This review of Sonora appeared in Episode 92 of The Five By. The following is the script I used when recording the podcast, and, as such, there might be some discrepancies between the text and audio due to editing for time and flow.
It’s dusk in the desert and the sun hangs just above the horizon, seeming to linger just a moment too long. The last traces of the golden red desert landscape finally give way to a deep and inky purple. In this newly dark world, insects buzz and chirp the same dirge they’ve practiced since time immemorial. An owl hoots overhead as a giant wooden disc flies across this idyllic landscape and ricochets against a nearby cliff. It careens at a sharp angle, throwing sand dozens of feet into the air as it comes to stop. You walk up to the disc and notice there’s a giant number five on top of it.
Sorry, I ran away with the setting there. Ok, back to reality.
Hi, I’m John Gonzalez. Sonora, from designer Rob Newton and publisher Pandasarus, is the world’s first flick and write game. I’ll take their word for it as the game does seem to occupy a very unique corner all by itself. While most people are familiar with games in the roll and write genre, games in which players roll dice and use the pip values to mark up their personal player sheets, Sonora ditches the dice in favor of small wooden discs. Each player in this one to four player game receives five discs with values ranging from one through five and their own personal scoring sheet. Players take turns flicking their discs onto the cardboard and plastic playing area, which is formed by a square frame with a recessed opening that houses a printed play area with four quadrants.After every player has flicked their tokens onto the board, players use the values of their own discs in each of the four scoring zones on the corresponding areas on their personal dry erase scoring sheets. Rounds are broken up into two segments, one in which you flick and one in which you write. Game length is up to the players and the rule book suggests playing 5,6, or seven rounds.
The four areas of the game represent four different desert landscapes. The four scoring zones from the main board are also present on your scoring sheet as four mini games. Flicking a disc into an area on the board will let you use that disc’s value on the corresponding mini game on your scoring sheet. The creek bed area has players marking off spaces on a dry creek bed path that branches out from a starting point. So if you’re using a disc with a value of 3, you mark off two spaces on the path and circle the third one, scoring you either the points on the path space or some other bonus. The canyon area of the game lets you use the value on a disc to outline one of six polyominoes shapes on a grid that resembles a blank crossword puzzle.Some of the spaces in this zone contain three different cacti and outlining these shapes lets you collect them. At the end of the game, you score points based on how big your cacti sets are. There’s also a mudcracks area in which you’re using the combined values of your discs to mark off and connect nodes in order to surround cacti icons. These three areas have you working on your own, marking off paths, nodes, and polyomino shapes, and collecting bonus icons that grant you additional ways in which to mark off other mini-games zones, So it’s possible that outlining a shape in the canyon area will let you work on a different area. The mini games are fun and having this interconnected relationship between scoring areas lends the game some depth and makes it all the more interesting.
The fourth area in the game is the Cliff Dweller Ruins in which players compete to be the first to fill out the various groups of hexagon spaces.Having the highest value among all your discs in the Cliff scoring area allows you to fill out the hexagons on you sheet first, and this is important because each hexagon group only award points to the first two players who do so. Also on the game board are areas in which disc values are doubled or multiplied by a factor of two.
Like all Roll and Write games, there’s a good bit of randomness in Sonora. Instead of dealing with dice, you have to contend with player skill and what can get to be an overcrowded board. Your plan to maximize your score in any one particular area is often thwarted by players who are skillful enough or lucky enough to flick their discs into the area they want. Often in Sonora, other players will end up knocking other player’s discs out of scoring areas that those players really, really needed— I’m looking at you everyone I’ve ever played Sonora with! I don’t find this level of interaction and randomness to be a detriment to Sonora, it’s actually quite nice to see players click with the game after a few shots and start being more strategic in the actions. At the four-player count, a game of Sonora is often accompanied by all the groans of disappointment and vague threats of retaliation you’d expect from a game where everyone is getting in each other’s way. A two player game feels like it has a bit more room in which to operate with strategic intent when flicking discs around.
Still, I’ve found the game to be really interesting and enjoyable at all player counts, with the exception of the solo variant.
Playing a game of Sonora by yourself involves flicking three sets of player discs into the playing area. After you’re done flicking these fifteen discs, you have a choice of which set to keep, which set your AI opponent scores, and which set gets discarded. Essentially, by flicking so many discs, you’re getting in your own way here. I found myself planning to land one set of discs into a certain quadrant only to accidentally push those discs out of that very area on subsequent turns. It’s cool that the solo rules allow you to choose which player color discs you’ll be using to score your own sheet, but the process often felt like playing whack-a-mole in that I was constantly trying to assess and fix the state of the board in order to ensure I got the results I wanted.It felt a bit too taxing for what I feel is pretty straight forward game at other player counts. My only other quibble is that with four mini games in which to work in, the dry erase sheets that come with the game are a bit on the smaller side.
Aside from that, the art and graphic design are wonderful.The deep red, yellow, and purple landscapes of Sonora remind me of vintage travel posters .Tom Goyon, the illustrator for Sonora, really took what could have been a very dry theme and made it something quite charming and evocative. Sonora will no doubt remain in my collection for a good while. It’s unique, it’s fun at most player counts, and the art is lovely.