Publisher: Sorry We Are French
Designer: Matthieu Verdier
Artist: Oliver Mootoo, David Sitbon
Release date: 2020
Player Count: 1+ (technically no player maximum)
Time: 15-25 minutes
Bury Board Game Score: 8/10
Imagine flying all the way though the dark depths of space, to then find some prehistoric parallels. That’s the gist of Demeter, a flip-and-write game from Sorry We Are French. You (and your opponents) are rival intergalactic scientists, and you’ve landed on Demeter 1, a moon. And lo and behold – there’s only bloomin’ dinosaurs roaming about the place!
My initial reactions to Demeter were that it shared similarities to Welcome To…. (A 2018 flip-and-write game by Blue Cocker Games.) I also heard it was combo-tastic, alongside the likes of Ganz Schön Clever. So, does Demeter bite off more than it can chew? Or is it a “clever girl”?
What’s It All About?
Demeter is a flip-and-write game. Players have their own sheet of paper, split up into different sections. You’re trying to score points in various set collection means. At the start of each turn, five cards get flipped face-up. Everyone gets to pick to activate one card. Not in a drafting sense – everyone could pick the same card, or everyone could pick different cards. Everyone performs that card’s action, crossing off a corresponding part of their sheet.
Once everyone’s finished the action that card provided, a new round begins. Five more cards get flipped over, and the process continues. You do this a total of twelve times, and then there’s end-game scoring to add up. Most points wins, and there’s quite a few categories to chase.
Zooming In For A Closer Look
Demeter’s theme is a little loose, but it does at least attempt to inject one into the gameplay. There’s six dinosaur species present on this moon. There’s different rewards up for grabs, depending on how you observe them. Over the course of the game you’re going to ‘discover’ these dinosaurs. This means shading in certain body parts of the terrible lizards. Every species have between one and three body parts that require shading. (Hey, it’s far safer to discover a T. Rex’s backside than it is its front half…)
The first player to discover all dinosaur parts of a single species earns a points bonus. DinoBingo™, anyone? Players that accomplish this afterwards gets a smaller points bonus. This mini-race is the extent of the player interaction within Demeter. The rest is a multiplayer-solitaire experience. There’s no other need to look at your opponents’ sheet. But what Demeter lacks in player interaction, it makes up for with reams of strategical options.
One way to shade in dino parts is to pick a card with the Discover action on it. It’s a footprint, and dino parts come in certain coloured footprints. (Red, green, or blue, and different silhouettes, to assist with colourblind players). Red and green footprints sit distributed throughout the decks in a generous manner. Blue footprints, though, are harder to come across…
Tapping Your Toe To The Combo Beat
Once you’ve Discovered a dino to completion, you can ‘study’ it. (You have to take the Study action, though; a separate action you’d select on another card/turn.) Each dinosaur has either 1-3 yellow arrow(s) leading away from it, pointing towards an immediate or end-game bonus. Once you fill in that/those arrow(s), you unlock that reward. If it’s an immediate one, you get to perform it straight away, like a bonus action. This is one way how chains can occur, much like in Ganz Schön Clever. This is a major part of Demeter, and if you want a decent score, you’ll need to figure out how best to dance the combo beat.
Above each species sits a row of meeples (Scientists) and red Observation Posts. (Again, these are two separate actions you can select from a card on your turn.) You need to shade these in left to right. You can’t shade in Scientists to the right of an incomplete Observation Post. Colouring in a batch of Scientists leading up to a Post provides an instant reward. These are like some of the rewards given in the Study action. Instant rewards include:
• Getting to Study again
• Filling in an extra Observation Post
• Discover extra footprints again
• Extra end-game points
• Advancing along the Research Track
The Research Track looks like an empty crossword grid of sorts, sitting at the top of your sheet. Every time you take the Research action (also available as an action on a card) you fill in the track’s next square. It forks in places, meaning you can choose which way to progress along it. Pass certain thresholds, and you’ll earn even more instant bonuses. You can see now, how shading in one single item on your sheet could trigger a whole cascade of combos.
The other important reason for taking notice of the Research Track is that it leads to three ‘finish lines’. These terminate at three different end-game scoring goals. During set-up you’ll pick four from a total of twelve available, so there’s a modular vibe to this aspect of Demeter. You’ll only score that end-game opportunity if you’ve reached it along the Research Track.
Last of all, there’s five different buildings you can construct. Once built, they provide an ongoing benefit (usually a +1) to any of the other actions. They’re worthwhile investments, especially in the earlier part of the game.
In among the deck of 75 cards, 10 of them provide the Building action (there’s two cards for each of the five buildings). There’s five decks (15 cards in each). At the start of the game you’ll shuffle each deck and remove three random cards from each in secret. This means you can’t guarantee which action cards remain in the decks for the twelve-round game. So there’s a chance certain buildings might not appear…
Dual-Purpose Action Selection – Oodles Of Choice
If the sole mechanism in Demeter was to pick one-from-five cards and gain that action, it would still be a strong game. But there’s a extra layer to the decision-making. Every card provides a dual-purpose. Not only do you get to trigger the card’s specific action. Once you’ve taken it, you then get to activate the action associated with the colour deck it came from.
There’s a table in the top-left corner, a 4×5 grid. This shows which decks provide which end-of-round bonuses. The first time you take a card from a deck, it provides a single bonus. (1x Scientist, or Observation Post, or Study, or Research Track movement.) The second time you take this action it’s 2x Scientists…, the third time 3x Scientists…, and so on. You can only pick cards from the same deck four times, but I’d wager you’ll find that an unnecessary approach, anyway.
This provides a wonderful fork in your strategical options. Do you take a scattergun approach and enjoy a bit of everything? Or do you focus your attention on one or two avenues? Further decisions come in the form of the grey, fifth deck. The rewards on these cards are so tempting. They give you x3 Research/Scientists/Observation Posts in one hit! Others give you the elusive blue (or even ‘wild’) footprints. The end-of-round rewards for taking grey cards let you pick any of the other four – but only to the strength of a +1. It offers flexibility, but a diluted reward.
You’ll find yourself drawn towards the grey cards in the first half. They give you an appealing, early boost. But later in the game, taking one of the other four categories starts to entice. That accumulation of bonuses becomes tough to swat away. Another siren, luring you to pick one card over another, is a vertical reward in this table. Pick one of each card type, and you get 1x free wild dino footprint to shade in. Pick a second of each card type, and get another 2x wild footprints. Oooh! Decisions, decisions…
How Do I Score Thee? Let Me Count The Ways
Now, it’s all very well shading in this and colouring in that, but what earns you the points? We’ve already established the modular A/B/C end-game goals, which you aim for via the Research Track. The only way to score category D is to Discover and then Study the top four Gallimimus. Discovering and then Researching the top two Diplodocuses lets you score any category (A-D). (The only rule here is that you can’t score any Objective Tile like this, twice.)
But chasing the Dippys is hard work – that’s six (2×3) dino footprints, and then four yellow arrows. This further heightens the importance of analysing the modular set-up of these goals. You need to decide, early on, what’s worth chasing and what’s less of a priority.
If you can maximise a species with their allocated Scientists, you score a decent points bonus. This is easier said than done, though. You need to get Observation Posts to progress to that stage. Problem is, sometimes you might want to fill in Posts on other species, mid-game. (Because unlocking that species’ Scientist bonus is more appealing, short-term!) It’s a classic conundrum in many modern games. If you chop and change your strategy throughout, will you end up with half a dozen half-baked scores? Reaction tactics, or long-term goals. This is one of the things I love about games like this.
While it can feel tempting to try and compete in ‘Dinosaur Bingo’ by being the first to discover a species, there’s another path to take. You earn points at the end for the variety of dino you’ve discovered. (As in, at least one of a species.) This is quite an incremental leap in points, depending on how many you discover. There’s a whopping 21 points on offer if you discover at least one of all six dinos. I’ve seen it done, but I myself struggled to nail that particular strategy. (In part due to the fact that puts you at risk of spreading your butter too thin!)
Also, it’s because I like the following end-game scoring offer. You earn a points multiplier for each species: number of dinos discover, times the value of your highest complete Observation Post. (So for example, if you discover both Tyrannosaurs and complete their final Post – worth 5 – that’s 2×5=10.)
Yet another way you can score end-game points is if you’ve completed certain Study arrows. Some provide simple, straight-up points. Others offer multipliers the more red/blue/purple cards you picked during the game. These are wonderful, because if you go to the effort to Study those arrows in the first place, it encourages you to pick those colour cards. But, as is so often the case when you play, said colour cards might not always offer the action you need right now!
That’s The Secret Sauce
From a strategical puzzle point of view, there’s a lot to love about Demeter. Once you’ve got a play or two under your belt, you can start experimenting upon which things you want to focus. As with every game like this, there isn’t time to do everything. You’re always left shaking a fist at the sky, bemoaning the fact you “need one more round…”. And that’s the secret sauce. That’s the clincher that makes you want to play games like Demeter again, and again.
When the cascades come in Demeter, they can rain down in droves. It can be tricky at times to remember everything and not get lost. This is because you can split where you distribute your, say, Scientists on a turn. (Across multiple dino species.) This can then result in numerous cascades. It’s all on you to not forget anything, because everyone’s focused, head down, at their own sheet. It’s every player for themselves out there…
Looking at the sheet from the perspective of a new player, or a casual gamer, they might run a mile. It looks a bit busy; a bit intense. It’s all obvious once you know what’s what, but during your first teach, some folks might scratch their head. There’s nine different points categories, after all. I can’t call Demeter a game for beginners to pencil-and-paper games. It has a suggested age of 14+, after all. Those who are familiar with the genre, though, will enjoy the challenge it presents.
Crystalline Art – More Jagged Edges Than A Triceratops’ Frill
The pad comes with 100 single-side sheets. Considering there’s no player limit when playing Demeter, you could play it with 100 players! That might be why the game doesn’t come with any pen(cil)s. This isn’t a major problem if you’re playing with a smaller player count in the comfort of your own home. (You must have a handful of writing tools to hand somewhere, right?) But at the end of the day, the game is unplayable without pencils, so is this an issue?
The cards were always going to be an important factor in a flip-and-write game. They’re the size of the train cards in standard Ticket To Ride (approx 7x4cm). They don’t suffer being this size. They have a stark enough colour border around them for you to ascertain one from another. Colourblind players might struggle with the red. However, seeing as you keep them apart in five separate decks, this should be okay. The iconography is the important factor, and you can read it in a heartbeat.
I’d have preferred for the Objective Tiles to have been a tad bigger. They’re icons alone, with zero text for language neutrality. That’s fine for experienced players, but some might cause a little confusion for your first couple of plays.
The art style is crystalline in nature. Lots of jagged edges, as if the terrain’s being scanned by a computer from the ’80s. It’s reminiscent of last-century sci-fi movies that imagined futuristic space travel. The dinosaurs themselves are simplistic silhouettes, also without curves. The Gallimimus looks a similar to the Raptors… but if you’re a dino-nut like me, then you won’t have an issue telling them apart.
Is Demeter Too Abstract? What’s Demeter With That? (*groan*)
Demeter is set within the same universe as Ganymede, another space game by Sorry We Are French. The art style runs parallel, too. That’s where the connections end, though. There’s zero narrative within the game components themselves. As a result, there’s nothing to provide any kind of relationship between the two games. I played Demeter with some players that didn’t know their Triceratops from their Raptors (part of me felt rather sad at that!). They still enjoyed the core puzzle, regardless of the ‘theme’. However…
I fear that’s because this theme is too abstract. (Not as abstract as Ganz Schön Clever… but that’s setting the bar low!) The idea of studying dinosaurs on another planet, to me, sounds roar-some. But I can’t sit here and say that at any point during the game it felt like that’s what myself and the players were doing. Optimists might say ‘at least the theme isn’t overbearing’. Pessimists might say ‘this was an opportunity missed’. Where do you sit on that particular fence?