What’s that I see shining in the dark? Could it be some sort of mystical gemstone?! Eureka! It is! Now that I have it, I’ll, uh… Make a new room with it! Hahahahahaa! As we all know, sometimes game mechanics don’t exactly translate to theme. Gem Rush falls neatly into that trend. But that’s okay; because if you look past that silliness, you just might find, well… A gem.
In Gem Rush you are a Dwarf exploring an ancient mine and looking for precious stones. These titular gems come in the form of cards- most of which feature two gems. Most of the gems act as a currency, allowing players to place and orient new rooms; but some will have special effects (such as teleportation). The associated cost of playing a new room will vary, and is displayed on the edges of tiles already in play. Players will also start the game with a skill card, giving them access to a unique ability- more on this later. You’ll begin each turn by discarding any extra gem cards over the hand limit of four. You may then move up to three spaces, build any number of rooms you’re able (earning victory point crystals), before finishing your turn by drawing gem cards or activating a room tile- which usually allows you to acquire more gem cards.
All of this results in an incredibly engaging game that plays fairly quickly, but features a rapidly expanding level of complexity as the game progresses. You just don’t see this level of thinkiness in your average filler title, and it’s a refreshing experience. Gem Rush can be played both competitively and cooperatively, and most of the room cards are unique giving this game an incredible amount of replayability. It’s also really important to note that this game plays well at all player counts, which is rare.
I would like to note that the powers provided by the skill cards are not all evenly balanced. Depending on the room tiles that come into play, some skills can be easier to utilize; some are simply more powerful from the outset. I don’t believe that this is a design flaw, but simply resultant from the flow of the game. Because of this, I highly recommend that players use the shared powers variant when playing competitively, especially with new players. The reverse is equally true for the cooperative play variant- I would always recommend playing with randomly assigned skill cards.
The only disappointment in the box comes from the player standees. I am not a fan of standees to begin with; but these are more frustrating than usual. Most of the stands don’t grip the characters well, promising that they will fall off a few times during play. They’re also large enough to block view of the room tile, forcing players to move them around in order to read text and iconography. All of that said, representation is the real issue here: out of seven characters available, only one is female, and all the dwarves are white. We have a lot of folks in our game group who deserve to feel represented on the table. I’ve replaced them with some cheap pawns I found online.
Within our hobby there is an inherent level of presumed synonymity between filler and gateway titles. The fascinating thing is while Gem Rush lands squarely in filler territory, it lacks the simplicity of a gateway title. Ultimately, this is likely what will make the title such a compelling addition to your library. Simple to learn, easy to play- but with an intricacy that really shapes this game into something special.