shannon_a: (games)
The latest Alea game, Alea Iacta Est just came out in the US a couple of weeks ago. I've only played it twice, once in the German six months ago and once in the English a couple of weeks ago. I don't feel like I've played Alea Iacta Est enough to say how good of a game it is (whereas it was easier to make a quick judgement for a truly good or bad game).

Alea Iacta Est is a die-rolling game. Each turn you roll some number of dice, then choose to put them in a location where you're either summing up dice, creating straights, creating sets, or just placing low numbers. It's a nice blend of strategy and tactics. You have to tactically decide where to place your current dice, but you have to strategically think about which sets of dice will actually last the round (which goes until someone has placed all of their dice).

Different spaces give different rewards. The two big ones are citizens and provinces, which go together to form points. You can also get straight Victory Points from the Temple and bonus tiles which reward certain behaviors from the Senate. There's even a nice catch up mechanism: unused dice give you dice reroll tokens.

I already mentioned the nice blend of tactics and strategy. I also think it meets the most important criteria for a dice rolling game: it's exciting. You come into a roll specifically hoping for certain things, and if the dice turn your way, that's great.

Some people hate dice games in and of themselves, but this one tries to balance things a bit with those aforementioned reroll tokens. If you're rolling badly (or making bad choices with your rolls), you get the opportunity to try to roll better on feature turns.

I personally find the biggest problem in the game to be the bonus tiles, which aren't iconically clear, and which you have to select among, meaning that they can really drag down the game as you consider a set of them.

As of now, I like Alea Iacta Est. I think it's more enjoyable then many of Alea's light games (e.g., Palazzo, Rum & Pirates), particularly since it better matches length and depth than some games. I don't think it's ground breaking though.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen. C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich. B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters. B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan. A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue. C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV. B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo. B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates. B (Plays: 3)
M3: Augsburg 1520. B+ (Plays: 2)
L11: Notre Dame. A (Plays: 6)
L12: In the Year of the Dragon. A (Plays: 5)
M4: Witch's Brew. A (Plays: 5)
M5: Alea Iacta Est. B (Plays: 6)

Thus endeth my series of discussions of Alea games. If you'd like to see all 22 discussions, click on the "alea games" tag below.

The last three years I've had some themed goals for my gameplaying (Knizia in '07, Wallace in '08, and Alea in '09). My goal in '10 is to reread the rules for most or all of my games, so that I can play them (even if I don't). I don't plan to write about that here. However, I do plan to write another several Alea articles in '10, talking about my experiences with the Treasure Chest expansions which I just (finally!) picked up this last Monday.

And, of course, you can always read my regular board game discussions at BoardGameNews. My favorite column of the year, The Tao of Board Gaming, published last week, while next Thursday I'll be publishing my yearly summary.
shannon_a: (games)
And so we finally come to the most recently released Alea game--and also the one I've played the most this year--Witch's Brew. It's a return to a lighter, filler sort of game, and I think the most successful one in that category other than the ground-breaking San Juan.

Witch's Brew is a pretty unique game that I'd ultimately have to say depends on role-selection, but with a lot of quirks. Basically there are 12 different actions (roles) in the game. Each round you select 5 that you're going to try to take. Then it turns into a bluffing game. One player selects a role. Then each other player who has the role either takes over the main power or else accepts a subsidiary (and less powerful) power. The catch with taking the main power is that one of the other players may then take it from you, if there's anyone who hasn't declared yet; you also have to go first next turn, which is almost always bad, since you have to try to take the main power, and usually don't get to do it.

The role cards ultimately let you engage in some resource management as you collect three different resources and try to turn those into victory points.

A couple of the players that I last played Witch's Brew with said they really enjoy the game because of the gotcha! factor--the way you can smugly grab a power from someone ahead of you after they thought they had it made. I rarely see a game with as much thrill of victory and agony of defeat as this one unless it's a dice game. And given that I think that dice games can be some of the most adrenaline-boosting and stomach-dropping games around, that's high praise.

There's a lot of other stuff that's good in the game. Though the results of an individual turn can be chaotic, you can still do lots of strategic planning before each round, and some of it will usually pay off. The chaos factor is decreased by the fact that a player's current set of resources can tell you a lot about what they're going to do. There's also some opportunity for nice brinkmanship, as you will probably occasionally choose cards that you can't immediately use in the hope that you'll be ready by the time someone tries to call the role.

Overall, Witch's Brew is a game that's fast but not necessarily light.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen. C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich. B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters. B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan. A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue. C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV. B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo. B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates. B (Plays: 3)
M3: Augsburg 1520. B+ (Plays: 2)
L11: Notre Dame. A (Plays: 6)
L12: In the Year of the Dragon. A (Plays: 5)
M4: Witch's Brew. A (Plays: 5)

And that concludes my analysis of all of the Alea games published to date. Over the last four publications, from Augsburg 1520 to the present, I think that the series has reached a Renaissance, and I hope it continues (although I wish there was more variety of designers among the big box games, even given the fact that I've generally like Feld's games).

If Alea Iacta Est makes it out this year (and who knows with Rio Grande!), I'll surely add it to the series, and I also plan to assess all the supplements when the Treasure Chest comes out. For now, though, keep your eyes peeled over at BGN, where I plan to publish a synopsis of some of my Alea thoughts on Thanksgiving.
shannon_a: (games)
In the Year of the Dragon is currently the last big-box Alea game, and I think it really stands up to the most strategic of the series.

The object of In the Year of the Dragon is to earn the most victory points while carefully managing a number of resources and preparing for upcoming disasters. There are four different disasters: Mongol invasions which require warriors, disease which requires healers, famine which requires rice growers to have made rice, and Imperial taxes which require money. In addition, there's one opportunity: a festival, which gives bonus VPs to people who have fireworks.

Throughout the game, you're thus trying to balance which workers you acquire and how you use them. Money is further important because you might need it to buy VP generators or to buy an action that someone used ahead of you. Another thing that you have to keep constantly in mind is the size of your palaces, because if you don't have room for new workers you have to toss old ones out onto the street. Finally, the type of workers you hire can have a big effect on when you go in the round, which is another thing you have to constantly keep track of.

Calling In the Year of the Dragon a resource-management game seems to understate the gameplay, because the various resources that you have to manage (workers, palaces, victory points, money, rice, fireworks, and the worker track) are so different that this is clearly not just a game of figuring out when you need indigo and when you need coffee. It's a complex web of interrelations and that's what makes it an interesting game.

In the Year of the Dragon is also a scarcity game, meaning that you constantly feel like you're falling behind the curve on demands that are slowly overwhelming you. This is the second time that author Feld used this style of play, with the first being the rats of Notre Dame. Here it (as laid out by the disasters) is much more important, however--really, the core of the game.

I think In the Year of the Dragon is a good game because it's high strategy, low randomness, and it allows for a lot of forward thinking. Mind you, I don't always like that in a game, but when I do this is an excellent choice because it's still pretty fresh and original. It's also very tight and there are a few different paths to victory:

Do you try and stay totally clear of disasters, or do you sometimes give up resources as the lesser of two evils? Do you cycle characters or try and keep your full complement? Do you earn your points with scribes who require you to take a book action or do you pick up VP generators early on and just try and tread water while they do their work? Do you try and push to the start of the worker track or do you accept that you'll be last and take lots of excellent workers with that understanding?

I'm won with multiple strategies, which is my usual mark of a good strategy game.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen. C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich. B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters. B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan. A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue. C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV. B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo. B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates. B (Plays: 3)
M3: Augsburg 1520. B+ (Plays: 2)
L11: Notre Dame. A (Plays: 6)
L12: In the Year of the Dragon. A (Plays: 5)

I'm going to close out by noting that I've found an interesting correlation between Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon. I know a number of players who love one and hate the other and vice-versa, though they're both games by the same publisher and same designer, put out very near each other and both using scarcity mechanics. I can understand the difference: Notre Dame feels a lot lighter and like you have more control while In the Year of the Dragon is more strategic and more demanding. Indeed, though I've rated both equally well, I enjoy Notre Dame much more (though I seem better at In the Year of the Dragon).
shannon_a: (Default)
I'll again say that I don't understand how Stefan Feld has controlled the Alea large box line since Rum & Pirates. However, Notre Dame is definitely one of my favorites in the line, so I can't complain. And perhaps the secret is in the fact that Feld continues to design games which feel very different from one another.

Notre Dame is a card and resource management game. Each player has a number of buildings which allow him to do various things, such as earn gold, victory points, cubes, keep the rat population down, etc. A player preps for each round of play by drafting three cards which let him utilize the various buildings, then uses two of them. When a card is played, a cube is added to the building and the player then takes its effect. Most buildings have powers that increase triangularly, e.g.: 1 gold, 2 gold, 3 gold, etc.

I'll also argue that Notre Dame is a worker placement game with some twists, namely:

  1. Where you can place workers is determined by cards acquired through a card draft.
  2. Workers remain placed on buildings, and the more you add, the more utility you get out of each building.


The other big innovation of Notre Dame is, of course, the rats. Notre Dame was one of the earlier games that was heavily based upon tight, negative economics, where you were always just one step ahead of total failure. (Perhaps following on the heels of Age of Steam.) I think that In the Year of the Dragon, Feld's next game, continues the trend. (And we've since seen it in Agricola, La Havre, and others as well, of course.)

Since its release, Notre Dame has been one of my favorite Alea games. It plays quickly and simultaneously gives you a lot of actions over the course of the game. In addition, it not only supports a lot of paths to victory but in fact encourages specialization thanks to its triangular power rankings. (I do offer have suspicions that some paths are better than others; I, for example, usually try and hit the VP generator hard, while getting just enough from other buildings to scrape by.)

I also find Notre Dame to do quite well in how it manages luck. There is definite luck in which cards you draw and thus which actions you can take. However, Notre Dame offsets it in two ways. First, you're drafting cards, so you can always try and work toward what you actually want. Second, you're guaranteed to see all 9 of your cards every 3 turns. You don't get to use them all, because of the draft, but you do get to choose whether each one is important to you.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen. C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich. B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters. B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan. A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue. C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV. B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo. B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates. B (Plays: 3)
M3: Augsburg 1520. B+ (Plays: 2)
L11: Notre Dame. A (Plays: 6)
shannon_a: (Default)
I'm somewhat surprised that Augsburg 1520 didn't get more attention. It's a tough, strategic game, perhaps the heaviest in the whole Medium Box series, and yet it was just a blip on the gaming RADAR. I know I didn't bring it to gaming much because it was a bit too tough for me personally, but I don't know why no one else ever brought it around.

The game is one of economics. You're managing money in order to buy favors from several different nobles. You then use those favors (which are effectively four different currencies) to win auctions and in turn use those victories to increase your ability to earn money, victory points, and new favors.

The most original aspect of the game is the auction. You bid for how many cards you're going to play and then everyone who "calls", saying they're going to play the highest value of cards bid, secretly puts down a set of cards. The player with the single highest valued card in his bid wins. So, you have to balance both your highest valued cards and the breadth of cards you have in a suit. You can win either by out-valuing your opponents or by out-counting them. Usually it's a balance between the two extremes.

The second really original aspect of the game is that there are two victory-point barriers, at 25 VP and at 45 VP. You have to build a certain structure (a church or a cathedral) to be able to go past those barriers. Building them takes great sacrifices in money (though you get the cost down if you can manage to build after other people) and also takes winning a specific type of auction (unless you've "saved up" a build by hiring a master builder earlier in the game).

Overall, I think there are a lot of interesting elements that go together quite well, and though I'll admit that the theming is a bit paper-thin (as has really been the case in all of the medium-box games up to this point, which is to say Palazzo and Louis XIV), that's my only real complaint (other than the fact that the game is a bit mathy and/or non-forgiving for me personally much of the time).

I'm not convinced there's a huge amount of depth to Augsburg 1520. The little economic machine that you're building is pretty simple, with just a few different levers, and so there are limits to how many different paths you can take. Nonetheless, I think it's got as much depth as any of the other medium-box games to date.

As with some of the other games around this period in Alea, I thus think that Augsburg 1520 has ended up somewhat underappreciated.


L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates B (Plays: 3)
M3: Augsburg 1520 B+ (Plays: 2)

Fortunately next up we have some games that I think have been well appreciated, and which represent an overall return to strength in the Alea line.
shannon_a: (games)
I find it interesting that Stefan Feld designed all three of the newest Alea Big Box games. Does he have an "in" with the developer or is he just developing exactly what's desired? It's probably impossible to say.

Of Feld's three Alea designs--Rum & Pirates, Notre Dame, and Year of the Dragon--I'm pretty sure this first one is the least respected. That's because it feels like a very different sort of game, a light family game to be precise. Not that Alea hasn't developed in that space before. Adel Verpflichtet is certainly a game of very similar weight. It's just not the game space that people who see Puerto Rico as the epitome of the Alea series are looking for.

Anyway, Rum & Pirates is a really innovative expansion of the worker placement genre. We've certainly seen the genre in other games--like Caylus, Agricola, and Pillars of the Earth--but no other game does worker placement like Rum & Pirates. Here, you have a group of pirates wandering from one intersection in town to another. Each intersection gives some special powers (making them the roles that you select with your workers). On your turn you place down one or more pirates that lead you to a new intersection, take the power of the intersection, then go again if you want to spend a coin.

I suspect most people don't even think of this game as worker placement (or role selection if you prefer to open the category a little wider), but it surely is. It just offers a different sort of worker placement than any other game because it's heavily geographically based. Add that to some other original features and you have several elements that I'd like other designers to think of, namely:

  • Role selection that is geography constrained based on what the last person did (e.g., you can only go to nearby intersections).
  • A resource cost for role selection that's also based on geography (e.g., it takes different numbers of pirates to get to different places).
  • An option to take additional roles for a separate resource cost (e.g., the gold to take extra turns).

Having written that all down, I see one category of games that shares some similarities with Rum & Pirates--the roundel role selection games. They use roundels to limit what roles you can select in future turns, but they're much more constrained, and they're closer to role selection than worker placement because they're more unitary.

Generally, I think that all or most of Feld's games are worker-selection games of different sorts, which is probably a topic that's worthy of an article all its own.

Rum & Pirates also has a lot of die-rolling to it. You dice to see who wins inn tiles, who gets sleeping positions on the boat, and who gets stung by the scorpion. That's probably the thing that turns away most serious gamers. Though I'm perfectly happy to have some luck in my games, especially when it's somewhat controlled (and Rum & Pirates does have rum barrels, which give you some control by offering you rerolls), even I think that there's too much die rolling in the game. Primarily, I think, because a lot of the die rolling is very repetitive.

So, serious gamers may not be entirely into the game, but then they're not the intended audience either. It's families who are, and for them I find Rum & Pirates a generally interesting game, though both I and other players have concerns that it might run too long for that category of players. But, we're not that category of gamers, so what can we say for sure?

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo B- (Plays: 6)
L10: Rum & Pirates B (Plays: 3)

I think I was actually supposed to play Augsburg 1520 next, but they came out the same year (2006), so no big ...

And I just discovered that the next big box game is Stefan Feld too! It's called Macao and it'll be lucky #13.
shannon_a: (games)
I'll have to admit, Palazzo is not one of my favorite games. Though some of the other Alea games strike me as not being quite my speed, Palazzo often just strikes me as awkward.

I should probably summarize the game first. The object of the game is to build up palazzos made up of multiple floors of a building. You bid for those floors in auctions and/or purchase them. Each one is made of a specific material, has 1-3 windows or doors, and has a number from 1-5 (which must be placed in increasing order as you build). Final value of each palazzo is dependent on how many floors it contains, whether it's all made of one material, and how many doors and windows it has.

There's a lot that's clever in Palazzo.

The auction is built around a Knizia favorite: multiple currencies, here embodied by three different colors of cards. Much as with Taj Mahal, a previous Knizia Alea game, you choose a currency at the start of an auction and have to stay in that. Much like Taj Mahal there are also some "neutral" cards, here low-valued 2s and any triplet of cards (one per color in the same value).

It also feels like there's a lot of variety in only three options. Each turn you choose to reveal new palazzo tiles, distribute money, or rearrange some already built buildings. It's often a hard choice that makes you constantly feel like you're giving up competitive advantage to your opponents, no wonder what you do. I always love hard choices in a game.

My problems with Palazzo all have to do with the scoring. Because you've got orthagonal scoring for both the height of a building and its composition, I find the scoring very opaque, a topic I wrote about during my Kniziathon of 2007. Perhaps because of that I feel like Palazzo fits into the games-you-can't-think-about-too-much category (a possible topic for a future BGN column). If you play fast and from the gut, it's fun, but if you start getting bogged down in the calculations of your actual score ... it can lose all of its zing.

Oh, and Palazzo sure felt like it was out-of-place with what came before and after it in the medium box series--Louis XIV and Augsburg 1520, both heavier games.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
M2: Palazzo B- (Plays: 6)
shannon_a: (Default)
I must admit, that having now played through the first fourteen Alea games, I'm minorly befuddled by the decision to exchange Alea's small box line for these medium boxes. Looking over the series, there's not much that couldn't have fit into the small boxes. Sure, the purview extended a bit beyond the card-centric games of the past, but Witch's Brew is enough of a pure card game that it could have fit right into the previous line. Palazzo too, for that matter, even if it uses tiles instead.

So, I have to guess it was primarily an economic decision, as Alea can doubtless charge a bit more for a game in a medium box than a card game in a small box.



Moving on to Louis XIV. It's a unique majority-control game, played out over a collection of 12 connected tiles. Here's what I think makes it unique:

1.) It has a strong geographical basis. Though I love most majority-control games, starting way back with El Grande, too many of them have weak geographical basis; things adjacent to each other don't matter very much. Contrariwise, in Louis XIV, what's next to each other matters quite a bit.

2.) That's because of Louis XIV's second unique mechanism. When you place your markers, you get to place a set of three. You could just place those all on the tile corresponding to the card you play--but you can actually do more by laying them out across a path of adjacent tiles, either 3-0, 2-1, 1-2, or 1-1-1.

I think this really shows how close majority-control and auction are. Because you have the ability to string markers over several tiles, you're largely encouraged to "bid low" by keeping a minimal number of markers on several tiles, then only increasing those numbers as other people "bid you up".

3.) There are several different mechanisms to determine who won a tile: 1st only gets the reward; 1st gets the reward but everyone else can pay for it; and everyone gets it if they put sufficient markers (2-3) on the space. Because you're bidding in all of these sorts of auctions at the same time with the same markers, you have to constantly compromise and/or figure out how to get what you want.

To be honest, I wasn't totally enthused by the game the first time I played it. I found it a little dry and a lot slow, but I think the latter ended up being because of one or more players who were very APed for that first game. Every other game of Louis XIV that I've played has come in a lot faster than that first game.

Now, I consider it a very strong contender for a game to be brought out whenever a mid-weight, mid-length game is required. It's got a nice amount of strategy, a nice amount of tension, and is original enough that I don't every feel like I've played enough of its sort of game.

Because my appreciation of it has risen over time, I'm more surprised that other players are so-so on it. But I got a better understanding of why when I played the game again just before writing up this piece. Several of the players there said that it was too abstract, and I'll agree that there isn't a very good correlation between the theming of Louis XIV's court and the play of putting down markers on cardboard tiles. I get no feeling of the intrigues of the sun court.

Players also said that they didn't think its mechanics were original enough: it was just another of many mid-weight majority control games. Though I do find a lot of originality here, I understand their point, because the originality of Louis XIV is pretty subtle.

One of the things that I find the most amusing about Louis XIV is that it was the game that really locked in Rudiger Dorn as an interesting designer, for me, and that's because it made me understand one defining point of his designs. He likes to create grids and then take normally abstract mechanics and position them on the grid. He did it in Traders of Genoa (trade/negotiate), Goa (auction), and Louis XIV (majority control/auction). Maybe that's why I often think that Goa should have been an Alea game: it forms such a neat trilogy.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue C- (Plays: 3+)
M1: Louis XIV B+ (Plays: 7) [ Read my Review ]
shannon_a: (games)
So, Fifth Avenue. And that's some nice weather we're having, isn't it?

If there was an Alea game which dropped straight off the RADAR, this was it. I think it's a very unapproachable game, but I also feel like it was developed pretty poorly, and that's a shocker coming from Alea.

The basic idea of the game is that you're trying to build up skyscrapers next to spaces with multiple businesses. You build skyscrapers by collecting cards (in 6 colors) then using them (1 color + the wild black at a time) to win auctions.

There's a lot of little stuff to like in the game. For example, the color you bid in also determines where you can build. Similarly the value of your highest value bid cards determines how many skyscrapers you can build (inversely; for higher value cards, you build less).

There's a lot to dislike too.

I think the game died because of its opaqueness. It's not obvious what to do and it's not obvious what the value of doing those things is. I also think that the game offers three different ways that players can play dramatically wrong--a topic that's of sufficient interest that I'm planning to write about it in two weeks at BoardGameNews in a little piece I'll call, "A Game Designer in Every Box."

But, it's just kind of an awkward and ugly game besides that. My favorite is the fact that you can take one of four actions each turn, intuitively called, "A", "B", "C", and "D". Each action is also split into three parts: first you do something notable, then you draw cards (with the type determined by the action column on the little chart), then you move a commissioner. This is where I think the development of the game really fell down. This morass should have been polished into something evocative and intuitive.

I think I've missed one of my plays of Fifth Avenue in my records, because I used to pull it out once a year to play it again and see if it made any sense. This last time, I felt like I might just have gotten an inkling of the game that the designer and developer saw. And, I think it might be an interesting one. But there's too much cruft to dig through to bother.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]
L9: Fifth Avenue C- (Plays: 3+)
shannon_a: (games)
San Juan marked the end of the line for the small box Alea games, and I'm not convinced that was a bad thing. There were all very much card games, whereas the medium boxes that came after them stretched the medium a bit more. I'm not saying that card games are bad things, but I'm not certain they were a great fit for the Alea line.

Ironically, the last game in the line, San Juan, really showed the potential of German card games. It's been eclipsed by its children (mostly Race for the Galaxy, but also Glory to Rome for anyone lucky enough to get a copy of the small-press classic), and so it may be harder now to see how truly innovative San Juan was--but it was truly innovative. I'm surprised that there haven't been more games that duplicate its core mechanic.

That core mechanic is, of course, the idea that cards could be used either for their value of what's printed on them, or just as a resource. Generally, I find it an amazing idea. First of all, it notably decreases the effect of luck in a card game, because you potentially have a lot more cards going through your hand. Second, it introduces a lot of variety to the game, because on a given play you only see a small number of the cards in actual use, and it may be many, many games before you've played everything.

San Juan built upon that strong basis by adapting the basic structures of Puerto Rico to this new card paradigm. The result was a number of different ways to draw cards: through selfishness (the Prospector), through overdrawing and discarding (the Councillor, who also showed off another mechanism for reducing the luck of card draws), and through a more complex production-sales mechanism.

San Juan kept these mechanics very simple by centering them all around cards, but I think its successors improved upon them by giving ways to move cards around your play space (in Glory to Rome) and methods to trade cards directly for VPs (in Race for the Galaxy), both of which notably improved the depth of those games.

I played San Juan again before this article, and it still plays well, and there's something to be said on it as being the simplest and cleanest version of this type of gameplay, but I think it's going to continue to be overshadowed by its successors, as innovators sometimes are. Nonetheless, as you can see from my stats below, I played San Juan a lot when it was the only kid on the block.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
S5: San Juan A+ (Plays: 32) [ Read my Review; plus Glory to Rome review. ]

Next Time: My yearly play of Fifth Avenue to see if it makes any sense this time. (Actually, I gave up after about 3 yearly plays.)
shannon_a: (Default)
Mammoth Hunters, by Alan Moon & Aaron Weissblum, is I think the most underrated and underappreciated Alea game. I was talking about it with a friend the other week, saying I didn't understand it, and he said, "It's because Mammoth Hunters isn't Puerto Rico," which is certainly true.

Mammoth Hunters is a nicely thematic little majority-control game with a couple of twists. Each turn you get to take an action by playing either a dark card or a light card. Dark cards give an action to your opponents, but give you stones; conversely light cards give you an action, but cost you stones. Through those mechanisms, hunters and mammoths and campfires are put on the board.

At the end of each round of play, each of up to 12 regions are examined to see how many hunters they can support (which is 3 + mammoths + 0-2 per campfire). Hunters in excess of this are killed, with the players with fewer hunters taking somewhat greater losses. Then each hunter scores 1-3 points depending on how many mammoths are in their space. At the end of the round, the player in last place gets to advance the ice sheet (likely killing hunters & mammoths).

I find the dark/light mechanism highly innovative and I'm surprised that I haven't seen it in more games (with FFG's recent Android being one of the few exceptions). Besides the obvious resource management, there's also some interesting calculation of joint interest. I also like the scoring calculation, because it's not quite majority control, but it's in the same ballpark. Beyond that, Mammoth Hunters is a neat and colorful game. As I said, it's certainly no Puerto Rico, but surely is better than Chinatown and Adel Verpflichtet.

I can see where serious players have problems though. It can be very chaotic. The dark cards allow people to punish the leader (though restrict them from doing it too much). The card draws can randomize the game. In my game tonight I felt like I was hosed by having zero hunter-placement cards through the first round of play. One of the players tonight said that he felt like the mechanics were pretty arbitrary, but also agreed it was thematic. And in that it feels more like a French game than a German one, and that could summarize the problem some players, who thought they knew what Alea was, had with it.

I'll also have to admit that Mammoth Hunters isn't one of the greats from the Alea series (that'd be Big Boxes #1, 4, 6, 7, 11, and 12 IMO). I'm happy to play it about once a year and don't mind that I don't play it more.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]
L8: Mammoth Hunters B+ (Plays: 5) [ Read my Review. ]
shannon_a: (Default)
Edel, Stein & Reich was one of my earlier board game purchases. Before I had found that community of gaming that is Endgame, I was still ordering from various online gaming stores, and that meant that I could order foreign editions (which Endgame has only carried on and off as an experiment). So Edel, Stein & Reich went onto one of my online orders, probably because it was an Alea title unpublished in the US. When it arrived I dutifully printed up the English rules, probably from BGG, read them, put them back in the box, and then had it sit ... for years.

The problem was the German language on the cards. It combined unpleasantly with the fact that each card had lots of variations (e.g., you can get a VP bonus for red gems or green gems or yellow gems), and so even printing up English translations didn't make things entirely clear. And that's why Edel, Stein & Reich didn't get played.

In the meantime I played Basari, and I found it very intriguing. To offer a brief synopsis: players move around a board, and the space each player is on gives values in gems and victory points. After arriving at their new space, each player simultaneously selects whether to take gems or victory points (based on the values on his space) or to move further (which moves him toward a +10 bonus at the end of the round).

When the simultaneous choices are revealed, there are problems if multiple players selected the same thing. If three or more did, no one among those players gets to do anything. But, if two people choose the same thing, they got to barter. This is, I think the game's most clever feature. You barter by offering gems back and forth, always bidding higher (either by offering more gems or more valuable gems). There are some opportunities for real cleverness, where you can try to force an opponent to go higher based on the particular bid you made.

Edel, Stein & Reich is a variation of Basari, but it always seemed like a pretty exciting variant to me: it replaces the board positions with card draws, it replaces the movement option with event cards which can do many things, and it gives a fourth option, a gem exchange, which increases the 4-player limit on Basari to 5.

Well, Wednesday I finally played Edel, Stein & Reich and sad to say, I was disappointed. In short:

  • Changing the board positions to cards really took away a lot from the game, as you no longer felt as connected to what the other players were doing.
  • The events would probably have been cooler than the movement if not for the fact they were all in German.
  • Adding a fifth player turned out to be a bad thing, not a good thing. There's always some chaos in the game, but if you add a fifth player, that just increases the chance of three players butting heads and getting really screwed.

Overall, I have to say that in a German edition, Edel, Stein & Reich is a worse game than Basari. In an English edition (if such existed), I might like it better, because it has better art, and the event cards have the potential to be cooler when you get used to them ... but I'd try to avoid playing it with five players.

More generally, I continue to think the core system is cool, with a somewhat controlled blind selection and a neat bartering system. I also think it is a nice complement for the card-driven games of the Small Box series.

However, I doubt I'll play it again, and it's going to stay in my collection for now only because of its Alea markings.

More generally, I'll also warn that some people don't like it because of its chaos, even with four players. One player told me that he thinks for a game of this sort to work, the choices other people are going to take need to be more predictable, and the results of butting heads need to be less punishing. It's difference in preference of game style, so I'll leave it at that.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)
S4: Edel, Stein & Reich B- (Plays: 1) [ Read my Basari Review ]

And I've now played every Alea game at least once ... but there's still a lot to replay this year. Either Mammoth Hunters or San Juan must be next.
shannon_a: (Default)
This week, my friend Aaron, kind proprietor at Endgame secured a copy of one of the few Alea games never printed in the US, Die Seiben Weisen (The Seven Ways), and so I get to write about it right on time for this series.

I'll take a bit more time to explain it than usual, because it's likely you haven't played it. It's one of those games that falls right between the categories of "auction" and "card play". Basically, you have a deck of cards that has seven suits in it (plus a wild suit). Each turn each player takes a "role card" which says which suit of cards he's allowed to play that turn. Then the players partner up into two sides. Finally that is a series of card plays, with each player playing cards (from his suit) one at a time or passing. The group with the most points worth of played cards at the end wins (or you can autowin if you hit +24 over your opponents). The winning side splits a pair of victory point markers.

There's a bit more color. There are "magic spells", which allow you to do interesting things during the auction, and which are drawn by the losers. The roles also determine some ordering that varies from round to round, namely: who gets the higher VP marker in the split; who gets to choose a role first next round; and what next round is fought over. You also get some control over your hand because you draw cards when you pass, then give some of your cards to the next player (which was a remarkably early use of card drafting in Euro Games).

Generally as a auction/card-play game it's fair to good. I think the most interesting question is usually how much you can trust your "partner", because they may or may not be playing to win, since resources they don't spend can be saved for next round. The card drafting I mentioned above can also allow for some interesting signaling. At one point the last place player handed some great cards to the next-to-last-place player, which was a way of saying, "We both got kick ass cards, let's earn some victory points together, next turn."

With this being a card-play game, I also think that Die Sieben Weisen is a really nice match for Wyatt Earp, the first of the small-box games. However, unlike Wyatt Earp, it doesn't excel; in the former came it felt like there were lots of opportunity for clever play, while here it felt like there was some social awareness, and the constant decision of when to play to win and when to cut your losses.

Still, that'd make Die Sieben Weisen a decently good game if not for the fact that I think it largely fails in the end game. There are two major problems.

First, because you get to pretty freely choose your partner every time, the game really pushes toward a balanced score. You usually won't try and help the winning players and instead will side with the underdog when you feel strong. We had some discussion about whether closed victory points would help this (and whether the points were actually supposed to be open or closed, as our translation of the rules didn't say), and it came down to the same 'ole argument about semi-closed victory points that you hear surrounding Tigris & Euphrates and others. In any case, the way we played it with open victory points resulted in a score coming into the final scoring of 25-25-25-24, which was probably abnormally close, but it is what the game selects for.

Second, you can easily get into a position in the last couple of rounds where it's to your grave deficit to help your partner win, depending on relative positioning. You can likewise get into the position on the last round or two where there's nothing you can do to win, depending on who you're paired with. This is often a problem in games with rotating partners. Nyet! is a (somewhat more clever) card game which similarly can break apart at the finale.

Overall, I was really pleased to get to play this game as part of my series, but I won't shed any tears if it's my last play of it.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]
S3: Die Sieben Weisen C (Plays: 1)

Next up is Edel, Stein & Reich, the other untranslated small box. I've actually had a copy of that for years, but the German words have always intimidated me, and so I've never played. I will soon, and I'm looking forward to it, as I like Basari.
shannon_a: (Default)
It's easy to think of Puerto Rico as being overhyped nowadays, because it's been so highly lauded for so long. It's also pretty easy to forget about Puerto Rico, because so much other highly hyped stuff has come out since; in fact, this was my first game of it in nearly two years. But, in playing it again, I am newly astonishing how at elegant the game is.

You compare it to something like Agricola (which I think I enjoy playing more), and it's so obvious that Agricola has so many warts and lumps, as opposed to Puerto Rico's really smooth veneer, where everything seems to just blend together seamlessly.

I usually write some about how the game works, here, in my analysis, but I'm not going to bother here, because if you don't know how Puerto Rico works, you probably don't care. So let's move straight on to what makes it a great game.

First up, Puerto Rico has a fun foundation. It's an economic engine game, where you're building up the parts to a machine and trying to fit them together. Building always gives you a sense of accomplishment, and that's clearly the case here.

The creation of an economic engine pretty much defines the strategy of Puerto Rico, but you have great opportunities for individual tactics too, where taking a certain role at a certain time can really advantage you and hurt your opponents. That's the best of both worlds, where you feel like you have a big game plan, yet every turn is quite important.

All of this combines to create an interesting differentiation of players. The strategy of my engine building helps to define my tactics in a way uniquely different from any other player.

Finally, I think that even today you can't write an article about Puerto Rico without lauding its use of roles. They've certainly gotten very common through the sub-method of worker placement, but Puerto Rico's use of them still seems clean, elegant, and intelligent.

With all that said, one of the reasons that I almost never play Puerto Rico is because of its biggest flaw (for me). It can be too strategic ... too programmed. Playing Puerto Rico with a know-it-all who understands all the best moves at every point is pretty much the definition of not-fun, and the almost-zero-luck of Puerto Rico encourages that type of gamer.

Nonetheless, it's deserving of its rating as one of the top Eurogames.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)
L7: Puerto Rico. A+ (Plays: 11) [ Read my Review ]

As a postscript, I'll comment that we played San Juan right after Puerto Rico, and I was really struck by how different the games feel, despite being so similar. That's really a great combination of factors for a card-version of a board game.
shannon_a: (games)
Alea immediately followed up on their small box series with Royal Turf--though I'll have to admit to being befuddled as to why it was ever put in a small box, given that it's got a board and figures and everything. It's an interesting contrast to Wyatt Earp, because where the first was definitely a card game, the second is definitely a dice game. It's like a one-two of randomness in gaming.

Notably, this game was another pseudo-reprint in the Alea series, since it had appeared previously in a somewhat different form as Royal Turf Racing, which had been published in 1995.

In Royal Turf you're betting on horses, then racing them. Each horse has a set of four stats, which correspond to faces on a die. When you're ready to race, you throw a die, then move a horse of your choice. Depending on the face and the corresponding stat, you might get to move a horse a lot or a little. All seven horses have to be moved before you can move any of them again. At the end of the race, first, second, and third place score, and last place penalizes. Pretty simple.

I like it quite a bid for a few different reasons. First, it's fun. Knizia has correctly sussed out how to make the die roll exciting, because you're often looking for special symbols that can move a horse much more than he'd get to on average. On the other hand, it's relatively strategic too. You can manage your strategy at the start, by choosing a set of horses to bet on in such a way that you can always do something useful, no matter which die is rolled. (And, that's not the only betting strategy. You might go contrarian as well, for example.) Then, during play, you can be tactically clever, trying to keep your horse ahead and others behind based on specific rolls.

One of the things that impresses me about the game is that Knizia does encourage players to be nasty to each other, something that you don't see a lot in German games. That's because of the penalty for the last-place horse. Often slowing a horse down is about self-interest: you're just trying to be sure to not come in last. But, along the way, you're hurting one of your opponents too.

The betting in Royal Turf can also be quite interesting, if you use the hidden betting variant. I think it doubles the fun of the game, because it's great pretending the whole time that you like a horse that you didn't actually bet on, and watching all of the other players trying to stop it from winning (while your real horses glide in).

Generally, I think Royal Turf is another of Alea's stars, albeit a very light one. I just wish Winner's Circle (which is the copy of the game I have, as the Alea edition is long out of print) didn't have such bad coloration on the horses. There's two that I always have to watch out for, lest I get confused.

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
S2: Royal Turf. A- (Plays: 6)

shannon_a: (games)
In 2001, Alea tried something new. They put out a game in a small box, primarily (one expects) so that they could sell what was essentially a card game without having to charge the large-box price. They'd follow this format for the next four years, until they decided to replace it with a new medium-box size (which has similarly been used for some games that are mostly card games).

The 2001 card game in question was Wyatt Earp, designed by Mike Fitzgerald as a "Mystery Rummy" game, then turned into a more Eurogame by Richard Borg, who sold it to Alea.

The game is pretty much Rummy at its core: you draw cards and you play melds. However, it's got two big differences from that traditional description. First there are sheriff cards, which let you engage in certain actions, like drawing extra cards or adding a new card to a meld of your choice. Second, exactly who gets points for a meld is determined by looking at the total value of all the cards in that color (which could include quite a variety of sheriff cards) and comparing totals.

When I first played this game five years ago, I didn't particularly like it. At the time I was playing a lot of the standard Mystery Rummies, and I found this one needlessly complex, mainly based on its scoring conditions. I just played it for the second time tonight, and I'm much more impressed with it.

The cool thing about the scoring is that it really encourages you to interact with the other people, to get your meld scoring more than theirs--or just to get your own value high enough that you earn something. This process is really helped along by the way the sheriff cards are designed. You have lots of situations where you can really make a meaningful choice for how your cards interact with your opponents'. (The secret for how this works is in the fact that many of the sheriff cards could be used to affect lots of different melds, so you're not just stuck with what you drew, like in standard Rummy.)

Beyond that, I think it's nicely thematic, with the increasing rewards (points), the shoot-outs (where some cards may have an affect based on a draw), and the names of everything working really well together.

And, it's not exactly lighter than the rest of the Alea series, it's just a different sort of game, a real traditional card game, revved up to the next level (and maybe the next level beyond that).

L1: Ra. A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
L2: Chinatown. B-. (Plays: 1)
L3: Taj Mahal. A+. (Plays: 7)
L4: Princes of Florence. A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
L5: Adel Verpflichtet. B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
L6: Traders of Genoa. A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]
S1: Wyatt Earp. B+ (Plays: 2)
shannon_a: (games)
The Traders of Genoa, the sixth Alea game (and the last release before they rolled out their Small Box line) went back to the trends of the third and fourth boxes: more complexity, denser gameplay, and less randomness. At the same time it also returned to the mechanic of negotiation, last seen in Chinatown, one of the earlier, lighter games in the series.

In Genoa, you're trying to earn as much money as you can. You mainly do this via three methods: delivering mail from one point to another, delivering a small order of one good to a location, and delivering a large order of three goods to a location. I could imagine many different methods to turn those three goals into a game, and Genoa does none of them. Instead at the start of each player's turn he throws some dice to see where the "trading tower" starts, then he can move just a few spaces from that starting location, setting up opportunities for mail delivery and also providing the opportunity to take actions from various buildings. The negotiation comes in two parts: trying to influence where the trading tower goes and trying to purchase an action at some of the locations it'll visit.

In any trading or negotiation game, the question is always how you encourage the player interaction. Genoa uses a very simple mechanism: each player can only take one action each turn. Thus, as the active player, you (usually) want to use one of the actions to really benefit yourself, but it's usually in your best interest to sell off as many other actions as you can.

I find it interesting to examine Genoa in part by comparing it to Chinatown, which I wrote about two months ago.

They both have random elements, but in Chinatown it can make or break the game, with the locations you draw having a major impact on how well you do. You can similarly get a nice block of tiles in Genoa, but I think it's easier to trade for a comparable set and beyond that, the adjacent locales are just one part of the game.

Genoa also feels like a much wider game to me. In Chinatown you're just trying to collect businesses and locations, while in Genoa you're balancing 8 goods, various types of orders, ownership markers, and mail. There are many more paths to victory in Genoa, and I think that makes it a deeper and more fulfilling game.

The other thing that I really like about Genoa is the fact that you can meaningfully bluff. This is allowed because there are so many overlapping ways to earn victory points. You might pay someone 10 or 15 to deliver a small order very late in the game, but if you also deliver some mail at the same time, your gross of 40 turning into 70 can really turn the game in a way surprising to your opponents.

I also like the fact that to do well in Genoa you have to stay on your interpersonal toes. If other people are offering more profitable ventures, sometimes you have to leave aside your own plans for a while. It feels like real business, writ large.

If people don't like Genoa, it's probably because it's too much of a good thing. The negotiation is intense and repeated, and if you can't take that, you won't like the game. It can also vary a lot from one group to another. One of my recent opponents told me the horror story of a 5-hour long Genoa game: it can really drag on if you're in the wrong group.

In the right group, however, it's probably the best real negotiation game I've played.

At this point, it's getting increasingly hard for me to rate the games in comparison to each other, since they're so different, so I've just started offering grades:


  1. #1: Ra, A+. (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
  2. #2: Chinatown, B-. (Plays: 1)
  3. #3: Taj Mahal, A+. (Plays: 7)
  4. #4: Princes of Florence, A. (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
  5. #5: Adel Verpflichtet, B. (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
  6. #6: Traders of Genoa, A+. (Plays: 3+) [ Read my Review ]


Although recently out-of-print, this game was just rereleased in a brand-new edition called simply, Genoa.
shannon_a: (games)
Adel Verpflichtet is an unusual Alea game for a couple of reasons. First, it's one of just two big-box games that wasn't printed in English in the Alea version (Chinatown was the other). Second, it was the only Alea big-box game to have been previously published in another version; in fact the original printing of Adel dates way back to 1990, far predating the Alea series itself.

In 1990, Klaus Teuber's Adel picked up both the SdJ and the DSP; it was also one of the very first German games to make it to American shores, as Avalon Hill's 1991 By Hook or By Crook. Thus, the game had serious pedigree. Still, I'm pretty surprised to see it in the Alea series.

The game is a classic simultaneous selection game that reminds me most of Basari (or, if you prefer, Edel, Stein & Reich, the 2003 redevelopment by ... Alea). Its biggest twist is the fact that you make two simultaneous selections. The first time you choose a location and the second time you choose an action in that location. The end result is that you have a little bit of information about what other players are doing before making your final choice. Maybe that allows you some more strategy, but I find that the selections still end up being pretty random (or based on "people reading", if such really exists). Perhaps more importantly the two-step simultaneous selection probably makes the game more manageable with more players.

The goal in Adel, by the by, is to collect sets of antiques and put on shows for points, but you can steal money and antiques and you can capture thieves along the way, all as simultaneous selections options.

I think the game has two things really going for it.

First, it's a quick, light game. It's easy to explain and easy to understand, yet does allow as much strategic depth as you can get out of any simultaneous-selection game. Of all the Alea games to date, I think this is the simplest, beating out both Ra and Chinatown, both of which I consider a little more gamerly.

Second, it plays really well with a lot of players. The Alea version supports up to 5, while Uberplay's more recent edition goes up to 6. Because everything is simultaneous, there's very little downtime, and everyone gets to remain involved in interesting ways.

In a review of the game, I could stop there. However, in discussing its fit into the Alea series, I'll note that I think Alea players would generally find it too light. Between the simplicity of the system and the randomness of the card draws for antiques, it's a fair amount less controlled than anything else in the Alea series, except perhaps Chinatown (which similarly has random draws that can really help out an individual, without much you can do about it).

Here's how I rate it in the series:


  1. Taj Mahal (Plays: 7)
  2. Princes of Florence (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
  3. Ra (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
  4. Adel Verpflichtet (Plays: 2) [ Read my Review ]
  5. Chinatown (Plays: 1)


The easiest version of the game to get is Uberplay's Hoity Toity from several years ago. That's also the aforementioned version that supports 6 players. It's also out of print now, but it hasn't been for long.
shannon_a: (games)
The fourth Alea game was Princes of Florence, which in my opinion marked a big change in the line's direction. Each of the previous games in the series had some degree of randomness in it; although Taj Mahal started trending toward more complexity (or, at least, more difficulty), it was really Princes of Florence which offered up the first "no-luck" game in the series, with considerably depth of play allowing for very strategic play, a trend that I think culminated in Puerto Rico.

Mind you, there is some luck in Princes of Florence, since you draw several different cards from decks, but there's a large effort made to downplay the luck, via you getting to select between five cards at any time. There's still randomness, but it's a considerably smaller issue when compared to the amount of strategy you can use.

Before I go further, let me summarize the game: you're acting as a patron for the arts, collecting various sorts of people who will produce "works" for you; however, you have to provide your clients with the best conditions possible so that they produce the best works, and that means purchasing the buildings, landscapes, freedoms, and other things that they want.

The game is played out over seven rounds, during which the minimum requirements for the production of a work slowly increase. Each round you'll get to win one auction (which can get you one of six things you need to produce works) and then you'll get to take two actions (which allow you to get other things you need to produce works--and produce the works themselves). At the end of the game, points are based largely on the quantity and quality of works you produced, with some bonuses for buildings, extra landscapes, extra builders, and possibly for cards that you purchased.

I think the greatest strength of the game is its two-part auction/action structure. Or, to not use the slang of the game: auction/building. Though games like Ra and Taj Mahal are great, there's a certain sameness to them; I think Alea made a smart move in having this, their third auction game, be something more. Beyond that, I think that using auctions to bootstrap further building and expansion can make for a pretty intriguing game.

The other thing that I really enjoy about Princes is how "tight" it is. Some other players say that they don't feel the pressure, but I always do. With just 21 total things you can do, and with the need to spend 5 or 6 of those creating works, every single move is important. I think Princes broke a lot of ground in creating a game this dense. Though you can see it in many more recent games, such as Alea's In the Year of the Dragon (or others like Agricola), I suspect it wasn't seen as much at the time.

One of the other players in today's game surprised me by saying that he liked Princes because it was such a good introductory game: he's several times seen players not familiar with EuroGames do very well with it. Though I find Princes to be a really tough game, I can see where he's coming from. With limited options and limited turns new players can simply move through the game, especially with the formulas on each client's card showing what you should be doing. The simplicity of the auctions, where no jump-bidding possible, also really supports this simplicity.

For me personally, the biggest downside of Princes is its mathiness. Constant counting and recounting never thrills me in a game, and there's a lot of here. I'll accept it's a matter of personal preference.

Other players said that they find the geographical placement of the buildings to be another weakness, and I'd generally agree. It requires a level of look-ahead if you want to play well and that's beyond the complexity of much of the rest of the game; it especially hurts Prince's possibility as a game for new players. I think that game designers often underestimate the amount of work that this type of spatial design takes, with Cleopatra and the Society of Architects being another example of a game with a spatial/geographical element that's much denser than the rest of the play.

Overall, Princes is a very well-regarded Alea game, which I think is largely just. About half of our gaming group thought it was the best of the first four. I personally fall into the latter camp, as I feel that Taj Mahal coheres more:

  1. Taj Mahal (Plays: 7)
  2. Princes of Florence (Plays: 4+) [ Read my Review ]
  3. Ra (Plays: 15) [ Read my Review ]
  4. Chinatown (Plays: 1)

If I was rating my personal like rather than Prince's quality as a game, it'd go even lower; I've owned it much longer than either Taj Mahal or Ra, but as you can see I've played it less.

Princes of Florence is still in print from Rio Grande in the Alea edition. There's a more recent foreign edition by QWG which has the advantage of including a couple of variant rules, including "The Princess and the Muse" auction and a way to set up a shared board. The downside is that it's got artwork by Mike Doyle, which tends to look nice and damage the usability of the game (though a quick glance of BGG pictures suggests the only real problem with the usability of the QWG version is the internationalization that was done).
shannon_a: (games)
Alea quickly went back to the Reiner Knizia well with their third game, Taj Mahal, which also offered a return to auction game mechanics.

Taj Mahal is played over twelve rounds. In each there are auctions that determine who gets to place palaces where and who gets certain tokens. I think the originality of the auction design is much of what makes Taj Mahal a great game. Here's some of its interesting intricacies:

  • Multiple Currencies. There are effectively six currencies: elephants, blue rulers, and the four types of other people. It seems a clear extension of the currency card-suits from Attacke (1993) and is reminiscent of the similar setup of Beowulf: The Legend (2005). The biggest difference is that Taj Mahal contain multiple currencies (meaning multiple symbols) on most cards.
  • Multiple Auctions. Unlike any of the other games I mentioned, here all the auctions occur simultaneously, and there is the opportunity for there to be up to six winners each round, one for each "currency".
  • Playing Constraints. But wait, auctioning isn't that easy. You can only play certain cards each round, based on the color of the cards' background. Constraints on what you can bid with have also shown up in other Knizia games, such as High Society (1995).
  • Everyone Loses. Unlike many auctions, Taj Mahal is a game of constant brinksmanship, because everyone loses what they bid. This also shows up in the two other multiple-currency games I mentioned, making them practically a Knizia trilogy of game design.
  • Leading Victory. Finally, the victory conditions are very interesting. Unlike just about every other auction, where folks have to drop out, here you just have to be ahead when it gets back to your turn. If I'm going to keep calling out other Knizia games, here I'll point to Great Wall of China (2006), which similarly has multiple auctions (one per wall segment) and the need to stay ahead to win.

When put together, these auction elements combine to create a very unique and thoughtful game system. Because multiple people can win each round and because you have the opportunity to instantaneously grab a victory if not contested, there's a lot of thinking about what other people will do and how you can turn it to your benefit.

The bare auction isn't the only think Taj Mahal has going for it. There are also multiple paths to victory, a bid of geographical connectivity, the opportunity to jump around to take advantage of "low hanging fruit" that other players aren't, and also a nice ebb and flow to the game as you sit out some auctions to recuperate, then jump back in.

The biggest complaint that I hear about Taj Mahal is that it's particularly vulnerable to being spoiled by inexperienced players. Since so much of the game is about figuring out what other people are going to do, having someone play chaotically can spoil the fun of highly strategic players. In addition, even without new players, things can get chaotic if you misjudge opponents' plans.

On the whole, however, as I've already said, Taj Mahal is a great game. It also really shows off how different an auction can be (and still clearly be an auction).

Comparing Taj Mahal to the Alea games that preceded it, Taj is an interesting departure. It's more strategic and deeper than either Ra or Chinatown. There's also considerably less randomness (though that chaos of player interactions can still mess up the best laid plans). I also find it a lot more confrontational than the games that came before it (and, frankly, than almost anything else Alea did).

Here's how I measure Taj Mahal against the other Alea games that preceded it:

  • Taj Mahal (Plays: 7)
  • Ra (Plays: 15)
  • Chinatown (Plays: 1)

To a certain extent, comparing Taj Mahal and Ra shows the fallacy of any singular ranking system; Ra is a great light-to-medium game while Taj Mahal is a great medium-to-heavy game. They're somewhat hard to compare as a result; however, looking at how well each accomplishes the goals of its game class, I think that Taj Mahal is ultimately a better game--but for any individual gamer, that might not be true.

Though the Alea original is long out-of-print, a new, largely identical version of Taj Mahal was put out by Rio Grande Games a few years ago. It's still in print.

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