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Kickstarter Spotlight: Diatoms

Sometimes you are caught off-guard by a Kickstarter campaign. It happened to JW with Midhalla. It’s happening to me for Diatoms.

Certainly shinier than I'd like!

You know I am monitoring database additions and KS campaigns. So, I usually know what will show up – but clearly, some games are slipping through the net, even if their BGG page is properly created before the campaign, which, of course, isn’t always the case. But Diatoms did things squarely and cleanly. It’s that kind of campaign. Polished, precious, shiny, with cardboard components that so perfectly fit their slots on dual-layered player board.

And when I first read about it, I thought “Ugh, not again”. Yes, it’s also a game that takes a nostalgic stance on Victorian-era aesthetics (which I associate with merciless imperialism and blinded industrialization), and that promotes a “scientific art” of carefully little algae called diatoms (so, no dioxygen molecules in this title as I first believed), to create patterns that could only be contemplated through the lens of a microscope. Yes, it was a real occupation, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it was created during the Victorian era.

Final pattern at the end of a regular game.

So, nothing to get me on board. But, I spotted a rules explanation by Bitewing games, and I must say, they do quite great explanations, so I decided to treat myself and listen to it. That was the fatal hook. Then I pledged for a digital version, and started playing... and all of a sudden it entered into my topmost played games, I’ll vote for it in my upcoming Top 20 solo games, and now I just cannot let it pass the opportunity to seize a physical version.

This time I am more confident to write about it than I was about Lands of the Mesozoic, first because I actually played it (so I feel less silly trying to gauge how much I will enjoy it based on a rulebook), second because tile-laying is a genre I am familiar with, even though I haven’t played most of the classics of the genre (Azul, Sagrada, Carcassonne). Diatoms is a bit different in that it is a two-layered design: the tiles you lay are only a means to an end, and you don’t create any pattern with these. These tiles are hexagonal, divided into six colored triangles. Whenever you place a tile, you have to lay it so that it creates a “sample”, actually a full hexagon at the juncture of three tiles. Depending on which colors are found in the sample, you will receive tiny cardboard bits called diatoms. If you have one, two, three, four, five triangles of the same color adjacent to each other on your sample, you will receive a one, two, three, four, five-sided diatom to be placed onto your board, and that is true for all color groups on your sample. That’s the basics. The whole game revolves around this idea and you will always pick up a tile, place it, and collect diatoms accordingly to be fitted onto your board.

Here I just placed the leftmost tile, completing a full hexagon with groups of sizes 1, 2, and 3 respectively, so I pick up the diatoms of the matching color and shape.

There are two solo modes. The first one is just a BYOS spin on the multiplayer game. After a set number of tiles, you will score your pattern of diatoms, depending on the symmetries found in it, the group of colors, the shape diversity, and a fourth scoring condition that twists the game a bit and varies from game to game. The second one specifically caters to the solo player. It’s a series of puzzles called “commissions” in which you must fulfill a set pattern. Except all diatoms that don’t fit the commissioned pattern are cast off, and you only have a finite capacity for these cast-off diatoms: if you exceed it, that’s a loss.

Endgame of a "commission" solo mode.

I barely won, with only one empty dish left, earning 1 star out of 4.

I first thought the BYOS game would hold my interest longer. I haven’t played that mode a lot in the end, and surely didn’t try all scoring conditions, but I have the feeling that they could and should have gone one step further in their design, with more scoring conditions in play perhaps, and that would twist the design a bit more. The commissions, on the other hand, proved increasingly interesting. Some are really tricky and will require you to play with special care to succeed. For instance, in one commission you may only place triangles, which means all the color groups you are allowed to create are groups of three, and this is especially difficult and requires some planning. They showed me that the design is more flexible than I first believed, even though I am not sure that this flexibility is fully reflected in the standard mode. In the latter, there are no excess diatoms and you should always find a spot to fit them in, so you are encouraged to generate a lot of them, while the commission puzzles are all about care, restraint, and good measure.

One of the most interesting puzzles so far, where you can only place triangles,

forcing you to place tiles in very specific arrangements.

The real question of course is the following: since I am having lots of fun with a digital version I can play anywhere and without fetching a box and going through components and set-up and the like, do I need the physical version? For instance, my Cascadia game is still in shrink, I only play the digital implementation. Here, I believe the physical version might be an improvement and an easier experience; first because the digital version is static, similar to a Tabletopia simulation, and doesn’t do any of the upkeep or scoring for you (you can even cheat all you want and may have no idea whether you are playing it by the rules); second, because the game is so visual, the patterns will pop up more, while keeping an eye on everything on the screen is a bit tricky. Sure, there will be the shuffling of the tiles, the sorting of the diatoms at tear-down, and so on, but I’m hoping this will be compensated by the smoothing, meditative pleasure of arranging the diatoms myself.

The main negative, in the end, is the price. It’s a $45 board game, which is fair; but as usual, you add VAT and shipping and end up with twice as much. For a soothing abstract game, it certainly feels too expensive. I’m going in anyway, as I had ample opportunity to get convinced I will play this game a lot, but had I not played the game digitally to attain such a full certainty, I would have passed more likely.

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30 oct 2023

Finally got some time to catch up. I didn't keep my pledge in the end, reason being I would probably have to replace Verdant with it and I'm not sure I'll be able to sell it/give it away. Time will tell, but it came at a bad time where I didn't have any time to look into the possibilities of replacement.

It does look and sound lovely though and I'm so glad it spoke to you! It was a very nice read. I get the price ends up being twice as much, but I tend to compare the final price to my possible enjoyment. And as you say, if you end up playing it a lot, why would it matter?

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