Renegade Game Studios is a relatively recent publisher that’s created a good reputation. Clank!, Raiders of the North Sea, Lanterns, etc. have all been popular games with decent reviews. We’ve also written positive reviews about Honshū and Scott Piligrim’s PLCG.
In Ex Libris, you play librarians in a fantasy town vying for the coveted position of Grand Librarian. You’ll use your assistants to acquire and arrange the best library of books.
Ex Libris uses worker placement to collect and arrange cards, each containing different categories and titles of books. You earn points at the end of the game for having a library that is categorized correctly, contains diverse and appealing books, and is put together in a stable, appeasing form.
You acquire, shelve, and rearrange books by visiting various places in an ever-growing town. From the “Ye Olde Book Swap” to the “Garbage Dump” to the “Shelfmasons Guild”, you’ll need to strategize where your assistants should go each round.
Also, each Librarian has a unique supernatural assistant with their own unique rules, from the wizard or witch to the goblin or imp. Nothing like your gelatinous cube eating someone else’s books to a literal bookworm, who works hard but also devours your inventory.
Ex Libris requires a lot of forethought into what books you’re acquiring, where you’re placing them, and how you can rearrange them down the road. You don’t want to be stuck with a boring library or end up losing points because your shelves were categorized poorly.
For such a fascinating game, it’s a shame there are so many flaws. From poor font decisions to unclear (or even unwritten) rules, Ex Libris concept and art can’t mask its problems.
The designers attempted to put the rules for each Library and Location on the actual card. Unfortunately, they chose a horrible font that is very hard to read against the background art.
Also, most of these rules are truncated and unclear, requiring you to thumb through the instructions’ glossary. The designers had the forethought to include a clear explanation about each tile in that book (and a printable PDF) but sadly didn’t plan for how to abbreviate (and print) them on the cards.
As for the instructions themselves, they’re missing vital information often only found through responses from the designer on board game forums. We ended up house-ruling things, searching forums later, and are still trying to find the answers to all our questions.
Unfortunately, a game this complex, with poor on-card text, and a need to reference a flawed instruction manual constantly, could turn more casual or inexperienced gamers off. Even for experienced players and rules-lawyers, the constant back-and-forth and discussion interfered with the fun.
These problems are a shame because the concept is solid and the gameplay itself isn’t bad. Some of the assistant powers were questionable in their balance, and the game definitely rewarded whoever finished first, but neither was a guarantee of victory.
I will note that the game is a table-hog, which is a shame because it works best with 3-4 players. A full town of Location Tiles (often overflowing the Town board), Library Tiles, a complete library of book cards, and various draw and discard piles end up covering most of a dining room table.
While Ex Libris isn’t a bad game by far, its flaws suggest it needs a revised version. An updated rulebook and more precise text are the primary requests, as the rest is mostly forgivable.
For experienced gamers, I think they will tolerate Ex Libris’ problems a bit more, and be able to wade through to the fun underneath. It’s a shame some players may be confused or turned off, because the game is fascinating, unique, and can be hilarious.
No seriously, read the book titles. We were laughing at some of them so hard it hurt.
Ex Libris is on shelves now. 1-4 players, 30-60 minutes, Ages 12+.
I give Ex Libris 3.5 banned books out of 5.
(We’d like to thank the Dan of Third Eye Games & Hobbies in Annapolis for recommending the game!)