Small-Press Roundup

Jenseits von Theben: This is a small-press game with a pretty good reputation, and a high ranking on BoardGameGeek. So what could go wrong?

Jenseits von Theben is a game of digging up stuff. Artifacts, mainly. You have to trade off how much time you want to spend researching the dig (thus increasing your odds of success) vs. actually doing digging, all while hoping to be back in time to present your Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, or whatever at an exhibition which the museum curators have rather thoughtlessly scheduled without asking you if you might actually have the artifacts available at that time. Successful exhibitions mean points; you can also get points from knowing lots of stuff, and, most importantly, from blind luck (otherwise known as drawing a lot of Congress cards).

I’ve played Jenseits twice. The first time out, everyone found the game wholly unsatisfying. This is because there are only about 8 exhibition cards in the deck, and we saw four or five within the first half-year (a game goes two years with 4 players, or three with 2 or 3 players). This gave us no way to acquire artifacts in time for the shows other than to run off to Egypt immediately and hope to get lucky. Having then worked through the early exhibitions, virtually nothing happened for the remainder of the game, because so many exhibitions were gone. And even though one player swept all the early exhibits, the key to winning was just to draw a bunch of Congress cards. And then there was a sclerotic endgame, as all the knowledge cards up for drafting became useless, but there is no mechanism in the game to clear them out.

The game received a resounding thumbs down from all concerned.

Second time out, this time with three players, was much more satisfactory. Yes, there was still the sclerotic endgame which rendered the last 20% of the game pointless. Yes, the freebie victory points from the Congress cards still dominated over doing stuff that was actually interesting. But with more evenly spaced exhibits, the middle-game activities were at least reasonably entertaining.

I’ve played this with 5 different friends at this point, all of us experienced gamers, and the verdict has been universal: the game is fun in parts, but fundamentally it simply doesn’t work. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.

(Update: It turns out we were playing slightly incorrectly: artifacts are supposed to give VPs directly as well as through winning exhibitions. It turns out to be better when played correctly, although it’s still not quite right. See my 4/7/2006 post for more details).

Siena: This I have only played once, and even though it took about 2.5 hours, I don’t have a good read on it. I can say a few things: a) the rules are horrendous. I’m seriously considering adding a “best rules” and “worst rules” category to my end-of-year lists, and Siena is going to be a tough competitor for worst rulebook of the year. It’ll also compete strongly in the “worst graphic design” category. b) While I think the game has potential, if it really is a 2.5 hour game, forget it. c) get the player aids from the ‘Geek. d) Three players may not be the ideal number.

Underlying these issues, though, is a game that is tempting. You are living in the Italian city-state of Siena, trying to work your way up from Peasant to Merchant to Banker. The whole game is driven by cards. You are producing and selling commodities, from cheap grain through expensive spice. As you rack up more money, and decide to make the transition from one class to another, the game changes fundamentally for you. You have more options, your revenue opportunities become greater, and so do your risks. The game has a lot of chaos, especially in the later phases, but it didn’t unduly bug me – the big swings in wealth as risks paid off (or not) felt appropriate to the fortunes of your historical counterparts. The three phases of the game are interesting in that they are very different, but unified enough I felt to be coherent.

Alas, I can’t lose sight of the fact that with 3 players, at 2.5 hours, and with the horrible rules, the game flat-out didn’t work. There were several non-trivial bits of the game that demonstrated classic small-press dysfunction, like the stacking up of Courtesans to ambush the first player to become a Banker. My fellow-players were not as convinced of the upside potential of the game as I was. But I am still reasonably optimistic that if I can play again with 5 players and a more thorough understanding of the rules, a solid B game might emerge.

But then again, it might well not.

Third World Debt: This is a fairly simple of game of production and commodities trading from JKLM games.

This is a hard game to rate because I am certain there is a rule missing in the printed rule book (either that or the game rather obviously doesn’t work). Players are third world nations trying to build up their infrastructure – factories that produce gems, timber, oil, ivory, etc. – and then try to make a killing on the commodity-trading market. You do this, of course, by piling up lots of debt. Oh, and you can invade your neighboring (neutral) countries too, if you want. Trust me, you want to do that.

The problem is that while commodities are coming into the game in ever-increasing amounts, there is no way for them to leave the game in other than trivial amounts. So commodities stack up in the markets, and things get weird. Don’t people actually use this oil for something?

If, as I suspect, there is a rule missing from the rulebook, I personally think this game might be pretty decent. Others at the table were not at all impressed, though. The game is pretty fiddly, with a lot of calculation and multiplication of odd sums and calculating interest through a non-trivial formula; and once you’ve done this math (a calculator helps a lot), you have to do a lot of passing around of the very low-quality money (use poker chips if you’ve got them). And, once again, the game is long; probably too long, as I can see it getting repetitive and ultimately lacking dynamism. But there are some interesting bits to gaming the commodities market. You want to time when to get in and out, and trade off specializing in one commodity vs. diversification, and there enough gradations of choice here to be interesting. So there might be something there.

Might be, I emphasize. Not until that missing rule is uncovered, though.

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So You Want to Play Civilization …

The recent “One Hundred Best Games Ever …” rankings, another survey of a bunch of guys (in fairness, this time there are at least 3 women amongst the 60+ voters) to find their top games, reminded me of one of the current great theory/practice disconnects, that of Francis Tresham’s classic Civilization. While often rated as a great game in these surveys, and while it is in most everyone’s Hall of Fame, I never see it actually on the table anymore. And when I say “never”, I don’t mean “rarely”, I mean that apart from the one game every four or so years I manage to get in, I never see people playing it. While it’s certainly true that Civilization has been squeezed in recent years by games like Tigris & Euphrates and Puerto Rico, and its legacy has been confused by Advanced Civilization – a game to which it is at best only marginally similar – Civilization is still a classic game that deserves to get some play. And folks who have joined our hobby in the last ten or fifteen years may have missed out on classic Civilization entirely, and might enjoy giving it a try; despite the game’s length, it’s certainly possible to actually appreciate it more now in the post-euro age than it was back in 1981.

So …

First, let’s dispel a couple of myths:

– Myth #1: You need 7 people. Mr. Tresham has made significant effort to make sure the game scales fairly well. Anywhere from 4 to 7 is good. Heck, I’ve played with 3, and that worked out OK, although it wouldn’t be my first choice. I think the sweet spot is probably at 6 players personally, but 5 is very good too. 7 is probably a little too tight, actually, and with 4 you lose some competition for Civilization cards, which is unfortunate; but none of this is a major problem.

– Myth #2: Civilization takes forever. Yeah, Civilization is a long game, but many peoples’ memories are influenced by the fact that the playing time issue was greatly exacerbated by Advanced Civilization, which could take a grueling 8-12 hours, or even more, to play. Civilization can be comfortably played by 5 reasonable people in 5 hours, similar to what it takes to play Die Macher or Revolution. You might even be able to do a 4-player game in a weeknight if you move along. It’s long, but it’s not nuts.

– Myth #3: Advanced Civilization is better for newbies. Setting aside for a moment the divisive question as to whether Advanced Civilization is better than the classic in any respect, there is no particular reason that Advanced Civilization would be preferable for new players. Civilization is a clean game, so a player familiar with euros can be up and running within 15 minutes, given a passable teacher (if that teacher is going to be you, be sure to solo a game through the Bronze age to get a feel for it. That shouldn’t take too long). Both games can be unforgiving, but Civilization is mechanically much easier to grasp, and is certainly much friendlier to fans of euros than the rather chrome-laden Advanced version. Advanced Civilization is also substantially heavier on overt whack-the-leader type conflict, again something euro fans tend to shy away from.

So, let’s say you’ve found a copy of Civilization (perhaps the Descartes or Gibsons Games edition), and you want to play. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

– The #1 thing to remember is to avoid the Free Parking syndrome. Play the game straight out of the box; this is a great game from a master designer, and while some of the variants may help in some circumstances (and I’m going to recommend a couple very minor ones in a moment), the expansions and major house rules are iffy at best, and the best bet is to play the game as it was designed. Specifically, the expansion trade cards (timber, wine, oil, silver, etc.) are unhelpful unless you have 7 players, and can be detrimental at smaller numbers because they tend to have an arbitrary random effect on the game. Absolutely, positively do not use the Advanced Civ trade cards with Civilization (the high-valued cards, Spice through Gold, are hugely more valuable in that game). The Western Extension Map is nice for variety but adds little. Its main advantage is that with certain numbers of players you can exclude Egypt and Babylon from the game, which leads us to …

– Egypt and Babylon are for the experienced players. These nations are tough despite their geographical advantages, due to their need to build 2 cities when they have only 16 tokens. If you have experienced players mixed in a game with new players, the experienced players should be given these two nations. I am very serious about this. If you are the new player, absolutely don’t take any guff from the veterans on this point. If everyone at the table is new, try this minor house rule for your first game or two: when building cities on flood plains, Egypt and Babylon require only 5 instead of 6 tokens. Africa isn’t exactly a walk in the park either, and as a new player it should be treated with skepticism when picking nations. The Western nations, with their easier AST progressions, are definitely easier to play. Are the nations unbalanced? In the end, I think that while they are to some degree, with players who’ve played a few times and know what to watch for the imbalances are generally outweighed by the inherent randomness and competitiveness of the game, and the token limits prevent nations from taking and holding more territory than they can use. Plus, with this sort of game, it’s very likely that someone at the table will simply enjoy the challenge of playing a somewhat tougher (and very different) nation like Egypt, Africa, or Crete. But for first-time players, you can get into a hole early in Egypt, which is not much fun.

– Civil War. What to say about this calamity, that is probably Civilization’s only real design glitch in my opinion? Civil War is tough, one of the harshest calamities in the game, and yet one that starts showing up early and is hard to mitigate until late. If you aren’t careful and end up getting hit hard by the first Civil War – especially if you are Egypt or Babylon – it’s going to be very tough to come back and be competitive, let alone win. Later Civil Wars are nasty but part of the game, as you get a rotating effect as the last person to get hammered tends to benefit from the next one (and some tradable calamities, like Epidemic, can be worse). Certainly, everyone should be clear on the risks of ramping up to four cities. You might want to consider another minor house rule for your first game or two that the very first time a Civil War comes up, it is discarded without effect.

Remember that this, along with Francis Tresham’s 1829, was essentially the first “big” eurogame. It’s a direct ancestor in style to currently popular high-end euros like Power Grid, Age of Steam, Goa, Die Macher, and Puerto Rico. Unlike the Avalon Hill-style games that were then in the vogue – games that tended to make some attempt at simulating something – Civilization is a themed game. That is to say, some stuff in the game may not necessarily make immediate intuitive sense in terms of simulation, but it’s in there because the game requires it. Strictly from a systems perspective, this is where Advanced Civilization went awry – it added a bunch of stuff for various reasons of “simulation”, but wrecked the finely-tuned underlying mechanisms. This is not to denigrate the theme of Civilization, which is excellent and better than most current euros – but I think it’s important to the enjoyment of the game to realize that in many ways this game was way ahead of its time, and is not cut from the same cloth as other Avalon Hill games of that era.

Most of the big, long, multi-player games Avalon Hill put out in the 80s and 90s are really hard to enjoy today with so many good shorter games available, but Civilization, along with Dune, 1830, and Titan (bearing in mind Titan’s issue with player elimination) are definitely exceptions. None of them are going to be staples of the gaming diet anymore, but they’re all fun to drag out on occasion, and they give you a more substantial game experience that euros can’t provide. Of these games, Civilization is probably the most robust: it’s of not-unreasonable, predictable length, and has complexity comparable to higher-end euros. It’s a lot less punishing of differences in player skill than Titan or 1830. It’s got a nice empire-building theme. Its lack of the overt combat of Dune and Titan, and the fact that single mistakes won’t wipe you out like they can in 1830, makes it a lot more generally accessible. It’s not a top-10 game anymore, but it’s definitely a classic.

Vegas Showdown

When I wrote about Nexus Ops a little while ago, I mentioned the mystery that is the New Avalon Hill. With the release of Vegas Showdown, let’s just say that the situation hasn’t exactly clarified.

To the fan of German games in general, and Knizia auction games in specific, Vegas Showdown will feel vaguely familiar. Each turn, tiles are up for bid, Amun-Re style (minor exception: in Vegas Showdown, you can re-bid, i.e., if someone overbids you on the lounge, you can up the bid, instead of being forced to go elsewhere. Also, the bid increments are smaller). These tiles represent stuff you can install in your casino – lounges, which make your operation impressive-looking (i.e., provide victory points); slot machines and other gaming attractions, which provide revenue; or restaurants, that draw in people. These pieces all have to be placed on your casino mat, in much the same way as Alhambra.

Then, this being an American game, there is the chrome. Each area of development has a “tech tree”; so, for example, you can’t have a fancy lounge until you’ve installed a lounge. And with each new item up for bid, there comes a vaguely thematic random event such as casino workers strikes (no bidding on slots of any kind this turn) or some sort of convention that gives you revenue based on people you’ve drawn in this round instead of the normal formula, which is the minimum of your revenue points and people points.

Reading over the comments on BoardGameGeek, a common complaint/observation on Vegas Showdown is that it is very derivative. I feel this is true, but only up to a point. The chassis of Vegas Showdown is identifiably German, to the point of feeling a bit like somebody trying to design a Knizia game, albeit without much success. But despite this, Vegas Showdown does have a unique feel, one that you would not mistake for a game from Europe, provided by the major random element of the event cards and the timing and selection of items up for bid. It’s as if it were a cross between Alhambra and, say, Munchkin. To me, it seems like these bits are in opposition: a core that rewards thoughtful play with a superstructure designed to somewhat arbitrarily reward or hose you. But I can definitely see the game finding a niche. It’s a rather simple game. The theme is good, albeit not great. American casual boardgamers (the RPG or Pictionary crowd) will like the non-threatening aspect of the large chunk of randomness, while the German gamers can play with them and be thankful they at least got a game with interesting bidding. Moreso than most German games, this is something I can see maybe introducing to your non-gaming-savvy family, as long as they get the whole Vegas thing.

For me, though? On balance, not my kind of game. Take out the randomness, which is largely arbitrary, and Vegas Showdown is just a German game without the attention to detail or quality development work. Amun-Re without the depth, High Society with a lot of excess baggage, or Beowulf without the bidding tension. I can play and enjoy Vegas Showdown, more or less, but I would only play with a group that seemed to demand it. For the serious gamer it has the misfortune to be OK in a category filled with exceptional Knizia games.

Indonesia

I like Roads & Boats a fair amount. It’s a niche game, but rather clever, and if you don’t mind multi-player solitaire or want a nice semi-competitive two-player empire-building game, it’s a nice game. But everything else I’ve played from Splotter subsequently has been disappointing, so they’re a try-before-you-buy label for me personally. So I didn’t buy Indonesia, but I was willing to try.

Indonesia is vaguely (very vaguely) a hybrid of Roads and Boats and Ur: 1830 BC. Players buy either production companies (Rice, Spices, Rubber, etc.) or transport companies (in this case, boats). Production companies build plantations; shipping companies bring them to market. Each commodity brought to market earns a flat fee, of which the shipping company take a portion based on how far it was carried. There are no holding corporations as in 1830, however; everything is done with personal cash, and at the end of the game all that matters is personal cash – not owned plantations or shipping lines.

So far, not much of a game. The whole game here is tied up with mergers. Each turn, players can nominate pairings of companies, with all the players then bidding on the combined entity, with the eventual purchase price being split amongst the current owners of the two companies based on how many assets they brought to the table (so if the combined company has 9 ships, and I bring 5 and you bring 4, I get 5/9 of the purchase price and you get 4/9. This means bids have to be a multiple of 9). You have to do mergers because companies are small but there are lots of them, and the number of companies you can hold is limited.

I found Indonesia to be OK, but not much better. The game is all tied up in the bidding for merged companies, but I found the evaluation process to be not sufficiently interesting (the revenue potential of the various companies is not complicated to see). I also found the merger rules to be wonky. There are no limits on who can merge what with whom (other than the fact that only like-type companies can merge), so things can get weird with completely regionally disparate companies being merged somewhat maliciously by a third party with no current interest in either. I found this to be painful and a bit arbitrary. I also found the tactical game to be overly fiddly for what you got out of it, which is not a lot. It’s also rather long, figure 3-4 hours.

This is a game that could have been done as “Indonesia: The Card Game” in a much smaller and more manageable package without losing much, but I fear that if you boiled it down to its essentials, you would discover that there isn’t much of a game there beyond pushing around the counters. After having played, I was comfortable with my decision not to buy.

Beowulf: The Legend

So… Beowulf.

This is a big-box, 12 and up game from Reiner Knizia. It’s published by Kosmos and Sophisticated Games, the folks who brought us Knizia’s classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. It’s illustrated by legendary Tolkien artist John Howe. All fairly promising indicators.

The players take on the roles of companions to Beowulf. The goal is to support him as he whacks Grendel, hunts for and takes down the Sea Hag, performs various and sundry activities of ruling Geatland, and faces off with a Dragon. At the end of the day, the companion who gained the most fame at Beowulf’s side will prevail and succeed him.

Beowulf is both superficially and fundamental similar to and different from Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s episodic; the players encounter episodes from the story in order, and have to deal with them by playing cards that represent travelling, fighting, guile, and so on. But the game is not cooperative; players commit to, profit from, and/or get hammered by events individually. Beowulf, like Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally about card and risk management – like Lord of the Rings, you want the right resources available at the right time to succeed, sometimes taking a risk now to conserve resources for later, or spending heavily now to avoid an immediate risk. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the risks and benefits are to you personally, not the group, and Beowulf is never in danger of not making it past Grendel, and can never survive the encounter Dragon – you are just in danger of personal failure. Have a nice day.

So how does this card and risk management play out? Your hand of cards is in 5 suits, each representing the aforementioned personal abilities. The episode track is, in the main, a series of auctions, each in one or two of these suits – so defeating Grendel requires Fighting and Valor, for example. Players bid cards from their hand for the rewards available; it can be either open bidding or hidden, simultaneous bids. Then, in decending order of bids, players choose their rewards – the high bidders get fame, treasure, more cards, or special powers, among other things. Low bidders may get either less of these things, or they may get the always popular flesh wound, or even better a severe blow to the head. These auctions are then interspersed with more fixed opportunities, where everyone can heal, draw more cards, acquire various resources, and so on.

The neat thing that throws a monkey wrench into the auctions are risks. Don’t have what you need to get the job done? Facing down the Sea Hag without an axe? You can always throw your body into it. Pick two cards from the deck; if they are valid bid cards, you play them, and may get to stay in the auction. Fail, and you are out of the auction (and so may be lined up for more penalties), and take a scratch in the bargain. The scratch is not in and of itself painful. Three scratches, though, and they convert to a wound, and you’re out 5 points. Three wounds, and you’re looking down an immense end-of-game penalty that will effectively take you out of the game. There are many opportunities to heal scratches, but wounds are much harder to get rid of.

This whole push-your-luck mechanism is what makes the game, and keeps it from being “just another” Knizia auction game. Firstly, flipping cards knowing the risks and with the auction on the line is fun. Secondly, it adds a lot of interesting tactical risk management decisions to the auctions. This is classic Knizia – it seems so simple when you first look at it, and seems like just a random element, and yet without fanfare it adds a lot of depth and interest to the game. Do you risk early in the bidding, knowing you’ll need to pick up a few symbols to get the result you want, and so conserve your cards if you fail, but risk getting kicked out of the auction early and scoring 5th place? Or do you try hanging in there by playing cards for as long as possible, thereby limiting the risk you’ll come in last, but perhaps spending a lot of cards inefficiently for a middling place? Is it worth it at all to risk now for this auction, or should you just bail? How important is it to get 2 Fame instead of 2 Gold?

To win, you’re going to have to do a fair amount of risking. The key is to risk when the downsides are low, and avoid finding yourself in the position of being forced to risk when you can’t afford to. Risk early, at non-critical auctions, and you quickly pick up a couple scratches. With two scratches, your options become badly constrained until you can heal, because a wound will likely costs you points and be hard to get rid of. On the other hand, at the end of the game, when you’re facing down the Dragon, you don’t want to be forced to risk to pick up the fight cards you need to avoid the brutal double-wound for last place – you want to have the cards in hand, to have done your risking earlier, when the downsides were smaller and could have been mitigated.

If I were to evaluate this solely as an auction game, Beowulf would get very high marks. Like in Ra, you’re doing all this bidding with stuff that has no inherent value – 5 different types of cards plus the occasional cash auction. Each auction is very different, with both different things up for auctions and different spreads, with some offering modest upsides for everyone but no downsides, and some having major upsides and major penalties. Additionally you have risks, which are probabilistic. You’re bidding for Fame sometimes, but most of the time you’re bidding some resources to pick up other resources, and to avoid penalties. Almost nothing in the game can be easily or concretely evaluated, so you’re making constant judgement calls about what is worth how much, how much extra it’s worth spending to get 5VP instead of the “negate one failed risk” card, and how far to push your luck. Even in Ra, which I consider a masterpiece, you can sometimes run the numbers to see exactly how many points a set of tiles is worth to various players; in Beowulf, everything is a judgment call.

But Beowulf goes beyond Ra by adding strategic planning. You know what’s coming up, generally. You know you’re going to have to fight the Dragon at some point; this both adds even more difficulty to figuring out how much a fight card is worth, and also gives you a chance to make trade-offs (should I bid it now or chance a risk and save it for later?) and plan ahead. In this sense it’s very similar in feel to Taj Mahal; but while Taj Mahal is a personal favorite, it can be a bit opaque and unforgiving, while Beowulf is much more intuitive.

Beowulf also goes beyond Ra in giving us a good theme. Sure, maybe auctions don’t really reflect how Beowulf’s companions were thinking, but as you go down the track, and have to spend appropriate resources for appropriate rewards, the theme works. It’s not Republic of Rome or Dune, but by the standards of euro games, it’s rather good.

Beowulf is Knizia doing what he does best – an auction game, but one with depth, and variety, and fun, and like Lord of the Rings, wedded to a good theme (ably assisted by some wonderful John Howe artwork). You’re faced with constant, real decisions. There is no downtime to speak of. Player skill is very important, but it has just the right amount of randomness to be fun, to mix things up a bit, and to give the game a sense of risk. Hacienda and Elasund were both quite good, but Beowulf is comfortably my pick for the best of Essen.

Elasund

Continuing along in our survey of the hat trick of big-box games from big-name designers, Elasund is Klaus Teuber’s newest Catan-branded game. This time we’re building a city named – wait for it – Elasund.

Elasund is identifiably a Settlers game, moreso even than Candamir was, but this time Teuber takes a detour off into the land of tile-laying games. The obligatory dice roll at the beginning of your turn tells you which row of the city’s grid will be active this turn. Players with buildings in that row earn money and influence. You can turn money into VPs by buying more buildings, city walls, or helping to construct the typical Settlers-style Castle/Church/Cathedral (here, a Church). You can use influence to get the zoning board to help you out with your construction problems.

Building buildings first requires getting permits. Buildings come in various sizes, from small ones (1×1 or 1×2) that require only one permit, to large ones (2×2 or 3×2) that can require up to three. You are restricted to placing only one permit a turn, and only in or near the row you rolled. Influence, though, can get around these restrictions. Permits, once placed, can’t be moved; again, unless you spend influence. Influence can also help you out in terms of bulldozing inconvenient buildings placed by your opponents.

I’m not sure about the message this game is sending in terms of transparency, good governance, and the rule of law. They probably do some pretty mean gerrymandering on Catan.

I liked Elasund quite a bit, and it and Hacienda are currently tied for my second favorite game from Essen. Like Settlers, it has a lot of things I like in short eurogames – it plays quickly and easily, and it’s nicely thematic. There are always decisions to make and there is always planning to do, but like Settlers good play is an aggregate of lots and lots of small decisions rather than fewer large, critical ones, so you don’t get player lock-up problems and the game moves along briskly. It has a nice mixture of player skill versus the luck of the dice, which lends the game dynamism. Another plus: while it’s identifiably a Settlers game, it’s also quite different from previous incarnations. It feels like a classic tile-laying game (Carcassonne, say) blended with a Settlers sensibility.

In other words, Elasund is a classic German game. Fun yet skillful, professionally designed and produced, clean, balanced, and fairly elegant, this is the sort of game that will appeal to the hobbyist gamer who still wants games that are flavorful and fun. It doesn’t succeed on these counts as well as Settlers of Catan itself did, but what could? Elasund is in the ballpark, though, and if you liked Settlers – even if you are now well past the point of burnout – Elasund is definitely worth checking out.

Il Principe, Caylus update

Il Principe is the new game from Mind the Move, the folks who brought us last year’s OltreMare. I was not a big OltreMare fan. I found it to be clunky and not well-balanced, and not offering much in the way of player flexibility or interesting choices. It’s not a game I would veto if friends wanted to play it, but it’s solidly at bottom of my third string. Not to mix metaphors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find I feel about the same for Il Principe. I usually like to give a thumbnail sketch of how a game works in these things, but Il Principe is so thematically awkward, and has such a sense of being a bunch of game bits fed into a blender, that it’s hard without reverting to a blow-by-blow of the sequence of play. Something which I’m not going to do. While the difference between a functional theme and a good theme may not amount to that much compared to similar differences in quality of game-play, a theme that doesn’t function at all can really hurt even a mechanically sound game.

Anyway, I didn’t find Il Principe to be bad, per se, just awkward and uninspiring. Some mechanisms were thrown together, and a game came out. The game appears to function, which in fairness is saying something, but just barely, and like OltreMare before it this is a game about figuring out how the game works, not about actually making decisions or judgments or enjoying the theme or anything else that usually makes a game fun for me personally. Some people love this kind of puzzle game, but usually it’s got to have something else too. Puerto Rico, for example, certainly has an element of being a puzzle, and is rather popular I’m told – but it brings a lot of other things to the table as well. For me, Il Principe just feels disjointed, and lacks the idea, the magnet that gets you back for more play. It’s Puerto Rico without the nice theme, the clever central driver of the roles, and the interacting special powers.

I played Caylus again in close proximity to Il Principe, and I realize that it is in this same mold; but for me, Caylus works much better. While Caylus’s theming is not great, it’s pretty good next to Il Principe. While the rules are a bit fiddly, they settle down quickly. I find my opinion of Caylus hasn’t changed much from when I first played it: it’s a solid and enjoyable game. You get to make interesting evaluations (how to balance all the different stuff – favors, resource acquisition, turn order, money) and strategic decisions (as you have to save resources and money over several turns). But things are just slightly creaky in a number of ways: it takes a touch too long to play, the choices sometimes seem a bit constrained (a chunk of your worker placements are going to have to be fairly obvious resource gathering plays), and things are often a bit fiddly, like the endless paying of a buck to operate a building.

Regardless, I like Caylus. It’s a solid B game, maybe a 4 out of 5. Interesting, definitely good for some short-term play, and one of the better games from Essen. It’s a good game for a small game publisher, but ultimately not a game that is likely to go over the top and get solid replay over an extended period and earn a permanent spot in my collection.