Canalis: a Pros and Cons Review
Introduction (the biases):
The type of games that I enjoy most provide a varied experience by injecting a random element within the core framework of the game design. Dice to me is not the answer to create a random element. El Grande, Agricola, Hansa Teutonica, Goa and Dominare all do a good job mixing things up. The issue comes down to player interaction. This is a tricky situation as the casual gamer is not interested in heavy player interaction. I have found that just a glancing blow of interaction permits the casual (occasional) player to keep face and at least feel a part of the proceeds.
My issue is that I like to have a lot to think about within the mild to medium interaction that I want. This is why many of my favorite games don’t get played very often. This has been dealt with by solo variants in most cases. However, this is not what this review is about.
I own all of the Tempest games that have come out so far and each has performed well in my gaming environment but mostly with 2 players. My oldest son’s favorite game is Dominare (as is mine) due to the card play and wishes that it could be played more and with more players (I created a variable 2 player variant that can use either side of the game board). He also cleans my clock with Mercante (solid 2-player variant created, in fact I have played most with 2 players) except one time when I clipped his wings by 1 point.
I figured that he would be the best player to work out the intricacies of Canalis and thus we began. I had played a couple times prior to the last couple of plays but they were more learning games and lacked a strategy focus.
What I was hoping for:
1. A low luck, variable gaming experience
2. Good player interaction
3. Interesting game mechanics
How would I describe Canalis to a new player?
Canalis is a card drafting game that has a spatial element. This is handled much like 7 wonders except that you don’t choose a card, play a card and pass the remains. Here you choose a card, pass, choose a card, pass etc until you have 7 cards. [This is an unintentional variant, it is suppose to be performed like 7 Wonders] At this point each player will play one card at a time, simultaneously in turn order. There are 4 rounds and you need to stay focused on the objectives that you currently have but remain flexible to adjust to new ones you may (should) gain. This is a game where your objectives are your own and they are mostly hidden. After a few games you need to watch how the canals are being played or any ‘unusual’ activity that will tip you off with the objectives that the other players may have in hand. Experience will win out in the end.
How to Play:
1. Sort the pieces on the game board, shuffle the 3 decks, choose an objective (like choosing a wonder in 7 Wonders), take 2 random objectives, $5, deal 7 cards to each player and the draft has begun.
2. Choose a card, pass, repeat 6 more times Variant
3. Each player chooses a card from their hand and places it facedown
4. In turn order you must use one of the 2 options on your chosen card, discard and repeat (28 action turns in the game over 4 rounds)
5. After 28 rounds, add the points you have gained from completing your objectives to the score that you have accumulated during the game.
6. Game time has been about 40 minutes per player.
Each turn the cards the players use either permit the building of a ‘Tetris’ building, canal or garden onto the game board or some support action like gaining a few $, drawing a new objective etc. Your turn takes only a few seconds to perform in most cases once the card is chosen which takes the bulk of the time.
1. The component quality is the best of any game in the Tempest series which may not be saying much but is certainly above average.
2. The drafting mechanic is the core of the design to set the stage for the round. This provides a large measure of control over what the outcome can be. I like the way the mechanic is used here versus 7 Wonders. I feel that I can play out the round with complete knowledge of the possibilities. Correction: I am using an unintentional variant here so this will no longer be a pro in its original format as I find the 7 Wonders type of draft too random. To be fair I will need to try it the correct way.
3. The competitive play for board control and deducing what the other players’ objectives gives the game a multi-layered feel.
4. The ‘random’ is held in check. You may start with a random set of cards but you chose the makeup of the final 7 for the round. The objective cards can be a crapshoot especially with more players but are very important during end game scoring. Correction: See #2, this may not be a pro in its written execution.
5. The fact that skillful play seems to overcome the random. The first couple of games we were building all over the place and choking off the board for later rounds and scoring poorly. When we learned to give the board a little breathing room the ‘this card is useless’ feeling went away.
6. The game can be bought for around $20 making this a good gaming value.
7. Setup is quick once you get your storage system setup properly.
1. The game is a little dry even with the canals: The way that the city comes together looks like a big puzzle. There is little graphically to ID one building from another of the same size. It is just a piece on the board.
[Game in Play]
2. ‘Blind’ card play: While you do control the makeup of your hand the fact that someone in turn order can force you to take a worse ‘required’ option can be a bit upsetting. With 2 players we ignore this and let each player choose/play a card after the previous player completed their action. It makes a big strategic difference in 2-player game but this could bog the game down with 3+.
3. Seemingly limited options: You either build or take some limited action. Where to place the building can have game long repercussions but putting the building out can be an obvious choice. The fact that the largest building cannot be flipped will limit the possibilities with those buildings in the later rounds. Why weren't those buildings double sided?
4. The board is too small and the last round does not mean much: I had watched the reviews that commented on this fact and I saw this happening in those first couple games. My fear here is that this will be common place with inexperienced(first time) players. To give the game a little bit more breathing room we follow a slight alteration to the card play. This is noted later. You may not need it but it will be used in the games that I play.
5. Hidden Objectives: Many don’t like the fact that by no choice of their own ‘you’ drew better cards than ‘me’ and that is why ‘you’ won. 'This is a game of luck’ can be prevalent with those so slanted. This is a non-issue with the games that I have played but I can see where others may complain. Edit: This is with the caveat of the drafting method we were using.
[Secret Objective Card Example]
6. The box insert is a little generic: It would have been nice to have a form fitted storage system as the pieces have a tendency to move around quite a bit. With a little care keeping the box flat and you can alleviate some of this. I am more about the game so this is a minor quibble.
1. We play 1 less card each round. In a 2-player game, we play 6 of the 7 cards, 3-player game you we play 4 of the 5 and in a 4-player game 3 of the 4 cards. What I have noticed is that the game plays relatively the same for all player counts. 12 cards will be played each round regardless of the player count. The board crowding is alleviated and it increases the values of some of the cards. The cards that let you take 2 actions on a later turn are so important especially with the higher player counts. This helps to encourage strategic play.
2. As I noted above in a 2-player game each player plays their card with complete knowledge of the board state. The back to back action that each player gets is a big deal and needs to be planned for. You have the opportunity to block or quickly execute your initiative without fear that a ‘random’ selection derails your plan.
3. An unintentional variant was created with the drafting method we were using. I liked that we could build our full hand for the round right at the beginning. This made for coherent game planning. The official rules note a 7 Wonders style of drafting.
As designed, Canalis has a unique and yet familiar feel. It moves along pretty well and gives the players something to think about with each card played. I find Canalis to be better than the designer’s previous Tempest output even though many find Courtier the best in the series to this point (Love Letter doesn’t count). I like that I am making decisions that are more connected to the outcome. This is not a cube pusher and while it uses a drafting mechanic does not feel like a drafting game due to the use of the game board.
This fits right in with the more and more eclectic Tempest series.
As designed rating: 7, suggested for those that like to think on their toes and make adjustments within a limited action selection that only gets smaller as the round proceeds. Edit: I may need to edit this rating based on performing a 7 Wonders style drafting method.
With adaptations, I feel that Canalis gains a bit more breadth in the strategic options and you are not forced to play your last card just because it is all you have left.
Adapted rating: 7.5 (I am a tough critic and this is a good rating for a game of this type)
It exceeded my expectations but I went in with a very open mind looking for the designer’s intent to increase my enjoyment.
I am going to acknowledge that this type of game is not going to appeal to a mass market due to the nature of its design. You have gotta learn how play and this will not happen until at least a few games have been played. Card knowledge permits better decision making and many don’t want to invest in a game beyond the cursory 1st play. Also, Canalis does not have the ‘look at this’ star power to pull players in off the street.
It is the last comment that concerns me for games of this type. There is a really good game here that is calling for those cerebral types to come and enjoy it. Unfortunately, the flashy often win out.
I can now advocate all of the Tempest games but need to know my audience before I suggest any of them. They can be a big turnoff as I have found out a couple of times.
In the world of Tempest
Dominare >> Mercante = Canalis > Courtier. As I mentioned this order might change depending on the audience. If you are a light gamer, flip the order. The card play in Dominare is just too strong and engaging. The dryness of Mercante almost drops it behind Canalis but I am more of an economic person and so I put them even with each other. Courtier is a casual game that has a large amount of chaos outside of the advanced variant in the instructions.
As a card drafting game:
Dominare >> Among the Stars (within limited station designs) > Canalis = 7 Wonders (with Cities and Leaders, >without) >> Fairy Tale. As I noted I like the card interaction in Dominare a great deal so it takes this comparison even though it has a much different feel. Among the Stars (within the limited design variant) does the drafting thing better as the cards can have an immediate effect and you have more knowledge about what the players are going for. If playing Among the Stars ‘by the book’ it is on par with Canalis. The Among the Stars expansions may push it well beyond. 7 Wonders is a game with the expansions that I note. Without them 7 Wonders is not a game with any legs. Fairy Tale is just too opaque. I want this card because ??? oh because you can flip my card … OK. FT is not for me.
As a competitive 2-player game:
Twilight Struggle>>Summoner Wars>Jambo>Canalis>Babel. This point can be argued as I am putting Canalis up against 4 other 2 player only games. I did this to show the interesting play that you and your buddy can expect by engaging in an old fashioned afternoon of interaction. Twilight Struggle is rich in theme and playing well depends heavily on your knowledge of the cards. It is the pinnacle of competitive 2 player games. In Summoner Wars you have to play tactically after building your deck (this is the best way to play) and constantly adjust to your opponent. SW is also quick to play. I feel that the control that you have over your deck and the ‘more’ you can do on your turn puts it higher. Jambo is a wild card in this mix but I put it in here because it does have the card manipulation aspect and mild deck/tableau building. The card variety within the almost singular focused play provides endless combinations and opportunities for a little creativity. Babel is a mean little 2 player game but the choices are not as interesting as what you will find in Canalis.
Is Canalis a 3+ player game? Yes, but like Innovation you might want to play partners with 4 to give you the feeling that you are accomplishing something. Taking only 12 actions of the 48 (16 out of 64, regular rules) out there is a bit limiting. 3 players plays fine with the adaptation I mention to ensure that there is still room to maneuver in the last round.
Canalis is a good addition to the Tempest family but has limited mass market appeal. It does not seem like the killer Tempest ‘app’ has arrived to get the attention that I think some of the games deserve. As an independent game it would be hard to argue against the gaming value that you get with Canalis. In that way the Tempest model is a winner. Keep ‘em coming.
- Last edited Thu Apr 17, 2014 1:18 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Wed Apr 16, 2014 9:13 pm
Informed comparisons to other games is one of the most helpful components in a review. Thanks for that and the rest of your thoughtful analysis.
A few quick thoughts on the game:
1) The card drafting element was special to this game, but it wasn't the overriding element I remembered after playing. The planning-in-advance, to me, was the more memorable element. I've referred to this game as anagram-chess (or tetris-chess), having to think several moves ahead to place your blocks within a confined space to create a certain shape.
2) That being said, we've found the size of the board to be just frustratingly right. It's tight, but it's supposed to be tight. That's what makes planning ahead so absolutely important...
3) ...and what makes the last 1/3rd of the game almost boring, because by then the board's filled up so much there's nothing left to do except fill in the holes, and hope you get to place the piece or two you need to finish that special objective or mission.
4) Playing with 2 players felt completely different than 3 or 4 players because so much of the mystery is removed from the draft. You know all the cards. In a 3+ game, there's more mystery, and in that, more challenge.
I agree - the Tempest line continues to impress me in the way they incorporate the art, themes and flavor. Still waiting for the RPG...
Royal Dublin Fusiliers "Spectamur Agendo"
Great review, very informative.
I very much enjoy Dominare - do you think it's the best of the Tempest bunch so far?
Eoin Corrigan wrote:
Great review, very informative.
I very much enjoy Dominare - do you think it's the best of the Tempest bunch so far?
Yes, I think so. Having a static board is the only thing that holds it back for me. The card play is great and once you get a few plays under your belt it gets all the more rich.
When I played it in groups it was a bit polarizing as some found it too random and too long but this was just a first time play comment. I wish that more would get over the hump of card knowledge.
I would love to see more games with this type of card play.