CHENNAI: It’s easy enough to describe what a game has you do, but it’s often easier to describe the thematic nature of a game by referencing something else — other games, books, movies, what have you. For example, I could tell you that Ex Libris is a game for 1-4 players who are all competing to build the best book collection so that they will be awarded the title of Chief Librarian of a town set in a fantasy realm. Or I could just tell you that you and your friends are going head-to-head in order to become the new head librarian of the Hogwarts Library (or the new Librarian of Unseen University, for the Pratchett fans out there), and you’ve immediately got a sense of what Ex Libris feels like to play.
At its heart, Ex Libris is a worker-placement game — every round, you’ll send your assistants out to various locations to carry out the actions they allow. Just about every action you can do can be boiled down to two things — drawing more cards and shelving cards into your library. You see, every player is going to have a hand of cards that represents sections of a bookshelf, each with multiple categories in various categories on them — your task is to shelve those cards (in an organised manner, of course) so that your hopefully well-stocked library will score you lots of points come the final reckoning.
Of course, there are lots of hurdles between you and glory. The most prominent one is that you can’t just fill up your shelves willy-nilly — the book cards you add to your library must be sorted alphabetically (and numerically within an alphabetical category!) or else you’ll have to flip them face-down and they’ll score nothing for you.
You’ll also be judged by the structural stability of your library, as well as the variety of genres that you manage to collect. Muddying the waters, however, is the fact that every game will have one genre that is prominent and one that is banned. Whoever collects the most books in the prominent category can stand to score a truckload of points, but banned books are going to bring your score right back down.Ex Libris is the gaming equivalent of bubble wrap, or comfort food; it’s just satisfying. Slotting in the perfect card that finishes a row of your shelf and gives you the lead in the race for category majority? That feels great!
And these moments aren’t few and far between, they come along all the time. As a lover of books, I was always predisposed to like this game but I wasn’t expecting to adore it as much as I do.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I haven’t told you about how one of your assistants is a special assistant who gives you a special power — you might have a ghost who can haunt other players, a wizard who can use magic to rearrange your bookshelves on the fly, or a literal bookworm. I haven’t spoken about how wonderful it is that each and every book on each and every card has a unique name that’s usually either a groan-inducing pun or laugh- out-loud funny or both. Truth is, there isn’t enough space here to do Ex Libris justice — but, if the thought of an entire game devoted to building the perfect library made you go weak at the knees, you don’t need me to say any more.
(Arjun is a gamer, book lover and an all-round renaissance man)