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Subject: A GFBR Review - Subtle Interplay for Two rss

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For me, two-player games are in their own special category. While the two-player limit can cut down on opportunities to play, it can more than make up for that with high strategy and strong interaction. Pagoda is a two-player game where every action tends to open up opportunities for your opponent. Careful choices and capitalizing on your opponent’s weaknesses (as perceived) are keys to victory in Pagoda. Players are master architects trying to build tall pagodas for the impending arrival of the emperor.

The Basics. The board is set between the players and has spots for up to six pagodas. The bases for each pagoda are neutral so that any color column can be built on those spaces. On a player’s turn, they must build at least one column on one Pagoda, and can build up to three. They can also build as many Pagoda floors as they can pay for.

Players have access to seven cards of five different colors. Players have five face up in front of them (and start the game with one of each color) so that their opponent can see. The final two cards remain hidden in a player’s hand.

To build a column, a player simply discards a card and can build a column of that color. Once a color is started on a floor, only that color column can be built on that floor by discarding the corresponding color. Further, only a floor tile of that color can be built on top once four columns are built. When a floor is built on top, it indicates what color the columns must be on the next floor (which in turn dictate the color of the next floor tile). By building a floor tile, a player also gets access to a corresponding special ability. Each ability can be used twice before it is used up (though additional uses can be gained by building more pagoda floors).

Once the fourth floor has four columns, a player can build the rooftop. To build the roof, a player must be able to place a new pagoda tile as well as two columns in a stack on top by discarding appropriate cards. A roof is built all at once or not at all. But it only counts as one column toward the three-per-turn column limit.

Each player gets points during the course of the game for constructing columns. First floor columns are one point, second floor, two, third floor three, and fourth floor columns are four points each. Pagoda tiles give one point each and roofs are worth six points (5 plus 1 for the pagoda tile). The game ends when three pagodas have been fully completed and both players have had the same number of turns. The player with the most points wins.

The Feel. Pagoda is great not because it is especially deep or hard to grasp, but because every action is fraught with peril. Everything you do gives your opponent a new opportunity. Build columns for maximum points? Well now your opponent can build a top and get a special ability, and maybe have access to even better columns. After all, if you complete the second floor at two points a piece, he can start the third floor at three points a piece. Start a new pagoda in the hopes of controlling its colors? That leaves other opportunities to your opponent.

A lot of the game, then is trying to build Pagodas that your opponent cannot capitalize upon. For example, if my opponent isn’t showing any red cards, then maybe I’ll build a pagoda top that requires red columns. At worst, he has two red cards (the two he holds in hand) and so I’m only giving up two good columns. Of course, that only works if I have red cards and can capitalize on my next turn.

Choosing only the colors that your opponent doesn’t have may stilt your performance. Each pagoda tile nets you a special power, and good use of those special powers can really enhance your play. Purple and Red tend to be the most key powers. Red allows you to build a fourth column on your turn and Purple allows you to draw up to four cards in hand. Both greatly expand your options and allow you to pivot against your opponent’s moves.

The other powers are good, but not as good. Green and Blue allow you to use multiple off color cards to build columns or Pagodas. Yellow allows you to sweep your current cards for new ones. That’s all good, but relies on luck of the draw or having multiple off color cards.

In my experience, Pagoda tends to produce very close games because the restriction of building only three columns ensures that you leave opportunities open for an opponent. After all, they will be able to build up to the next level where the points are even greater, and competition on the Pagodas can be fierce.

Pagoda includes a few basic strategies. Building columns is the number one way of acquiring points, so that becomes a huge piece of any strategy. But building pagoda tiles, choosing the colors of the next level, and judicious use of powers will be key to claiming victory. In fact, players can subtly influence this by choosing what columns to play. If I start red columns, that means a red floor will eventually be built and someone is getting a red power. So color choice also influences what powers you want to introduce into the game.

Because scores tend to be close, the game is often decided not on the big decisions, but on the small ones. Something as simple as choosing a column color, which in turn dictates a pagoda tile color, which in turn introduces a power into the game, can lead to the slight difference that produces a winner.

Components: 4 of 5. The columns are solid wood and the pagoda tiles are sturdy. The board isn’t strictly necessary though it provides a nice way of managing the placement of initial columns. The colors are essential, and may make it difficult for colorblind individuals, though. That said, actually building the pagodas and having them raised above the board in a three dimensional manner is a neat aspect of the game.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Pagoda is almost a perfect information game. The only hidden information on a given turn is two cards (of seven) per player. This provides just enough of a question mark to ensure that surprises still occur. While the colors drawn can impact your choices, once a few of the powers come into play luck has a much reduced role.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. The cogs fit together nicely. Pagoda is easy enough to grasp from the outset, and the big decisions sometimes seem obvious. But after a few plays, you realize that the very small decisions – the ones with impacts down the road – are the ones that really impact the game and decide the winner. I find that to be enjoyable, though it’s worth noting since some will see it negatively.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Pagoda has solid replay value. When it comes to the big things, there really isn’t much to explore. You’ll always build columns and there will always be the tension of giving greater opportunities to your opponent. But, players willing to engage in nuance will find new tactics here or there.

Spite: NA of 5. As a two-player game, “spite” doesn’t really come into play. Even so, this would receive a very low rating – perhaps 0.5. There are no “take that” cards and no powers that directly attack or tear down an opponent.

Overall: 4 of 5. Pagoda is a very enjoyable two-player affair. Its simple nature belies a competitive and often tense decision making process where everything you build simply opens opportunities for an opponent. And, because it is quickly grasped but provides good decisions, I see this easily becoming a favorite among couples.

(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Pagoda.)

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
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