The first thing I did before reviewing Apiary was pray. Pray for the strength to avoid writing any bee-related puns and deliver an excellent and thorough review of this new board game. But I’ll bee honest, hive got a feeling I’m going to fail.
In Apiary, you take control of a faction of evolved hyper-intelligent honeybees. You have a year, of in-game time, to demonstrate your faction’s strength by gaining victory points. Either by building out your hive, harvesting your farms, planting seeds, appeasing the queen or carving different monuments and wonders.
As for how it plays, Apiary is a simple worker-bee placement board game. You have up to four active bees within your hive. On your turn, you choose between placing a bee from your hive onto the main board or retrieving (or bee-trieving as I call it) all of the bees currently out in the field.
More commonly, you’ll place bees on the board in different action spaces. Each action space relates to a different action that you carry out immediately after placing your bee. These include:
- Explore: Move the queenship and visit planets for resources.
- Advance: Buy and build new tiles (technology, farm, and recruit) within your hive.
- Grow: Purchase more space for your hive and additional worker bees.
- Convert: Swap your current resources for resources from the supply.
- Research: Gain a single seed card – this can be used for a one-time ability, conditional end-game points, or traded for a single wild resource at any time.
- Carve: Buy and build a special tile within your hive, giving you conditional end-game points.
If you go to place a bee and the action space is full, you first bump off one of the bees already there. The bee returns to its owner. Who then has the choice to level it up and ready it for action or hold it in their landing area to harvest their farms on their next retrieval.
These worker bees all have four levels that modify the power of the actions above. For example, exploring with a level-one bee lets you move the queenship one space, while a level-four bee, lets you move it four spaces.
When these bees hit max level, they also grant special powerful abilities when placed in the six action spaces. However, once they get bumped off, or retrieved, they go straight into hibernation. Removing them from the board and returning them to level one.
After a certain number of bees have hibernated, you end the game and count up victory points. The player with the most wins.
Getting fuzzy with Apiary
When it comes to themes, it doesn’t get much better than bees in space. However, Apiary doesn’t fully capture this theme within its gameplay. Opting to stick closer to other worker placement games you know and love, although there are still a few curveballs to keep it interesting.
One of those curveballs is just how relaxing it is to play. Unlike other worker placement games that pressure you to snipe the best action spaces before they fill up. In Apiary, it doesn’t matter. You simply bump off the offending bee and get on with your turn.
In doing so though, you level up that bee. Introducing another curveball. Having bees level up, and power up the actions introduces all sorts of complexity. Or it would, if Apiary weren’t so forgiving. Since a lot of the action spaces combine the strength of multiple bees. Outside of the first couple of turns, the levelling aspect doesn’t matter as much as I wish it did.
You can see the pattern here. When given a choice between making a punishing mechanic or a stress-free one, Apiary always opts to take the sting out of the game. Making it an incredibly approachable game for players new and old.
In saying that though, you do need to account and strategise for when your bees hit fourth level. At this level, they grant you access to extra actions like carvings and planting seeds. Therefore, you must do a lot of long-term planning to make the most of these turns.
Now, despite bee levelling being the one mechanic everyone will remember, in my plays, it was overshadowed by just how good the tiles you build are. Finding and combining the perfect combination of tiles makes you positively buzz with excitement. With each being powerful in its own right, finding the right combination makes your hive near-unstoppable.
Especially when it comes to the carving tiles at the centre of the board. These give you conditional end-game points, and picking up the right tile here can easily secure you the win. However, since they aren’t replaced when bought, there is a bit of that worker placement pressure to make sure you snag one before they’re gone.
Countdown to hibernation
I loved how you could combine the tiles on your hive board, but didn’t clue into the power of them until my third game. Mostly because the text on these tiles is too small to read and difficult to decipher when you’re sitting on the opposite side of the table.
That’s not the only place the graphic design lets Apiary down though. It also doesn’t do enough to evoke the theme. Compared to Stonemaier’s other recent game, Expeditions, which sucks you into its world through the cards and map tiles, Apiary feels anaemic. In fairness though, bees in space is the more ambitious theme and more disconnected from our reality making it harder to invoke.
On the other hand, one thing I appreciated about the game was the various ways to gain victory points. I’ve only touched on the main ones for this review, however, there are many strategies for you to explore and play around with.
For instance, one player built several point-generating farms and harvested every chance they got. Another player rushed into choreographing dances, allowing them to create a specific trade of resources. They created a trade of one rare resource for a victory point and used that to get multiple carvings quickly.
So even though it took a couple of games for Apiary to open up for me, once it did I thoroughly enjoyed it. Particularly seeing the diverse strategies players attempted, and how they would often ruin mine with a well-timed carving grab.
Before wrapping up this review, and I don’t want to get too woke on you, but in a space typically dominated by straight white males, it’s great to see Stonemaier Games lend their credibility and popularity to another female designer.
Designers with diverse backgrounds and experience bring that to their games, creating new and interesting flavours of game design. So I’m always excited and happy to see new designers and diversification within this space.
Anyway, as a whole, Apiary didn’t deliver on its promise of space bees, with the theme primarily found on ‘Missing’ posters around the neighbourhood. Still, it delivered a satisfying and polished board game that’s as approachable and fun as it is strategic.
Designer: Connie Vogelmann
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
See how Apiary compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.