Minecraft is a genuine phenomenon; since the paid alpha released in 2009 – before the first full release in November 2011 – the game has sold 200 million copies and even now has 126 million active users worldwide.

The secret to Minecraft’s popularity lies in its near infinite scope for creativity, even with the harsher levels of danger present in the game’s Survival mode. The explosion of merchandise and related products – even spin-off video games such as Minecraft: Story Mode (by Telltale) and co-op dungeon crawler Minecraft Dungeons are further proof that the brand has huge power outside of the main game – and is perfectly capable of being taken in some very different, unexpected directions while still retaining a unique feel.

That’s what we have with Minecraft: Builders & Biomes, a game designed by Ulrich Blum and published by Ravensburger. It’s most definitely a Euro-style game in terms of its mechanics, rather than the more open world, freeform game that some may expect. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however.

In MInecraft: Builders & Biomes, players compete to have the most experience points by the end of the game. On each turn, players take two different actions from a small selection: they can mine two blocks from the satisfyingly hefty block cube (the rules specificying that players can only remove a block that has the top and at least two sides exposed), move 0-2 spaces across the overworld grid before revealing all of the cards around them (which may be weapons, mobs – MInecraft lingo for enemies – or buildings), fight mobs, take weapons or use already-collected blocks to create a building card. Though it may seem as if options are somewhat limited at first, there’s a lot of scope to pursue a variety of different strategies to win.

Scoring rounds take place when a layer of the block cube is completely mined. The first round – triggered when the first layer is completely mined – sees players scoring the biome type of their choice (with points for each connected square on the player’s board that features their chosen biome), then the second is the building material of their choice (following the ‘points per connected square’ formula of the first round), before the third and final scoring sees players choosing a building type to score with. Finally, bonus points on mobs defeated and kept are taken into account at the end of the game – these can be bonuses for each square of a biome, material or building type (which don’t have to be connected).

It’s a great game, even though it doesn’t necessarily feel like standard Minecraft. The building cube is satisfyingly hefty and there’s a clever little cardboard contraption that helps to build it, though it’s a little too easy during play to accidentally knock cubes out of position – which can be a bit of a disaster. The player boards feel a little thin, which is a shame because the rest of the components are excellent from a quality perspective – nicely thick card tiles and other components that go nicely with those weighty wooden block cubes.

Somewhat appropriately, the game does feel nicely layered. It’s great how it forces you to think ahead with your buildings, but it’s also quite forgiving if you need to adjust your plans for subsequent rounds, given that there’s no penalty for building one structure on top of another. Combat can be a little frustrating, as it requires you to draw from an initially limited deck of weapons that contains poisoned potatoes (nope, I have no idea…I suspect they must be a thing in-game!) – but if you do want to seriously pursue the decent number of victory points on offer for defeating certain mobs (not to mention the sometimes generous end-game bonuses), it’s reasonably easy to pick up weapons and build yourself a stronger deck.

There’s a lot of elements to keep track of, but it’s still a pretty straightforward game to pick up and play; crucially, it seems to balance very well even with the different strategies on offer. Even with players pursuing entirely different paths to victory, in the games I’ve played everyone has finished within a few points of each other by the time the final scores have been tallied.

Though I’m not a huge fan of Minecraft as a video game, I must say I really enjoyed Builders & Biomes; it’s steeped in details that’ll be familiar to players of the original game, but it does feel like an entirely new experience. It’s a game that’s perfect for younger players too, though a little assistance might need to be given for the scoring stages (helpfully, there’s a simpler scoring variant to help younger players out in this regard). The production values are as high as you would expect from a company such as Ravensburger (aside from those thin player boards!) and they’ve absolutely covered the game in Minecraft iconography and designs. The inclusion of four blank player pieces, so that players can create their own ‘skins’ is a neat touch too.

I didn’t expect to enjoy Builders & Biomes, but I’m glad it proved me wrong. I’m very keen to play again and I must admit I’m also interested in checking out the game’s first expansion – the Farmer’s Market – which adds some entirely new elements to the game. Even as a standalone game though, Builders & Biomes is a highly enjoyable, family friendly experience in which players can mix up their strategy as they see fit, or as circumstances change. Great stuff!

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