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My initial impressions of Agora Barcelona (Brabander, 2005 - Jep Ferret and Oriol Comas) were high. I mean, a box full of "meeples" (small wooden people) combined with an area control game sounded rather interesting. Not only that, but a map of Barcelona was included in the game (for my upcoming - ha! - trip there). I was a little more cautious after reading the rules, which seemed almost too short, and played through my first game and immediately dubbed it "El Grande lite-lite-lite".
Now, this is actually not true, although the game certainly does give the feeling of a fairly light area control game. There are tough decisions to be made, but the game is simple enough. Oddly enough, though, the game has an interesting learning curve in which players realize a critical element halfway through. I'm not thrilled with the slightly superfluous finale of the game; but it is very interesting, and gameplay keeps players occupied throughout. After several plays, I'm going to mark Agora Barcelona as a game that I enjoy and one that I would use to introduce new players to the idea of "area control".
The board shows a map of Barcelona, split into ten different districts - each denoted by a different color and name. Each district is also worth from six to ten points. A pile of sixty cards is shuffled, and ten to fifteen of them are discarded from the game (depending on the number of players). Each player takes a number of "strollers" (meeples) in their color - again, determined by the number of players, and is dealt five cards from the deck. The remainder of the cards is placed in two equal piles near the board, and one player is given the "Magic Fountain" card to delineate that they are the starting player. The first round is ready to begin.
In each round, beginning with the start player, each player takes a card from their opponent on the left. Each card represents one of the ten districts on the board, which can be seen on the front and back. Players therefore know what district card they are taking from the opponent but do not know the number on the back of it. (There are six cards for each district, numbered "1" through "5", with two "3"'s).
Once again, opening with the start player, each player plays a card from their hand and places an amount of strollers of their color in the district equal to the number shown on the card. Players may not place their meeples in such a fashion as to create a tie for the majority in a district. Players cannot play a card if they do not have enough strollers to match the number on the card but must simply discard it.
Then, each player moves two strollers of two different colors from their district to an adjacent district. The moved strollers are laid down to show that no other player can move them this round. Players again may not move the meeples to create a tie for the majority in a district, although meeples are considered to move simultaneously, so they can move two strollers in such a way as to temporarily cause a tie. (ie. There are three red meeples and two blue meeples in a territory; I move out one of the red meeples (causing a tie), but at the same time move a blue meeple in, breaking the tie).
Players then choose a card from the top of either draw deck and place it in their hands, after which all strollers on the board are stood up. The player with the Magic Fountain gives it to whomever they desire, and the next round begins. During the last five rounds of the game, when there are no longer any cards to draw, players may no longer steal cards from one another. After the last round, players add together the points in the districts in which they have the majority of the meeples. The player with the most meeples is the winner! In case of a tie, which can happen, the player with the strollers in the most territories is the winner.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: I remarked upon our first playing that if I ever ran out of meeples for Carcassonne, here was a treasure trove of additional ones. And indeed, 160 of them are included in the box - both male and female meeples. Much more interesting than normal pawns, they add a pleasant touch to the board, which is a faded, generalized map of Barcelona, with each district painted in a vibrant color. The cards are very nice - each in a different color - front and back - that matches their district. Their fronts each show a pictorial example of the specific area in that district that is mentioned on the card - done in a black and white cartoonish style. It's very nice; and although fairly superfluous to the game (only the number is really needed), it adds a bit of theme and color. Everything fits nicely into a white plastic insert in a medium-sized, thin box, and bags are included for the meeples. And did I mention that you actually get a street map of Barcelona, Spain?
2.) Rules: The rulebook, which comes in several languages, is only four pages with a lot of space taken up to show color pictures and illustrations. I wonder if they took almost too much of a "bare bones" mentality when explaining the rules, but we didn't have any questions, so maybe that is all that is needed. The game is quite simple to teach - steal a card, play a card, move two meeples. The only rule that people seemed to have trouble with (remembering it, anyway) was that at no time in a district could a tie for majority exist.
3.) Meeples: At first, it seems obvious to everyone that the cards with the "5"s and "4"s are vastly superior to the other cards. Why not get as many meeples on the board as possible? Suddenly, as the game is drawing to a close, players realize that maybe they should have played fewer meeples in the beginning of the game and kept some for the end. Since players have a limited amount of meeples, they will run out of them several turns before the end of the game, giving an advantage to the other players. Even though I've announced this in my last few games, players still have a hard time grasping this until they've played through the game and seen what dropping five strollers in one section can do during the last few turns.
4.) Strategy: The above mentioned necessity of keeping meeples is counterbalanced by the fact that players are stealing cards from you during the first several rounds anyway. Players must be careful not to hoard their high valued cards too much, because they may have many of them stolen and be stuck with meeples that they cannot play. I enjoyed how the movement of the meeples made the board very dynamic and how it was possible for a meeple to travel across the board during turns. It is possible for players to all "gang up" on one person, but I haven't noticed too much of this happening during our games. Players must realize that they will only have the chance to control a few sectors and must concentrate on them, rather than haphazardly hurling strollers across the board. In a five player game, a player who manages to control three sectors will most likely win, and the battle for each sector can be fierce.
5.) Final Turns: I'm not sure if I enjoyed the final two or three turns as much. In the games I played, most players had already placed all of their meeples on the board at this point, so it was just an exercise of constant stroller movement through the districts, which seemed a bit anti-dramatic compared to the remainder of the game. It wasn't horrible, and perhaps when players learn to hang on to some of their meeples until the end of the game things will improve; but it may be a bit off-putting to people in their initial game.
6.) Fun Factor: The gameplay is rather light and easy - stealing cards, dropping meeples, and then moving them. Moving the meeples gives players a chance to directly affect their opponents - though not in horribly confrontational ways. It's possible for players to feel like there's not much to do on the final turns of the game, but I found that careful hoarding of cards and proper placement of them near the end can lead to an exciting ending.
Agora Barcelona is a game that is deceptively simple, because a player who realizes the importance of central districts and of keeping a few good cards (and meeples) to the end of the game will most likely win. It almost requires a "learning" game, in which players realize the importance of these facts. This shouldn't dissuade you from trying out the game, because even though it’s a lighter game compared to others in the genre (China, El Grande), it fills its own nitch and is a great "tutorial" game for those being introduced to games such as these. And besides, it comes filled to the brim with meeples!
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