Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
Designed by: Reiner Stockhausen
Released by: Alea
3 - 5 Players, 60 - 90 minutes
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review also appeared in Counter Magazine #17
The fantasy theme is one that just won't go away and, in fact, seems to be timeless. Just how many games have come down the pike utilizing a theme that involves wizards, dragons, dwarves, elves or some other mythical creature? The mind boggles at the sheer number. I guess the theme sells, and with the recent rush of excitement surrounding the Lord of the Rings movies, new life has once again been breathed into the genre.
Now along comes Die Sieben Weisen (The Seven Wise Ones), yet another European game tied into a mystical theme. The game is one of the crop introduced at the Nurnberg Game show and is designed by Reiner Stockhausen, whose last effort was Dolce Vita. It is part of the Alea line of games, which immediately caught my attention since I am a sucker for just about anything released under their label. In my book, the Alea guru Steffan Brueck is a genius ... and a super nice guy, too! I just hope Ravensburger continues to support the label, realizing that it is a "gamer's" line of games and not expect it to sell in the same numbers as the Ravensburger family line. It would be a sad day if the Alea line were discontinued.
Like many other games, Die Sieben Weisen adopts mechanics from several different games, including Reiner Knizia�s Taj Mahal and Bruno Faidutti's Ohne Furcht und Adel. However, the adopted mechanisms are given clever twists, which helps make the game feel decidedly original. After my initial playing at the recent Gathering of Friends, I just knew I had to have a copy and was fortunate enough to scoop a copy from the prize table.
Players represent elders vying for crystals at various mystical locations. These locations are represented by large hexes, each depicting a portion of Stonehenge. Each hex also lists the seven elders, ranked differently on each hex. Three of these hexes are initially set out and form the 'board', with two scoring tracks being placed on either side, effectively sandwiching these three hexes.
There are seven potential elders available in the game: Magician, Priestess, Healer, Druid, Witch, Alchemist and Seer. One of these is removed when playing with four players. The six elders are each represented by two plaques, which are placed below the hex board.
One of the two decks of cards contains seven suits matching each of the elders. Cards in each suit carry a value of 1 - 7, with one card of each except for the '1', of which there are two cards in each suit. There are also several 'owl' cards, which serve as wild cards, and carry values ranging from 3 - 5. Each player begins the game with eight cards.
The remaining card deck is the spell deck, with a variety of special powers that can be utilized by the players to interrupt the normal flow of play and/or grant special abilities. Each player begins the game with one spell card and can acquire new ones during the course of the game only when losing a power struggle.
The components themselves are standard Alea quality with some nice, but
basic artwork on the hexes. The mood is rather subdued, with dark and muted colors on the components. If the idea was to evoke a mystical feeling, it works. Even the cardboard crystal tokens, which are the victory points, have a shiny silver finish, which is quite nice.
In describing the mechanics, I will be assuming that the game is being played by four players. The mechanics with 3 or 5 players are slightly altered.
Play begins with a randomly determined start player. From that point on, the start player is determined by the mechanics of the game. The start player selects one of elder power to represent this round and takes the appropriate plaques. In clockwise order, every other player also does the same. This selection process evokes the feel of Ohne Furcht und Adel and its predecessor, Verrater. After this selection process, there will be two elders remaining unused during the current round.
Once everyone has selected an elder, players then enter a brief negotiation round in attempts to secure a partner in the upcoming duel. The idea here is to find a player whom you can help by trading some of your cards with him. For example, if Jim selected the Magician and you have one or more magician cards in your hand, you may want to partner with him ... provided, of course, he has a card or two he can pass to you, too. Players are feel to reveal as much information about the cards they possess as they desire and may even show cards to their prospective partners. If a deal is struck, players are also free to exchange cards with their new partner. The purpose here is to supplement your hand with cards of your chosen elder and help your partner do the same. Thus, your team will be stronger entering the upcoming power struggle.
Negotiations for a partner are usually quite quick, with players stating such things as, "Keith, you're the Druid .. I can help you with 2 cards. Can you help me?" After a few quick inquiries and responses, teams are chosen. Nearly all of our negotiations take less than 30 seconds or so. If this area of the game were to drag out, it could easily tarnish the game. Fortunately, in all of my games, this process has been handled quickly.
Once the teams are formed and any cards exchanged, the power struggle begins. Teams are represented by placing the appropriate plaques on both sides of the scoring track. The player whose elder is listed highest in the hierarchy listed on the current hex begins the battle by playing one card. A player may only play one card and it must be a card matching the elder the player is representing this round. The only other alternatives are to play a spell card or to pass. If a player passes, however, he is out of the struggle and
his partner must continue the struggle alone.
Card play continues in a clockwise fashion, with each player laying one card or passing. As a card is played, the score marker is moved up or down the track to indicate the number of points being scored by the teams. It is this card play that is reminiscent of Taj Mahal. A kind of 'chicken' match ensues as players must decide how long they will remain in the fight and when to cut their losses and drop out. Staying in a match too long can be severe as at the end of a round, each player will only draw two cards to supplement their hand. Thus, if you play four or five cards in a struggle, your overall hand size will be diminished for the next round. If you get involved in a few lengthy consecutive battles, you may well find yourself crippled for several rounds to come. Be warned!
But just what are the players fighting for? Crystals, of course! Onto each hex will be placed two crystals, with each crystal possessing a value of 2 - 7 points. The winning team in a power struggle will capture the crystals, with the player possessing the highest ranking elder at that location (as listed on the hex) receiving the crystal of greater value. If there is a large disparity in the value of the crystals, the player with the highest ranking elder will be forced to keep a wary eye on his teammate lest he abandon the fight or cast a nasty spell to alter the outcome. Just how far can you trust your partner?
When a player opts to pass, he is out of the current struggle and cannot re-enter. However, he does get to re-supply his hand before his opponents. He draws five cards from the deck and adds them to his current hand. Then, from his entire hand, he sets aside three cards, which will be passed to the next player who withdraws from the power struggle. Each subsequent player who withdraws from the struggle will receive the three cards passed to him from the previous player, along with two cards from the deck. In all cases, each player is only allowed to keep two of the five cards he collects. Believe me, keeping only two cards is a hardship, especially when you�ve just played several cards in a heated power struggle.
When all players have passed, the winning team receives the power crystals, divided as described above. All is not lost for the vanquished team, however, as each of these players receives a new spell card. The player who had the lowest ranking elder at the current location then decides which of the two remaining hexes will be visited next, and he moves the token to that hex. That player will also get to select the elder he wishes to represent in this round first, with the remaining players selecting their elder in clockwise order. The just completed hex is then discarded and a new one is put in its place.
This entire process is continued until the 'finish' hex is revealed and placed. At that point, no new hexes will be placed when a power struggle is completed. As soon as a player moves the token onto the 'finish' hex, the game is concluded. At this point, players then set their remaining cards out by suit, including the wild 'owl' cards, and tally the values on the cards for each suit separately. For each suit that a player has the greatest total of points, he receives a 1 point crystal. Again, this is reminiscent of Taj Mahal. After this is completed, players tally the value of all of their crystals and the player with the greatest total is victorious.
There are some added elements of spice, however. First, I mentioned that each suit contains two cards with the value of '1'. Played alone, this is the weakest card. However, if a single player plays BOTH 1's of the same suit in a struggle, the value of these two 1's are increased to 10! Thus, holding on to those 1's can be important, as you either hope to draw its duplicate when replenishing your hand or have it traded to you during the negotiation phase. However, the danger is that if you don't get the duplicate, you have diminished the power of your hand. Yet another tough choice.
The spell cards add some variety and clever twists to the proceedings. There are variety of spell cards with two of each power being present in the deck. The powers allow a variety of special actions, including:
1) Draw three more cards into your hand;
2) Exchange elder cards with your partner. This can be quite nasty, as you can jump up on the hierarchy scale and scoop that valuable crystal at the conclusion of a power struggle! Of course, you will undoubtedly gain the enmity of your former partner, but feuds and alliances are a fickle thing in the battle for crystals!
3) Absentee. You can elect to pass, but still jump back into the struggle later during the round. This can be quite power psychologically, as the other players will wonder just what you have up your sleeve � or in your arsenal. It can be quite unnerving.
4) Remove a previously played card. You can get rid of a card played by one of your opponents .. or even your partner .. often causing a dramatic swing on the scoring track.
5) Confiscate an Owl card. You can remove a previously played Owl card from your opponent and place it into your hand. You can then play that Owl card later in this round, if you desire. Talk about a major swing on the scoring track!
There are more, but you get the idea. These spells can really shake-up the power struggle proceedings and always add a sense of tension and excitement to each duel. They are so powerful that sometimes you actually plan to lose a struggle just so you can acquire another spell card! There is no limit to the number of spell cards a player can hold, but, of course, to gain them, that means you are losing power struggles and thereby not collecting crystals. Crystals ultimately win the game, so you are forced to perform a delicate balancing act. Very nicely done.
The game is filled with tension and excitement, with the 'Taj Mahal' card play finding a great new home. Of course, if you didn't enjoy that mechanism in the Knizia game, you probably won't find it to your liking here, either. However, the game does add other clever mechanisms that help the game transcend the card play, with the whole experience being quite satisfying.
A word of caution, however: Don't play too many cards in a power struggle. My first game at the Gathering was extremely exciting and tense, with players not going overboard in their card plays to win a struggle. This gave each of the players room to maneuver in future rounds and participate in struggles when it was to their advantage. My second game, however, was tarnished when in the second round, we all participated in a major duel, depleting most of our cards. Future rounds left each of us with just a few cards and the subsequent struggles were quick and unexciting. Fortunately, we all learned our lesson from this and subsequent games, however, were much better as we were more judicious in our use of cards during the power struggles. Lesson learned.
Although I am not ordinarily a fan of fantasy themed games, mainly due to their over-saturation in the market, this one hits the mark. The theme isn�t tightly woven, but it fits. I enjoy the blending of the various mechanisms and the game has enough twists and turns to keep it exciting and fresh. This new addition to the Alea line continues their fine tradition and does not disappoint.