Once again, work and other obligations are getting the best of my time, so I’ll try to catch up here on a few recent-ish game nights.
There have been two recent Stefan Feld releases, and it seems to me like Bruges has gotten the lion’s share of the publicity and buzz between the two. But after picking up Rialto during my visit to Wilmington recently, I wanted to see what this other Feld game had to offer.
The most obvious goal of Rialto is to place councilmen into the 6 districts of Venice to score points at the end of the game in an area-majority type thing. But the real meat of the game and innovative element is the card-based mechanics controlling that and pretty much everything else you do in the game. Each turn of the game focuses on just one of the districts for the most part, which means the game is over after 6 turns (after the last district is completed).
At the beginning of each turn, columns of 6 cards each are dealt out to the table. These cards are face up, and you deal a number of columns equal to the number of players plus 1. Players then take turns choosing a column of cards (which everyone else can see, of course), drawing another 2 cards from the deck (which other players can’t see), and then discarding (face-down) to a total hand size of 7 cards. Normally, this will mean discarding just one of the cards, but later in the game, cards can be held from turn to turn, and some buildings (the green ones, which I’ll talk about it a second) let you draw and/or keep more cards.
The bulk of the turn then consists of moving through 6 phases, which each key off of one of the card types. Usually, the effect you get in the phase is based on the number of cards you play, and the person who plays the most cards of that type typically gets some bonus as well. The different types of cards/phases are (in order):
1) Doge – For each doge card you play, you advance 1 spot on the Doge track. This track determines turn order at the start of the turn, and is used to break all ties in the game (for who played the most cards, who has the most councilmen in a district at endgame, etc.) The bonus is to move an additional space.
2) Gold – For each gold card, you get 1 coin token, with the bonus for playing the most cards being one additional coin. Coins are used to activate buildings…
3) Building – Players may take a building of value equal to or less than the number of building cards they played. Buildings come in three different colors (green affect card drawing/hand limit, yellow modify card actions, and blue do end-of-turn things) and come in 4 values (1-4). The bonus is to take a building of 1 higher value than the number of cards you played.
4) Bridge – For each bridge card, you get 1 VP, and if you don’t play any at all, you actually lose 1 VP. The person who plays the most bridge cards also gets to place the top bridge token between two adjacent districts on the board. These tokens have values on each end (ranging from 3 to 6), which determine the points available for the district in the end-game majority scoring.
5) Gondola – At the start of the game, you have a few of your councilmen in your “personal” supply, but most are still in the “general” supply on the board. For each gondola card you play, you get to move one councilman piece from general to personal for placement later. Plus, the bonus here is that the person playing the most gondola cards gets to play a gondola tile, which is similar to the bridge tiles and fits into the same spots between districts. Gondola tiles only add 1 to the value of the district (which is not good), but when placing it, that player also gets to put one councilman from his general supply into either district the tile is touching, which is the only way to get a councilman into a district before or after the turn when that district is being resolved.
6) Councilman – For each councilman card you play, you place one councilman piece from your personal supply into the region that’s being resolved this turn. The bonus is to place one additional piece in that district.
In addition to all these action cards, there are also some Joker cards that are wild and can be played with any other cards.
So basically, you play through the 6 turns of the game, playing the appropriate cards through the 6 phases of each turn as you go. And then at the end of the game, you look at each district and add up its value (the sum of all the bridge and gondola tiles touching it) and award points to the player having the most councilmen there. The second-place player in the region scores half that much, the 3rd scores half of that, and so on.
In my first game, Stacy and I were so close that he literally won on the tiebreaker (which, once again, is your position on the Doge track). And what makes that even worse is that I was leading on the track almost all game long, but because of the benefits I was getting from it, he had made a point of pushing it hard late in the game when I was backing off to pursue other things.
In the second game (which held a full complement of 5 players), Stacy was even more dominant in getting firm control over 2 different lucrative districts, which he rode to victory while the rest of us couldn’t muster much of anything.
Time: 70 and 96 minutes
Game 1: Stacy* 72+, Norton* 72-, Mo* 50
Game 2: Stacy 60, Norton 50, Keith 49, Chip 48, Kenny* 42.5
Ratings: Stacy 8, Norton 7, Mo 7, Keith 6.5, Chip 7, Kenny 7
Now, my very initial impressions of Rialto from reading the rules and the early part of my first game were that it was exceedingly light and random. I mean, you’re basically just drawing some cards and playing out what you have in the appropriate phase each turn, right? Where the heck is the skill and meaningful choice in that?
And unfortunately, I’m afraid that this incredibly superficial opinion has found a foothold in the discussion surrounding this game. But as I moved into the middle of that first game and beyond, I began to see far more going on in Rialto.
I’m going to review this fully in my next podcast, but just to get into a little of what’s really happening in the game, I’ll point out a few things. First is the card draft, which is cool both in that you get to have a mix of known and unknown cards (for yourself and others) that you can use to get the cards you need for the turn, but you can also see a good portion of the cards that are available for everyone on that turn. This forces you into always prioritizing which actions you most need on a turn and often tempts you to vary from that when a juicy opportunity pops up to gain a big advantage in one area or another.
The mechanic used in the area majority scoring is also pretty cool, because the players determine the values of each district based on their placement of bridge and gondola tiles. So even if someone gets total control over a district early, the other players always have the opportunity to minimize that person’s score by placing low-value bridges and gondolas there.
And probably the simplest thing that affects play in Rialto is remembering that you never have to play the cards you have for any particular phase. If you want to save some back to try and win the bonus in a phase on the next turn, you can always do so. And with the Joker cards, you always have a lot of flexibility in where you apply them, which can certainly shift throughout the turn as you see how other people play out their cards as well.
Goodness, I pretty much wrote a whole review there… Didn’t mean for that to happen, but that’s not all, so stay tuned to the podcast to see even more thoughts about Rialto later.
Las Vegas [BGG]
We filled in some time on one of these game nights with a quickish play of Las Vegas. It was “guaranteed money” left and right as we rolled dice and make bets. In the end, pure skill determined the winner (that’s what he says, anyway).
Time: 37 minutes
Score: Norton $400k, Sean $300k, Shawn $270k, Stacy $260k, Chip $250k
Ratings: Norton 6, Shawn 8, Chip 7.5
Il Vecchio [BGG]
The next “real” game we played was Il Vecchio, which I hadn’t really heard much about before other than its name. It’s been a little too long for me to remember a ton of details about gameplay, but the general idea is that you’re playing out little minion dudes into cities around Italy to take different actions and get victory points. It’s a very map-based game, though, because you have to literally move your meeples from place to place to use different abilities, get different resources, and invest themselves in different cities. Individual player turns are very small and quick, so the game really moves along and keeps you on your toes.
In our game, it was really close between three of us, with the win coming on a tiebreaker between Mo and Chip after one action put me out of the running by 1 point (Chip making a different choice on his last turn would have given me the opportunity to win by 4 or 5).
Time: 73 minutes
Score: Mo* 45, Chip* 43, Norton* 42, Stacy 36
Ratings: Mo 5.5, Chip 6.5, Norton 6.5, Stacy 7
I enjoyed playing Il Vecchio quite a bit, but afterwards, I had a few concerns. First is that I don’t see a lot of real strategy in the game, which is not necessarily bad, per say (depending on your tastes), but short-term and tactical play definitely dominates your choices. But the real fear I have is that the game is “too balanced”, in that pretty much anything you do or whatever path you take will give you a roughly equivalent number of points. So unless you make a glaring mistake or play very inefficiently, you’ll probably be doing just about as well as everyone else at the end. And, much like in our game, the actual winner will be more or less arbitrary based on the mostly unpredictable minutiae of play.
Now, I’ve only played once, of course, so I could be totally wrong in this impression (which I’m certainly man enough to admit). And like I said, actually playing the game was a lot of fun, so I’d definitely be up for another go sometime soon. For now, though, it’s not going to make my wishlist or anything, though.
Saint Petersburg [BGG]
I’ve had Saint Petersburg for a long time, and after hearing Geoff Gambill talk with his guests about it on The Long View, I wanted to pull it back out and give it another try. Everyone at the table had played before, but it had been a long time for us all, so rules were reviewed and play took way longer than it should have.
I went for a heavy building strategy, but then was stupid in diversifying into Aristocrats as well. Stacy went Aristocrats all the way, though, and pushed past me in the end with the bonus for how many he had.
Time: 75 minutes
Score: Stacy 84, Norton 72, Chip 64, Mo 52
Ratings: Stacy 6, Norton 6, Chip 5.5, Mo 5
After playing Saint Petersburg for 75 minutes with 4 players, I really want to try it with just 2 to see if I like the game any more that way. It’s certainly not a bad game by any means, but there’s also not a ton there to really bring me back to play it over and over at this length. But if I could get in a play in 25 or 30 minutes with 2 or maybe 3 players, it’d be really cool.
Dragon Whisperer [BGG]
I like trick-taking games a lot. I’ve got a long history with various traditional ones and have enjoyed some of the more modern ones recently as well. So when Chris got in his Kickstarted copy of Dragon Whisperer a few weeks ago, I definitely wanted to give it a try.
But I’m not going to waste any time here, because despite being designed by Richard Borg, Dragon Whisperer is not a good game. There’s some potential in it, but a few of the choices they made in the design and development just ruin it and rob players of any meaningful choice.
It’s a game with 6 suits, which is okay, I guess. One suit will be determined to be trump, which is cool, of course. But the problem is that you are always compelled to follow suit if you have it. And if you don’t have that color, you’re compelled to play a trump if you have it. You can’t choose to play a trump if you still have the suit that was led, and you can’t choose to hold your trumps until later if you have them.
So the effect is that players have almost no power to do the one really interesting thing you normally get to do in a trick-taking game, which is hand management. In most games, you have at least some ability to dump off-suit cards, hold back trumps, or play trumps even when you have the led suit. And on top of that, there’s also the “Dragon Rage” cards, which act like super-trumps in that they can’t be beaten (except by another Dragon Rage card played later in the trick) and you can choose when to play them.
All in all, it’s an absolutely gorgeous game with some neat elements that have been added to the core trick-taking game, but the flaw is that the core trick-taking element is pretty crappy.
Time: 27 minutes
Game 1: Chris 30, Sceadeau* 28, Norton 27, Ray 22
Game 2: Chris 17, Norton 13, Sceadeau 10, James K* 7
Ratings: Chris 4, Norton 4, Sceadeau 3, James K 4
Okay, I actually had the chance to play this again a couple of weeks later (obviously before I completely finished publishing this article, which is sort of a sad reflection of how little free time I’ve had lately), and I wanted to touch on a few other things about it. First of all, in the previous game, we had one big thing wrong. The “Dragon Rage” cards don’t act like super-trumps (which is why I scratched that out above), but instead, they cancel a trick altogether (including the score token that was up for grabs). This is much better than how we played it before, and the other change we used (eliminating some of the colors and scoring token piles for having less than 6 players) also made it at least marginally better.
But still, as a trick-taking game, Dragon Whisperer misses the mark so badly. Even though it’s a relatively small point, making player have to play trumps removes one of the few meaningful choices in that type of game.
In Rook, for instance, you have to follow suit if you have it, but the choice to trump the trick or to throw off another color is really valuable to actually doing meaningful hand management. And even beyond that, the most important choice in Rook is in making your bids and then (for the winner of the bid) building your hand from the Kitty and choosing trumps.
And then to compare it to Chronicle, which is another more modern trick-taking game where the cards have special powers, Dragon Whisperer fails because the powers it gives the cards are pretty boring and/or meaningless. In Chronicle, the tactical play of the cards is important because they can influence the trick either through their value or through their power. But rather than actually affecting the play of the trick itself in any meaningful way, the powers in Dragon Whisperer tend to randomly give free points to people or punish you for playing the weakest card (since the 1’s power also makes you go first in the next trick, which is usually not a great thing).
The sad thing is that Dragon Whisperer could probably be made much better with some house rules and tweaks to the card powers. But who has time to invest so much effort into it when there are so many other great games out there waiting to be played?
Forbidden Desert [BGG]
The next cool new thing I got to try out was Matt Leacock’s new coop game, Forbidden Desert. Now, of course, his Pandemic is my favorite game, and its more family-friendly follow-up Forbidden Island is something I like a lot as well. But unlike Forbidden Island, which was a pretty clear adaptation to the core mechanics of Pandemic, Forbidden Desert is profoundly different.
You’re still running around trying to collect four items and then escape, but the whole way the board (which is actually a 5×5 array of tiles) works is completely different and really cool. First off is how the treasures/components work. There is no “player deck” kind of thing like in FI and Pandemic. Instead, players use actions to flip over tiles trying to find the two “clues” for each item. One clue tells you the row the item is in, while the other gives you the column, and once both are found, you put the item on the tile in that position.
The challenge in the game comes from two things. First is that every player only has a certain amount of water. And in the “bad-things” deck (which you draw from at the end of your turn) are “Sun Beats Down” cards that make you drink some of it. If you don’t have any water when one of those cards comes up, you die and everyone loses the game. Players can get new water by going to one of the two Well tiles (which have a little water drop on their back) and excavating it. But only players on that tile when its flipped get more water, and one of the three tiles with a water drop on its back is actually just a mirage.
The other thing fighting against the players is the Storm, which starts in the center of the array. The storm is just an empty spot with no tile in it, but the way it works is that most of the cards in the bad-things deck will move the storm around, shifting tiles up, down, left, or right into and through the empty spot. And any tiles that is moved gets a sand token on it, which has to be cleared before excavating the tile and may block movement through it as well (once 2 or more sand tokens are on it).
In our very first game, things didn’t go well. But then in the second, we used the very powerful Navigator & Climber combo to ferry people all over the place and get the win. Since this session, I’ve also played another couple of times and (again) won one of them. Both losses have come from running out of water, and in the second loss, we really didn’t have anything we could do about it (since all of the Sun Beats Down cards came out on back-to-back turns).
Time: 31 and 33 minutes
Game 1: Forbidden Desert – Win; Chris, Norton, Ray, & Sceadeau – Lose
Game 2: Chris, Norton, Ray, & Sceadeau – Win, Forbidden Desert – Lose
Ratings: Chris 8, Norton 7.5
So far, I’m really liking Forbidden Desert. It’s still firmly family-weight (and even has that crazy airship toy that snaps together as you collect all its parts), but much like its earlier Island-based brother, it can also pack a significant punch with how difficult it can be. And there’s definitely a spark of brilliance there in how Matt Leacock kept enough similar to have it feel like you’re playing a related game to its predecessors, but still found a totally new (and really cool) mechanic that dramatically changes what you’re doing.
Love Letter [BGG]
And finally, I’ll finish by giving some brief thoughts about Love Letter.
My opinion about this much-lauded game has taken a bit of a roller-coaster ride. After my first play, I was exceedingly underwhelmed. But then the next time, I had a lot of fun with it. This time, though, it’s back down in the pits where I fear it will stay.
It seems that most of my fun in that second play was from one player doing totally stupid things (like playing a Baron when the other card in your hand is a Guard) that shook the whole game up and made it, at least, a whimsically funny experience.
But much like Dragon Whisperer, the main problem with Love Letter is that there’s just not much real and meaningful choice in it at all. It has a pittance of bluffing and an occasional interesting choice, but most of the time, your choice is either literally constrained (like any time you have the Princess or duplicate characters) or is painfully obvious. And it seems like most of the time when something powerful happens (like naming the right character with a Guard), it’s as much from blind and foundless luck as from anything else. And then after a round or three, you’re just lathering, rinsing, and repeating the same 2 or 3 choices over and over again until you either get bored and give up or someone puts you all out of your misery and manages to gather enough affection to win.
I bought it because I thought that there would be no way it wasn’t worth $9… but maybe I was wrong after all.
Time: 26 minutes
Score: Chris 4, Sceadeau 3, Ray* 2, Norton 1
Ratings: Chris 3.5, Sceadeau 5, Ray 4, Norton 4
And by goodness, I think that 4000 words written over something like 3 weeks is plenty, so I’m putting a nail in this one and calling it done.
Do any of you have any opposing thoughts about any of these games? Think I’m an unwashed heathen for my ignorant opinion of Love Letter? Tell me why I’m wrong, dadgummit!
Other Games Played
De Bellis Antiquitatis
Time: 60 minutes
Score: Kenny (Late Carthage) – 4, Scott (Polybian Rome) – 2
Ratings: Kenny 9, Scott 10
Time: 44 minutes
Score: Chris* 26, Kenny* 24, Shawn* 24, Moriah* 22, Scott* 13, Ray* 9
Ratings: Chris 7.5, Kenny 7, Shawn 8
Time: 115 minutes
Score (year 3): Scott (Pompey) – 10, Kenny (Caesar) – 3
Ratings: Scott 9, Kenny 8.5
Time: 160 minutes
Score: Scott (Allies) – Win, Kenny (French) – Lose (and Napoleon died)
Ratings: Scott 9, Kenny 9
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Time: 40 minutes
Score: Miss Information in Rook City – Win; Heroes (Chris – Expatriette, Darren – Fanatic, James K – Argent Adept, Moriah – Ra, & Raymond – EWAZ) – Lose
Ratings: Chris and James – 10
Time: 51 minutes
Score: Chris 46, Darren* 38, Raymond* 36
Ratings: Chris 8
Time: 13 minutes
Score: Raymond* 22, Sceadeau 22, Keith 20, Chris 17, James K* 17
Ratings: Chris 6, James K 6
Lords of Waterdeep (with the Skullport expansion)
Time: 150 minutes
Score: Stacy 172, Kenny 163, Keith 156, Chip 153
Ratings: Stacy 7, Kenny 7, Keith 6, Chip 6.5
Time: 43 minutes
Score: Chris (Wraith) – Win; Kenny (Lizard Man) – Lose
Ratings: Chris 7.5
* First play for that Person