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Circadians First Light review

Circadians: First Light (Second Edition) Review

Overview

Circadians: First Light is a worker placement and dice management game where you lead a team of researchers amid a newly discovered planet. You send out your crew to trade with the locals, harvest resources, conduct research, and other actions with the overall goal of earning the most points at the end of the game.

You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel!

For me, Circadians: First Light falls into a strange realm of paradoxical existence. It has excellent production value and oozes with style but ultimately feels hollow beyond its charming veneer. Every single mechanism of the game functions properly, and its overall design is solid. Yet, nothing about it truly translates to being particularly fun to play.

Gideon’s BiasCircadians: First Light Information
Review Copy Used: YesPublisher: Renegade Game Studios, Garphill Games
Number of Plays: 10+Designers: S J Macdonald
Player Counts Played: 1, 2 and 4Player Count: 1-4
Fan of Genre: NoGenre: Worker Placement, Dice Management
Fan of Weight: YesWeight: Heavy
Gaming Groups Thoughts: It was okayPrice: $65

Presentation

Full boxed contents of the Circadians: First Light board game
The game certainly scores points in the looks department.

Circadians: First Light is a stellar-looking game with a fantastic Sci-Fi aesthetic and exceptional artwork. Its brightly colored eye-grabbing look jumps out of every corner, from the box to the little resource tokens. Everything simply looks great.

The bulk of the game consists of several boards that make up the planet, player boards, negotiation boards, and several locations used by your research team. All of them look visually appealing. However, the iconography used throughout the entire game can be difficult to grasp and remember, and there’s a lot of it. Even after several games I had to constantly keep the rule book at my side to dig up their various meanings.

The mining camp board
There is a lot of iconography to learn.

The artwork of the cards is all great. You also get nifty little square tiles for building new farms and hangars. You get a few packs of dice, and I particularly enjoy the resource tokens that represent water, gems, algae, and power. That said. When playing with four players we often ran out of water tokens and had to use substitutes which was pretty annoying.

You get a handful of screens to block the view of your play area. They are pretty nifty because they have some of the rules printed on the inside of the screen. It also looks like the cock pit of a vehicle which is a nice touch. The game comes with a useful insert as well and it really helps cut down on the time it takes to put the game away.

Circadians: First Light tokens and trays
The variety of tokens have their own shapes and look quite nice.

You get plenty of great-looking and high-quality components in Circadians: First Light and it really goes all in on its science-fiction setting, visually at least. It’s definitely a game with a strong table presence that’s easy to admire while you play.

Dicey Deliberation

The core of Circadians: First Light boils down to dice management. You roll some dice behind a screen and assign them to either your farms or garages/hangars. Farms generate resources, while the dice in your garages or hangars go out to visit the various locations of the game.

Player board behind a screen
Deciding what dice to send out, and what to keep at home on your farms is a large part of the strategy.

During the execute phase, players begin sending one dice at a time from their garages and hangars within a turn order. Each location has limited space. So there is a small element of players fighting for certain locations, or blocking another player. Granted, it’s almost always unintentional. There’s not enough leeway to intentionally block another player, and your actions are too important to waste dice to do so. It’s just a consequence that sometimes occurs.

Every location requires dice of a certain value for its actions. For example, you can buy additional dice at the academy. With a dice value of one, two, or three, you can purchase dice with water. At a value of four or five, you can use algae and at a value of six, you can spend power instead.

The Academy board
The value of a dice dictates where it can go and how it can be used.

There are ways to manipulate your dice into different values, and there are so many locations that there’s usually always something you can do. But to some degree, the game is about dealing with the hand you’re dealt. Or rather the numbers you rolled, and making the best of it.

Locations perform a variety of functions. Everything from allowing you to construct new hangars and farms to moving your harvester around the planet in a given direction, dictated of course, by the value of dice you sent to the command room.

The Planet board
Alongside your farms, your harvester can be moved around the board to collect additional resources.

What you are truly doing, however, is finding ways to gather and exchange the game’s four core resources into points. The two main ways to gain points are by negotiating with the locals, each of which requires specific resources, and completing contracts which also require specific resources.

Hollow Mundanity

The thing about Circadians: First Light is that It works and plays perfectly well. The concept of managing your dice to perform actions and exchange resources flows smoothly. And there’s honestly a pretty big decision space. There’s a tightness to the game as there are only a handful of rounds, and you have to really deliberate about how best to use your dice and resources to eke out ahead of the other players. However, in complete contrast to the stellar artwork, it feels soulless, no matter how functional the game may be.

Two colors of dice on the depository board
Some areas have limited space, but blocking another player is usually incidental, rather than intentional.

The act of sending dice around, to more or less manipulate a few types of resources feels very bland to me. It feels like I’m just moving a number over here to add that number to this box, which allows me to check off a box over here. I feel less like I’m managing a team of researchers on an alien planet, and a whole lot more like I’m managing an Excel spreadsheet.

To be fair, you could make that argument against some games I really like, such as Terraforming Mars. But there’s an important difference there, and that difference is how they feel in practice. Playing cards that create powerplants, or farms in Terraforming Mars feels like I’m performing an act within the game’s world of attempting to either terraform the planet or exploit the act of doing so. In Circadians, I simply feel like I’m pushing numbers around.

The Foundry board
Some boards allow you to build hangars or gardens back at your base.

It puts Circadians: First Light in a strange place. It’s a completely functional game that I just don’t find fun to play. The dryness of its gameplay really does bum me out because of how well the game’s artwork and visuals bring its setting alive.

There are some neat aspects to it. There are several leader cards that have asymmetric powers. Moving the harvester around the planet is pretty novel and there are one-time bonuses that players can compete for within the negotiation board and depository. There are plenty of strategies you can pursue and many paths to victory. But all of those aspects still wrap around the same exceptionally bland core gameplay so they really can’t do the heavy lifting required to elevate it.

Verdict

Circadians: First Light is my least favorite type of game to review. Simply because I struggle to find anything of substance to say about it. My favorite part of reviewing games is that I get to dig into the nitty-gritty of what makes them tick. I enjoy diving deep into what makes any given aspect of them good or bad. A good game and a bad game are interesting to talk about. A fully functional game of bland mediocrity, not so much.

Circadians: First Light Leader cards
There’s a nice variety of leader cards that all have asymmetric abilities.

Circadians gives me little to praise outside of its presentation, but equally as little to directly criticize because the game functions exactly as its design would imply. I just happened to find the intent to be utterly boring. I don’t hate the game. I’m just likely to forget it ever existed in the first place, once I’ve published this review.

When there are so many games that exist with new ones coming out all the time, a functional game that’s entirely unexceptional may as well be a bad one because there are better choices to spend your money on in either case. With the exception that a bad game would give me more interesting things to write about it.

Contract cards
Spending resources on contracts is one of the major ways to earn points.

It’s entirely possible that I’m just a poor match for that type of design. If you ended up finding Circadians: First Light compelling you would have, at the very least, a game with an exceptionally solid solo mode. I say that, because while I didn’t enjoy playing solo anymore than I did playing it multiplayer, it felt the exact same. Once you manage to wrap your head around the game’s obtuse iconography, running the solo automa is very simple and mechanically feels like another player at the table.

In the end. The bland nature of the game largely had me feeling like I was just moving numbers around on a spreadsheet. You could make plenty of games sound bad by boiling them down to their barest nature. But they should never feel that way, and to me Circadians: First Light certainly does. Given how great the game presents its setting with great vibrant artwork, the hollow way it uses its setting is pretty disappointing.

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Pros

  • High-quality components with great artwork
  • The nifty insert makes putting the game away pretty quick
  • Nice asymmetry between leaders, large decision space, and many paths to victory
  • Solo mode feels similar to multiplayer

Cons

  • Obtuse iconography makes the game difficult to grasp, even after multiple plays
  • Water tokens run out often in four-player games
  • The game fails to take advantage of its great theme
  • The gameplay, while perfectly functional, feels utterly hollow, like playing with an Excel spreadsheet
  • Most player interaction is entirely incidental, rather than intentional