Salton Sea Board Game Review

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review

Welcome to the glorious pastel Salton Sea.  On the border of California and Mexico, it is here that we shall revolutionise the energy industry by tapping into all the geothermal energy stored within our planet, extracting gallons of brine, which will be converted into lithium.  In short, we will solve the energy crisis and play a bloody good, if not utterly gruelling, board game all at the same time.

Salton Sea is a fairly heavy worker placement, economic game during which players are attempting to complete as many goals and buy as many shares as possible before we reach the limitations of our mining capabilities.  Each turn will simply consist of assigning a worker to a space on a player board and completing the associated action such as drilling, extracting, gaining a contract, etc. etc.  This central mechanism is very straightforward and has nothing really to write home about.

Everything after this point though in Salton Sea is noteworthy, creating tense choices, fantastic interaction, and interesting strategies and opportunities.

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review - Extracting In Play

The first Clever Thing™ about Salton Sea is its use of currency.  Represented by cards in denominations of $1, $3, and $5 the first thing to note is that whenever you pay for something in Salton Sea, you never get any change.  The second and far more interesting point is that these cards can be used as cash, or, flipped over and used as an action – now, these are the same actions that appear on the player board, but powered-up versions of them, allowing you to extract more, drill deeper, and commit discounted research.

From your very first turn, you are making tough choices, you have to sacrifice some of your cards to take actions, literally spending an action to do a different action.  This creates a delightful, if not agonising choice.  Your strategy is immediately thrown in the deep end.  Do you need the $1 Contract card now? Perhaps not.  Will you need it in a few turns?  Probably.  Can you make do with the "standard” Contract action space on your player board?... Looks like you’ll have to.

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review - Cards

Salton Sea teases you with the idea of optimisation, suggestively enticing you into building a robust and efficient process for digging, extracting, and producing energy.  Meanwhile, it coerces you into treating each and every one of your cards as precious and valued resources that cannot be spent lightly.

Yes, Salton Sea is a bastard.

It’s also really clever, this duality of resources forces you to think and consider your actions, the game wants you to think carefully about what you are doing, how, and when.  You are rewarded for this toil when your engine starts ticking over, but then keeping it running is a whole other problem.  A game of Salton Sea can feel a little bit like a roller-coaster, every surge forward in one area comes with taking a few steps back in another.  Your drill takes damage, your workers get stressed, share prices increase, purchase prices drop, and every action causes a reaction.  There is an ebb and flow to Salton Sea which means you continually have to adapt to the game state, your opponents, and the consequences of your actions.

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review - Main Board

Salton Sea is also wildly divergent, the differences between games being stark even though mechanically little changes.  The Objective Cards, with a random assortment of Short and Long Term goals, create variation simply and deftly.  In one game you might be chasing a handful of short-term goals - which are all first-come-first-serve.  In another game, where Long Term Goals are all important; who has the most ‘X’ at the end of the game, you’ll play very differently.  And whether ‘X’ is shares in a company, or private contracts again changes how you approach the game hugely.     

Not only is there a big, crunchy game in this little box, but there is a great deal of replayability too.
Salton Sea also has a fantastic production quality which extends beyond just the card stock and the bespoke wooden components.  No, Salton Sea’s production design is more than that, it has been carefully considered and thought out, from the expertly implemented and initiative graphic design to the die-cut boards which hold everything neatly, and do so in a way that each component’s use has been thought through.

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review - Shares

Salton Sea isn’t for the faint of heart, it is a gruelling, taxing mental slog.  It is hard work and victory, or at least doing well, is a hard-won battle.  For this reason, Salton Sea won’t be for everyone, it is far from a casual Friday night game, you will be staring intently at the board, at the cards in your hand, muttering to yourself as you try and hold all the variables and your fragile plan in your head.  But I like that.  

Salton Sea is a brilliant, clever, and hard Euro game.  On top of all of that, I think it is clever, wonderful and more than a little bit meta that Salton Sea is a game that encourages you to consider causality, it is after all a game all about renewable energy.  

And that’s great too.

polyhedron Collider Salton Sea Board Game Review - Player Board Close Up

This review was made possible thanks to our show sponsor Kienda.  Using this link you can enjoy a discount on your first purchase when you sign up for an account.
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