Alan and Wai Keen were the first to arrive and they'd dinner at Fatt Kee downstairs while waiting for Jeff to be back to the centre. We have four gamers now - Alan, Wai Keen, Lai Wah and Jeff - so we decided to start with Die Handler, a largely obscure German game in the mainstream market but which we find very challenging to play. Not so much in depth but more in the gameplay and the interactions between the players. In short, the game allows us to give as hard as we take.
And for those who like non-confrontational games, well there's always Gulo Gulo
The game (Die Handler) is in German, published by Queen's Game and there's no English translation. But the gameboard and components (except for the Influence cards) are generally language independent. We printed our own Influence cards in English and have them laminated. We've played this game twice - both as 3-player games - but we feel that this game is best played as in 4-player mode.
This game is about us being merchants (or dealers) who ply the routes between six cities - Paris, Brugge, Koln (Cologne), Wien (Vienna), Genf and Genoa - to hawk and sell our goods. The winner is the one with the highest social status (kinda like Datuk and Tan Sri). You climb the social status ladder by paying a one time fee to acquire the new status (for each level) and also a maintenance fee (per turn). If you do not have enough money to maintain your current social status, you drop down to a lower level. Yes being a Tan Sri can be high maintenance. LOL.
We started with bidding for the Special Abilities cards. There are 8 special abilities and each player is allowed to have two. In the Basic Game, the special abilities are grouped into sets of two and each player selects randomly one set. The sets are arranged to create some balance of power. But the best way to play this game is to allow each player to choose their own abilities of choice - but at a price determined by an open bidding market!
Each player starts with 5,000 guilders and you can assumed money will be tight later in this game. The 8 abilities up for bid are: Office, Large Office, Courier, Express Courier, Warehouse Selling, Favorable Purchasing, Driver and Great Driver.
Alan was chosen to be the 1st Player and he started the bidding by going for Warehouse Selling ability (base 200 guilders). Jeff upped him and won this special ability. Play proceeded clockwise for each player to get their own chance to bid... until all 8 abilities were acquired (with the last power going to the remaining player at cost). The distribution of abilities were as follow:
Alan - Favourable Purchasing, Great Driver
Jeff Au - Warehouse Selling, Courier
Lai Wah - Express Courier, Large Office
Wai Keen - Office, Driver
The game now starts with each player purchasing up to 6 goods. Alan (being the Favorable Purchaser) got to buy his 6 goods for a mere 200 guilders. The others bought theirs for 600 guilders.
Next was the bidding for the privilege of being Wagon Loader for the three wagons at Paris, Koln and Genoa. Some fierce biddings ensued and wagon loaders were won by three players except Alan. Since he was the Favorable Purchaser, the wagon loaders tried to extract a premium from him to load his goods. The average price to load goods were sold at 100-150 guilders a piece but Alan was offered no less than 300 guilders. He steadfastly refused and as a result was the only player not having any goods loaded on the initial 3 wagons.
The game continued with the wagons leaving their respective cities and some (those with many goods) arriving quickly in other cities. The courier were in play a few times and all except Wai Keen got to choose a few Influence cards with Jeff taking up Free Loading (2), Alan went for Free Loading and Social Climbing and Lai Wah took Social Climbing (2).
The Free Loading card allows the player to force the wagon loader to accept two goods from them for free, while the Social Climbing card gives the player the privilege of buying his next level in the Social Status Ladder for 1,200 guilders only. This is a very useful card especially if you consider that towards the end, moving up the Social Status ladder may cost you upwards of 2,000 guilders (see later paragraph).
In almost every turn, there's the opportunity for players to do a "take-this" to other players. He can maneuver a wagon towards a city that offers no special sale bonus to those who have goods in that wagon, or mess around the Price Chart so that players are forced to sell their goods at low price. The Favorable Purchaser tends to buy up low-priced goods (at 100 guilders for 3) so that other players have to pay higher cost to acquire new goods to trade.
There's almost no downtime in this game as you need to be fully aware of the movement of the wagons, the types of goods in each cities, the number of remaining goods available for purchase, who has incentive to move a wagon to where, the location of the courier (to obtain Influence cards) and the remaining Movement cards that your opponents can play.
Everyone has 4 Movement Cards - numbered 1-4. Each card allows the player to move a wagon the number of spaces shown on the card. Once used, the card is turned face down and cannot be re-use until all four movement cards have been used up. This allows the players to size each other up and determine how many moves their opponents can do on the wagons.
The game ends when 8 wagons have arrived and unloaded the goods. Players need to time their purchasing and goods loading to ensure they maximize their investment. Very often we see players buying goods at exorbitant cost yet unable to load them onto wagons to sell - and thus convert into cashflow.
Cashflow as I mentioned earlier will be tight in this game. Beside using the guilders for purchasing goods, you need them to buy your way up the Society, with the Social Status cost going up as more wagons checked into cities (and the game reaching its conclusion). But if you move up the ladder too fast too early, the upkeep cost (which you have to pay at the end of each turn regardless whether any wagon checks into a city) can become a burden for you.
On the other hand, since you can only buy yourself up two rungs of the Social Status ladder, if the other players are moving up the Social Status and you are not keeping up with the Jones, you may find yourself too far away to overtake them later (as Alan found out to his dismay). It's a case of "follow your neighbour" while trying to act as though you can maintain the cost of the new lifestyle! Sounds familiar? LOL.
After much wheeling and dealing, threats and cooperation being given and taken here and there - the 4th and 5th wagons checked into Genf and Genoa with the wagon in Genf carrying goods from ALL players but the one in Genoa carrying goods from Lai Wah and Jeff only. This obviously means cashflow-wise, Lai Wah and Jeff would be better off than the other two players having more goods to sell.
At this stage, we have three players - Lai Wah, Wai Keen and Jeff - sitting equally high in the Social Status ladder (as Gildemeister - Level 4) with Alan still in Level 1. Alan quickly played his two Social Climbing cards to upgrade himself to a Grokhandler (Level 3) for a mere 2,400 guilders while the rest upgraded themselves one level to Amtmann (Level 5).
The 6th wagon is about to check in, waiting just outside the gates of Genua. This wagon carries goods for everyone except Lai Wah. The players then bid for the two wagons in Genf and Genoa as these will likely be the wagons making the last two trips. Wai Keen and Alan both won the bids, Jeff making use of his Free Loading card on Genf to load his goods and soon the wagons made their way out of Genf and Genoa while the 6th wagon checked into Genoa.
When the wagon from Genoa made its way to Wein, after selling off all their goods, the players hauled themselves up the Social Status ladder again. Lai Wah surprised everyone by paying a hefty 3,700 guilders to upgrade herself to become an Oldermann (Level 7, highest is Level 8). Each upgrade cost 2,500 guilders now and she used her Social Climbing card to get a special discount on the upgrade cost (paid 1,200 instead of 2,500 guilders for one level). Wai Keen and Jeff can only upgrade one level to Patrizier (Level 6) while Alan also moved one level up to Gildemeister (Level 4).
When the last wagon arrived in Koln, after selling off their goods and paying their upkeep cost, no one had enough cashflow to pay the 3,000 guilders upgrade cost to push for a winning stake in the game. Therefore the game ended with Lai Wah as the eventual winner and Jeff 2nd (after tied with Wai Keen on Social Status but winning on total cash on hand).
Lai Wah - Level 7 (Oldermann), cash 2,100 guilders
Jeff - Level 6 (Patrizier), cash 2,600 guilders
Wai Keen - Level 6 (Patrizier), cash 1,800 guilders
Alan - Level 4 (Gildemeister), cash 1,200 guilders
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