Gutenberg. Designed by Katarzyna Cioch and Wojciech Wiśniewski. Published by Granna and Portal Games, 2021.

An image of a variety of game pieces including silver and gold coins, a small bust of a bearded man, wooden letters, several game mats, and a bottle of mead.

Gutenberg. Designed by Katarzyna Cioch and Wojciech Wiśniewski. Published by Granna and Portal Games, 2021.

A Gutenberg board game?! “So I guess the audience for this is basically the entire membership of SHARP,” someone tweeted when it came out late last year.

Yes and no. Gutenberg, published in Poland and with an English language edition, is what is colloquially known as a “Euro” game, meaning that it is a tabletop strategy game for grown-ups rather than a time-filler for kids. It accommodates 1 to 4 players, which includes an option for solitaire play. (We think it probably best with 3 or 4 players as that makes strategy deeper.) It is not overly complicated as such games go, but it will help if your group has at least one person familiar with Euro-style games to take the lead on teaching the rules. Our first playing took about 4 hours, but that included the rules explanations, pizza, mead (!), and a good deal of socializing. Once the rules have been absorbed future games should run 90 minutes to 2 hours.

Players are represented in the game by an avatar of a historical figure from Western European printing history: Gutenberg of course, but also Caxton and Manutius and Schöffer, ten in all to choose from. Each has a special ability that influences their strategy and helps portray them as a distinctive personality. The game provides two female characters to play, Charlotte Guillard and Helena Unger, both of whom inherited their presses upon being widowed. All of these historical figures are white and all present as cis.

While there is a large central game board, this turns out to be mostly a place to park the various communal resources that players will be competing for. The real action takes place in front of each player on a cardstock display that represents their printing house. There they will collect contracts (jobs) to print, collect type (think Scrabble tiles, but these are craft wood with reverse Gothic vowels raised in relief—you could actually print from them!), different colored inks, and more. Here players will also keep track of their shop’s advancing “specializations” like bookbinding or illumination, and their character’s rising celebrity and reputation.

there are not really any books to be found here, not the famous Bible nor anything else.

At the outset of each turn players will secretly “bid” on which actions are most important to them in the coming round: maybe collecting a new contract, maybe sourcing ink, advancing a specialization, improving the “technology” of their printing house or attracting a patron. Bids are then revealed, and players proceed to select these limited resources from the central board according to who bid high and low. Next, orders (again, printing “jobs”) get fulfilled, and this is where the game comes alive: each wooden type piece can only be used once on one contract at a time. But type is not expended by printing—the sorts go back into your shop’s inventory when the job is done, which is exactly as it should be. Ink, by contrast, is used up with each job. This helps convey at least a little of the actual materiality of moveable type to the uninitiated.

But Gutenberg is not finally a game about printing or even about books. It is a game about fulfilling orders, coupled with the bidding mechanism that allows players to vie for advantage in acquiring the resources that will help maximize reward. In fact, there are not really any books to be found here, not the famous Bible nor anything else. Instead, players “print” nonce words like “AIOU.” This is unfortunate: the contracts quickly become reduced to their point scoring elements, and that seems like a missed opportunity.

A player’s game setup, with a variety of game pieces arranged on several small boards, including illustrations of toothed gears.

Another flat note for us were the gear wheels which, together with the type pieces, are the centerpiece of the components. Each player can acquire up to three saw-toothed gear wheels which are placed on their board and rotated once per turn. If there is more than one gear their teeth will mesh, so that the rotation of one results in the rotation of all. As the gears spin, they confer various rewards and advantages. Strategy consists in anticipating future rotations and setting up combinations of rewards. In practice, however, this required a lot of looking up of individual rewards in the rulebook and studying their interactions. More to the point, the gears don’t harmonize with the early modern setting. Gutenberg himself was not a machinist, he was a metal worker, and the gnashing of gears feels out of place in the wooden world of the press. Maybe future plays will deepen our appreciation of them. 

But they also tip the game’s hand in another way. The “Gutenberg” the game is interested in is not Gutenberg the historical figure but Gutenberg as a kind of transcendental agent of innovation. This, I suspect, is why so much effort—both material components and rules overhead—gets lavished on the gear system, offering as it does an easily recognized symbol of cleverness and intricacy in acts of invention. This is a familiar but ultimately anachronistic narrative; it feels more like a thinly disguised Silicon Valley disruption story than the measured and artisanal changes to the technologies of moveable type and screw press across a period spanning centuries.

At the end of six turns the winner is determined by the “fame” they have accrued, which comes in the form of points for fulfilling contracts but also advancing one’s printing skills, currying the favor of patrons, and (to a lesser extent) accumulating money. We felt the game did a good job of keeping all of the players involved throughout. While it is competitive in the sense that there is only one winner and some strategy might involve preempting another player’s chance to gain a particular resource, for the most part players are working on their own board (“shop”) without excessive attention to what the others are doing. Our game felt relaxed and social. There is a nice mechanism for compensating the last player each turn for their disadvantage, and small touches like that speak to a nurturing rather than cutthroat approach to game design.

The list price is $70 which is on the high side of the Euro market though it can often be found for less through your favorite local (or online) game store. Do not buy if you are expecting a detailed working model of a printing office; likewise, do not buy if you are looking for a particularly fresh or incisive take on Gutenberg’s legacy. It is also probably too involved and ultimately too abstract to work as an educational game for a room full of undergraduates. But SHARPists who enjoy game nights will have a good time. We certainly did: the theme does come through, and discovering effective strategies felt satisfying and achievable by the end of the first play. It succeeds (perhaps too much) in conveying the capitalism at the center of early printing. And there is no denying the delight in handling the wooden type pieces and soaking up the artwork. Do bring your own mead.

With thanks for playing to the BookLab crew at the University of Maryland: Hima Agarwal, Dylan Lewis, Nat McGartland, and Diana Proenza.

Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland

Matthew Kirschenbaum working with two UMD Booklab students as they play the Gutenberg game.