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2011 New Year's resolution: Play games from my collection I haven't yet tried.
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Phoenicia - so what'll it be, eh?

The Dave
United States
La Jolla
California
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I always try to take advantage of Mikki’s willingness to play new games when she visits. She really enjoyed Tigris & Euphrates, and we thought about playing it a second time, but unfortunately The Wife informed us that dinner is ready, and until I get this table, that means games have to be cleaned up so we can actually use our table for dining…whatever The Wife.

I have been reading, re-reading, re-re-reading, and re-re-re-reading the rules of Phoenicia since I got it a year ago (or more accurately the rules, the Rules Forum, the re-written rules, and the player guides). I have read how great it is, especially as an auction/civ game for two players. I have also read how terrible it is, how un-intuitive it is, and how you simply can’t forgive how fiddly, cumbersome, and frustrating the game is. I am drawn to the idea of a meaty, unforgiving game that plays in under an hour, but I also know my main playing partner The Wife is loathe to sit through a game multiple times just to figure out how to play it. She prefers games that she can pick up quickly, but still allow for some deep or clever thinking. I have really wanted to try Phoenicia, but didn’t want to introduce it to The Wife before I could decide if it was right for her or not. I also wanted to see who was right – the “this game sucks!” crowd, or the “this game rocks!” crowd.

With Mikki being up for slogging through what might be a pretty inaccessible game, we decided to give it a go. I’m glad we did because I was able to form a pretty solid opinion of the game from just one play. Read on to find out what it is

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I will now review Phoenicia according to the following criteria. Keep in mind this is a review of the game after only one play.

Accessibility (1): How easy was the game to teach and learn? Is it complex and/or fiddly? Are the rules easy to understand and follow? How long did it take to go over the rules?

Fun (1): Is it fun? Included in this might be a theme-to-mechanics metric, or a player interaction metric.

Length of first play (1): Some games say 60-90 minutes, but the first play might take you 3 hours. Not included is length of rules explanation.

Desire to play again (1): Typically I would rather play a new game than play a game I’ve already played (with some exceptions). I know – I am crazy. This will be a good measure of how much I like the game.

Review:

Accessibility:

Oh boy – yup. The rules are pretty bad, but I think it’s not necessarily the rules’ fault. It seems to me like Phoenicia is a beast of a game. It’s meaty, and fierce, and unforgiving, and vicious. It also is compact, and quick, and efficient. The component choices create complexity – for example the way you keep track of your production and VP with workers, and in particular how you change those values when upgrading workers brings about moments where you have to really think about what your new score is. I think for most gamers that is a nonstarter – we like intuitiveness and ease of use in our games, and Phoenicia simply doesn’t provide that. That said, I think after two or three plays those kinds of issues will be resolved, as players will know how to handle them and do so with ease and automaticity (these issues include the aforementioned production/VP tracking issue, the symbology on the buildings, and keeping track of money, coins, and when, how, and if you can trade in either for the other).

So by mid-game Mikki and I sort of understood what was going on and definitely by the end of the game we had switched from learning the game to playing the game. Typically I find it to be a good sign when players can make that switch sometime during the first game.

That being said, if you plan to play this game, I recommend this set of rules, and also make sure you have access to BGG so you can quickly look up any rules questions you might have.

Score: .3

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Fun:

Phoenicia is moderately fun for a first play. Mikki and I enjoyed the game, but for the most part our first play was spent trying to learn the game. It’s fiddly. It’s complex. I couldn’t figure out how to determine how much production/VP I gained from upgrading workers. I let Mikki have the only granary for pretty cheap, and she ended up slaying me partly because of that. The forced trading of coins for cards and then discarding money over your limit really killed me a few times, and I didn’t play well within those confines (for example buying tools or training a worker before I lost money – I failed to do that a few times because I misjudged my production).

Ultimately though, I understand where the “this game rocks!” crowd is coming from. I could clearly see why I was getting crushed, and I felt I knew exactly how to correct it the next time I played. Also, there is nothing wrong with a game being brutal and unforgiving. Chances are good that it won’t be as accessible or fun for as many players as a game that is more forgiving, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad game.

Did I have fun playing Phoenicia? Not really. But I enjoyed it. And I think more fun will follow with future plays.

Score: .4

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Length of first play:

Here too I can see how Phoenicia will move along at a brisk pace once all players know how the game flows, can quickly and automatically adjust their production and VP, are fluid with the mechanics of the monetary system (including storage and exchange), and understand the various “tech” pathways.

Because neither Mikki nor I fit any part of that description, our first play was probably closer to 2 hours (not including rules explanation, but including stoppage for re-reading rules or seeking clarification on BGG). That’s a bit long, and it was quite frustrating at times for the game to grind to a halt as we looked up what a certain symbol meant, or the exact timing of a certain phase of the game.

Score: .5

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Desire to play again:

Ok – here’s the truth of the matter. I think I’m in the “this game rocks!” camp. I definitely want to play it again. I also think The Wife would enjoy it, but probably only superficially. I, on the other hand, can see wanting to play this regularly with the same few people to explore the different strategies. This seems like the kind of game where you might become “known” for doing certain things, and I think it would be very fun to match wits over this game with some of my gaming group.

I need to figure out a way to make this game a bit more accessible (as the teacher of the game), but I can see this game being played quite a bit. I definitely would welcome seeing it hit my table again.

Score: .8

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OVERALL: 2/4

Phoenicia certainly deserves the reputation it has, whatever that might be. For some it probably does suck – whether that is because the rules prevent entry to the game, or because once started the game is brutal and unforgiving. If a player feels that way, there is nothing to change that perception. I tell my friends that I don’t like Coldstone Ice Cream because it is too creamy and they always say “That’s the whole point of Coldstone – it’s supposed to be creamy!” I always reply that that seems to be a perfectly legit reason not to like it, then! Similarly, Phoenicia is a game that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a quick and fierce auction/civ game that you should approach with caution. If you like that kind of thing, though, Phoenicia is brilliant. It is overlooked and the bashing it receives overshadows the fact that there seems to be a pretty great game hiding there. I’m excited to try it again, and having purchased it for under $20, I will definitely be getting my money’s worth out of this game!
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