Fifth Avenue Review

Fifth Avenue is the latest in the alea line, perhaps the most reliable brand of games for the serious gamer. Admittedly, their last big-box game (Eiszeit/Mammoth Hunters) wasn’t quite up to the standards of previous games like Ra, Taj Mahal, Puerto Rico, and Adel Verpflichtet; although I liked it, it was the first in the line to have some minor issues. So the question is, was Mammoth Hunters a momentary blip, or evidence of a trend?

In Fifth Avenue, the players play the role of property developers. The idea is to build skyscrapers in attractive locations – in this case, attractive means nearby to retail shops (Perfume, Handbags, Jewelry, and Art – but to the wargamer in me, the tiny Art icon on the chits looks suspiciously like a T-34, so they might be Tank shops). Each property development district has 5 lots arranged in a circular pattern, each lot adjacent to two others, in 5 different colors. Each lot can support either one or two retail shops (which are neutral, not player-owned) or skyscrapers from one player. The skyscrapers on each lot are valued based on the number of different businesses they are adjacent to, starting at 1 point for being adjacent to none, up to 8 points for being adjacent to 4 different shops, the maximum and quite a lot of points.

Skyscrapers are placed in a rather interesting auction. Players accumulate bidding cards each turn, which come in 5 colors (matching the colors of the lots) and jokers. When a district comes up for auction, players bid with these bidding cards, which are valued 4-6. The color you bid indicates which lot you are bidding for – but since you can only own one lot, and since only one player can build on any lot, your choices will quickly become constrained for any given auction. High bidder wins, and how many skyscrapers you can build or add depends on the values of the cards you bid. If the highest card you bid was a 4, you can build 3, a 5, you can build 2, or a 6, and you can only build 1. This sounds straightforward, but it’s surprisingly clever in execution. Dropping 3 skyscrapers on a key lot is hugely valuable, so 4s are powerful … but it’s very difficult to make a high bid using only 4s. Do you “contaminate” a bid by throwing in a higher number, or do you hold back in hopes of winning a later auction instead? When drafting cards during the game, how valuable is it to pick up a 6 in a color in which you have a number of 4s? There are quite a few little trade-offs that add up to very nice bidding tension.

The rest of the game is about acquiring those bidding cards, figuring out which regions get auctioned, and such. There are a number of high-level similarities to El Grande – two Commissioners stand in for the King, and march across the board allowing you to score the districts they are in and eventually putting up for auction districts they have visited. You have a “supply” and “reserve” of skyscrapers that functions the same way as the provinces and court in El Grande – you can only place to the board from your supply, and have to periodically pause from productive activity to refresh your supply.

Each turn you have a choice of one of 4 “primary” actions – placing a new retail shop anywhere in the city, refreshing your supply of skyscrapers, drawing a “wild” bidding card (incidentally moving one commissioner), and scoring a district. Your primary action then dictates a “secondary” action – in the case of scoring, this means drawing two wild bidding cards, in every other case, it means drafting two colored bidding cards (which are face-up in piles, sorted by color). As a final action, you must always move a commissioner.

The great equalizer in the game is what they’ve called the “building stop”. Once a district is filled up (all the lots have something built on them), any player locked out of the area can get back in the bidding with any colors that are not player-occupied, i.e., are occupied by retail shops. Then, any winner may, instead of placing skyscrapers, instead opt to close out the area. This results in scoring the area, at reduced points, and eliminating it (and everything in it) from the game. This results in a nice brake on players piling too many eggs into one basket, as the more skyscrapers you put in a region the more bitterly you have to defend it from people who want to shut you down. This is a losing battle in the end (you have only one color to bid – the color you occupy – so each defense drains you while your next opponent revs up for his or her shot), so you want to tread a fine line – invest enough in a region to score big points, but not so much that your efforts will be rewarded with a giant target on your head.

Now, having read all this, you probably still have little idea how this game plays. For me, Fifth Avenue is a typical alea game in that it has a number of systems that, while none are complex, they interact in complex ways that makes the game hard to explain.

The easiest conceptual comparison for me is to El Grande. El Grande is a game of second places – that is to say, the game will be won or lost not on the brute force of taking control of regions, but in how well each player can take advantage of other players’ actions, the extent to which you can convince the other players to do your work for you. In El Grande, if you score at least some points every time another player chooses to score a region, you’ll win – by a lot. While this isn’t the case to the same degree in Fifth Avenue, the concept remains similar. The big points are available when someone chooses to either score a district or to place a business, and both of these are very, very hard to do without benefiting someone else at least a little, either in the short-term (because you increase the value of someone else’s building directly, or by actually scoring) or because you add value to a vacant lot which you are prohibited from building on (an aside: an occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the game becomes degerate if everyone simply places businesses all the time. This is true of course; but any game will break down under consistant suboptimal play. No game group I’ve played Fifth Avenue with has seriously persued this strategy, such as it is).

On the other hand, Fifth Avenue is definitely a sharper game than El Grande. In El Grande changes in board state tend to be fairly incremental, and it’s something of a zero-sum game – your moves help yourself and hurt other players in roughly equal proportions. Taking over first from an opponent necessarily involves pushing that opponent down into second. Additionally, all the players are going to end up moving roughly the same number of cabelleros onto the board, so it’s more a matter of using them more efficiently.

Neither of these things are the case in Fifth Avenue. Skyscrapers are placed by auction, and these auctions are definitely high-stakes in some cases. It’s certainly possible through clever and efficient bidding to get more and better skyscrapers placed than your opponents. It’s also possible to get almost completely shut out of the good districts if you botch it. The auctions actually have some shades of Taj Mahal – you have to have a sense of which auctions you can win, and of picking the important fights and winning them, while not getting sucked into stuff that isn’t important to you – while retaining a sense of what is being overvalued and what is undervalued.

Somewhat unusually for a game that is fairly cutthroat, Fifth Avenue is also a constructive game. With the exception of the occasional building stop, you are never actually taking down opponents, but rather competing to build up. Still, when other people build in a district, it affects the scoring dynamics. At the end of the game, everything scores, but the mid-game elective scoring can be worth a significant number of points, but only if you can get in a situation in which it is in people’s interest to score. Building up a huge power block in one district may look good at the end of the game, but if two players can share a district more equally in the mid game, they will both have incentive to score it and it may end up working out better in the end. But both seem viable approaches to the game.

A final thing that bears mentioning is the incredible turn angst Fifth Avenue provides. Even on turns where one specific action is clearly the way to go (for example, the “augment supply” action when you are out of skyscrapers in your supply, expect auctions coming up imminently, and have a reasonable hand of cards), you are still likely to feel enough time pressure to begrudge the opportunity to do all the other actions. The game proceeds at a pretty good clip, and there is always a lot of pressure to do just about everything.

I have introduced Fifth Avenue to about a dozen people at this point, and the response to the game has been interesting. A handful of people have been blown away by the game, and found it fascinating. A couple people were impressed by the design, but not taken with actually playing it. One actively disliked it. But most have been pleased, although not willing to call it a top-tier game. I think that’s fairly close to my opinion, although I’ve liked it perhaps a little better. I’d say it’s an almost top tier game, one that scores for its subtlety and the unique blend of and spin on the traditional auction, resource management, and area placement genres, one that I can see coming off the shelf in years hence, but not one that goes over the top to get regular play over a long period; but still one that I will likely to consider one of the year’s best entries when all is said and done, and it has a shot at ultimately being the last of the heavier German-style games of 2004 (including Goa, Maharaja, and Power Grid) still standing in a year.

Still, I think the reason it doesn’t seem to go over the top, to be a truly top-shelf game, is in significant part the theme. For the great German-style games like Settlers, Puerto Rico, El Grande, Aladdin’s Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Starfarers of Catan, Samurai, and most of Knizia’s other bigger games, the theme may not run deep but the game is reasonably evocative, and can engage at some emotional level. The theme in Fifth Avenue is pretty flat. Not so flat the game feels tortured or fundamentally abstract like a Colovini or Schacht game, but nonetheless it doesn’t quite gel. I suspect this is the reason why some people don’t quite engage on the game. For me, it’s not a big deal, as the underlying game is quite clever, and the theme is adequate and certainly not dysfunctional – but for some people this is more important, so you’ve been warned.

All in all, Fifth Avenue is a very good game. If you like substantial auction or positioning games, it comes highly recommended. If you’re an El Grande fan, you should definitely check it out. It’s not up with the best of the alea games, but that’s an extraordinarily high bar. It’s better than Mammoth Hunters (even speaking as one who liked Mammoth Hunters), and rounds out the series quite nicely, bringing in a game with a very different feel from Chinatown, Princes of Florence, Traders of Genoa, or Adel Verpflichtet.

This review is also available on BoardGameGeek.

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