Settlers of Catan Board Design Part 3

Here, you can see the board has further developed. I've given highlights to all the buildings, which helps them pop off the board a bit. Ports all now have a ship and circle area for a port piece. Some color was added to the water, which helps give it a little sparkle. During setup, only active ports will have markers. I've also begun on extra details like the border.
I've used medallians for the resource tiles which I like better than landscape. They add more texture and atmosphere. Additionally, they contrast nicely from the board. More comments to follow later...

Settlers of Catan Board Design Part 2

I fleshed the main part of the island out graphically and applied a first run of tiles along with the playing pieces. Ok. I give in. It's way too difficult to read the board! Fortunately, all the elements can be shifted around, so it is now more a matter of reconfiguring the artwork. Nothing will be wasted here.

The first draft shows that deviating too far from the original hexigons is just way too hard to wrap one's brain around. Also, I'm not crazy about the tiles. Perhaps there's too much in the way of terrain here.

Next, I need to pull back a bit and reconfigure the island to better match the hexigon patterns underneath. Also, after looking at this first board, I find the roads add nothing to the look and only serve to complicate things. In the next version, we can see things taking better form. This certainly will be readable and actually, I don't mind the orderliness; it looks gamey, but still very old world. Roads have been taken out, which helps alot. The coastline also has been modified to bring port cities closer to the coastline after having moved them to snap into the understrucure. Docks have been added. Next will come tile placements for the ports along with more decorative embellishments on the board. This is feeling good to me.

I didn't like how the pieces looked in the last version so I'm going to try something totally different – perhaps using celtic weaves and other decorative patterns. It seems to me that there was too much going on in the way of terrain when the tiles were added, so maybe the decorative approach with icons is a better way to go. We'll see where this goes next in Part III...

This is looking much better. At a glance it is easy to understand which city related to which area. It is orderly which is a game sort of look, but it also retains some of the natural mapness which I really wanted. Of mention are the tile "mounds" which are detailed to feel like part of the map and clearly indicate where the resource tiles and die number tiles will go.

Here is a detail from the board above. The simplier road connections using just a container for the piece are much more satisfying both to look at and to read the board. I allow for a little jiggle to break the perfect geometry. This is enough to feel natural without the chaos from the previous version. Note also the subtile detailing of the background landscape. It has been knocked way back to a final read after all else is viewed. This, so it doesn't interfere with the information graphics and board read. There is a lot of little details in here, from fruit trees, fields, wild trees, hills, mountians, sheep pens and missions. All these, clustered in a natural way.

Settlers of Catan Board Design Part 1

In my previous Settlers review, I had introduced new tiles and a cover that I had created. The tiles are a great part of Settlers as they bring a whole new game each time played. The downside to this is lots of pieces that take time to set up. The board is constantly being knocked around requiring a nudge here and there to butt the pieces up to each other. Also, because the board is modular, it cannot really have larger elements to it – all images need to fit on a tile. I had thought that it might be interesting to create a single board here. The board would have a large continuous illustration on it which is nice. Tiles can be placed on the board to indicate the resource type. It's turning out interesting, though, admittedly, one downside is that it doesn't have quite the feel of a completely new looking game each time. Nonetheless, it should be very handsome and no reason why it can't be playable and very enjoyable to look at.

One caution here is the "readability" of the board. How easy is it to "see" the board in play when the repetative geometry of the hexigons is lost. In the first phase of designing the board, I have kept all the verticies and lines, they just don't like a hexigon. Below you can see where I'm at today with the design. Lots of old world charm here. You can see little house images where settlement/cities are to go and the basic direction the roads will go. I need to add a box to indicate precisely where roads go as putting them on the twisting roads is not satisfying. More details will be added to the map including worn, ripped folds. You can see one resource tile for hills. These tiles would be randomized at game start. It's the same as the original game, just a different way of thinking of it. At any rate, the board should be very beautiful in the end. Stay tuned...

The understructure for the board. Here, the honeycomb cells of the original board have been elongated to accomodate a horizontal board. After this, points are shifted to give the landscape a more organic look.

Now graphics have been developed around the original wireframe. The offset points from the hexigons is a risky approach as it will be harder to read the board. We'll see how this goes from here.

Review: The Settlers of Catan

At this point, why write about Setters of Catan? Surely, it's been said before. The classic, Klaus Teuber game that's been out now for over a decade and sold millions of copies. For years, the undisputed "gateway" Eurostyle game. A game franchise that finds releases every year now.

I write to the new and curious in this hobby what a fun gaming experience this can be and how I've come to dislike playing the game. Don't get me wrong here, it can be riviting fun. Though for me, I know at this point in my gaming career, I don't need to play this one ever again.

So what is Settlers? We have here a game of very careful resource management, very tight money (resources), trading amongst the players, blocking other players and a racing game to the finish that, often times, is a photo finish. Lot's a great stuff. The game plays in 45-120 minutes, generally on the lower end of this for experience players and better dice rolls. As said, games are tight and tense, there is a lot of player interaction each turn so downtime is not much of an issue with 3 or 4 players. The games are relatively easy to teach and learn, though maybe not as much as one might expect for an introductory game to this genre. The game has potential to move quickly, although can sometimes drag with bad die rolls. We also have a modular board which, through a random setup, invites a different feeling game each time, which is key to the Settler's longevity.

The physical production here is fine, though I feel the artwork quite bad. Mayfair seems to have a nack for uninteresting, bland covers and this one is no exception. With such a rich theme of colonialization in this time period, there is plenty of opportunity here to create a really dramatic cover with great shelf appeal. This one doesn't have it. A quick reinterpritation that I of the cover that I created below illustrates the missed opportunity here. In the original, the tiny window of a picture, done in a less realistic illustrative style, lacks drama and emotion. It tells a story, but without feeling. In the modified version, below it you can see how strong colors and large simple imagery adds more power.

Current Mayfair cover

My refreshed cover

Opening up the box, we have a set of hexigon tiles, which make up the modular board. Somehow this is a magical thing, offering the promise of a very different game each time. Really wonderful! Each player has a set of wooden tokens (roads, settlements and cities), which are very nice to hold and fiddle with. We have two decks of cards (resources and advancement cards), some player aid cards – which are really helpful – and two cardboard victory cards.

In terms of the board artwork, the hexigon tiles which form the board are poor from three perspectives. Firstly, at first play, some of them can be difficult to differentiate and associate with their respective resource cards. Since we have two different graphics to mean essentially the same thing, this takes getting used to. Color coding helps, but is not enough at first. Though after a few plays, this is no problem. Secondly, the artwork is just not that attractive. I've certainly grown used to it, but the patterns used here are not that visually appealing, particularly given the subject matter of a map of an island. This could have been soooo much more appealing. Finally, I find that the color coding of the tiles interfers with the important coding of the player's pieces. Often times, when a game calls for players to scan a board quickly and often for patterns as does Settlers, it can be the case that the board's colors are muted or in some way quiet to let the patterns of players' pieces become evident. Here, both tiles and pieces call for attention, which gets in the way of "seeing" the board. Now, certainly the game and board are most playable and work fine, however there was a missed opportunity here to positively effect gameplay through more careful design and color choices.

A board that I created offers more character and old world charm.
The colors are muted to help the player's pieces pop. Tiles are colored
red for 6s and 8s to enhance scanability for these particular hexes.

A detail from my modified board

What Can You Expect To Get in a Game
- Well, firstly, we have a highly interactive game where players effect each other greatly
- The game play is very dependent on die rolls and luck (which can be a bad thing)
- There is a lot of "screw your neighbor" in this game with blocking and take that moves
- There is trading amongst players
- Tense close finishes
- Usually, one person will be shut out of the game at some point
- A little king-making or -breaking with trading cartels and take that (robber)

What You See In Front of You
- On the table, you'll see a board made up of individual hexigon tiles which represents an island.
- On the board will be players' pieces, numbered chits on most hexigons which relate to die rolls and finally a "robber" pawn
- Off to the side of the board will be the bank, which is in the form of 5 types of resource cards – each resource separated in a different stack, face up. Also, there is another deck of development cards which are face down.
- In front of you will be any resource and development cards you have, face down and secret. As well, you will have three types of wooden pieces with your color. You will also have a hard cardboard reference guide for spending money (resources).

There is a little bit of setup involved with this game, which can take a few minutes. Essentially, you will place hexigon tiles together to form an island surrounded by water. Tiles are randomized and placed in a preset configuration. In this way, the game will play differently each time! Very nice. One numbered resource roll chit is placed on each land tile (except the desert – more on this later) in a predetermined manner, which I won't go into in this review. These chits will be numbered 2-12 with no number 7.

Winning the Game
The first player to collect 10 VPs will win the game. Each settlement is worth 1 VP, each city worth 2 VPs, a condition called "Longest Road" is worth 2 VPs, another condition called "Most Soldiers" is worth 2 VPs and occasionally players may buy a 1 VP development card.

Game Play
You are all settlers on an island looking to establish the most successful colony. To this end, you will be collecting resources in the form of wood, brick, sheep, wheat and ore. These resources will be your currency which you use to build settlements, to upgrade settlements to cities and to build roads to connect them all. You may also purchase development cards with resources which get you a variety of stuff. You will collect Victory Points (VPs) as you build these things. The player who gets 10 VPs first wins.

The circular board is a combination of individual hexes which represent different terrain of the island. The different types of tiles will yield different types of resources for those nearby. They are: forest (gets wood), hills (gets brick), pastures (gets sheep), farmland (gets wheat) and finally mountains (gets ore). There is also a desert hex which is barren and produces nothing and water hexes, which surround the island land tiles and also produce nothing. After all the tiles have been placed, one numbered chit is placed on each resource producing hex (all but water and desert). The chits, numbered 2-12, include two of each number except the 2 and 12 of which there are one and no 7s. These numbers are an extremely important part of the board to track as they tell what resources will produce after rolling two dice. The goal is that more often than not, certain numbers will roll more on average (6s and 8s), so hexes that have these numbers on them tend to be more valuable.

As mentioned, players have wooden tokens representing settlements, cities and roads. Through the course of the game, players will place their settlements and cities on the corner edges of the hexigon tiles. Each hex has 6 corners and each corner is the intersection of 3 hexes. So then, each settlement and city will sit on exactly one corner of 3 hexigons. These 3 hexigons will represent those resorces a player may possibly receive. Roads will be placed on the edges of each tile (not the corners) so that they connect two edges. Additionally, roads can only be placed next to a player's settlement or city. In this way, the board will form a network of settlements and cities all connected by roads. One last placement rule is that a settlement or city must be at least 2 corners away from any other one on the board; players may not place them on neighboring corners – even if by different players.

At the start of the game, players will be given 2 settlements and 2 roads. A starting player is selected and each player will in turn place one settlement next to one of their roads on the board in the manner previously described. After all have placed, the last player will place his second settlement next to a second road in the same way and play will go around the board in reverse order one at a time. Players will also receive a resource card that matches all resource tiles that their second placed settlement is on. In this way, players' start positions are set and they have some resources to start building with. As mentioned above, each settlement is worth 1 VPs, so players start with 2 VPs.

A Typical Turn
Each turn a player will:
- Roll 2 dice for resources
- Collect any resource card(s) they might get from that roll (as does all players)
- Trade their resources with the bank or other players and make purchases (in any order that they like)
- Place any purchased buildings/roads on the board

The first player will start his turn by rolling two dice. Find the hexigon(s) that have a numbered chit with the total of that die roll. This hex(es) will produce resources on this turn. ANY players that have a settlement or city on the corner of the hex(es) that match the die roll receive the matching resource cards. Each settlement yields one resource card and each city yields two resource cards, per match. This is a very nice feature and part of the draw of the game as players will be watching each die roll for hexes that might give them cards. This keeps all players involved in each turn.

The player may now trade cards with other players at any rate agreed upon. He may also trade with the bank at the rate of a set of 4 like resource cards for any 1 they wish (4:1 trade). Players will have the opportunity to better this rate to 3:1 or 2:1 if they build on port hexes (more on this in a bit). Before, during or after trading, the player may then make any purchases with their resource cards and place any appropriate tokens.

Costs and descriptions:
- A Road = 1 wood and 1 brick
(connect and expand settlements/cities as well as "longest road" condition worth 2 VPs)

- A Settlement = 1 wood, 1 brick, 1 wheat and 1 sheep
(get resources, worth 1 VP and allows for cities)

- A City = 2 wheat and 3 ore
(get more resources than settlements, upgrade settlements, worth 2 VPs)

- A Development Card = 1 wheat, 1 sheep and 1 ore
(various goodies, possibly some VPs, soldiers as well as "most soldiers" condition worth 2 VPs)

After purchased, settlements may be placed as previously described and must be next to the player's roads. Cities replace settlements on the board. Roads must be placed either next to that player's roads or his settlement or city. When a player has a continuous road of 5 segments, he receive's the "longest road" card which is good for 2 VPs. There is only one such card, so it is very valuable. If another player subsequently gets more road segments than this, he will take it from the former owner. In this case, the original owner does not get the 2 VPs and the new one will. Finally, Development Cards may be purchased. There is no limit to how many may be purchased or held at a time. There are a few types of cards, all of which are good. Most of them are soldier cards, which I will explain soon. In addition to their special powers, a collection of 3 that have been played will yield the "most soldiers" card. This works just as the "longest road". Worth 2 VPs, it can be taken away if another player gets more than the holder of the card. In addition to the soldiers, there are 5 Development Card that count as 1 VP. Players hold this in secret and reveal when they reach 10 VPs.

Rolling for resources and the robber
As mentioned, each turn a die roll can yield resources for any and all players depending on their board positions. In theory, 6s and 8s should be rolled the most because there are more die combinations. This makes for some careful planning and strategy as players try to capitalize on this with their settlement/city placements. 5s and 9s roll a little less followed by 4s and 10s, 3s and 11s and finally 2s and 12s. Often players will look at which combination of 3 tiles meet to form the highest combined probability to maximize their yield.

The number which will most likely be rolled the most is the 7. When rolled, a special sequence of events occurs. Firstly, no production happens this turn. Any player that has more than 7 cards in their hand must lose 1/2 their cards rounded up. This is devastating when it happens and forces players to take care not to have too many cards at once. The player who rolled now may move the "robber". The robber is a pawn that starts the game in the desert. The player may place it on any hex he wishes, except where it currently is (it must be moved). The robber blocks any production from that hex. So, if that hex's number were to be rolled, any players next to that hex receive nothing, until the robber is removed. Often times, players will look to hurt the leader by placing on a 6 or 8 hex or one which he has the most settlement/cities on. Also, the player who rolled it may randomly select one resource card from any player who has a settlement/city next to the newly placed robber. If a 7 is rolled before a player's 3rd turn, they must reroll; the special 7 roll situation does not occur until after this. This is a nice rule to get players established and going at the start of the game.

A robber may be moved on any player's turn if they play a soldier card (a development card). Playing such a card allows the player to move the soldier to any hex and select a card from one player as above. That player still rolls for production as normal and may play the card at any time during the turn including before their production roll.

Every other ocean tiles (which are around the whole island) have a port on them. There are different types of ports, most of which are 3:1 ports. Each port is located on two corners of that ocean tile. If a player builds a settlement or city on one of the those two port corners they may get a special trading benefit which is dependent on the port. 3:1 ports give the player an immediate 3:1 trading advantage with the bank. In this case, they only need a set of 3 like cards instead of 4 to trade with the bank. There are also resource specific ports. Each one of these represents a unique resource to trade. If a player has a set of 2 of that particular resource, they may trade for one with the bank (2:1). Players will want to get at least one port during the game. Often times it is the case, that when a player has good numbers on a particular resource or more than one of those hexes, they might try for that port. This can make for a very powerful engine.

Much has been written about the strategies. There is the brick/wood strategy where players work to get good positions on these resources. This combination is good for early game as it yields roads and is needed for settlements. Very good for early expansion on the board and blocking others. It also can set a player toward the longest road card.

The wheat/ore strategy is great for cities and development cards since that is a common resource needed for both of these. Purchasing development cards helps get rid of robbers with the soldier cards and can lead toward the most soldiers card.

A more risky stragegy can be to go for a sheep strategy. Sheeps are used for settlements and development cards. Players may neglect to get good positions on the board for sheep in order to get better positions for other resources. That can help the sheep strategy as sheep resources become worth more to more people, which helps in trading.

Players may wish to go for diversification, seeking to spread out to as many of the five resources and number combinations as possible.

My main problem with the game (a common one with many) revolves around the die rolls. Settlers can be loads of fun when the resources are coming in, but it is very common to get hosed by the dice. Generally in a 4 player game, it will happen to one person each game. So one person is going to have a bad game while everyone else has a good one. Situations can arise when 5 or 10 turns can go by without one single resource collected by a certain player. This is very, very frustrating. It just is not a good game when this happens. Often, the 6 might roll all the time and the 8 almost never (or vice versa). I've seen situations where, for some reason, the 11 comes up every few turns and that lucky person reaps great rewards while everyone else scratches their heads. The idea that statistically certain numbers will come up more than others is supported by a volume of rolls that a single game does not necessarily support. Thus, framing strategies against "better" numbers might simply not be effective enough. Perhaps you are lucky enough to get positions on both 6 and 8. I've seen games where these two numbers hardly come up and the others do all the time. Again, very frustrating as this should be the better play for gaining more resources.

The game can move along at a brisk pace or drag along depending on the rolls. At times in early game, hardly anything will come up for anyone. Or perhaps a necessary resource, like brick or wook, won't come up at all. In this case, development is very slow as players must sacrifice cards to trade with the bank and game play drags.

This game was great fun for me in my early Eurogame career. The new mechanics and ever changing board were a delight. There are plenty of ways to win and games can be close calls. In most all cases, though, someone will be hosed by the dice. In such cases, the game is frustratingly painful to play. At this point, after having been exposed to many games, I really don't need to play a game where bad luck can not be adequately compensated for by good play. There are some fixes for this which can be found, though, and I would encourage seeking them out before many games go by. For me, what we've got here is a good game on the good days and a bad one on the bad days.

- Mike

Review: Amun-Re

Here's yet another meaty game from Reiner Knizia, this time set in ancient Egypt. Amun-Re is a wonderful 3-5 player strategy game that weighs in somewhere in the middle skewing a little heavy. It plays fine with all sizes, though I prefer a full compliment of 5 for a richer experience. Play lasts about 60-90 minutes depending on the player count. With five players, bidding is more interesting and there is more on the board to watch. Players guide their civilizations through two ages, scoring to become the most successful culture. The setting is 15 ancient provinces surrounding the Nile. Here, players will bid for the land, tend to the land with farmers, build pyramids and worship Amun-Re. The game is riddled with hard decisions to make which push and pull from different needs. Play moves at a brisk pace with little downtime as players work through turns together. This game's really good fun.

Image by Novembernight

The production here seems fine, though personally, I don't care for the artwork. The overall effect of the pieces in play on the board is seems drab. There are situations in games where drab works to an advantage to get colored pieces to pop, but since many of Amun-Re's pieces – which are sparcely positioned on the board – are similar to the board, this is not the case here. A nice touch though is the plastic moulded pyramids and stones which are a huge draw. We have a medium large board with a map divided into the provinces. The Nile runs down the center of the board providing the fertile land along her banks. There is an outer VP track, some keys and a temple area that is used for sacrifices. The board colors are fairly flat with a great wash of cream being the main impression. The iconography and information design works well enough, but for the life of me, I've no idea where that cheese slice icon came from or how this is to mean "power card". Overall, the board's artwork isn't terrible, it just doesn't add anything to the game play, which is a shame for such a good game. The cards are fine, again a bit boring, though at times the symbology is a bit puzzling causing lookups.

What to Expect
- You get some bidding which has a unique flavor to it
- You get asset management as you make hard decisions where to invest the precious little money you have
- There are some economical elements too as you work toward maximizing your investments for future use
- There is a rock-paper-scissors moment during the sacrifice, where you need to pay careful attention to what other players are doing
- Decisions are really tough in this game, as there is a lot of push and pull from opposite, conflicting needs
- In general, you are trying to balance spending money to boost your economic situation against spending money to boost your victory points.
- There is some suprise scoring as information is not perfect here, often times points are hidden behind cards

Game Objective
Highest VP count wins. VPs are gained in a number of ways as follows:
- Building pyramids
- Owning temples in provices and making large sacrifices
- Meeting conditions that you draw from cards
- Having the most money

Here, the board can seen from the side which includes an outer scoring track, 15 provinces gridded off on each side of the Nile and the temple track on the top of the board. Pictured midgame, you can see the pyramids and green farmer tokens in play on some of the provinces.

What's in Front of You
- We have a good sized board. On it, is the large map of Egypt divided in half by the Nile and split into 15 various provinces. Each province has icons representing what it starts with, any income it might get and areas for farmers to work the land. All the provinces are unique with their own types of incomes and special abilities. On the top is an area for use in the sacrifice, which is a four space track.
- Various tokens representing pyramids, stones, player markers, start player and workers.
- A deck of 15 province cards (one for each province)
- A bank (money is in the form of playing cards)
- A larger deck of power cards.
- You will have in front of you cash and any power cards that you have picked up.

A detail of one of the provinces here (Thebes). In this case, we see one pyramid has been built (which costs 3 stones) along side one other stone (to be used for a second pyramid later on). Also in play are three farmers which have been purchased and are placed in the rectangles pictured. The two 'cheese slice' graphics along the top indicates how many power cards the player who owns the province may buy. The two 'cheese slice' graphics in the box next to the province name indicate freebees upon purchase of the province.
Image by garyjames
Game Play
The game is played in a total of 6 rounds each of which has 5 phases. Players alternate play for each of the phases which moves things along quickly. The game is separated into two halfs – Old Kingdom and New Kingdom – in which all the scoring happens at the end of the 3rd and 6th rounds. One unique aspect to the game is that while players will be bidding for and building off of provinces, at the end of the Old Kingdom they give up control of what they've created and start nearly fresh again. A fascinating thematic touch that has some very interesting ramifications.

The round phases are as follows:
1. Place Province Cards: Here, some provinces are randomly selected to go for auction
2. Auction Provinces: Players acquire one province each
3. Actions: Players will spend their money on a variety of things
4. Sacrifice: Players make a sacrifice to Amun-Re
5. Harvest and Income: This is when you'll get all your cash
6. Scoring (Phase 3 and 6 only)

1. Place Province Cards: Province cards are drawn from the province card deck in the amount equalling the player count (3 players, 3 cards) and placed on the corresponding province on the board. These cards act as bidding mats and will be discarded after players have bid. Other than the province name, each card is identical wtih nine squares on it numbered 0, 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36. Players will place their bidding token on a square on a card to indicate their bid for that particular province.

In addition, many provinces have starting goodies players now place in them. These can be a free power card, cash, some building stones or some farmers. These come with the province when a player wins the bid. Icons on each province indicates which province gets what.

2. Auction Province Cards: The starting player ("the chosen one") will put his bidding token on one of the numbered squares on a province card. This will be his bid. The next player may bid for the same province or a new one. If the same province, the bid must be higher than the previous one. Play continues until each person has made their first bid. If everyone has bid on a different province, they then pay the amount of their bid, remove and set aside the bidding card and take any cash or power cards that came free with the province. Additionally, they place a marker to record their newly acquired property. Now, if two or more players have bid on the same province, play continues around the table skipping anyone with uncontested provinces until reaching a player with a disptuted card. This player must remove his bidding marker and choose again. He may choose a square on a province that has not been selected or outbid another player on any province except the one he previously bid on. He is not allowed to bid here twice in a row. Play continues around until all bids have been resolved. Players may bid on the same province more than once, just not in a row.

Each auction in the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom will be for a new, unowned province. In the five player game all the provinces will be auctioned off. In games with less than five players, certain provinces will not get played on.

3. Actions: Starting with the chosen one, each player will now spend money on power cards, farmers or building stones. (Players receive a set amount at game start.) This is pretty straight forward, where each player chooses to buy or pass on these three items one at a time. The interesting part to this phase is that the more like items you buy, the more expensive it gets as follows. Purchasing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 like items costs 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21.

For example, if a player wishes to buy 2 power cards, 4 farmers and 1 stone, it would cost 3 + 10 + 1 or $14.

This is a pretty dramatic curve as money is tight. So for the most part, players will diversify a bit to cut down costs.

So what are these things?
- Power Cards give extra income, extra stones when purchased, victory points if certain conditions are met, extra farmers and some special powers when bidding. Basically, they play a lot of roles effecting all the phases and you're never sure what you'll get. There is one limit to buying these which is set by the provinces, themselves. Each province has an icon which sets a limit to how many can be bought at once. A player is limited by the provice they own which lets them buy the most. Additionally, at any point in the game, a player can sell a card for $1. So, it's worth it to at least buy one a turn. If you don't like the card and are short on cash, just turn it in on the spot for $1 and continue with purchasing farmers or stones.

- Farmers produce income during phase 5 (harvest). The income is variable based on how much everyone in total offers as a sacrifice in phase 4 (sacrifice). Like the Power Cards, there is a limit to how many one can by. Each provice has a set limit that they can hold from 0-5 farmers. You can only buy what you can fit in your provinces. Once you purchase and place a farmer, it remains in that province for as long as you own it.

- Stones make pyramids and is the main way you will get VPs. For every three stones purchased, players get a pyramid. Stones purchased are placed in provinces. Like farmers, once placed they cannot be moved. Three stones in a province are turned in to the bank to be replaced by a pyramid. There is no limit to how many stones/pyramids can be put in a province.

The interesting thing here is that players need to balance purchases between economic and VP considerations. Farmers = cash, while stones = VPs. Due to tight cash, these decisions can be hard. You'll be comparing to see what others have done. Some will go for lots of income, in which case you might want to join in. On the other hand, hefty points are given for the pyramids, particularly if players can get the most in provinces.

4. Sacrifice. At this point, players make a sort of blind bid. Using their money cards, players will simultaneously pick and reveal an amount to give to Amun-Re. This amount is totaled for that turn's sacrifice. Players return their cash bid to the bank. What's at stake here? Well, two or three things. There is a temple track at the top of the board with four spaces numbered 1-4 respectively. The first is for a total sacrifice of up to $2. The second is for sacrifices of $3-$12, the third $13-$22 and the fourth $23+. A marker is put in the appropriate box based on the total sum of everyone's sacrifice. Now, the highest bidder will get 3 items of their choice (power card, farmers or stones) any way they want it. They could get three of one, or spread it thin. The only limit is that farmers need to have an empty spot in their province(s) to receive the farmer. Additionally, number one bidder is now the "chosen one" for the next turn. This is good as well, as the chosen one always wins ties. The second most bidder gets 2 items of their choice and everyone else that bid a positive bid (more on this in a minute) gets 1 item. Ties for second go to the one closest to the chosen one's left.

A second objective with the sacrifice is that this determines income to an extent. During the income phase, players will get per farmer they own the amount in the box where the sacrifice landed (either $1-$4). This is a significant jump and can be enormous to those with lots of farmers. On the other hand, some provices will pay a fixed income if and only if, the sacrifice remains in the 1 or 2 box. Thematically, this represents the gods smiling on a harvest or not. In the bad times, (1 or 2 box) some provinces would trade and thus the income. Nonetheless, what this sets up here is a situation where some people are really going to want a good harvest and others are not. Thus individual bids can vary widely accordingly.

Finally, the third objective of the sacrifice comes into play during the scoring phase on rounds 3 and 6. Those players that have a temple icon on there province get per temple VPs again in the amount where the sacrifice landed (either $1-$4). There are three such provinces with temples, two with one temple and one with two temples. This is hugely valuable if they can manage 4 per temple, particularly if the same person owns more than one!

Now, I mentioned that players get at least 1 item if they bid a positive amount. What I haven't yet said is that everyone is given a money card at the beginning of the game that says -3. Players may use this for each sacrifice instead of money. It does not go to the bank at the end of the sacrifice, but stays in one's hand. This is called stealing from the offering and grants the one(s) who played it $3 from the offering plate. They get to keep the cash and it does not count toward the sacrifice. If more than one plays this card everyone steals in turn starting with the closest one to the chosen one's left. This is a great way to bring down the offering if you've got no workers and everyone else does – particularly great if you have a province that pays off during the 1 or 2 sacrifice box. Players that steal from the plate do not get any items as a reward like the others, though.

Here, you can begin to see how watching what the other players are doing in terms of workers, can impact one's decision as what to bid. Lots of fun here!

5. Harvest and Income. As mentioned, players get income in the amount dependent on how many farmers they have and where the sacrifice landed. Also, some provinces will pay off a fixed sum as mentioned when the offering is low. Other provinces will pay a fixed income no matter. This variance really keeps the game alive as it is never really clear at the onset of a turn how the income is going to go.

6. Scoring. After the third and sixth round is a special scoring phase. Players will get VPs according to:

- Pyramid totals. Each pyramid in a player's provice gives 1 VP.
- Pyramid sets. For each pyramid that a player has in common in all his provinces he gets 3 VPs. For instance if he has his three provinces has as follows: 3 pyramids, 2 pyramids and 1 pyramid, he gets 3 VPs for 1 in each of them. If it was 3, 2 and 2, he would get 6 VPs for two pyramids in each.
- Most pyramids. For the player that has the province with the most pyramids on each side of the Nile, they get 5 VPs. This is a very valuable payoff.
- As said, provinces with temples pay off per temple the sacrifice amount.
- Power cards can be turned in if players meet certain conditions. Things like having provinces only next to the Nile or on one side of Egypt or so many farmers total, etc. These generally pay off 3 VPs per card.
- The player with the most money in the 6th round gets VPs as well. In this way, players won't simply dump the remainder of their cash into the last sacrifice. Yet another hard decision to make here.

Old Kingdom and New Kingdom
After the scoring is completed in round 3, the game resets a bit. Players remove their province markers and all farmers are removed from the board. Pyramids and stones remain however. Now play begins with the 4th round as it did in the 1st. The first province cards are drawn and players start to build up a new empire. This is very fascinating as certain provinces will be hugely valuable with a large base of pyramids already established, while others will be less attractive. This makes for some interesting play, higher bids and tougher decisions.

Game End
After the 6th round the final scoring takes place; highest VP wins.

I really like this game. It has a unique feel with the mix of different mechanics: bidding, purchasing decisions and rock scissor paper of the sacrifice phase. The way the gameboard clears off midgame to reveal a new start is very different. There is so much to consider in this game, often with opposing pulls.

Bidding doesn 't always go the way you want it. It's not unusual to get opposing types of provinces – one with lots of farms, rewarding high sacrifices and another with no farms and income dependent on low sacrifices. In this case, should you shoot for a 2 level sacrifice to optimize both. If so, what is everyone else going to bid?

-Players are discouraged from buying like items, which can be difficult as farmers are more valuable early on to produce in more rounds, while pyramids are only valuable for scoring later.

- Intimidation plays a role in this game as piling pyramids on one province can force others into a pyramid war if they want the most pyramid reward as well.

- Perhaps you can sneak up on another player's highest pyramid provice through the sacrifice. If you get the highest sacrifice, you get 3 items, which can be 3 stones (a full pyramid). This can be significant enough to win and since there is no way the other player can purchase stones at that point, you sneak ahead to win. Again, what is enough for the highest bid without throwing money away?

Not only is there a good deal to think about, but between the bidding, buying and simultaneous sacrifice bid, the game has a unique texture of play to it. Really, entertaining!

- Mike

Review: Lost Cities

Lost Cities, by Reiner Knizia, is one of his more popular card games amongst gamers. It is a light game that is very easy to teach and learn. From the Kosmos two player line, it plays in a half hour or less. Many gamers say that it is the game they play with their non-gamer or gamer-lite spouse which makes sense. Dispite this game's lightness, there is a fair amount of thinking here for a simple game and better players can win much more often than not.

The theme here revolves around exploration to exotic locals some time in the early 20th century. The cards reflect what is going on and tells a little story. Here, we have a deck of cards with five colored suits, each suit representing a different archeological dig in some part of the world. Players play numbered cards from their hand with the goal being to have the highest total score. Additionally, players are penalized if they do not play enough scoring cards from any particular suit. Thematically, we are looking at not investing enough in an effort to make it pay off. After all, globetrotting for treasure doesn't come cheap. The game moves swiftly and plays in three rounds, but can be reduced to save on time if one wishes.

Image by Kobra1

Image by Terraliptar

The game includes a deck of cards with 5 fairly nicely illustrated colored suits and a board which is used to order by suit the discarded cards . Each suit has cards numbered 2-10 along with 3 investment cards. Each card has an illustration of a particular site which progressively gets closer to a treasure or monument the higher the number. Investment cards look the same for each suit and have an illustration that adds to the period feel of the game. The overall impression is that of nicely themed, colorful cards clearly distinguishable from each other.

Image by BakeliteTM

Game Play
Players are dealt 8 cards each (thanks for correction here, Tim), which will form their hand. The remaining cards lie face down next to the board. The board has spaces for each of the five suits and are color coded accordingly. This board is only for discarding, so it really is not needed, but is nice enough adding a little to the game experience. On a player's turn, he will draw one card from the top of the deck or from the top of any of the five discard decks on the board if any cards are available here. They will then play or discard exactly one card from their hand. Players play cards on their side of the board next to the discard pile of the same color. A player may play any card so long as it is in ascending order (lowest to highest) in the correct colored suit. The non-numbered cards (investment cards) are marked with an icon of shaking hands and must be played first before any numbered cards. One, two or three of these investment cards may be played per suit on top of each other, but not over any numbered cards. Cards are placed so that numbers below can be seen. If a player chooses not to play a card, they must discard face up on the appropriately colored discard pile.

Round End
After the last card in the draw deck has been pulled and that player has finished their play, the scoring begins. Only cards played count for score. For each suit, players add the numbers played on their side. After this, they subtract 20 from that total. Next, that total is doubled if the player has played one investment card (hand card), tripled for two and quadrupled if that player played all three cards. Finally, as a bonus for large suits collected, a player adds 20 to that score if they have played 8 or more cards in that suit. The totals for each suit is added and players record the score. The game is played in three identical rounds. After the third round the highest total wins.

For example, a player has 9 cards in the red suit and 3 in blue suit. For the red suit, she has played two investment cards and the 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9 and the 10. For the blue suit she has played one investment card, the 3 and the 8.

For red we have: (1 + 3 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10) - 20 for a total of 23. Since she has two investment cards we multiply by 3: 23 x 3 for a total of 69. Since she has 8 or over in that suit, she gets an additional 20 for 89 pts.

For blue we have: (3 + 8) - 20 for a total of - 9. Since she has played one investment card, we multiply by 2: -9 x 2 for a total of -18.

Her total points this round is 71.

The scoring is tricky as it forces some hard choices. First off, if a player starts to play on a suit, he must be sure his numbers break the 20 mark. Investment cards require even more confidence here. Cards will become available through the discard piles which offer more choices. Because the hand has a limit of six cards carried over to the next turn, players may be forced to discard a large numbered card or a suit that you know the other player to be building on.

Some Situations That Come Up
- Often, it can be the case that you might have a lot of great cards for one suit but no investment cards. Should you hold out from playing that first number and wait for the card to come up in order to capitalize on your strong suit? Once you place that first number, the investment card is not an option. If you hold out, your hand is somewhat frozen so that other suits don't have a chance to develop and build in your hand.

-Pulling from the discard piles or the draw pile can be a good timer strategy. If you need more time finish off a suit and get it out of the negative zone, but the draw deck is nearing the end, start pulling from discard piles – even if you're drawing cards that you don't need. This will buy you more time to place the cards.

- Conversely, if you see your opponent struggling to get cards on the table and the draw deck is low, speed the game up by drawing from the draw pile.

- At times you will need to hold back from discarding certain unwanted cards because you know your opponent can use it. You'll want to wait until his numbers pass this card number before discarding. But, in so doing, you are wasting a valuable slot in your hand that could be used for building a particular suit. If you have enough unwanted cards that he needs you may have to bite the bullet and give it to him in order to free up your hand.

- If a particular discard deck is getting rich with good cards, you may wish to avoid discarding in that suit. I have been tempted many-a-time by a discard pile which I start a whole suit from scratch, just by digging through, turn after turn.

- Starting with a bunch of 10s may seem great, but it can also be paralyzing. You don't dare discard a 10 because it will surely help the other player. But if you can't get the other numbers for support to save your life, all the 10 is doing is filling up a valuable slot in your hand that you can't use.

- Do you take a chance a start a somewhat promising suit that you've been waiting forever for cards to come up in? In this way, you can free up the hand for another suit that's really starting to develop. Though, if you never do get those cards from the original suit, you've just screwed yourself by going in the negative.

- You're dealt a 9, a 5 and two investment cards of a suit. That's four cards of one suit in your hand at one time. Do you take a chance and plop down an investment card, hoping for some numbered ones? Chances are good right? How about both investment cards to free up the hand even more? Many turns go by, nothing's happening and you need space in your hand. Do you play the 5 or wait for those darned low numbers...where are they? If you do, there's only 4 more cards that can help you.

- You see the other player play two investment cards in a suit. Shoot! You've got three crummy low cards from that one which you want to get rid of, but he'll just snatch them up. He may even be holding out for a while to start playing numbers hoping he'll find those low numbers. Uggg. Now opportunities have been wasted, because three slots in the hand are clogging it up.

For such a simple game, there's a lot going on here. It's a light filler but there's enough happening to satisfy anytime.

- Mike

Review: Power Grid

Power Grid, a Friedemann Friese remake of one of his earlier games, Funkenschlag, is a bidding, resource management style game with a race-to-be-the-biggest aspect to it. I've played this game many times with all sizes – from its designed 2-6 player limit – and can say that all group sizes works very, very well. The game has carefully balanced adjustments that scales beautifully at all points. I appreciate the fact that we have here a meaty game that plays 2 player well, which was a suprise for me, considering the high degree of player interaction and auctioning involved. Playing time clocks in from 45 to about 90 minutes increasing with player count. In Power Grid, players are power companies seeking to expand their reach through Germany or the US (thanks to a double sided board), and power the most cities by game end. As said, this is a meaty game, of medium weight and has player interaction at every step of the way. Turns are divided into phases – which all players take part in – so the game moves quickly with very little down time. The game is not terribly open in terms of what you can do or options to explore, so games do seem samey – but what it does have is so entertaining and fascinating that it has terrific replay value. The fact the players' actions are so intertwined makes each game play feel unique. In short, I really like this game, even after 10+ plays. I think the aspect of the game that I always marvel at is the way supply and demand and future technologies feels so apparent through just a few simple instructions and mechanics – really fantastic!

The overall production here is very good – plenty of wooden bits and a nice board to look at. So let's take a look at what we get. Firstly, we've got a rather handsome cover – executed in period 50s poster style – of a plant operator at his post. The colors are rich, deep and appealing. Inside, we've got a two sided board for variety of play, which is wonderful! The colors here are also rich with artwork that is a bit cartoonish. This is consistent throughout, so I think it fine. There is a deck of cards which are the power plants for auctioning which again have this cartoony look – each card a different plant with unique artwork for visual interest. The information here is minimal and positively clear and effective. As said, we get plenty of wooden bits, which is always a plus, representing the players' markers and four resource types. I'd say the big complaint I have here is the money, which is paper. Paper money is just so difficult to handle compared to other alternatives, like tokens. Money places a big role in this game as well, as it is exchanged in most every phase, so this is a little bothersome. Another complaint lies with the production of the rules, which is fair, but poor compared to an Alea. Without the color, the rules do have a throw away quality to them. They are not appealing and don't invite me to read them. It's too bad as one does need to reference the rules each turn to refer to resource chart. Actually, it would have been nice to have included this chart separately somewhere or integrated onto the board as it is an important part of the game. But these are all minor details here. One minor detail I do appreciate, though, is the time play/player count/player age key on the side of the box. The designer carried the electricity theme through to this small element. It's an unexpected witty touch. Nice.

What to Expect in This Game
- Lots and lots of player interaction. Bidding, resource hogging and blocking every step of the way.
- Plenty of ways to screw your neighbor if you play aggressively. If you don't, no worries, you don't have to be aggressive.
- A number of decisions to make each turn.
- A fast paced game where your turn comes up very often.

What's in Front of You
The game is played primarily on the board, which is fairly large, and each player's power plant cards, which remain directly in front. Additionally, off to the side will be 8 or 6 power plant cards (depending on that part of the game) face up. These cards track which are available to purchase with some look ahead to future availability. Players will be bidding on these. All other cards are face down in a deck. The board has a large map with cities of that country and pipes connecting cities to form a giant network. Each city has a pie shape to it divided in three parts. The map is sectioned into regions,which is purely for start game bountries allowing for perfect game scale. Players will place their wooden houses on the city spots on this map when they purchase connections. There is a large track on the bottom of the board which monitors the four resources (coal, oil, garbage and uranium) and their availability and cost for purchase. Each wooden resource that can be purchased sits on this track which is grouped by resource type and cost for each resource. On the top of the board is the turn order track and the scoring track, which monitors how many cities you have connected to. The power plant cards in front of each player are those that they have purchased. These cards will also have the wooden resources on them which they purchase.

Game Play
The game is played in rounds with five phases each. Upon reaching certain milestones, the game generally passes through three steps, which dictate the flow of resources and availability of power plants. The phases are:

1. Determine Player Order
2. Auction Power Plants - players have the chance to buy one power plant each.
3. Buy Resources - players may buy resources for their plants.
4. Building - players purchase connections on the board to expand their network.
5. Bureaucracy - get cash by powering the plants expending resources. Also, some updating game elements.

1. Determine Player Order. Here, players mark on the board their order, which changes from turn to turn based on how many cities on the board they've connected (purchased in 4. Building) and, in the case of ties which happens a lot, who has the more advanced power plant (purchased in 2. Auction). This is a highly important part of the game as the game is so interactive, turn order effects everything. This is an impressive balancing part of the game which makes it harder for those in the lead and gives those furthest behind some opportunity to catch up. For example, players first in order go 1st in phase 2 (which is a negative), last in phase 3 (again a negative) and 1st in phase 3 (which is a positive). Part of what players will be deciding during the game is whether to let one's self fall back ever so slightly to reduce one's turn order and thus get some benifits for being last.

2. Auction Power Plants. As mentioned, next to the board are placed 8 power plant cards face up (6 later in the game). In total, there are 42 power plant cards numbered between 3 and 50. The cards are placed in two rows of four cards each. Additionally, they are placed in ascending order with the top four starting cards being the 3, 4, 5 and 6 cards and the bottom being 7, 8, 9 and 10 cards. Players may only bid on cards in the top row when their turn comes up, the bottom row being a look ahead for upcoming plants (the futures market). The player with the highest turn order (determined in phase 1) chooses any of the four top available cards to bid on. They will then start the bidding with a minimum bid of the number on the card. Bidding goes around the table one at a time with players outbidding or passing. Players which pass on a plant may not come back in the bidding for that plant. Highest bid wins and money is paid to the bank. Next a card is selected from the top of the deck of power plant cards and placed in one of the two rows so that it is in ascending order. Other placed cards might move forward or back depending on the number of the new cardbut the final configuration should be four cards on top and four underneath. For the first few turns, because all the cards are already in order, the card drawn will go to the last spot on the bottom row. As different cards are pulled up throughout the game, there can be some interesting back and forth as plants come in and out of the market. The next player now may pick a plant to bid on in the same way, or, if the last player did not win his bid, he may choose another plant to bid on and start the bidding.

Now, a little about the cards. I've already mentioned that there are four types of resources (coal, oil, garbage and uranium). There are five power plant types, four of which correspond to the resources and one which is renewable energy and needs no resources. On the cards are icons representing the kind and of resource(s) needed to power the plant, how many are needed and how many cities this will power. The higher the value on the card, the more cities you can power with less resources needed. Additionally, the more advanced resources like renewable energy and uranium add to the expense – the cheap ones being coal and oil. So, what we get early in the game are the dirty plants (coal and oil) which require a lot of resources (perhaps 2 or 3 wooden tokens) to power very few cities (perhaps 1 or 2 cities). As the game progresses and cards go up in value, power plants come up that might only take one uranium resource to power up to 7 cities! Very efficient indeed. It's sort of magical to watch as new technologies become available on the market through the draw of cards that give you more bang for the resource buck or new resources that will be cheaper. One other detail, some power plants allow players to use both coal or oil, one type at a time, whichever is preferred. This offers players some choice as well.

Back to the bidding. Given that the better plants have higher numbers and cards are ordered in ascending order, as plants are sold, better ones come on the market. So, players which can choose later, generally get to choose from better power plants. A player may choose pass on picking a power plant to bid on. If this is the case, they forfeit the opportunity to do so that turn. They may still bid on another player's choice, but they don't get to pick and they don't have the first and lowest bid. One other thing, players may only purchase one plant per turn. Once they buy, they may not participate in future bidding. In this way, players that pick last generally have less competition for their pick.

There's a good deal of strategy here that can be used. A player who picks earlier might wish to select something they don't necessarily want, but suspect others might like. In this way, they hope someone will bid on it and win so that a better plant will come up from the futures market or from a draw in the deck for him to bid on. A player might also decide to pass on bidding that turn hoping the next turn will bring the better power plants.

One last thing here. Players have a limit of 3 power plants (4 in a two player game) that they may have at any given time. If they purchase one that puts them over this limit, they must discard (demolish) a plant of their choice. Thematically, you can imagine aging power plants being torn down.

3. Purchase Resources. As mentioned, along the bottom of the board is the resource market. Here, we basically have a row for each resource (coal, oil, garbage and nuclear). Each row is divided into segments which have prices associated with them from $1-$14 per resource. And each segment is further divided into spaces that indicate how many resource tokens go in each area (essentially, what price each resource token will be). As players purchase the resource tokens (which are color coded wooden pieces) for their power plants, they will obviously want to choose those tokens in the cheap segments. As more and more players buy the same resources, prices will shoot up with fewer resources available. Thus, supply and demand. Nice! Players may only purchase resources that their power plants can accept and can only store a maximum of double the amount that each plant can use in a turn. In this way, if you anticipate a lot of people are going to need a lot of the same resource (driving prices up), you may want to stock up on them for the next turn while the prices are now lower. By doing this, you drive the price up for the next player. Again, nice! Later in phase 5 (Beaurocracy), some resources will be replenished from the stock pile according to a chart that varies on the amount of people and how far along the game is. Thematically, this is resources that are put back in the market. However, when demand is high, often the amount that is being replenished cannot match what is being used. In this way, such resources will get pricier turn after turn. It is really magical to watch this relationship of supply and demand unfold on the board. Game setup dictates that in the market there is an abundance of coal and oil, a little garbage and nearly no uranium. Thematically, these more advanced resources are more expensive to buy so long ago. As the game progresses, the replenishment table favors these newer resources and the price tends to drop. Also of interest to watch is uranium. Early in the game, the resource is very expensive and the power plant cards rarely come up. Uranium is so expensive, the nuclear plant is not worth purchasing. As turn after turn of replenishment builds up the uranium supply, all of a sudden the nuclear plant is looking pretty good! Everyone I've played with has always commented how impressive and beautiful this system is to watch unfold – and it truly is!

Players place the purchased resources directly onto their power plant card. Again, only resources that match the card may be placed on it to a maximum of double what can be used in a turn. Purchasing is done in reverse player order. In this way, players which are behind get first dibs on the cheeper stuff and can resource hog. This prevents the rich from getting richer.

4. Building. Now we return to the large map on the board. In player order, they will purchase cities on the map with which to put their building markers. On the map, you will basically see cities and pipes connecting various cities together to form a network. The cities are circles divided into 3 pie pieces or city zones which are numbered 10, 15 and 20. Each pipe that connects two cities has a number on it. Both the city numbers and the numbers on the pipe are the costs associated with this purchase. Thematically, you are building city infrastructure and wires and pipes to connect the two cities. Players' first purchase will be simply $10, which is the cheapest zone in a city. They will pick the city they want to start in and place their house on it. Future purchases will be the cost to build in the next city they pick plus the total cost of pipes one can trace from one of their cities to that city. Generally, in order to reduce costs, you will pick a city located next to one you already have purchased. So, if you have one city and wish to build in the $10 zone of a neighboring city with a pipe connection that is $6, it will cost $16 to buy. Players place their house markers on cities they purchase. A player may purchase as many cities as he can afford to.

About the city's three zones. Basically, all this is, is a reward for those who first connect to a city. The first person to connect will pay $10, the next will pay $15 and the next $20. Thematically, it is illustrated that the first area is residential, then business then industrial. Also very importantly, there are three parts to the game (called Steps) which prevent barriers of entry. In Step 1, only one person may purchase an individual city. In Step 2, two people can enter and Step 3, three people maximum – the cost going up as mentioned for each person. So, given that money is very tight, there is a lot of blocking going on as players spread out from city to city looking to cut off a neighbor from cheap connections or places to expand. I know I've been in situations on a crowded part of the board where I simply could not build without paying multiple pipes to jump to a city far off. Simply too expensive. One thing I haven't mentioned is that the board is not evenly distributed. On the US map, for example, there's lots of cities on the east coast and fewer and fewer cities moving west. The west coast cities are spread way out and the pipe cost is enormous. Compare a typical west coast pipe at $15 to an east coast pipe of $5. For this reason, the east coast and midwest gets very crowded making for lots of maneuvering, blocking and racing to get to certain central hubs. Once again, lots of player interaction and ways to affect others. Because this phase is in player order, those who have the most cities will be going first and have more opportunities to block others.

After a player has purchased their cities and placed their city markers, he counts the total he now has on board and moves his marker along this track on the board. Once a player hits 7 total cities (this number varies per player count), this triggers Step 2. A few will things now change. Firstly, two people may build in the same city instead of only one. Secondly, there is a small shuffling of the power plant cards which is not worth mentioning and thirdly, resource replenishment (in phase 5) follows a different table. This is just to reflect progress as newer resources are being produced more effeciently at a faster rate.

5. Bureaucracy. Now, players fire up their power plants and power the cities they have purchased. Each power plant card says how many cities it can power. Players may choose to use whichever plants they wish, so long as they have enough resources on that plant's card (as listed on the card). The amount of cities a player owns is the maximum they may power up. Player reference cards tell how much they get for that many cities. There is a diminishing return here as each city added yields slightly less than the city before. Nonetheless, players will usually want to power up as much as they can to get much needed cash.

Now, expended resources return to the stock pile, where some of them (according to a reference table) will go back into the market for sale in the next turn. A new turn then begins with phase 1 (player order). The one with the most cities goes first followed by others. Tie breakers go to the one with the highest numbered power plant.

Step 3 comes about when a "Step 3" card in the power plant deck comes up. This card starts the game at the bottom of the deck, so it takes a little while to get to this step. I have played games where the game ended so fast, the card never came up. When the game goes to Step 3, three players may now connect to each city, again the resource replenishment changes favoring uranium and garbage even more and some new shuffling goes on with the 8 power plant cards that are up for bid. Essentially, the highest and lowest cards get discarded bringing the total now to 6 cards. All 6 plants are available for bidding at any given time, instead of 4 available and 4 coming soon as was previously the case.

Game End
The game end trigger takes place during phase 4 (building) at the time a player buys a certain number of cities. This number varies between 14 for six players to 17 for two players. When this threshhold is crossed, this phase is finished off with everyone given equal opportunity to make their final city purchases. We go to phase 5 and power up the plants. The player who can power up the most (given their resources and power plant capacity) wins the game.

This makes for very interesting play. Players may opt to slow down their city purchasing to save money for bidding on larger power plants knowing that their current capacity is not enough for a win. Also, players tend to have a sense when others may be able to successfully jump over this threshhold and power up more for a win. In such cases, resource hogging can work well for the others. Since the players that are behind can buy first here, I have seen it happen that they buy up all the resources or drive the prices so high, that a player within reach of victory cannot buy the resources needed to fire up his plants.

I really love this game. It's a delicate balancing game of:
- Knowing when to hold out for bigger plants
- Reading others in the bidding
- Buying the best plant based on resources that are currently cheap or might be cheap in the future
- Correctly anticipating supply and demand to save money on resource purchases
- Knowing when to hog up resources or save the money for building city connections
- Knowing when to buy cities and which direction to drive your network
- Holding out on city purchases to lower one's ranking in the order
... and much more.

Games tend to be pretty close. It's not uncommon for the person who builds the most cities to be unable to power up the most.

As mentioned, the game has been designed to play well at all sizes. I prefer playing with 5 or 6 simply because of all the player interactions that happen. There's more going on with a full table of people – lots of turf wars and resource wars that make for very interesting play. For such a gamerly game, there is really good atmosphere and thematic details. As such, it's a wonderful combination of theme and clean, finely balanced mechanics that sets this game apart. Watching the market fluctuate in a such natural manner and seeing the influence that new technologies have on it is really a delight as well. If you like meatier games, I'd highly recommend trying this game out.

- Mike

Review: Mystery of the Abbey

You are a monk and one of your fellow bretheren has committed the ultimate sin – he has killed another amongst you. Your current calling is now to seek out the sinner and expose him to all. Mystery of the Abbey, published by Days of Wonder and codesigned by Bruno Faidutti & Serge Laget, is a deduction style game set in the sacred halls of a monastery. The game radiates with atmosphere, from the beautifully illustrated board, the lovely cartoonish character cards to the little bell used to mark mass. Three to six players can play under an hour and is very easy to teach and learn. The game is not difficult to grasp and is one of those airy, light games that is best played purely to be with friends and joke around rather than with great seriousness. (Read: don't try to "game" this one, but sit along for the ride.) People seem to enjoy it ok fine, though, as much as I have tried, I can't warm up to it for reasons I'll later discuss.

As usual, DoW productions are second to none. A very charming, detailed view of a monastary and the surrounding area makes up the board. Like other such "Clue-style", who-done-it games, this is based within the different rooms and thus each area is named, appropriately in latin. The board does impress and is perhaps a reason I stuck with the game for so long. It's a pleasure to stare at. Each player receives a plastic character and a mark-up sheet for notes. Ok. Let me say that I have never seen such a nice mark-up sheet. Printed in full color and filled with the same competently illustrated characters as the cards, these throw away notepad pages add a great deal to the game. After all, players will be staring at this for a good bit of time as they examine their notations and make their deductions. Since deduction games are primarily about record keeping and who can do a better job at it, such attention to detail here is very appropriate. A folded player's aid is provided for information and to hide one's notes, which works very well. The game has a few type of cards, all full size and produced nicely. The character cards are particularly nice, with unique illustrations for each of the 24 monks which are amusing and fun. Information design is very clear, nicely organized and designed. "Well done!" to Cyrille Daujean, the French native graphic designer of DoW. Finally, there are a few dice with player characters on them for special purposes and a little bell used to track time. The box cover is mediocre and dull – which is typical for DoW – bringing together an odd mix of illustration styles, no doubt a combination of the two illustrators who worked on the project. In themselves the illustrations are nice, but together they clash. Nonetheless, this is an extremely minor point as far as things go.

Game Objective
The object of the game is to score the most points. Points are given to the one who guesses first who the dishonorable monk is, as well as to players who correctly guess any characteristic that that monk has. Conversely, points are deducted from incorrect accusations or characteristics declared. All said, more points are awarded for right guess than wrong guesses, so guessing is encouraged. The player who scores the highest, wins. While often the case, it is not always that a correct accusation will seal one's victory, so some caution can be needed with declarations.

Game Play
Game proceedes around the board with players moving their monk a distance of one or two rooms. Many of the rooms have special events that are triggered when players enter. I won't fully go into all the details, but suffice it to say that this game is more than simply gathering clues. Players will want to take advantage of some of these card driven events to aid them in their ways. At the start of the game, a deck of character cards will be distributed mostly to the players, with some cards set aside for a room (which those who enter may draw from) and a single card which is stashed under the gameboard. Yes, that's the guilty one. Throughout the game, cards will exchange hands, so knowing which cards you've seen and who you've given cards to is vital to game play. As mentioned, each player is given a nice mark-up sheet for record keeping. On this sheet is each character along with their five characteristics. For each character we have an order (Franciscan, Benedictine and Templar), a certain title within that order (Father, Brother, Novice), bearded or shaven, hooded or unhooded and fat or thin. Throughout the game information will be gathered along these characteristics, so as typical with deduction games, process of elemination through cross referenced characteristics can put players one step closer to victory. When a player enters a room that is already occupied by another player, they must stop and ask that player a question in front of the other players. There are guidelines to what can and cannot be asked, but in general, it cannot be more than two characteristics nor can a question be structured so that a player answer with a suspect's name. A player may answer a question or may take a vow of silence. If they answer the question, then they can ask a question back. If they take a vow of silence, no more may be spoken. Now the moving player may move further, if they had another move left.

As said, different rooms have different effects. For instance, the confessionals allow a player who enters to take a peak at a card of the player who last entered it. (A die with players' colors record this). He may reveal any of his cards he wishes to the one in the confessional. This is where good record keeping comes in handy. Knowing which cards in your hand other players have seen can help players keep a core group unexposed to others for a good long while. Each monk has their private quarters or "cell". If another player enters your cell, he can pull a random card from your hand. Now, if you "catch" him in your cell by entering while he is in there, that character is penalized and must forfeit a turn praying in the chapel. It's all fun stuff and as I said this game oozes with atmosphere. The parlor will allow players to draw from a small deck of previously unseen characters – this is typically where players run to at the start in order to build up a larger hand of characters and before said cards run out. The chapter hall is designated for making accusations and declarations. There is a crypt which gives a player a card for a extra movement to be used once. The scriptorium will let you draw from another deck where random events can occur. And past that, there is the library, where only the player who has the fewest cards may enter. He can then draw a special card that is usually very powerful. Such an entrance is only available once per person if he meets this condition - a nice touch for players that are behind. Play passes round and round with "mass" being held once players have gone through another four rounds. At mass, players must pass a certain number of their cards to the player to their left with an increasing exchange as the game progresses. Additionally, a special event occurs. These events can effect game play or effect a player's sanity as they can be annoyingly silly. One card calls for all discourse to be chanted. (Our group refuses. If you think this is fun, you're gonna love this game.) Players then all regroup in the chapel and go their separate ways for another four turns.

As said, this can be a fine enough time if one does care too much for quite a bit of shifting chaotic information. This is a light-hearted atmospheric game. My problem here is that deduction games by their nature demand a certain level of thinking. They reward players who have better organizational and record keeping abilities as much as anything. There is the feeling of control in this record keeping as information remains static. The passing of so many cards between players belies this a bit though. Information that one is working to keep track of, suddenly fades away as cards go through numerous exchanges. Careful questioning of others can help reveal certain information lost, but it is not always possible to get as players don't have to answer questions. Add to this, certain crippling event cards – like showing all your cards to your neighbor – and careful plans to hide certain characters are blown away. These are my personal issues with the game. But, the bottom line is that it is just not for me. It is a game that falls much closer to the mass appeal than the gamer appeal. If that is what you like, combined with a Clue-like game with lots of atmosphere, a touch of silliness and is wonderfully excecuted, you might just like this.

– Mike

Review: Goa

Goa, by designer Rüdiger Dorn, is a game for 2-4 players set in colonial India where players are working to create the most successful colonies. Success comes through skillful advancements on a number of technology trees, monitary gain and establishment of colonies. The game works very well with any amount of people, though I prefer 4 players. This does make an excellent 2 player game, by the way, which is a huge plus as good meaty 2 player games are hard to come by. In terms of feel and complexity, I would compare this game to Puerto Rico, where you are working on resource management and investments into improvements. Additionally, it is the case that you will be investing in one thing to get another to get another thing. This is a very meaty game. Lots of choices to be made each turn, many ways to win and much more to do than a turn will allow - even more so than Puerto Rico. For this reason, I find Goa more interesting and lasting than PR, which plays pretty much the same each time. Sessions move along quicky with almost no downtime and last anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. One nice point here is that the actions phase of each person's turn is split up in three actions with each player taking a pause after one action to let others take their action. In this way, instead of a player taking a long time to make three moves, each player makes one move in turn. As such, turns between players move fast enough that one has just enough time to plan a next move before it then comes up.

I really enjoy this game and find that it is both fairly easy to teach and learn. The games tend to be very close nail biters. Player interaction is about midway into the scale here. Turns are divided into two parts - an auction and actions phase (I suppose like Princes of Florence). Interaction comes through the auction which is very interesting in itself and more dynamic with more player interaction than PoF. The actions half of turns are solitare affairs, but players need to keep an eye out for each other to monitor each others cash, which is critical for the bidding.

Components are fair for today's high standards and include 8 player mats (two types per person), an auction board, mid sized cards which are the different forms of cash and discoveries, advancement tiles, some wooden marker cubes and finally color coded wooden spice tokens. The game graphics are fair to good - nothing particulaly wrong here and the information design works fine. Though a few of the discovery cards are ambiguous and need lookups. Mostly the game lacks a strong, unique visual personality or a cohesive look, which is pretty typical, I suppose. The cover is your typical ship/period man look. It tells a story, but lacks style or mood. Below, can be seen a cover I designed/painted which has more personality, giving the game a distinct identity. The player mats are of flimsy card stock which is unsatisfing, but not uncommon. On the other hand, the tiles are nice and thick, which is satisfying. Finally, the midsized cards are produced well. I appreciate the fact that they did not use paper for the money here and understand that, as cash is very secret, cards might be better than coins Though somehow I would probably have wanted coins and tolkens for cash, colonists and ship currencies.

Current Cover

My refreshed cover
The look refers to the flatness of period artwork
and has an antiqued feel. The colors and background
pattern refer to an Indian weave

The Boards
Let me begin by describing what you see in front of you before speaking of gameplay. Each person has two different player mats. The larger player mat is a grid of 5 vertical tracks going from top to bottom. Players have a wooden marker on each track to measure their progress (investments into) different improvements. This includes ship improvements, harvesting spices, taxes, discovery cards and finally colonist recruitment. This is the heart of each player's game. Additionally, each player has a colony mat, which has 8 spaces for tiles – 4 for plantations that can be purchased and 4 for plantations that can be colonized. A common board is primarily for a unique auctioning system which is a large grid of tiles. The common board also holds all the cards, which is helpful.

Primary board with bidding section in the center, money cards on the left and various other cards on the right. The bidding section includes many tiles – all unique – some of which will be left unused by game end.
Image by Pregremlin

Individual player’s mat with the five vertical progress tracks. From left to right, Ship Improvements, Harvesting, Taxation, Discovery and Colonization. Between each level is an icon of a spice or group of spices needed to advance to the next level.
Image by John Carlton

Individual player’s supply board. Players may establish a maximum of 4 plantations and 4 colonies indicated by tiles. Spice tokens can be harvested and used as a sort of cash.
Image by John Carlton

Goal of the Game

Like most of these games, players are working to get the most VPs. The nice thing about this game as they can be obtained in many ways. Players get VPs through each advance down their 5 tracks, certain tiles which they purchase, each colony they establish, gaining sets of discovery cards and finally having the most cash at game's end. Lots of things to go after here. While some pursuits seem more powerful, it isn't entirely clear to me if there is the "killer" way to go.

Game Play
As mentioned, the game plays in two distinct parts – an auction and then player actions. The auction part is quite unique and works very well here. It's not your typical and allows for economics to change a bit from game to game. What we have here is a square grid of revealed tiles which are available to be auctioned off. The tiles are randomly distributed in the grid in setup. There are more tiles than turns, so some will go unused at game end. Also, there are two halves to the game, the only difference being that when the second half is reached, any remaining tiles to be auctioned from the first half of the game (the "A" tiles) are removed from the game to be refreshed with the "B" tiles. This brings into play more powerful tiles later in the game so that the game escalates nicely.

The auction begins with the player holding the first player flag tile. This tile is put on the edge of the auction grid next to any auction tile or, when the grid empties through tile purchases, the flag may be put in the grid next to tile. The first player puts his colored #1 token on top of the placed flag to designate this as his. It will be auctioned off in a bit, as well as others chosen and he will get the proceeds of this. The player to his left now picks any tile orthagonally adjacent to the flag and places his #2 colored token on that tile. Play follows for the next players in the same manner with the placement of their #3 and #4 markers. After each player has picked a tile next to the previous one selected, the bidding begins on the flag marker proceeding one at a time in numerical order to all the tiles selected for bidding. It is a once around bid which begins to the left of the player who selected the tile up for bid. Players bid for money and bids must be progressively higher. Players may pass and may bid on as many of the tiles selected as they have cash for. The highest bid wins each tile and money is paid to the player who selected the tile. In the event the player who picked the tile also wins the tile, money is paid to the bank. In this way, we begin to see an economy develop as money either exchanges hands (inflation) or goes out of the system into the bank (deflation). Less money between the players generally means lower bids as money is only good for this purpose (excepting VP count at endgame).

The tiles come in different forms, all good things, but basically they are a way to get ships, spices, cash, discovery cards, colonists, extra turn cards, VPs and, very importantly, plantations. Lots to get here and plenty for all. Some tiles give a nice lump sum, while a few others offer players a small turn by turn income of one of these goods. Additionally, players can pick up some tiles which grant a special action to happen. The flag tile is the first to be purchased and grants the player who purchases it an extra action (turn) as well as the opporunity to be first. Also of great importance, they get to choose where to put the flag on the following turn's auction. This is very advantagous as they can manipulate, through careful placement, what tiles might come up for bidding. If they put in an area where tiles have been removed in previous auctions, there might only be one orthogonally adjacent tile for other players to pick and they might not be the most desirable tiles. In this way, the bid will be low for the other player's tiles and they won't get much cash. Or, if there is a particular tile the flag bearer is interested in, he can set the flag next to or near that tile to try to get that up for bidding. So, as you can see, there is much more than a simple bid going on here, which is very interesting.

The second part of the turns are the actions. Players get 3 actions and take one at a time rotating around the board until they all have played out their actions. After this, any players that have received an additional turn card may expend this at this time. On a player's they may do one of 6 things all of which correlate to one of their 5 tracks:

1. Build ship(s) (get ships) - Ships are needed for Action 6 to advance a track.
2. Harvest (get spices) - Spices are needed for Action 6 to advance a track.
3. Tax (get cash) - Cash is needed for the auctions. Also, the player with the most cash at game end gets some VPs.
4. Discovery (get discovery cards) - Cards offer bonuses and VPs at end of game.
5. Create a Colony (get a colony plantation) - Plantations are places to receive spices from Action 2 or from bonus cards or tiles. Also, these colonies give VPs. Colonies also come fully stocked with spices.
6. Advance on a Track - Increases the yield of Actions 1 - 5 above and give VPs.

Each track on the player mat has 6 levels, starting on top at the first level. Investments in each track (action 6 above), advances a marker down the scale which will yield greater results when taking actions 1 - 5 above. These results are clearly notated on each space of each track, so players know what each advance will get them in future.

Action 1: Build Ships. The player may get the number of ship cards that is indicated by the level on this track.

Action 2: Harvest. The player may receive the amount of spices indicated on that level of this track. The spices the player may receive come in 5 flavor varieties all themed appropriately. A player must have a matching spice space open on one of their plantation tiles to receive the spice from this action. The plantation tiles, which can be purchased in an auction or obtained through action 5 (colony above), each have 1 to 3 spaces on them with which to receive spices. There the spices are stored until used. Additionally, each space indicates a certain spice, or at times a number of choices of spices that are only allowed to be stored there.

Action 3: Tax. The player may receive cash from the bank in the amount indicated at this level on the track. Money is tight in the game, so this can often take up one action each round. It is also interesting to note that if players are not taking this action in general, bids in the auction will stay pretty low as there is little money in the economy. As more people tax, bids get higher and you will need to keep up or fall behind in the bidding.

Action 4: Discovery. The player may draw the amount of Discover cards indicated on this level of the track. Each level also has a limit of such cards that can be held in one's hand at a time – the limit starting with 1 card allowed in a hand going to 5 at the bottom of the track. The Discovery cards are pretty powerful, though a bit uneven. Some cards being more powerful than others. Nonetheless, one can generally expect to get goods (like ships, spices, cash, colonists, extra turns, etc) or get discounts for advancing up the track. These discounts can be very, very effective in advancing on the tracks quickly. Some cards can be turned in at any point during any turn, while others take an action to turn in. Once a player gets along on this track, drawing 2 or 3 cards can potentially give the equivalent of 2 or 3 turns, which is fantastic.

Action 5: Create a Colony. Here, players get a chance to add another plantation tile to their board. Additionally, the more colonies one gets (to a limit of four), the more VPs they will receive here. Each of the four colonies are different and get progressively more expensive but offering more spice choices and amounts of spices they can hold. Generally, players will seek to get the cheapest first, working their way up, as it takes a lot to build up a colonist base for each colony. For colonies, colonists are needed. Players add the number of colonist cards they wish to spend with the number that is on their 5th track (colonist track). To this, they draw two cards – each card yielding an additional 1 - 3 colonists. It's a bit of a crap shoot here and one must determine whether they want to hurry the process and take a chance good cards come up or save up to ensure a success. If, after pulling the two cards, the total reaches that needed for that colony tile, they are successful and they may pick a colony tile. Each colony has 5 tiles to choose from and are slightly different. So, being the first to get a particular colony, will offer more choices, which can be very advantagous. The player also receives the plantation fully loaded with spices, which can be really helpful. If one fails to get the needed amount, no action is taken, but they do get an extra colonist card for their troubles. Because turns are one of the most precious things players have, losing a turn or sometimes two can be devistating. This often makes picking this action a tough choice.

Action 6: Advance on a Track. As mentioned, each space on each track has a payoff amount for the corresponding action. In addition, there is a cost for advancement indicated for each space. Each advance down a track gets progressively harder to obtain requiring spice(s) and a ship for each spice. To advance one down (and you may only move one space per action), costs a specific spice or spices depending on that space you wish to advance to. Individual types of spices tend to favor each track. For instance, for the Ship track, a clove spice is always needed to advance, followed by one or more of the other spices depending on the level. In this way, players can plan to focus on advancing down certain tracks by focusing their spice plantation purchases on certain spices. Very nice! In addition to increasing payoff amounts for actions, higher advances will pay off more VPs at end of game. Part of the agonizing decisions that need to be made revolve around which track to advance. Ideally, you want to advance everything, but it is not possible. Generally, players will specialize in one or two tracks as VP payoffs increase at greater amounts the further down the track one goes. There are also a few incentives to consider. When a player advances all tracks down to level 2, they get a free extra action card, which is pretty valuable. The same goes for advancing all the tracks to level 3. This promotes a balanced strategy. On the other hand, an incentive is given for the first person to get to level 4 and to level 5 in any one track. Each of these will pay off that player 1 free discovery card. This promotes a specialization strategy. Every little bit counts in this game as all resources are in high demand.

There are some other rules, but for the most part, this is what you can expect from the game.

Ending the Game
The game lasts 8 rounds, 4 for the first half and 4 for the second. The only reason the game is split in half is that after the 3rd round, all the unpurchased auction tiles are discarded out of the game and the grid is fully replenished with new, more powerful tiles. After the final person has taken their last action available in the 6th round, the game ends and players tally their VPs. VPs come from the level that one is at on each track with increasing payoffs per level as follows from level 1-6: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10. Amount of colonies a player has established pays off VPs from 1 - 4 colonies as follows: 1, 3, 6, 10. Certain tiles purchased also pay offf VPs. Having sets of discovery cards left in one's hand at games end also pays off. What I haven't yet mentioned is that on the bottom of each discovery is one of six symbols. Matches and large sets can pay off big here. Each unmatched card is worth 1 VP going up to 20 VPs for a six card set! This can be enourmous as total VPs range in the 30s and 40s VP count. Focusing on advancing the discovery track and getting discovery cards can be a good strategy here.

I really love this game. I'd say it has gotten around 10 plays now and it is still riveting fun each time! This is one of those games where there is never enough turns to do what one wants, so hard choices need to be made to prioritize actions. Every play, this game is a heart beating, nail biting affair as the game is tight and every action so precious. Should I tax this turn to help me in my bidding or am I secure relative to the other players? Should I harvest this turn to get spices at my low level here? This will only get me 2 spices, or should I take a chance with the cards for a colony which will get me 2 spices as well? I really, really want this tile, but this is my only bid tile. If I win the bid, I pay the bank and get no cash this auction. Or similarly, should I bid up the other player on my tile, knowing that he wants it. If I win, though, I'm going to pay dearly for it as I'll not get any cash this auction. Should I bid on a plantation to get the spices? (Plantations come fully loaded with spices.) On one hand, long term I don't want it, on the other, I get the spices which will save me a turn of harvesting.

As the saying goes, so much to do and so little time!

- Mike