I Played It, Like, Twice...
On top of a board game (Ex Libris) lays an orange cat.

Shelf Stability: Good Design Gets Out of the Way in Ex Libris

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I see board games in the store and they always look so cool and then I buy them and bring them home, I’m so excited to open them, and then I play them, like, twice… This column is dedicated to the love of games for those of us whose eyes may be bigger than our stomachs when it comes to playing, and the joy that we can all take from games, even if we don’t play them very often.

According to the introduction in the front of the rulebook, Ex Libris puts you in the shoes of “a collector of rare and valuable books in a thriving fantasy town.” If that sounds a lot like Bargain Quest (which I previously covered here) for bibliophiles, you wouldn’t be wrong. Though, perhaps less bibliophiles than people who love bad puns and dad jokes.

“You COULD play the entire game completely ignoring the fancy book illustrations and titles,” the rules alert you, “but you’ll be missing out on some pretty great wordplay.” That “great” might be a stretch, but the jokey titles of the various books are often worth a chuckle and at worst pretty harmless.

So yes, Ex Libris is a drafting game, of sorts, in which your goal is to amass and shelve a collection of books to impress the mayor enough that she will name you Grand Librarian on the Village Council. You don’t do anything so gauche as to draft books directly, however. Instead, you draft locations around town and then dispatch your various assistants (represented by wooden meeples) to these locations where they can acquire books by gambling for them, bidding on them, trading for them, and so on.

There are a number of monkey wrenches thrown into the gears. Each location has its own mechanic, and so does your library, unless you opt to play the simpler “beginner” game, where all the libraries and assistants are the same. In the normal game, each library has one weirdo assistant who has a special rule that activates at various times, depending on the assistant. Some help you out, others make things more difficult for the other players, and some do both!

Your books are judged by a number of metrics, including how varied your collection is, how many cards you have that match a secret specialization that’s randomly dealt to you at the beginning of the game, whether your books are shelved in order, and how stable your stacks are – which just means how many of your books form one large, uninterrupted rectangle.

If that sounds like a lot … it actually isn’t, once you get rolling. The game looks complicated, but all the moving parts click together pretty seamlessly, and there are rarely any of those awkward moments where you’re left scratching your head over how one card mechanic interacts with another.

The art is bright and cute, and while the various themed libraries don’t feel much like libraries, they are filled with fantasy standards like mummies, witches, and even a gelatinous cube, the only assistant not represented by a meeple. (The cube, instead, gets a thing that looks like a semi-translucent green d6 with no numbers or pips but filled, at least in the case of the game I got, with small bubbles.)

The first time we played Ex Libris, we tried it in the “beginner” mode, without the themed libraries, and even then it was a lot of fun – even if we made the mistake of playing on the floor, so that our cat Percy decided to “help.” (Apparently, meeples are great cat toys, so that’s something in their favor. I am not generally a huge fan of meeples but, after watching Percy bat them around for a while, I can’t deny their overall sturdiness.)

Ex Libris is made by Renegade Games, the same folks who put out Bargain Quest, not to mention stuff like Clank!, the licensed Scott Pilgrim games, Kids on Bikes, and Terror Below, which you may one day see in this column because, let’s face it, it’s just a Tremors board game with the serial numbers filed off, and that is very much my jam.

Speaking of my jam, however, we came by Ex Libris not because we had heard anything about it – good or bad – but via a roundabout series of events. It was included in a random lot of board games that we didn’t really even intend to buy. But, once we had it, it seemed like fun to play, and that initial impression bore out.

It’s also worth mentioning that all the various parts of Ex Libris fit neatly into the box, with a plastic insert that appears designed to hold the game as it’s played, not just the game when it’s boxed up to ship, as seems to so often be the case.

The ease (or lack thereof) in organizing and storing these games is another theme that you’ve seen come up a few times now if you’re a regular reader of this column. That’s because, frankly, these games are going to spend most of their time in boxes. And I know this isn’t a phenomenon that is unique to me, because there are whole companies that do nothing but make and sell box organizers for board games.

It isn’t just a matter of annoyance, either. The smoother a game is to take out and put away, the fewer barriers there are between you and playing. And when you’re only going to play a game, like, twice anyway, too many barriers can quickly transform twice into never.

All those baggies full of tokens; the inserts that no longer hold the game well once everything has been punched or unpacked; the pieces that, once assembled, are too tall for the box; they all get in the way of playing, and enough gets in the way of that already.

Games, I Played It Like Twice...