The design team of Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum have been quite busy as of late. They have several new games being released within the next few months, including Capitol and Das Amulett. I had the opportunity to play one of their new releases, San Marco, at the recent Gulf Games event and was anxious to introduce it to our Westbank Gamers crew. I was joined in the game by Keith, Jim and Lenny.
I've seen the game described as "El Grande lite", and that description is not far off. Players vie to obtain majority or secondary status in the six different districts of Venice, a mechanic which is familiar to many games. Not only does the game have mechanics similar to El Grande, but the appearance is strikingly similar to last year's Doge, which is also set in Venice. Hmmm ...
The game, however, is a treat to play. Alan and Aaron have incorporated a very clever 'divide the pie and choose' mechanism which I, personally, haven't seen utilized in any other game. I have been informed, however, that Derek Carver did utilize it in one of his games awhile back, but I don't think the game saw wide distribution. It's this mechanism which provides the heart beat for the entire game.
Each player begins the game with four groups of three advisors on the board, their starting location determined by four die rolls. Further, each player then places one bridge onto the board in such a manner that it connects two different districts, marking ownership of the bridge with one of their advisors (wooden cubes). The incorporation of bridges into the game is also a nice touch as it pays homage to the many magical bridges of Venice. Plus, Ravensburger went first class with this as they actually have little plastic bridges as opposed to simple wood rods. Nice.
The round begins with two players (in a four player game) being the 'distributors'. The first distributor is selected by turn order, while the second distributor is determined at random. These two players are each dealt five "action" cards and three "limit" cards. The other two players are the 'choosers', with one assigned to each distributor.
Each 'distributor' splits the cards he was dealt into two parts. Each part must contain at least one card, but other than that, the 'distributors' are free to divide the cards in whichever manner they choose. The first distributor then reveals the cards and his 'chooser' gets to select which part he will take and execute. The distributor then gets the remaining set. Once both players have executed the actions on their cards, the second group completes their selection and execution process. It is this 'divide' and 'choose' mechanism that can cause knots in the stomachs of the players as they agonize over how to divide the cards and which set to select. Some have complained that this process results in considerable downtime, but I haven't noticed any excessive delays in the two games I've played so far.
The action cards which a player selects may be executed in whichever order the player feels is most advantageous. These action cards come in several varieties:
1) Region cards: These allow the player to place an advisor into the region named on the card. He may leave the advisor there, OR cross over ONE of his bridges to an adjacent territory.
2) Bridge: This allows the player to place a bridge onto the board, marking it with an advisor to distinguish ownership. If there are no more bridges available, the player may 'steal' an opponent's bridge and relocate it, if he so desires.
3) Transfer: This allows the player to remove an opponent's advisor from a region and replace it with his own.
4) Banishment: This one is nasty. The player may name a region and roll a die. He then removes a number of advisors equal to the die roll. This can quite literally devastate an opponent. Care must be exercised, however, as the number of advisors removed must be equal to the die roll. This could force the player to remove some of his own advisors if there aren't enough opponent's advisors in the selected region.
5) Doge: This allows the player to score the region where the Doge is located. However, the player may first move the Doge to a different region, but only by traversing bridges. If the Doge moves across an opponent's bridge, the player must surrender one victory point to that opponent. If there are no bridges connecting to the region where the Doge is located, he may 'ferry' across to an adjacent region, but this costs the player 2 victory points.
When a region is scored by the play of a Doge card, the player with the most advisors in the region scores the points indicated for majority control, while the player who has the second-most advisors scores the points indicated for secondary control. If two players tie for majority control, then they both receive the points indicated for secondary control. A tie for second place yields zero points.
So just what are those 'limit' cards I mentioned? Well, these cards are valued from 1 - 3 and are included in the 'action' card mix. Once a round is complete, if a player had more than ten points of limit cards, he is OUT of the next round. His opponents get to play one more round, after which the turn ends. Further, at the end of a round, the player with the lowest total in 'limit' points gets to perform a bonus banishment. Also, he also receives bonus victory points equal to the difference between his limit points and the total limit points of the player possessing the most limit points. However, if no one possesses less than 10 limit points, then no one receives these bonuses.
The addition of these limit points is what really makes the 'divide and choose' mechanism click. A common tactic is to offer some enticing cards, but poison them a bit with several limit cards. Players must often choose between a terrific set of actions which have been tarnished with an abundance of limit points, or a mediocre action or two, with an advantage of few or no limit points. Again, a very nice touch.
The game continues in this fashion until the completion of three turns. A final scoring of EACH district is then held and the player with the greatest accumulation of victory points is the winner.
Both of the games I've played have been very close and tense. Amazingly, I've managed to win both games, but I can't say I've had a consistent strategy. The game doesn't seem to allow players to follow a pre-planned strategy, but rather forces you to adapt to each hand of cards. Some won't like this, but I find it challenging.
I do have some concerns, however. It is quite possible that the 'luck of the draw', coupled with the randomness of the method in which 'distributors' and 'choosers' are determined, will cause a player to suffer a severe shortage of Doge cards. Thus, that player will never be able to control the region(s) which will score and will be forced to rely on other players. When this occurs, the affected player really has little chance of winning. I also feel the banishment card is too powerful. In my last game, I used it first and rolled a '1'. Three subsequent banishments by my opponents each resulted in six advisors being expelled. Someone has suggested that the number of advisors banished be modified to 1, 2 or 3, depending upon the die roll. This sounds appealing and I may well give it a try in future games.
One other problem is the potential for a 'kingmaker' situation. In this game, Jim was out of contention (due to a nasty banishment) and could not win. However, on the very last turn of the game, he was in possession of a banishment card. The two most logical regions he could use them in would both score him the same number of points. Used in one region, he would be ousting my pieces. Used in the other region, Lenny would be expelled. It was easy to calculate that whoever he smacked would lose and the other player would win. It was that simple. Thus, he was forced to decide. Since Lenny was ahead at the time, he chose to smack him, giving me the victory. This was very unsatisfying.
Interestingly, in this game, no one ever had the chance to exercise the bonus banishment or receive the bonus victory points as each turn ended with everyone at 10 or more limit points. This was is stark contrast to my first game where these bonuses were earned by someone each turn.
Keith led through the first two rounds, but did not position himself well for the final scoring. Jim was setting himself up well, but suffered two banishments and a rash of bridge thefts, effectively eliminating him from contention. It was down to Lenny and me, but the ugly kingmaker situation forced on Jim decided it in my favor.
Finals: Greg 56, Lenny 48, Jim 48, Keith 35
Ratings: Keith 8.5, Lenny 8, Greg 8, Jim 8