It's been a while since I submitted a report, largely because every time I try to get onto Blogger to do one, I'm unable to for a variety of reasons. Guess I better get my own site on .mac set up soon.
Several of the people in RCG went in on the reprinted Splotter games that came out a few weeks ago - Roads & Boats and Antiquity. These games are ridiculously expensive, and I have to admit that I had to swallow hard before buying a copy of both. I'd played R&B, and figured that I could always try out the solitaire scenarios even if I couldn't find time to play with others. Antiquity, on the other hand, while having a shorter playing time (2 hours, theoretically, although I'll believe that when I see it - maybe with two players who've played a lot), had no solitaire element, so spending that much on a game that might see play two or three times was a tougher sell, even to me.
So it was that he first time my wife was working on a Saturday I decided to see if anyone else in the group was interested in giving it a shot. Alex, Liz, and Chris all showed up to see if this game was worth the bucks.
First, a brief description of the game. Think Puerto Rico with an utterly unforgiving system and a map that gets smaller as you go, or at least less of it is usable. You build various structures in your cities to give you certain capabilities. For example, if you want to build an inn, which increases your reach on the board, you need to have a Brewery, plus also a Cart Shop, a spare "man", and a spare food resource. Your city displays are grids that you place the buildings in, quite a bit like Princes of Florence. As you build more cities, you get more grids.
A key element of the game is your "zone of control," a term wargamers will be familiar with, except in this game it's like the Maginot Line has a ZOC - you might expand it, but it ain't going anywhere. Everything you do has to happen within two spaces of your city on the "countryside" map. And you can do quite a bit - you can go fishing for pearls, fish, or shells (for dye); grow wine, sheep, grain, or olives; mine for gold or stone; or cut down trees. In addition, you can increase your ZOC by building Inns, and build cities.
At no time do you want to forget to leave any of the green resources (mostly food, but also wine and wood) available for use. If you don't have wood, you can't set up a woodcutter. If you don't have a "seed" (spare) food/wine counter, you can't start a farm. This is really where the complexity of the game happens - you will find yourself planning a few turns out to build a second city, only to realize that you needed the wood to start another woodcutter. When the rules say the game is unforgiving, this is a big part of why, as there are very limited ways to get a specific type of resource.
Perhaps the most unusual part of the game is that things get tight in your cities because of "famine" (really how well you can feed your people) and on the countryside map due to "pollution" (which includes running out of the resources in the area). Famine more or less increases every turn, and for each point of famine not countered by a Granary or stored food you have to put a Grave on your city display. While a Hospital will help some by removing graves every turn, you can get to a point in the late game where there are more graves coming in than you can handle. If you run out of open spaces in your city to put the graves, you have to start putting them on buildings, thereby losing the use of the building until you can remove the grave. This is a relatively small problem early, but it does accelerate the need for a second city within six or so turns.
Aside from harvesting wood, which only changes the woods hexes to grassland, harvesting any other resource results in a pollution marker in the space. This is perhaps a bit more of a problem early, as you have to also put down three pollution markers per city per turn until you build a Dump and/or Fountains. Fortunately, once you get a few of these built, pollution becomes less of a problem until the late mid-game when you need to start cleaning up your mountain and sea areas so you can start getting more of the luxury items and stone.
Another interesting element is that you get to pick your victory condition - When you build a cathedral, you pick a victory condition and it's associated Special Mutant Power. For example, if you pick the saint that lets you buy houses (the way you get more men to man buildings and harvest resources) for cheap, your victory condition is that you build all of your houses. There is also a saint that gives you all four Mutant Powers, but you have to achieve two victory conditions. If you change your mind into the game, you can always build a Faculty of Theology, raze the cathedral, then build a new one with a new condition (although you can't raze the one that gives you all four powers, that would be too obvious of a strategy).
I had played a short solitaire game (two countryside hexes, just me building stuff) to get a handle on the rules and how best to sequence the early game. In our game, to minimize any game-destroying situations, we played with no famine or pollution phases, although we did advance the famine track as if we were playing that phase. With all of the exploration markers we found advancing the track, we were up to 10 famine by the time we decided to start incorporating those two phases. of course, right before we reached that point, we figured out that we had all made some sort of big mistake. In my case, I realized that I no longer had woodcutters, so I couldn't buy a granary to mitigate the coming famine because I had to use the one wood I had to start a new woodcutter.
The whole game is like this. You are ready to build a hospital to free up some grave space, but you realize you have to build a new city first, which means you can't do that until the Field phase, so you can't build the hospital, so you have to cover existing buildings that you were hoping to use for something else that turn. In some ways, the game is even more unforgiving than, say, 18xx games or Age of Steam. Chris, in our game ran out of wood and couldn't build a Marketplace which would allow him to trade for wood, or a woodcutter, both of which require, you guessed it, wood. So, unlike Puerto Rico, you can put yourself in a pretty good hole if you aren't paying very close attention.
By running into these sorts of problems, we ended up extending the game by quite a bit. Also, this game is quite simply not playable within two hours with four players. Since much of the game is played essentially solitaire anyway, it almost makes more sense to play two two-player games instead of one four-player game. We began at 12:30pm, ended at 4:30pm and were probably three or four turns from someone winning (clearly Alex, although Chris wasn't far behind).
So, what's the verdict? I'll start with the issues. First, there is a missing cube from each color. Splotter claims you only get 21 cubes with each game, but if you do a little simple math it is clear you really need 22 (although not every player in every game will get to the point where they need the final cube). Second, the countryside pieces are slightly warped, so that if you use some pieces on their back side, the tiles can slide over each other. Third, about half of the tiles have some poor color registration, although the worst problem is with the water hexes that are very hard to differentiate. Finally, the game requires a considerable amount of play before you start to "get" it. For someone who has learned dozens of wargames over the years, this is not such a big deal, but if you consider this game for a group used to 90 minute euros, don't expect to feel comfortable with the system for at least two or three plays. The rules aren't difficult, but the choices you make are almost all critical.
Oh, and the resource/pollution counters really need to be clipped as you are constantly stacking them. And there are a lot of counters, well over 1000 of the little angels.
Despite all of that, this game has the potential to be my favorite luck-free game (OK, almost luck-free; the Exploration counters and the map layout are random). I'm very interested in trying this out with two players, as the game definitely scales time-wise with more players. Unlike 18xx, there is very little interaction in early turns, so I could see the first four or five turns taking only about 10 minutes with experienced players. Being able to choose your own victory conditions is great, and other than building the field structures, there is little downtime (unless you are the guy taking a long time to figure out what to build in their city and how to man it.
I found the game to combine a lot of the elements I liked in R&B but without the complicated resource tree (in Ant, while there are eight resources, they are really only of three or four types). Building your city up requires you to be very conscious of what is important right now along with what you'll need in a turn or three. As such, the strategic element of the game is huge, and the early game solitaire-like separation ensures that you can start on your path more or less unimpeded, only to start running into competition for arable and buildable space later on. While we did spend four hours playing, it sped by and I could have played another hour easily. With R&B, I was getting a bit tired of the system a good 30 minutes before we finished.
While this game is back in print, at least until the copies run out, it is very expensive compared to almost every other game you can buy other than monster wargames. If you don't mind playing eBay prices on desireable out-of-print games, $90 won't bug you. As such, I would still have a hard time justifying this purchase if I didn't feel like I couldn't get my money back in a couple of years. Too bad, because this is a pretty good game, especially if you really like development games with low-luck.
Thanks to Alex, Liz, and Chris for coming by and giving this game a play.