I recently picked up a copy of Canal Grande since I'm both on an Adlung Spiele collection building kick, I frequently play 2p games, and I did enjoy San Marco. Canal Grande is an entirely card-based implementation of San Marco which tries to retain the core divide-and-choose mechanic while doing away with the board and bridges and anything that couldn't be fitted into a single deck box of cards.
The object of the game is to build up control of the districts of Venice in order to become the next Doge. There are six regions represented by different coloured cards. The winning condition is either winning at least one card from each of the six regions or overwhelming control (4 of 5 cards) from any one region. The colours aren't that easy to distinguish in low light, but the cards also have region names which helps.
In addition to the region cards, the deck has four types of action cards, spies, gondolas, traitors and Doges. During the game, these are mixed in with the region cards and made into sets which are divided among the players. Spies allow two cards to be secretly drawn from the draw deck, traitors allow a card to be stolen blind from the hand of the other player. Doge cards permit a vote to be started, gondolas allow cards from other regions to be used in votes.
Players of San Marco will recall the number cards which count as a form of negative points among the players. In Canal Grande, number cards of values 1-3 are drawn from a separate deck and divided among the two piles of action and region cards. Since players should try to avoid them, they are helpful to balance the useful action cards when making up sets. These are perhaps the weakest of the graphic design elements. The numbers in the corner of each card are clear enough, but the main card graphics is a horrible pattern with the number embossed.
A 'round' consists of alternating plays until one player has accumulated at least 10 points. Players take it in turns to be the dividing player. They take 5 action and region cards from one stack and 3 number cards from the number card stack and then must divide the cards into two piles each containing at least one card.
The player who did not divide the cards chooses and takes one of those piles, taking region and gondola cards into their hand and immediately acting on spy, traitor and Doge cards. Number cards are left face up on the table in front of the player who took them.
Spy and traitor cards are straightforward to resolve, taking two cards from the draw pile (redrawing any further spies and resolving doge and traitor cards), or taking a card from the other player's hands.
Any Doge cards are resolved by starting a vote in a region. The active player lays down one or more cards from one region to start a vote. The other player must respond with enough cards from that region to gain a majority or concede. This continues until the vote is conceded.
Players may also choose to bring in any number of cards from one other district into the competition by playing a gondola card from their hand. Further groups from that region require another gondola card.
After the vote has been conceded by one side, the winner discards all their played cards and places one of the initial region cards face up in front of them. The losing player discards their first player region cards and any gondolas, but takes any other region cards back into their hand.
Once the first chooser has taken all their actions, the divider takes up the remaining pile, taking regions and gondolas into the hand and acting on spies, traitors and Doge cards in the same way.
The players exchange roles and the first choosing player now becomes the divider and takes another set of 5 + 3 cards and divides them.
The round ends after a division when one of the players has at least 10 points of number cards face up in front of them. If the other player has fewer points, they get the advantage of drawing 3 more cards secretly from the draw deck (Acting on traitor cards but drawing replacement for spy or doge cards). The player with the lowest number of points also receives the advantage of being the first chooser in the next round.
A new round is started with all region/action and number cards being reshuffled into two new draw piles. Players retain their hands and any region cards won in votes.
The game ends as soon as one of the players has won either four cards from a single district or one card from each of the 6 districts.
The guaranteed loss of one card makes it really dangerous to initiate a contest if you're likely to lose it. Since the Doge card triggers a non-optional contest, it can actually be a heavily negative card for the player with the smaller hand to take. They're almost guaranteed to lose a contest losing a card from their hand and handing it to their opponent.
It seems that the draw-3-cards advantage to the player leading in number cards is an almost unstoppable advantage, particularly if they draw some additional traitor cards to cause even more damage. Once a player has a few extra region cards, they can much more safely take a Doge and likely win critical battles with a gondola.
One cute feature of the pickup order is that if the first-chooser picks up any Traitor cards, they are not able to take any of the new cards because the second chooser won't have picked them up yet. It isn't clear who this helps, but the extra information is probably useful. This also means the first to choose has an advantage in what votes they choose to start, since they should have more cards.
This isn't a bad little game. It doesn't take that long to play and has elements which feel undeniably like some of the mechanisms in San Marco. I have some doubts whether it's completely balanced, particularly in the 3 card draw at the end of the round, so it's difficult to catch a leader, but that's less of a problem in a short game.
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I think Canal Grande is a wonderful reworking of the classic San Marco to a two-player game. It's full of tension and tough decisions and most games come down to the very last play. It keeps the essence of San Marco, but it's its own game with its own tactics and gameplay. It remains one of my favorite two-player games, although I don't get the chance to play it as much as I'd like.
That said, it has one of the worst set of components I've ever seen, particularly for such a simple game. The colors are a bit hard to distinguish, but that's one of the lesser problems. The artwork on the Action Cards is incredibly ugly. The Doge looks like a bizarre character from one of those obscure Norwegian films that MST used to lampoon. The card indexing is all screwed up (it's impossible to arrange your cards so that you can see them all). It's just a miserable job of physical production and completely unnecessary. Fortunately, the game is so good that I'm willing to overlook it, but I can't help shaking my head everytime I play it.
I agree that it's a better 2-player reworking of San Marco than you'd expect would be possible, but it's still a little unconvincing to my mind.
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I just played Canal Grande after a long break and let's just say it wasn't the most pleasant reintroduction. It's not a very interesting game and the awful components don't help a bit.