Published by Renegade Games - 2017
Designers: Adam P. McIver
Head Artist: Jacqui Davis
2 - 4 players ~ 45 minutes - 1 and ¼ hours
Review written by Luke Muench
Roughly translated, the Latin phrase “ex libris” means “from books,” a concept that permeates the very being of the board game of the same name. Every detail shows a passion for the medium, an understanding of what makes such narratives special, and masterfully channels that passion into a gaming experience that tells a story.
Ex Lirbis is a worker placement game in the same vein as Harbour in which players work to build the most elaborate, organized, and varied library in the kingdom. I say “kingdom” because the theme is set squarely in a fantasy world, although not your typical dwarves-and-elves type setting. Rather, ghosts, gelatinous cubes, and Sasquatch help curate your libraries, immediately injecting character and humor into the experience at large.
At the start of the game, each player gets to select a library, receiving two standard workers and one special worker associated with their library. These figures present variable powers that may change how you play the game, with some effects being aggressive in screwing over your neighbors while others work hard to simply maintain your own shelves manageably.
Then, a variety of locations are laid out on the board, and it’s off to the bookstores! On your turn, you simply place one of your workers at a location, either one of those randomly revealed or your personal library. If you go to your library, you may either draw a card or shelve a card, whereas the other locales will provide a variety of effects. Each of these can be boiled down to instant actions that resolve immediately, or delayed actions which resolve at the end of the round.
At the end of each round, all locations are discarded except for that with the lowest number associated with it, becoming a permanent location. Then, a new set of locations are added, meaning each round presents one more option than the one before. Once someone builds their library to a certain size, depending on the player count, one more round is played through, and the game concludes with scoring.
The Building Process
To shelve your first card, you place it on the table, declaring defiantly, “THERE! My library grows ever larger!” And then you have to place the next card, and you remember that it must be place adjacent to any that you’ve already placed. Your library is refined, and thus well organized, so you can’t place cards willy nilly! Alphabetical order is key, and any cards misplaced will be ignored at the end of the game.
Alright, so you’re starting to expand your great compendium empire after realizing you can only have three levels of shelving, an important detail when considering your alphabetization, and things couldn’t be going better… except now you notice that the books you’ve gathered consist almost exclusively of Monster Manuals, and that just won’t do. For one, your library needs to contain all sorts of books, presenting a variety of tomes. Due to this, at the end of the game, players will receive points based on the type of book they have the least of multiplied by three.
Well, any type of book except for those accursed BANNED books. Depending on the game, one type of book will be considered the least popular in town, and must be purged from the collective unconscious, such as Historic Volumes. Screw history! We CLEARLY don’t need that information anymore. Because of this, you will lose one point for each banned book in your library. This sounds easy in theory, but considering there are between two and four books on every card you’ll be placing, sometimes you’ll find yourself placing that card to fill in an empty spot or because the other books on that card provide enough points to make up for the negatives.
“How is this possible?” you may ask. Well, when there is banned books, there are also prominent books, because people in this town are OBSESSED with learning the dark arts from corrupted codices. For the player who has the most of these at the end of the game, they will receive fifteen points, with second place earning nine points and third place earning four points.
Additionally, everyone has their own secret focus, establishing that, by collecting as much of a specific type of book, they will receive points equal to that number of books times two.
Lastly, if you’re going to have a library filled to the brim with books, you best have the stable shelves to support your collection. For your largest contiguous block of books shelved from top to bottom, players receive one point for each book included in that section.
A Real Page-Turner
As you can probably tell, there is a lot going on in Ex Libris, and while that might be off-putting to some, I find that this makes for one of the most engaging board game puzzles I’ve come across in some time. Sure, there are a lot of factors to consider, but they are generally thematic and easy to remember. And much like games such as Castles of Burgundy, throughout the game you are building your own collection, so at the end of the game, win or lose, there’s a certain satisfaction over the final result.
The art and theming are marvelous, immediately eye-catching. I was stunned by how many people were immediately on board with a game whose tagline is “build a library,” but most of those I talk to find the concept exciting. The whispy, mystical images associated with the different location tiles look awesome and add to the lighthearted, bright atmosphere the game looks to convey. Each of the characters have a ton of personality to them, encouraging me to try a different one each time I play. The books are all clearly defined by color and symbol, making this game accessible to the colorblind, and all 510 books catalogued on the 152 cards have their own titles, often utilizing wordplay or parody that make them gratifying and hilarious to read, with players often taking breaks just to chat over their favorites.
Similarly, the production of this game is fantastic, with a bunch of unique components that make the game feel high-quality. The two components that stand out most in my mind are the meeples and scoreboard. While there are the standard meeples of each of the colors, each character has their own customized meeple associated with it, making them particularly visually pleasing and satisfying to place.
And this game is built to last, too. The scoreboard (formatted thematically like an inspectors clipboard)is a dry erase board, meaning you’ll never run out of scoring sheets when playing. The location tiles are made well, the cards are of good stock, and there’s even a board that, while unnecessary, acts as a thoughtful reminder of the various scoring rules of the game. And the sides of the box are designed to look like the binding and sides of a book! The attention to detail here is downright astounding.
On top of all this, for those who like playing board games locked in their attic avoiding all human contact, there’s a solo mode that pits you the unorganized mess of a public library that the town has been tolerating for years. While there is the feeling that luck plays a bigger role here and that certain characters, even those set aside for the solo game, are useless in this mode, it’s still fun to build your library and see if you can’t out-book the discard pile. This is helped by the very easily implemented difficulty system, allowing you to modify how hard your opponent will be by discarding more or less cards at the start of each round.
A Couple of Caveats...
Now, I could sing this game’s praises for a while (see above), but there are a handful of issues that can be found within the confines of this generally tight experience. First, some of the variable abilities feel a bit better than others. Sure, all abilities are limited to the one specialty meeple, but due to the general categorization of powers into two departments (help yourself or hurt others), it can feel like some abilities are stronger at their respective category than others. That being said, I don’t really mind this much, and am looking forward to the opportunity to play this game a ton more to find which characters I prefer.
Next, the fact that the game has lots of intricate and situational rules, you’ll be referencing the rulebook regularly even after your first few plays. Between each set of tiles needing to be explained, the character abilities occasionally needing clarification, and some steps vacant from the initial game setup explanation, I still find myself looking through on occasion to remind myself of some of the smaller details.
This can also lead to this game being a little much for those learning, especially if no one at the table has tried it before. This is a game best experienced like 7 Wonders; you need to play it at least once to fully grasp the games mechanics and ideas, then played again to be competitive, with each subsequent game allowing you to learn more and more. While I love this progression in games, that first time may be hard for some.
Lastly, you will see every location in the game every time you play, guaranteed, meaning that there will be no mystery to come back to each time you play. While I find the puzzle, abilities, and random setup to be enough for me, others may be put off by the fact that the same conundrum dominates the game rather than a sea of new.
But I’ll tell you what, I don’t think I’ve played such a polished, refined, intelligent, and downright fun game in a very long time. Ex Libris is, hands down, my game of 2017, easily. The quality of components included, the depth of the ideas at hand, the amount of humor and personality injected into the experience, it all just brings me back to it, makes me want to play more and more, makes me want to play it solo, something that I generally do not enjoy doing whatsoever. If you have not given this a try, I highly recommend giving it a chance, to at least see this book for more than its cover.
Who Should Get This Game: Puzzle-lovers who want to be swept away by the production quality and depth contained in a concise and memorable game.
Who Shouldn’t Get This Game: Those easily overwhelmed by rules who find eurogames to be tedious and boring.
Luke Muench is a regular contributor to The Cardboard Herald and host of the Budget Board Gamer youtube channel. You can also hear Luke's Champions of Midgard review as well as behind the scenes deliberations on our recent episode of the TCbH Reviews podcast.