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Wingspan publisher Stonemaier Games’ next board game is full of bees

Apiary could be the next mainstream tabletop hit

A queen bee pawn, in gray plastic, backed by dozens of colony ships and worker bee tokens. They are all miniatures from Apiary, a new game from Stonemaier Games. Photo: Stonemaier Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The next board game from Stonemaier Games is titled Apiary, and it’s about sentient spacefaring bees. The high-concept title was formally announced Wednesday in a company newsletter following an unscheduled leak online. While you might be inclined to poo poo the concept as a bit too out there, underestimate founder Jamey Stegmaier at your peril. The wacky themes he takes under his wing are regularly known for their industry-defining impact.

St. Louis-based Stonemaier has built its business on a string of unusual hits, beginning with 2016’s Scythe, which Stegmaier designed himself. The asymmetrical strategy game takes place in an alternate history version of 1920s Europe created by a singular Polish artist named Jakub Różalski. It includes idyllic scenes of rural life counter-posed by hundred-foot-tall, diesel-powered robots. Różalski’s work has since been turned into a real-time strategy video game, a short film by Neil Blomkamp, and a handful of successful expansions to Scythe itself. Its success helped to revitalize a hardcore corner of the larger hobby gaming space, breathing new life into legacy titles such as Twilight Imperium and seeding the marketplace for new games like Oath: Chroncles of Empire and Exile.

But while Scythe turned heads mostly among diehard hobbyists, Stonemaier’s next hit game, Wingspan, has become a mainstream hit. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, the ornithology-based game won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres, one of board gaming’s most prestigious awards. Wingspan and Hargrave both have since been profiled by both The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Public Radio — even the National Audubon Society. Stonemaier has said publicly it’s sold more than one million copies — an astonishing number for an independently-produced board game.

So in light of its other successes, Stonemaier’s game about gigantic, thinking bees colonizing other planets in our galaxy doesn’t seem all that odd. Created by rookie designer Connie Vogelmann with art by Kwanchai Moriya, the game has been in development for over two years with Stonemaier’s help. The final product will allow 1-5 players to explore the stars over 60-90 minutes of play. It’s a far cry from the multi-hour epic that is a good game of Scythe, while the gameplay looks to be a bit crunchier than Wingspan.

Here’s the official description from the announcement:

In a far-distant future, humans no longer inhabit Earth. The cause of their disappearance (or perhaps their demise) is unknown, but their absence left a void ready to be filled by another sentient species. Over the span of untold generations, one species of the humble honeybee evolved to fill that void. They grew in size and intelligence to become a highly advanced society.

In Apiary [...] each player controls 1 of 20 unique factions. Your faction starts the game with a hive, a few resources, and worker bees. A worker-placement, hivebuilding challenge awaits you: explore planets, gather resources, develop technologies, and create carvings to demonstrate your faction’s strengths (measured in victory points) over one year’s Flow. However, the Dearth quickly approaches, and your workers can only take a few actions before they must hibernate!

Of note is the fact that Apiary will mash-up two extremely popular mechanics common to modern board games. The first, worker placement, requires players to utilize a limited number of pawns to accomplish multiple tasks, the execution of which may put them in direct conflict with other players. The second, engine building, should see players using a carefully curated collection of cards or tokens in the hopes of creating the most efficient system for accumulating victory points by the end of the game. Apiary also features the same sort of random start as found in Scythe, with players pulling from a collection of random bee factions and random starting bee hives to create unique conditions during each playthrough.

Early copies of Apiary will be available starting Oct. 4 at the Essen Game Fair in Germany, with online orders beginning around the same time and shipping to North American addresses throughout October. European orders will be fulfilled some time later. The rules and an FAQ document are available for download. Additional information can be found on YouTube, where Stegmaier answered fan questions on Wednesday.

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