Renegade Games is on a roll and they really hit their stride last year alongside their other 2017 releases such as Sentient, Clank! In Space, Castles of Caladale, and The Fox in the Forest. Who knew that a publisher as new as Renegade could release so many good games and climb their way near the top so quickly? Ex Libris is no exception.
In Ex Libris, each player builds their own fantastical library. You’ll collect historical and reference texts, fantastical fiction, monster manuals, books of magic such as potion recipes, etc., and even books about the dark arts. There are several scoring categories at the end of the game, but sufficed to say you’ll basically want to build your library somewhat in alphabetical order, but receive points based on how large and diverse your library is. One genre of books is in high demand each game and one is banned, each category earning you extra positive and negative points, respectively.
Players acquire pieces of their library (bookshelf sections represented in card form) by sending out their assistants to various locations. This is what’s called “worker placement” in the modern board game world. It’s a fun way of openly drafting action spaces, as once an area has been filled with assistants, no other player can place there. Most locations allow you to gain cards with books they can add to your library and/or shelve sections of their bookshelf from your hand. However, each location accomplishes this in a very different way than any other. So what’s different about Ex Libris compared to other recent worker placement board games? For one, each player has a special assistant, which when placed allows that player to take a special action or gain some sort of passive ability. Most of the location tiles actually change each round as one will move up and stay out while the others are discarded and new ones are brought in. Ultimately this means that in any given game of Ex Libris you’ll end up playing with most of the locations, but not all. You also won’t know when each one will be available; this is a refreshing change for people who’ve played a ton of worker placement games.
On to the magical elephant in the room: does Ex Libris set itself apart from the hundreds of other games with similar mechanisms? Short answer: yes it absolutely does, but maybe not in the ways you would think. First and foremost one of the best parts of the game is the titles on the books. The designer could have reused these titles. However, every book has a funny title depending on the category (color) of book it is. Some of the titles are absolutely hilarious and I can really appreciate the amount of time it probably took thinking of all these. Secondly, I can’t think of another game that combines worker placement with placing cards in this manner, and it works really well.
On to final thoughts! Overall, I think Ex Libris is a fantastic game. While using a lot of familiar mechanisms, the combination of said mechanisms are incredibly unique. Honestly, I have no complaints there- the core of the game is pretty solid. However, after at least three plays, there are a few things I wish were slightly different. First, I wish the game had less of an emphasis on shelving as many books as possible. Full disclosure, I’ve lost pretty horribly every time I’ve played. It’s not the fact that I’ve lost so badly that bothers me, however, it’s that it seems that the ability to shelve as many books as possible is going to usually trump meticulous placement of your books. To me, it feels like the lcoations where you can shelve multiple books get taken up pretty quickly, and if you can’t shelve three books most rounds you’re going to fall behind. If you just happen to be in a position where you can’t get to these spots it can be kind of frustrating, and often times turn order is a big part of this. This combined with some minor rules issues keep Ex Libris from being a truly exceptional game. However, I’ve only played it three or four times, so this could change with future plays. I’m hoping to revisit this one in a future Back from the Shelf article. Despite those complaints, I have really enjoyed Ex Libris. It’s an enjoyable middle weight game and I would happily play it many more times. I’m actually hoping to play it again so I can implement what I’ve learned from my previous losses and hopefully improve my score! Currently, I’m giving it a 7.5 out of 10. If you are a fan of the theme, and love literature or even the concept of building a fantastical library, or you love worker placement games, I’d give it a solid +1. Ex Libris has the potential to be a great “gateway” style game for many people who have played few modern board games. Give it a try!