Jeff’s Game Shelf: Patchwork

This Lookout Games offering is an enjoyable two-player experience with pleasant artwork, a straightforward mechanic, and one of the most intriguing uses of time that I have ever seen in a board game.

We are always on the lookout for a game that’s good for two players, as I think I may have mentioned in my review of The Fox in the Forest Duet. This was true well before the pandemic, but has taken on a different sort of urgency in the last year. Patchwork is a game I had seen around, either on the trip to OwlCon that netted me Fox in the Forest, or when I’ve bopped in to some of my favorite local game stores. So I was aware of it, even curious. But I wasn’t sure that a game that revolves around quilting was something that I’d get a lot of satisfaction out of. Then Alli went and put together a grab bag of games for a recent birthday, and–seduced by the art–she placed this among them. And I gotta say, I’m really enjoying this game.

“I don’t know about this one… I’m not all that into folk art…”
–Jeff, an idiot

Did you have someone in your family who quilted? My grandmother did, as did her sister. I remember having a small blue quilt that was made specifically for my favorite teddy bear when I was five or six. Also my first director was really into quilting–having previously directed a couple of productions of Quilters and really gotten into it. So there was a twinge of nostalgia whenever I saw this game on a shelf, but ever since playing Pressman’s The Oregon Trail game, nostalgia alone isn’t enough for me to take a risk on a game.

But I now regret all that pooh-poohing, because beneath its folksy artwork, Patchwork–designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by Lookout Games–is a really engaging game that manages to stay competitive without becoming cutthroat.

Out of the Box

Your first experience when you get open it up is the supremely satisfying activity of punching out all the little bits and pieces from their firm cardboard. Seriously, bit-punchery is pleasing to me in a way that bubble-wrap can only aspire to. And between all the oddly shaped quilt fragments and the various buttons used as currency, there’s a lot to punch out here. Honestly–I felt a little sad when we started playing.

And then Alexander looked upon his board games and he wept, for he had no more bits to punch out of perforated cardboard.

Seriously, is there some sort of charity that punches out board-game bits for people with arthritis? Or some sort of exploitative app where I can do this for hire? Because I want to be in on that!

The pieces themselves are very pretty. No, it’s not the dynamic countryside of Elfenland or the Gorey-infused line drawings of Gloom, but there’s a vibrancy to the artwork here. I appreciate that no two fragments are of the same fabric. And as cute as each of these pieces is individually, they take on a life of their own as you start filling out your quilt board.

I lately discovered that there’s an “Americana Edition” of this game. I didn’t look at it to see if there are any mechanical differences (say if its pieces are different shapes), and I’m happy to die with that mystery. The Americana Edition is a bit too garish for my tastes. Also, it’s a little too redundant for me, design-wise. I’ve got no problem with red, white, and blue, but not to the exclusion of all other colors.

Each player will have their own board–a color-coded nine-by-nine grid where they’ll set their fragments. Also, there’s a third board which you will use to keep track of the passage of time. I’ll talk about that more in the mechanics. Finally, there’s a couple of little tokens to keep track of your position on the time board, and a little dude that figures into fragment selection.

One thing you will not find in the box is anything to put your fragments and buttons in afterwards. I’m sure there’d be no problem to just have them rattling loose in the box, but I’m all for introducing a little organization into the game pieces (some time I should show you everything that’s in our MunchkinQuest box).

The Mechanics

Patchwork is a competitive game. We haven’t been playing a lot of those, lately. Sure, every once-in-a-while, an old favorite like Fluxx or Phase 10 might help us while away an evening, but for the most part, there’s been so much drama lately that we didn’t need it in our game play. But we didn’t have that problem with this game. Perhaps that’s because the puzzle aspect of the game is a diversion in and of itself, and the matter of who wins the overall game can almost be an afterthought.

The mechanics of this game are pretty straightforward and minimal, so the game doesn’t get in the way of chatting, listening to music, or maybe even watching TV. Last night, we played while listening to LPs, and Alli was able to take multiple breaks to sing along with Karen Carpenter but still keep up with the flow of the game.

On your turn, you will have three quilt fragments available to purchase. You also have a collection of buttons, the in-game currency. You earn buttons either by passing your turn or by having button-marked fragments on your quilt. In order to purchase a fragment you have to have enough buttons to buy it, and have space for it on your board. Once a fragment is placed, it can’t be moved, so you’re going to have to bring your Tetris-trained spatial reasoning to bear here.*

*(While we’re talking about video-game skills–if you ever treated arranging your inventory as a minigame in Diablo… you should probably give Patchwork a try.)

But buttons aren’t the only currency in play here. Each piece has two costs associated with it. The button cost is only the first. The second cost is the amount of “time” it takes for you to place this piece in your quilt.

I want to talk about this time mechanic for a little bit, because I found it simultaneously elegant, well-suited to the simulation, and incredibly exciting (for a very specific definition of “exciting”).

An elegant mechanic

Think of time as a currency in this game. But it is finite, and unlike the buttons, there’s nothing you can do to earn more. The time board is a fixed spiral. When your piece comes to the end of that spiral, you can no longer purchase or place fragments. So in addition to being mindful of your button budget and of the remaining geometry of your quilt board, you also have to keep an eye on how much time you have left.

Once you’ve placed a fragment, you have to advance your time token a set number of spaces. Play passes to the character who is furthest behind on the time track. So let’s say…

  • I’m one square behind you. It’s my turn, because I’m the farthest back on the time track.
  • I play a piece that requires me to spend six time units after I place it.
  • Now, you’re five spaces behind me (1-6=-5), so it’s your turn, because now you’re the farthest back on the time track.
  • You place a piece that costs two time units.
  • Now you’re three space behind me (5-2=3), and it’s still your turn, because you’re the furthest back on the time track.
  • You place a piece that costs five time units.
  • I’m now two squares behind you (3-5=-2), so it’s my turn again, because I’m the furthest back on the time track.

It may look a little confusing on paper, to which I say

  1. Why are you printing out this blog. That’s wasteful. And
  2. That’s why there’s a time board. You don’t have to do any math here, or keep track of relative positions. That’s done for you. You just count out the moves with your little piece, see who’s now in the rear, and then that person takes a turn.

As you can see, this adds a whole range of strategy to this game, and forces some hard decisions. Say you’re several squares behind your opponent and one of the pieces available to you this turn is the perfect shape for your board… but costs a lot of time units. Do you place it and yield play to the opponent, or do you place some other, less advantageously-shaped piece, because it takes a fraction of the time, and you can fit in two or three turns in the time you would have spent in only one?

There’s a subgenre of games that you might hear some game bloggers talk about–particularly non-American reviewers. This term is “Ameritrash.” A game is “Ameritrash” when it has several different little currencies and resources to keep track of, each with its own little coins and cardboard, and numerous other cardboard fiddly bits to juggle. My beloved MunchkinQuest decidedly fits in this category, as might Arkham Horror or Betrayal on the House on the Hill. I enjoy all of these games to varying degrees, but they do have a lot of little pieces to keep track of, and that act of keeping track can break my immersion in the simulated world of the game. The concern among some corners of the gaming community is that some games have intricate moving pieces instead of compelling game mechanics.

That’s not a complaint I frequently lodge, and it’s certainly not germane to Patchwork. I only bring it up to highlight just how clunky a time-as-currency system could be. It is to this game’s credit that something so abstract and heady can be rendered in such a direct, easy-to-follow way. I’m envisioning a game where time is measured in little cardboard coins that players are given a set number of at the beginning and have to budget. In such a game, there would probably be cards or counters that would let you gain more coins, steal from your rival, or spend them to fuel other special abilities. Now if all of that sounds like it wouldn’t be consistent with a game about competitive quilting… you’re right. This game needed an elegant, simply framed mechanic or it would have violated the overall aesthetic of play. Which brings me to my next point…

Good simulation

The time mechanic dovetails neatly with the act that this game is simulating. Higher-time fragments tend to be larger or more intricately shaped. So it makes perfect sense to imagine your opponent being able to place two or three small, simple patches in the time it takes you to stitch your way around some bizarre stair-step of cloth.

Of course, the buttons come into play again, because sometimes the lower-time fragments are more expensive, button-wise. There’s even a pair of fragments that are geometrically identical–but one is high-button, low-time and the other is low-button, high time. Now, I would love to read a paper on how the designers determined balanced the costs of these fragments, because I’m sure it was a fairly complex series of calculations and trials. But again, all that is done for you. What we’re left with is a system in which the button-rich can make more efficient choices and make a better use of their time. (Sort of like those influencers who say, “I have the same twenty-four hours as you!” and don’t mention the household staff and personal assistants who deflect all of the weary tasks of the mundane.)

However, don’t get the wrong impression: unlike Monopoly or Catan, this is not a game where small differences in the early stage lead to uncrossable divides in the late-game. In all the the times I’ve played it, there’s been a pretty consistent back-and-forth in terms of who’s leading in buttons and time. This game is always competitive.

But if the idea of competitive quilting is weird to you… yeah, it is. Which is why I say the winner of the game could almost be an afterthought. Because there’s something very satisfying about sliding your pieces together on your quiltboard, or finding a piece that fits perfectly into this weird space you hadn’t been able to fill. On the one hand, there is a lot of planning and strategy going on, but on the other hand, there’s also the semi-mindless ease of a casual jigsaw puzzle on a rainy afternoon.

Though not a quilter myself, I’ve dabbled in my fair share of crafts, and there’s a state you sometimes reach when it is the process of creation that you find pleasure in, regardless of the quality of your results. Patchwork achieves this mechanically, because even when you don’t win, you still often feel proud and satisfied by what you were able to make with the pieces you had to work with.

Exciting temporality

Look, I know “exciting” and “temporality” are not words you would probably pair. But this is coming from a guy who has spent way too much time thinking about narrative, artistic, and philosophical expressions of time. I’m going to start reading. I’ve taught multiple classes that were deep-dives into the time-travel narrative. My dissertation was, in part, a redefinition of anachronism.

I have no illusions about who I am.

And I just have to say that the time-as-currency model here is such a generative way to explore temporality. It puts me in mind of that line in Interstellar, when Anne Hathaway* said “We need to think of time as a resource.” We think of time as a thing that just happens, but in Patchwork we have to think of it as a thing we use. This is a bold position for a board game to take–since most games (mostly video games) want us to be unaware of the time we are investing in playing them. We want to know how long a game should last, so we can know if we can fit it into our evening,** but generally, if we are aware of the passage of time during the game, it means the game is breaking down in its act of diversion.

*(I’m sure all the characters had names in that movie, but only Christopher Nolan bothered to learn them–wasting the brain-space that should have been used for writing a better The Dark Knight Rises.)

**(Of course, in video-gaming, we apply the opposite calculus, as many games still insist on selling themselves in bulk by bosting 60+ hours of gameplay. The last thing a AAA game wants to do is fit into your evening. The AAA game, your new vocation, must have your evenings fit into it.)

First of all, there’s a lot of complexity in this time system–as there is in any game with a time system. All games, of course, exist on at least one temporal axis–the time it takes to play the game. In modern games, this is usually knowable, or at least predictable, and advertised on the side of the box. But a game with an in-mechanic system of time is adding another layer, so a player is acting on two distinct continua simultaneously–the “real” time-of-play, and the simulated time-in-play.

This is analogous to the distinction in temporalities that Boris Tomashevsky advanced in his book, Theory: You have fabula time, which is the time within the narrative, and narrating time, which is the time it takes to read the narrative. So the time on the box, the thirty minutes or so it takes to play Patchwork, is our narrative time. But each move movement of a piece represents another hour of labor. (Or does it? I’m guessing.) There’s a disconnect between the narrating time and the fabula time, in a way that we are not accustomed to a disconnect.

I could go on about this much longer.

That’s not a figure of speech. I deleted multiple paragraphs including footnotes. But my point is that this simple mechanic conceals a very complex notion of time at work in the game. And it is given to us so elegantly.

I’ve got a few other time-based games in my collection. Most notably a trilogy of games by Looney Labs: Chrononauts, Chrononauts: Early American Edition, and ChronoTrek (a Star Trek-themed variant of Chrononauts.) I really enjoy those games, but I seldom get to play them because the temporal mechanic is so complex, it’s off-putting to a lot of gamers. (So if I flip card C-3, this flips over C-5 and C-6, but not C-8 unless someone had previously flipped over B-7…)

Time is a thorny construct. And the simplicity with which it is covered in Patchwork makes me excited for additional games to use this mechanic, and even build on it.

For instance, I think this would be a very natural mechanic for a game of space exploration using relativistic (near light-speed) travel. I’d also like to see this mechanic employed in some sort of multidirectional view of time.

But please don’t misunderstand me: By speculating here, I’m not saying that these are the sorts of games this mechanic “belongs” in. There can be a tendency when presented with some crunchy idea like this to say that it can only be explored in STEM-based (and traditionally masculine) spheres, and that more social (and feminine-coded) spheres are only borrowing it or misappropriating it. (See: every discussion of “Hard SF” that is very careful to define exactly which sciences get to count as science.) As excited as I would be to see this developed elsewhere, this system belongs in Patchwork because, as I said above, it really aids the simulation and the central conceit of the game. It isn’t something tacked onto the aesthetic of play–they are inextricably bound together.

Minor Gripe

I do have a minor gripe with this game, and I cannot underscore enough just how minor it is.

This is the side of the box:

That large and loud “2” on the edge there is there to communicate that this is a two-player game. but every time I see it on my game shelf, I always read it as “Patchwork 2,” which makes me think, How can I have Patchwork 2 if I don’t have Patchwork 1? The completist within me freaks for a nanosecond. A more subdued color choice for the 2, or containing it in a bubble or box, would prevent that misreading.

But that’s just my weird brain and not a problem with the game at all. I just felt obligated to point it out because

  1. I wanted to be silly, and
  2. I literally think this every time.

Verdict: A Strong Inclusion for Puzzlers

If you like doing puzzles, playing Tetris, or generally flexing your spatial reasoning, definitely look into this one. The mechanic is light enough for those days when you don’t want to think too hard about your leisure, but there’s still enough going on in the play that you’ll always have opportunity to refine your game and tweak your strategies. If you’re like me, you may have assumed that there was nothing exciting to this game, but you’d do yourself a real disservice to overlook some really satisfying gameplay that stays fairly competitive from beginning to end.

Patchwork is produced by Lookout Games. You can find it on Amazon, but please support your local economy by finding it in a local game shop. Even if you don’t have a local shop, most indie stores will still be happy to mail it to you. We got ours at The Coral Sword in Houston.

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