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SPIEL '17 Preview: Minute Realms, or A City-Builder By Any Other Name...

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Minute Realms from Stefano Castelli and dV Giochi is billed as "the most compact city-building game ever", but I think that statement does a disservice to the game because if you're like me, you have certain expectations when it comes to city-building games. When you play something in this genre, you probably expect (1) adjacency to matter in some way, such as when you're rewarded for building a park next to a playground or punished for building a slaughterhouse next to the kindergarten, and (2) expansion opportunities for things that already exist, such as being able to place additional floors on a building or upgrade a school to a college.

Minute Realms doesn't have either of these elements, and while technically each player is building their own city, they're building a city in some undefined medieval-ish time period when it might be good to have a monastery (depending on your particular circumstances in the game), but you don't care where it goes and the monastery isn't going to be altered once you plop it in whatever random spot seems best.

Instead I'd classify Minute Realms — with "minute" being pronounced like the unit of time, not like something extremely small — as a set-collection game, and the elements of those sets are city buildings from some undefined medieval-ish time period. Assemble — one might say "build", but I'm not that one — the best collection of buildings, and you win the game.

More precisely, Minute Realms is a set-collection game with a tight money management system. You will likely always be hustling for coins, and if you're not, then you're probably doing something wrong.

Taking a big picture look at this minute game, each round you add one card to your city, and at the end of eight rounds you tally the points in your city to see who wins. Most cards have a fixed point value, while some score based on how many buildings of a particular category (e.g., production or clerical) you have and a handful have special scoring rules, such as the bank in the image below which is worth 1 point for each coin you hold at the end of the game or the market that nets you 6 points for having one or more pairs of the indicated categories you have.

Looking for nobility to maximize my market

That's simple enough, but how do you acquire the cards? At the start of each round, one card is dealt face up in front of each player and two cards are placed in the center of the table. The round's starting player can take the card in front of them or they can swap their card for any other card revealed this round — but only if they can complete the trading requirements shown in the upper right corner of the card. (You ignore these requirements on the card in front of you, and this is important for several reasons explained later.) A red dot means you have to pay the cardholder (or the bank if the card is in the center of the table) 1 coin, a green dot means you receive a coin from the bank (since these are mostly production and residential buildings which supply resources and labor for your city), and a dude means you place an invader token face down on the round tracker board.

Wait, invaders? Yes, you might get sacked by invaders twice during Minute Realms, and this element does have you scratching your beard (or clean-shaven chin as the case might be) and thinking, "Maybe this is something of a city-building game after all", before you reject that notion and plant your foot firmly in the category of set-collecting. Let us maintain rigid categories against all reason!

At most one invader token can be placed in the round tracker each round, and these invaders have strength ranging from 0-2 so they're not overwhelming, but you're a wimpy city planner set collector, so a 2 is plenty strong enough to knock you on your back. You don't look at these tokens now; just let them set menacingly on the board while you get on with other things.

First round in a four-player game; note that the coin color will differ slightly in the final production

Once you've decided on a card and fulfilled any trading requirements needed, you can decide to pay the coin cost in the upper-left corner and add the card to your non-city or you can flip the card face down to provide 2 units of defense against invaders while also earning 2 coins from the bank. Why do you receive money when you build defense? Perhaps the burgess is paying you to pay the people manning the walls? I'm not sure, but I think it boils down to "This makes the game better". Some buildings cannot be turned down, however, and these are typically the ones you most want to turn down, but that's life in Minute Realms.

Once everyone has taken a card and either built it or faceplanted it, you throw away the two cards in the center, rotate the start player position, advance the stack of invaders on the round tracker board, then do it again. At the end of the fourth round, you reveal any invaders who have showed up, and any player who doesn't have enough defense to match the strength of the invaders must flip one of their flippable buildings face down. The invaders burnt it down, so you made the best of the situation by turning the rubble into a bastion. You then do this four more rounds, then face the invaders once again, this time summing all the invaders who popped in over the course of eight rounds.

25 points, thanks to four categories and the ? being either clerical, military, or production

As a card game, Minute Realms has all the ups and downs that you'd expect of such. Sometimes your purse is empty, and a fountain that will give you four coins as a trading requirement lands on the table as a gift unto you — and then sometimes that fountain lands in front of you when the trading requirement is void. No coins for you! Sometimes you're skirting on the edge of probability and hoping that lone invader token is a 1 or 0, and you're able to take the card in front of you to remove the lone invader icon from play so that no one else can trade for it and direct the invaders to your door — and sometimes you can't.

I've played Minute Realms seven times on a pre-production copy from dV Giochi — once with five players, twice with three, and four times with two — and while that number might seem excessive for someone just previewing a game, it turned out to be a great experience. The deck scales to match the player count, so with experience you always know the buildings that comprise the deck; they come out at random, of course, but after a few playings, you start to know what's in the deck and you can anticipate what might be coming out in the rounds that remain. You get a feel for the rhythm of spending and collecting coins, although I can't pretend to be good at it or even think there's an ideal way to do it.

Building cards you might encounter

Best of all, I was surprised in the seventh game when one of my opponents morphed into an attack strategy halfway through the game. The other two of us initially laughed about him repeatedly choosing cards that featured invaders, but we didn't conceive of it as a strategy until near the end of the game when we both realized that we had been building defensively while he had just plowed ahead with a face-up building strategy, being content to lose one building when the horde of invaders came because that would still leave everything else standing — and even with the defenses we had built, the other player and I still took a hit from the invaders, giving our attack-heavy friend the victory.

I've harped plenty of times on the value of a reviewer listing how often they've played a game, and this experience was yet another example of why that's important. After five playings, I thought Minute Realms a decent set-collection game, albeit somewhat dry with two as you had only four choices available each round and you were often content to take an action that would hurt the opponent as a way of helping yourself, but then I finally played it with three players and found it brisk and more lively, then again with three to discover this new approach to the game. Sometimes you just don't know what you're going to find in a game until it hits you in the face and flips your building upside down, so best not to pretend that you've figured everything out; instead, be up front with your audience as to what your experience has been and let them figure out for themselves what they think about the game.

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