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Apiary - Solo Review

Designer: Connie Vogelmann
Artist: Kwanchai Moriya
Publisher: Stonemaier Games 
Player Count: 1 to 5 Players
Play Time: 60 to 90 Minutes

What's the buzz on the latest Stonemaier game? In this review of Apiary, I overview the basics of this medium-weight Eurogame and highlight the solo experience against Automa, a formidable AI opponent.

board game box with title "apiary" and imagery of a bee with a space helmet on in outer space apiary board game solo review solitary quest
Apiary box cover and components

The Gist: Bees in Space

Apiary is a game about bees in outer space. Each player is in control of a cosmic colony of Mellifera—highly intelligent bumblebees—that will explore uncharted territories and expand their hive in the limited time they have left before they must hibernate. The game uses clever terminology and fitting game mechanics to blend the themes of space colonization and bee biology into a coherent motif.

This is the debut game from designer Connie Vogelmann and is in-part inspired by her own backyard bee-keeping and fond memories of helping her grandfather—a lifelong bee keeper—tend his apiary. This real experience with the profession of beekeeping makes Apiary more than just a quirky take on the outer space eurogame genre. From component production to gameplay, it is clear that this game was crafted with a great deal of insight and passion.

three rows of colored hexagonal tiles with a tall stack of them at the end of each one solitary quest solo board game review apiary
Advance action area with farm, recruit, and development tiles

Gameplay: Buzzing, Bumping Bees

Featuring custom worker bee components, Apiary is primarily a worker-placement game, with some elements of engine-building as well. On their turns, players will place an active worker from their player board to the shared game board to take one of several actions.

  • Explore - The player moves the Queen Mothership to another planet and gathers resources there. This is one of the quickest ways of acquiring specific resources and there are bonuses for being the first player to explore a new planet.

  • Advance - The hive is expanding! The player pays a cost to take a Farm, Recruit, or Development tile to add to their hive player board. These provide instant and static bonuses as well as more storage space for resources.

  • Grow - This action allows players to add more workers to their active roster and add more frames to their hive so it can support more tiles.

game board with area labeled explore, two small blue bee tokens are in the corner. a large bee miniature is on a four by three grid of spaces and tiles. solitary quest apiary board game solo review.
Explore action area

  • Convert - This is an exchange action, allowing players to convert basic resources—water, pollen, and fiber—into ones that are more important in the late game—honey and wax. Sometimes, players will be able to create and use their own conversion formula and benefit when other players use it.

  • Carve - Players spend honey to acquire a carving tile. These tiles can be worth a lot of points and help define a player’s particular strategy.

  • Research - The player draws seed cards from a facedown stack. These grant additional bonus actions and can be planted to the player’s hive to score additional points at the end of the game.

Usually in worker-placement type games, if another worker token is already occupying an action space, the player is unable to play there. In Apiary however, players can bump any workers (even their own) out of an action space in order to place their worker there. When a worker is bumped, it is returned to its owner's player board and increases in strength (strength values can range from 1 to 4). Typically, the higher the strength of a worker bee, the more effective it will be at whatever action it is assigned to; and some actions, like carving, are only open to worker bees with strength 4.

But once a worker bee would increase strength past 4, he’s worked hard enough. He’s tired and must go into hibernation. The player will need to take the grow action or activate another special ability to get that worker back in their active pool. This simulates the lifespan of a worker and presents a more complex economy of decision-making for strategically placing, bumping, and reactivating workers.

The objective in Apiary is to score the most points, and in one way, shape, or form all of the above actions score victory points. Each player’s starting faction tile has a unique ability that will help shape their strategy throughout the game. But with so many different avenues for scoring, the winner will be the player who can quickly identify felicitous combinations between the actions and effectively manage their hive.

game board area labeled convert with small blue bee token and various symbols and tokens spread around. Solitary quest apiary board game solo review.
Convert action area

Solo Play: Automa Factory and the Solitary Bee

Gamers who are familiar with other Stonemaier titles will recognize the signature formula of the team at the Automa Factory in Apiary. The solo player competes against Automa, whose actions are randomly determined each turn by drawing from a deck of automa cards. The drawn card explains where to place Automa’s worker bees and instructs the player how to proceed with that action.

Automa is not too hard to manage as she mostly ignores any complex interactions with game components. For instance, Automa does not concern herself with resources at all. She does not acquire them or need to spend them when taking actions. She also does not deal with seed cards or converting resources as these actions are translated directly into fixed point values that she scores. More complex actions that involve some degree of player choice like exploring, carving, and advancing are guided by symbols directly on the automa cards. This significantly reduces the overhead the player needs to manage on the AI player turn.

board game boards and components on a green mat surface apiary solo board game solitary quest review
Example solo setup

Whatever You Can Do, Automa Does Better

Since many actions she takes are converted directly into victory points, during the game, Automa’s scoring far outpaces that of the player. The solo player, on the other hand, earns more when their components are tallied at game’s end. But there are elements of the game where Automa has a significant advantage. For example, I have found it tough to acquire more than only two or three carving tiles before Automa manages to snatch the rest. Automa’s workers return to her board automatically (without needing to take the grow action) and at a higher strength than that of the player’s, so she is usually able to accelerate workers to strength level 4 quicker and monopolize the carve action as a result.

This difference in scoring and lack of interaction can sometimes make it feel like we are playing two separate games. As the solo player is searching out smart combinations and thinking ahead to sequence their actions each turn, Automa’s play seems arbitrary, and unintelligent. The lack of strategy behind Automa’s choice of action each turn dampens the player to player interaction that the worker bumping mechanic makes exceptional in multiplayer play. It seems as though there is much less worker bumping in the solo variant compared to multiplayer games, as the players are not really competing against one another for access to resources and actions. This both slows the player’s progress of strengthening their bees and leads to more stalling out than in multiplayer.

The advantage of Automa to simply take certain actions at-will (without needing to spend resources) makes some strategies tougher to pursue while making others much more worthwhile. For instance, like I mentioned above, the AI is always going to have an advantage acquiring carving tiles. While the player needs several turns of actions to increase worker strength, acquire resources, and convert them into honey, Automa will take the carve action almost as soon as they have a strength 4 worker available. This effectively makes comboing for high scores with carving tiles a bunk pursuit for the solo player. On the other hand, since Automa does not engage at all with seed cards and conversions, these two actions can be exceptionally beneficial to the player, especially if they can create their own conversion formula (by dancing) that works as a point scoring engine.

board game tiles and cards labeled automa docking mat solitary quest apiary board game review
Automa docking matt and automa deck

black mat labeled the poppleton with tiles, tokens, and cards near it. solitary quest apiary board game solo review.
The Poppleton example player hive

General Thoughts On Strategy

Throughout the game, the player is acquiring tiles and resources and adding them to their hive. Although it begins relatively small, with only the core hive mat and starting faction tile, it must grow by adding additional frames and various types of tiles. These not only offer unique abilities during the game, but add victory points at the end of it.

Each hive mat is different, with a different shape, and unique bonuses that are granted when tiles are placed in certain spots. Similarly, there are 20 starting faction tiles in the game, and each of those has a unique ability that is active throughout the game as well. There is enough variability in each game between players to consider this a light asymmetric game, similar to Spirit Island.

And this means that every player is going to benefit from pursuing slightly different strategies on the board and building their hive according to particular patterns. For example, a player with the Utel starting faction, which grants additional resources when scoring, may want to take a lot of early explore and advance actions to acquire resources and farm tiles on which to store those resources. Another player with the Cypri starting faction that earns victory points based on the number of carving tiles in the hive will want to quickly convert basic resources into honey to pay for the carve action. Although I have found the best strategy is still pursuing a little bit of everything, the asymmetric abilities on the faction tiles and unique composition of the hive mats has some influence on the best routes for maximizing points.

game board labeled carve with hexagonal yellow tiles solitary quest solo board game review
Carve action area

Final Thoughts On Theme

Other reviewers have criticized Apiary for having a shallow concept, suggesting that its mechanics are not informed by nor inform the theme of the game. But to some degree any worker-placement or similar genre game can fall under the same judgment. In fact, I thought there were several gameplay elements in Apiary that were very consistent with the unique theme of the game. For instance, the construction of the hex grid beehive follows the logic of building a space station, expanding the colony, in both the space and bee biology senses. The lifecycle of the worker bees, needing to hibernate after only a few actions, is like how a honey bee gathers pollen for a few weeks until it dies.

I definitely prefer the multiplayer to solo gameplay in Apiary. One of the neatest things about this game is the entire bumping mechanic and the way that getting bumped ends up being a small boon to the player’s worker pool. This means that not only do players need to be conscious about where they are placing their own workers and why, but they need to consider how bumping another player’s worker is going to benefit the opponent as well. This adds a layer of strategic depth to the game that I feel is missing when playing just against Automa. Don’t get me wrong, she is a formidable opponent (especially at higher challenging ratings when her workers return after hibernation already at strength 3!), but with her decision-making determined from the draw of a deck, there is no capacity for responsive, strategic gameplay that emphasizes this very important element of the game.

Apiary is a great option for gamers who want to dip their toes into heavier-weight games, but don’t want to take on other new worker-placement behemoths like Nucleum or Voidfall. With a strong attention to the strategy around managing the workers, and a straightforward economy of actions, I think Apiary is an excellent introduction to and modern example of the genre.

a metal cup spills yellow tokens apiary solitary quest solo board game review
Pollen tokens

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