategy game that revolves primarily around building towers that will be taller or otherwise more valuable than the towers your opponents are building, a bit of light game theory that keeps a fairly simple game interesting. It incorporates some light worker-placement mechanics with a moderate amount of randomness to give it replay value, along the lines of Stone Age (if less elegant), while fans of more serious resource-based games like Puerto Rico or Caylus would probably find Asara too streamlined. If you consider the theme as well as the mechanics, it feels like a simpler version of Alhambra, a Spiel des Jahres winner with a money allocation system that detracted from the game for me.
In Asara, players compete to build towers in five different colors, each color bearing a different price and earning different numbers of points in the four scoring rounds. Players add tiles – spires, bases, and two types of middle tiles – by placing Buyer cards in the four market areas, but with a twist: The first player to place a Buyer in an area in each round determines what color worker must go there for that entire round. Other players must either place a Buyer of the same card, or must place two Buyers of any color in lieu of the correct one. After placing a Buyer, the player must buy one tile in that area, eventually placing a card on the center ring of builder spaces to allow him to build new towers or add to existing ones. The board also includes market areas for acquiring cash, stealing the start player tile, or paying a “bribe” to look through any stack of unused tiles to buy a specific one.
There are four rounds (years) in which players use Buyer cards, distributed randomly at the start of each turn. At the end of each year, a player receives a point for every tower he’s already completed, and a point for each section with a gold star (a minority of the available sections) that he’s built, while the end-game bonuses are much more substantial, awarding points to the player with the tallest tower in each color, smaller bonuses to the player with the second-tallest tower in each color, and bonuses to the players with the most completed towers and with the tallest tower of any color.
The main trick in Asara, especially with three or four players, is to stay ahead of your opponents in a couple of the available colors. That can mean building taller towers in those colors, but it can also mean blocking them from obtaining tower sections they might need. There are only six or seven pieces available in the market for each section type during each round; if the one you want isn’t available, you have to pay a “bribe” to look through the remainder of the stack and take the piece you want. Buyer cards also come in specific colors, and once a specific color of Buyer has been played in a market, all remaining Buyers played into that market in that year must be the same color; if a player is out of Buyers of that color, he must play two Buyers of any color to buy from that market. A little observation and a little deductive reasoning can go a long way if you want to play Asara to its full extent, although it works as a casual game if you just focus on building more or bigger towers.
Asara’s best attribute is its artwork, which isn’t a huge driver for me but is worth mentioning when it’s really bad or, as it is here, really strong. Aside from two tower section types that are too similar in shape, the pieces themselves are high-quality and easy to work with, with setup fairly quick and gameplay moving along easily. The randomness of Buyer cards and of available tower sections in each year give the game replay value, but more randomness generally limits strategizing and the decisions involved are usually pretty simple. I also found this a little too solitary as a two-player game, with so many spaces on the board that you’re never sufficiently restricted in your actions – both players will be able to construct complete towers in all colors if they want, and it’s almost impossible to run out of money. The game also includes a “professional” variant that doesn’t add much to the core game – it makes it more complex but not more clever or fun, in my opinion.
I’ll update the overall rankings in a week or so, but I would say Asara’s worth grabbing if you already have the better family-strategy games like Stone Age or Small World, or even the game from yesterday’s review, Tobago. Asara’s well made and plays very easily, but just doesn’t have the oomph to make me want to pull it off the shelf over other games of similar complexity.