Reading Time: 11 minutes
It’s a hard life, being a bee. Build your honeycomb, breed new workers, and store up honey, because winter is coming.
What Is Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer?
Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer is a worker placement game for 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 30 minutes per player. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $49 for a copy of the game. The theme is family-friendly; the age rating is based more on the game’s complexity and length. It’s a Euro-style game and may be a bit much for younger players who don’t have as much experience or patience.
Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.
Here’s what’s included in the game:
- Seasons board
- 4 Hive boards
- Wild Hive board
- Score track
- Start Player marker
- 8 Wild Hives
- 8 Wild Hive Strength markers
- 40 Wild Hive markers
- 80 Worker Bees (20 each in 4 colors)
- 4 Hives
- 4 Score markers
- 8 double-sided Queen tiles (2 per player)
- 4 Varroa Mites
- 4 Comb Size markers
- 60 Honey cubes
- 28 Pollen cubes
- 20 Water cubes
- 12 5x resource tiles (double-sided)
- 4 Swarm tokens
- 4 Skip Feeding tokens
- 27 Season cards (9 each Spring, Summer, Fall)
- 1 Wild Hive raid die (six-sided)
- 5 Raid dice (4-sided)
- 80 Map tiles (22 each Bloom, Wilt, and Harvest; 14 Wet)
- Cloth bag
- 4 40/80-point tiles
- 9 -2/-4-point tiles
- Wild Hive reference card
- 8 Player Aid cards
As you can see, there’s a lot to keep track of!
The map tiles are small hex tiles featuring illustrations of a variety of plant life. The background color and the icon indicate whether the tile is Bloom, Wilt, Harvest, or Wet, which determines what you get when you forage on that tile.
My opinions are mixed on the look of the components. I really love the bee meeples (beeples?) and the illustrations, like on the box cover and the map tiles. The graphic design, such as what’s seen on the hive boards or the seasons board, doesn’t thrill me quite as much, and doesn’t look quite as polished. I’m not sure currently which things are finalized and which will change, though.
How to Play Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer
You can download a copy of the rulebook on the Kickstarter page. Because of the complexity of the game, I’ll just present a simplified version here.
The goal of the game is to score the most points by swarming, successfully attacking other hives, and having bees and honey that survive the harsh winter months.
Each player starts with a hive board. On it, you place one of the two Queen tiles (we’ll get to the powers a bit later), three worker bees of your color, the comb size marker covering the “11” space (showing that your comb size is 10), and a mite meeple up in the top right corner. The rest of your beeples are placed to the side. Each player takes one Bloom tile from the bag and places their hive on it. Note that at the beginning of the game, each player will be building their own individual map; they’ll get connected later. The scoring markers go by the scoring track.
The seasons board is set to one side, with the three decks (spring, summer, and fall) shuffled individually and placed on their respective spaces. The wild hive board is also placed to the side, with the strength indicators set near the hive tracks. All the rest of the tokens (honey, pollen, water, wild hive markers, etc.) are placed in the supply. The map tiles are placed into the cloth bag.
The game takes place over an initial partial round and then 9 full rounds representing the first 9 months of the year, followed by 3 months of winter upkeep. Each round you’ll feed your bees, breed new bees, swarm, and then use your workers to carry out various actions. In the meantime, there’s a new event each month that will affect everyone, and each time you swarm you create new wild hives that will compete for resources. (In the first month, you’ll skip feeding, breeding, swarming, and the event, and just carry out actions.)
Bees eat honey: each round, you’ll have to spend 1 honey for every two bees in your hive. Not enough? Bees starve and die off. Then, if you didn’t switch to a new queen last round and your hive didn’t overheat, you breed new bees, which requires pollen and eggs: the number of eggs you have is equal to the number of empty spaces in your comb before feeding. You spend the pollen and get new workers for your hive, but then you lose new workers to disease based on where the mite meeple is on the disease track. (Adult workers are safe.)
Finally, if you have enough bees in your hive (half your comb capacity or more), then you must swarm: half of your bees leave the hive with the old queen and half your honey and establish a new hive. You have to decide whether to stick with the old hive or the new hive, both of which have some different consequences. For instance, staying put lets you choose a different queen type and you get to keep your larger hive and any remaining resources. If you leave, you use the honey you took to build out your comb but you don’t have anything saved up—on the other hand, you can change locations, which may be advantageous depending on the season.
Swarming gives you points—5 points in the spring, 3 points in the summer, and 1 point in the fall. So it can be a valuable source of points early on, but it also means that you don’t get to keep all those bees you worked so hard to breed.
When it comes time for the action phase, players take turns using their worker bees to take actions, most of which are printed on the left side of your board.
- Scout: Pick an empty spot up to 3 spaces away from your hive, and place a random tile from the bag there.
- Requeen: Pick a new queen type, rotated to the “pause” symbol to indicate that it will not breed this turn.
- Cool Hive: Spend water cubes to cool down your hive; the more bees you have, the more bees and water you have to spend. Cooling your hive negates the effects of overheating.
- Defend: Place bees here as a safeguard against attacks.
- Rob: Attack other hives, either belonging to your opponents or wild hives. If successful, you can steal honey and earn points. Downside: you may advance the mite on the disease track.
- Clean Bees: Move the mite meeple back a step on the disease track, and prevent it from moving on your next forage/rob action.
- Build Wax: Spend two honey to increase your comb size by 1.
- Forage (not shown on board): Place your bee on a hex tile up to 3 spaces away, and gain resources (honey, pollen, water). The amount you gain depends on the tile type, the current season, and the current event. Each tile may only be foraged once per round.
At the end of spring, you’ll push everyone’s map tiles together, forming one connected map, which will allow players to forage further afield, as well as attack each other.
Attacks are carried out using the dice—you’ll get one die for every 4 bees you spend in an attack (rounded up), with the total attack value limited by the number of bees involved in the attack. Attacks let you steal honey from the defender, though both players will be able to sacrifice their own bees to kill off the opponent’s bees. Attacking wild hives also reduces their strength by the amount of the attack. If you steal enough honey from an opponent, or wipe out a wild hive, you score 2 points.
The four queen types grant you different abilities. The aggressive queen gives you a bonus strength per pair of bees when you attack or defend. The prolific queen breeds 3 bees per pair of pollen. The hygienic queen slows down the mite, moving it every other time you forage or attack instead of every time. Finally, the swarming queen will swarm at a lower threshold.
Starting in summer, wild hives (created by swarming) will also take actions, too! There’s a list that tells you what each hive will do, depending on the season and what types of tiles are available. They may forage, which exhausts tiles so that they’re not available for you, or they may even come attack your hive and steal your honey. Wild hives all activate after the last player’s turn, taking one action per round just like the other players.
After the 9 full rounds have been played, you’ll have to survive 3 months of winter. During each month of winter, you must feed your bees, and then lose bees to disease. You’ll score 1 point for each worker and honey left at the end of winter.
The player with the highest score wins.
For a bigger challenge (and longer game), you can extend the game to 2 or 3 years, to see how long you can keep your hive alive.
There will also be a number of solitaire modes. The most basic follows the same rules as the regular game, so you get a feel for the game and you only have to worry about the wild hives created when you swarm. There will also be some challenges and additional scenarios, though those were not included in the prototype.
Why You Should Play Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer
I met designer Matt Shoemaker at Gen Con this year; I had put Bee Lives on my list of games to check out because I was really intrigued by the theme. It turns out Shoemaker is a beekeeper himself, and one of his goals with the game was to get people to “think more like bees.” So I was very excited to get a prototype to try out.
I’ll confess: the first time I played Bee Lives, my first impression was: Wow, that was brutal. It was a 2-player game, and although we both survived the winter, it was rough. I had just enough honey to feed all my bees, with one cube left. My opponent ran out of honey and started starving bees, with a few managing to survive until spring. But, hey, it’s not like we weren’t warned. It says right there in the title, “We Will Only Know Summer,” a foreboding reference to the fact that most adult bees born in the summer only live for about 30 days. As Shoemaker put it, “Bee life is certainly harsh life.”
Subsequent plays have been better, though whether that’s because I’m improving or because I’ve adjusted my expectations for survival is hard to say. I think one of the trickiest parts, which I still haven’t quite figured out yet, is the swarming. You want to breed more bees, because that means more actions. In most worker-placement games, getting more workers is crucial, and so the natural impulse is to set up your actions and resources to maximize breeding. In Bee Lives, however, more workers will quickly mean that half of them will leave the hive, so it better to breed fewer? Swarming gives you points earlier in the game—but that’s also when you really want a lot of workers to build up for later, when foraging will be less productive. And if you do swarm, you have to decide: should I stay or should I go now? (If I go, there may be trouble…)
And don’t forget: every time you swarm, you create a new wild hive, which will then take up valuable space on the map and compete with you for resources.
The tiles provide different resource depending on the season, so it’s important to do a little bit of scouting, where you hope to have a variety of tiles within foraging distance of your hive. The wet tiles always provide 1 honey, 1 forage, and 3 water, which is needed for cooling down your hive when overheating is in effect. But the other three tiles will vary based on the season. Events may also affect the amounts harvested, and there are plenty of events that reduce resources by 1 … which means some tiles will provide no honey or pollen at all.
I like the fact that you get a few rounds where you can just focus on your own hive because the map areas are separated into individual player areas. You don’t have to worry about being attacked, and even the wild hives won’t do anything until summer begins. But it’s also not separate for the whole game, so that you can start getting some direct player interaction; it’s just delayed a little to let you build up. Pushing the tiles together physically can be a little fiddly, so I suggest that players build their maps fairly close to each other, but there is also some strategy in how you attach the tiles to each other.
The rulebook is a little intimidating, and I’m still working on reducing the amount of time it takes to teach the game. There are just a lot of rules to get through, particularly because of the various different actions you can take, and it’s not necessarily the sort of game where you want to just have everyone jump in and start taking their first few turns, and then explain how the next portion works. On the other hand, it’s hard to really grasp how the swarming mechanism works until it happens … at which point most first-time players are surprised to find that half their workers are leaving. I do think it’s a game that will take a couple plays to get a handle on the rules, and then you can start thinking more about your tactics. I know that they’ve hired Dustin Schwartz to edit the rulebook, so that should make it much cleaner and easier to learn.
Bee Lives reminds me a little bit of March of the Ants, another game inspired by insect behavior. Although the gameplay is different, both do involve figuring out how to breed more workers, how to harvest enough food to keep them fed, and dealing with hostile opponents (whether human-controlled or game-controlled). They also have a similar appearance, which may turn some people away from taking a closer look, because it’s not quite as slick. I enjoy playing them, though, and for me the game experience isn’t hampered by the aesthetics.
Overall, if you like the theme of bees and you enjoy worker placement games, you should check out Bee Lives. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those who enjoy a bit of a challenge. Survival won’t be easy, but victory (like honey) is sweet. For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Bee Lives Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.
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