Toledo is Martin Wallace’s latest game from Kosmos/Mayfair, and before I played, it was variously described to me as unlike other Martin Wallace games, or what you get when you give Martin Wallace a professional developer. I’m not generally a fan of his games, but a couple friends who are generally much pickier – and who like Wallace games less than I do – liked it, so it came out for a spin.
Toledo is well-put together and a decent game. It’s light but fun. The two-phase game of setting up shops and then collecting materials and manufacturing swords is clever and ensures variety of play (the first phase is admittedly quite short). It feels more solid than a game from Warfrog and is certainly more attractive. But I think I finally figured out at least one big reason why Wallace has such a hard time selling me on his games; I figured this out because by chance I ended up playing Modern Art and Toledo back-to-back.
Themed games like this are about friendly competition, but if that’s all we wanted we’d be playing Go or Bridge. Games are also about entertainment and story-telling, and as such require many of the same elements that other entertainment media require. One important thing is good management of tension, or pacing. We wouldn’t be entertained by a James Bond flick where Bond whacks the henchman in the first 15 minutes, finishes off the big bad gun by the half hour mark, and then spends the remaining 90 minutes rolling up the lower levels of the criminal organization du jour. Or a romantic comedy where the couple gets married in half an hour and spends the rest of the film doing housework.
But this is essentially what Toledo asks us to watch. We’re competing to build swords out of steel and pretty them up with some gems. There are a very small number of extremely high-valued swords that use a decent amount of steel and gems. Then there are a bunch of low-valued swords that use less of each (or are not enhanced with gems at all). The game is a mad scramble to build the couple big-point weapons right away, and then the rest of the game is spent building low-quality swords to fill out a few points. In our games, the players scored 75% or more of their points in the first half of the game.
This is not a reasonable way to manage tension. You want the stakes to increase as the game progresses for a ton of good dramatic and game-play reasons. I can see no good reason to justify stakes getting lower and lower as the game goes on. And yet, this is what many Martin Wallace games do. In Tinner’s Trail, the big points are available on turn 1, not turn 4. In Age of Steam, the high-stakes decisions are made in the first few turns, not at the end where all reason says that they should be. Brass allows the tension to drain out of the game as late-game decisions become less and less relevant.
Compared to the skillfully-managed and escalating tension and pace of a game like Modern Art, the mid-game fall-off in Toledo seems particularly egregious. I actually kinda liked the systems of Toledo. I want to like the game. I even do, sort of. But I can’t help but imagine a so much better game which is basically the same, but where the players start off as apprentices building simpler, lower-scoring swords and work their way up to the big points as they gain skill and experience, instead of doing their masterwork first and then inexplicably settling down to crank out schlock.