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Karl Deckard
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Introduction
Anno 1503 is an exploration and resource management game, by Klaus Teuber, based on the PC game of the same name (which was quite successful in Germany, by the way). The design uses many of the elements of Teuber’s other designs; Entdecker-style ship exploration, town building like Elasund: The First City (although not as inspired), and resource gathering like Catan (all fine games, in my view).

Gameplay
Each turn, a die is rolled and compared to the values on each player’s Settlement board. Different players will receive different resources, based on the roll, due to differing board layouts. There are six different resources; Stone, Lumber, Tools, Cloth, Spice, and Tobacco (although the last two are not available until later in the game). These resource cards are traded in for various things, all of which are compiled on a trade chart on the player’s board. These resources cannot be traded with other players, which is why many people refer to it as a game of “multiplayer solitaire”. If a six is rolled, an Event happens, instead of resource gathering; Pirates attack, Fires burn the settlement, or Good Fortune strikes, in the form of a selectable resource for each player. There are ways to mitigate the bad events and capitalize on the good one, but we’ll discuss that in a moment.

After the initial die-roll that applies to all players, the current player can carry out any number of actions that are used to work toward any of the 5 win conditions, three of which must be completed in order to win; 30 gold, 4 Outposts, 3 Trade Agreements, 4 Public Buildings, and/or 3 Merchants.

Players each have a selection of Pioneer tiles that are placed on the Settlement board, to expand their Settlement through trading. Pioneers can be upgraded up to three times (Pioneer, Settler, Townsman, Merchant). A level 1 Pioneer will buy any of three resources for the price of 1 gold, a level 2 Settler will by a particular resource for 2 gold, and so on. One Pioneer and one Settler start the game on the Settlement Board. Each turn, players can add more Pioneers or upgrade the currently placed Colonists. Upgrading three tiles all the way up to Merchants fulfills a win condition. In addition, every colonist after the third brings a new Public Building, of the player’s choice, to the town. There are eight different buildings, each of which provides a service to the owning player, such as the Shipyard that doubles the action point allowance of ships or the Fire Brigade that negates the Fire Event. These tiles are limited, so it is quite probable that another player might snap up a building that you want.

Players can build up to two ships to explore island tiles that were placed randomly among preset locations in the ocean. Each ship can be moved a number of spaces equal to the number of players in the game. Moving the ship or secretly inspecting an island tile costs an action point. If the tile is taken, the ship is returned to the pool and must be purchased with resource cards to get it afloat again. The island tiles come in three flavors, each of which is helpful to complete a certain win condition. Treasure provides x amount of gold (30 gold satisfies one of the win conditions) or a free Colonist upgrade. Outposts provide and extra resource for the proper roll and having all four Outposts satisfies a win condition. Trade Agreements reduce the cost of buying a resource from one of your townspeople by 1 (6 being the default) and owning 3 trade agreements satisfies another win condition.

My Thoughts
So this all sounds pretty thematic, tight, and intriguing, but in practice it all starts to fall apart. I really wanted to like this game, because I like the theme very much and I also like the Designer’s other games. I also really like the multiple win conditions. Heck, the resource management feels more like Settlers than Elasund: The First City does, which is in the Catan Adventures line! The problem, for me though, is that the game falls short in a number of ways; poor pacing, improper balance, inadequate risk/reward mechanisms, and lackluster components.

Pacing – This game is dreadfully slow and repetitive; roll a die, get a Colonist, move a ship. Wash, rinse, repeat. Geez, can you just email the results of this game to me? Boring. You wait around for something interesting to happen for most of the game and then everything heats up at the very end. Once the game does pick up, the choices I made in the first half of the game feel pointless because of various balance issues (which I will rant about next). They really need to front-load the action in this bad-boy; maybe more islands at the start of the map or at least don’t make my ship “explode” when I explore an island.

My other major complaint with the pacing is the constant backtracking. All of the negative events that happen can potentially destroy all of the hard work you’ve done. There was a similar mechanism in Elasund, when your buildings were destroyed or your trade slots were overtaken by the opponent, but for some reason, it worked pretty well in that game. Anyway, this backtracking is part of what makes this game drag.

Balance – Here’s a tip...when you play, be sure to get the Shipyard, because otherwise, you will get smoked. In a 2-player game, ships move two spaces, which is barely enough to get anything done. Half of the goodies I need to win this game are on those unexplored islands, so how the frock am I supposed to win when my opponent’s ships move four spaces? Gee, do I want the Shipyard or do I want the Smith, so I can have 1 more paltry gold when I hock my wood? (Hmm, that’s catchy and vaguely dirty…)

My other balance complaint is in regard to the Public Buildings. Let’s see, there are four slots for buildings and 7 building tiles available in the 2-player game and…wait…so, I’m gonna get screwed out of obtaining the goal I’ve been working toward the whole game?!? And with the other win conditions, there are enough tiles for every player to complete the goals? Frustration.

Risk/Reward Mechanisms – Having a risk/reward mechanism in which the player can choose to take a risk for a potential reward is simply good game design, in my view. On the other hand, forcing a player to complete a task that may reward them, but may also punish them is actually quite frustrating. Why am I being punished for rolling the die, when I’m required to roll the die every turn? I mean it really gets to the point where no one wants to roll the die, but they have to. I would much rather have the choice to take a risk.

Components – Not much to say here. The box art is beautiful, but the components inside are just uninspired and soulless. Boring islands on a bland ocean. The board should have been more organic, maybe hexes instead of squares. The colonists aren’t even people, they are pictures of buildings. I guess the building art is okay, but it certainly lacks charm.

Conclusion
I don’t mean to be too heavy-handed in this review and everyone should feel free to give it a try to see if you have a better experience, but for me, this was a good theme, explored by a good Designer, with some good ideas that was marred by some inconsistencies and possibly a lack of playtesting. I would wholeheartedly recommend any of the other Klaus Teuber games I’ve mentioned here, but sadly, this one just doesn’t do it for me as a 2-player game.
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Carlo Tibaldi
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San Donato Milanese
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Winning with the Shipyard is like winning Magic with just Fireballs.

Not having the Shipyard requires to be more strategic, but, if you win, you will enjoy it quite a lot

Carlo
 
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Gary Pressler
United States
West Lafayette
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OMG! Overtext! How long have I been sleeping?! OVERTEXT! Also, I'm a DESIGNER now?! Sweet! OVERTEXXXXXXT!
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Thanks for the in-depth and honest review!

I am a big fan of many of Teuber's other games, especially the SoC Card Game, [Neuen] Entdecker, Starship Catan, and Elasund. (Regular ol' SoC is still decent, but I only really like it with Cities & Knights added.) I have had Anno 1503 on my to-buy list for a couple years now, after I watched the Prof. Easy online demo. I have missed a couple really good deals for it, and keep kicking myself. However, after reading a review like this, from another Teuber fan, I'm not sure I should be regretful.

My sense, though, is that this game really needs to be played 3P or 4P. Aditionally, I think the elements added by the Pirates & Aristocrats expansion would add a lot of variety. (I just wish there was an English verion of the expansion.) I probably should try before I buy, though. Knowing that it fell flat for you, and that you also enjoy the exploration, resource, and development elements in other Teuber games, I am concerned that perhaps it just really didn't come together in this game. I'm torn.

I noticed that you neither own nor have rated Starship Catan. If you are looking for an ideal 2P Teuber experience, I really think this is it. The resource management and development are classic Tueber but specifically crafted for two players. (For example, the production die is a d3, and if you have multiple production planets with that number, you only pick one to produce.) The exploration is accomplished by "traveling" through four oft-shuffled stacks of cards. Luck of the draw can be significant at the start, but developing your ship allows you to explore more cards per stack or to preview the top cards in a stack and mitigate the luck. I suggest reducing the victory goal by 2 VP for the first game, else it will run long (about 2 hours) as you learn the system. I also really enjoy the SoC Card Game, but I recognize that the CCG-like play is not to everyone's taste. However, I highly recommend Starship Catan for 2P Teuber fun.
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Karl Deckard
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GaryP wrote:
Thanks for the in-depth and honest review!

I am a big fan of many of Teuber's other games, especially the SoC Card Game, [Neuen] Entdecker, Starship Catan, and Elasund. (Regular ol' SoC is still decent, but I only really like it with Cities & Knights added.) I have had Anno 1503 on my to-buy list for a couple years now, after I watched the Prof. Easy online demo. I have missed a couple really good deals for it, and keep kicking myself. However, after reading a review like this, from another Teuber fan, I'm not sure I should be regretful.

My sense, though, is that this game really needs to be played 3P or 4P. Aditionally, I think the elements added by the Pirates & Aristocrats expansion would add a lot of variety. (I just wish there was an English verion of the expansion.) I probably should try before I buy, though. Knowing that it fell flat for you, and that you also enjoy the exploration, resource, and development elements in other Teuber games, I am concerned that perhaps it just really didn't come together in this game. I'm torn.


Yeah, I was very careful to state and re-state that this review is based solely on the 2-player game. Many of my Geekbuddies rated it highly as a 4-player game. I think the pacing of getting resources would be better, although there would be more down-time. Haven't played the 4-player, though, so I can't say for sure.

Quote:
I noticed that you neither own nor have rated Starship Catan. If you are looking for an ideal 2P Teuber experience, I really think this is it. The resource management and development are classic Tueber but specifically crafted for two players. (For example, the production die is a d3, and if you have multiple production planets with that number, you only pick one to produce.) The exploration is accomplished by "traveling" through four oft-shuffled stacks of cards. Luck of the draw can be significant at the start, but developing your ship allows you to explore more cards per stack or to preview the top cards in a stack and mitigate the luck. I suggest reducing the victory goal by 2 VP for the first game, else it will run long (about 2 hours) as you learn the system. I also really enjoy the SoC Card Game, but I recognize that the CCG-like play is not to everyone's taste. However, I highly recommend Starship Catan for 2P Teuber fun.


I've had Starship Catan on my buy list for quite some time, but have yet to pick it up. I'll definitely get it, based on your recommendation.

Thanks!
 
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Dea Draper
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Thanks for the thoughtful and well-done review. Will spend my money on better 2-player games. Will look at it again if I need a 4-player game.
 
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Connie Gunderson
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Thanks for the review - we only play 2p games so I think I'll give this one a miss for now.

(PS I live in Irvine too!)

cgund
 
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Alan Kwan
Hong Kong
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I disagree with this review. We play this game mostly 2-player, and we love it.

djflippy wrote:

My other major complaint with the pacing is the constant backtracking. All of the negative events that happen can potentially destroy all of the hard work you’ve done. There was a similar mechanism in Elasund, when your buildings were destroyed or your trade slots were overtaken by the opponent, but for some reason, it worked pretty well in that game. Anyway, this backtracking is part of what makes this game drag.

Risk/Reward Mechanisms – Having a risk/reward mechanism in which the player can choose to take a risk for a potential reward is simply good game design, in my view. On the other hand, forcing a player to complete a task that may reward them, but may also punish them is actually quite frustrating. Why am I being punished for rolling the die, when I’m required to roll the die every turn? I mean it really gets to the point where no one wants to roll the die, but they have to. I would much rather have the choice to take a risk.


The risk is in spending all your money or not. If you spend all your money (and you don't have the relevant buildings to protect yourself), you risk getting smoked, it's that simple. Allowing a player to forgo rolling the dice is a dumb way to take out the risk. (Not to mention that, if no one wants to roll the dice, the game becomes a stalemate. And why would one want to forgo rolling the dice? It doesn't get him out of trouble, for one needs to get resources from the dice to raise money to defend against disasters.)

And if you backtrack all the time to the extent that a 2-player game "drags", you're playing very poorly. Go back to school and take "Risk Management 101". Negative events occur only 1/9 of the time, less than Settlers, and they knock you back only if you have lots of holdings and no money to pay.

Usually, the only reason I spend all my money, against the risk of a disaster, is because I need to get a key building before my opponent. (And that key building is usually the Bathhouse or the Restaurant, not the Shipyard, unless it is the last building left.)

Quote:

Balance – Here’s a tip...when you play, be sure to get the Shipyard, because otherwise, you will get smoked. In a 2-player game, ships move two spaces, which is barely enough to get anything done. Half of the goodies I need to win this game are on those unexplored islands, so how the frock am I supposed to win when my opponent’s ships move four spaces? Gee, do I want the Shipyard or do I want the Smith, so I can have 1 more paltry gold when I hock my wood? (Hmm, that’s catchy and vaguely dirty…)


That's the concept of a novice - just like a chess novice who opens the game with his queen. I win often without the Shipyard against my opponent who has it. The Shipyard allows you to get a tile faster. It doesn't allow you to get more tiles. It doesn't even help you get more resources to build more ships. (Will you take the Cloth island when you find it?) Getting a trade treaty a few turns earlier might save you a buck or two, but getting a sales-bonus building instead of the shipyard can earn you $10 or $20 throughout the game.

What the shipyard actually does for you, in practice, is to allow you to quickly get the tiles with your ships, and then waiting many turns with no ships to sail while you wait for the resources for your next ship. Meanwhile, your opponent just sail his ships slowly, and gets his tiles several turns after you. But from whichever building he gets instead of that Shipyard, he gets some real benefits, ones greater than whatever benefits you get for getting your tiles a few turns earlier.

Quote:

My other balance complaint is in regard to the Public Buildings. Let’s see, there are four slots for buildings and 7 building tiles available in the 2-player game and…wait…so, I’m gonna get screwed out of obtaining the goal I’ve been working toward the whole game?!? And with the other win conditions, there are enough tiles for every player to complete the goals? Frustration.


There might not be enough outposts or trade treaties for both players, because some tiles are left over during set-up. I have won games in which I lose the 7th building: the three buildings I've got are supposedly useful, and getting three craftsmen does get me closer to the "4 merchants" victory condition.

Quote:

I don’t mean to be too heavy-handed in this review and everyone should feel free to give it a try to see if you have a better experience, but for me, this was a good theme, explored by a good Designer, with some good ideas that was marred by some inconsistencies and possibly a lack of playtesting. I would wholeheartedly recommend any of the other Klaus Teuber games I’ve mentioned here, but sadly, this one just doesn’t do it for me as a 2-player game.

There is a lack of playtesting, but not on the part of the production team. Rather, it's you who have not played and understood the game enough.
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Karl Deckard
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Alan Kwan:

This could have been an interesting counterpoint to my review, if you hadn't resorted to unprovoked personal attacks. I don't need to "go back to school" as you say, because I know how to interact with other human beings in a civil manner.

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Alan Kwan
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I'm sorry that my tone went too strong.

May I point out that mine is still a valid counterpoint to your review, because all my arguments are there, and they're sound. Not liking the tone in a few sentences of mine is unrelated to the validity of my arguments, or yours.

djflippy wrote:

I don't need to "go back to school" as you say, because I know how to interact with other human beings in a civil manner.


I didn't say that you need to go back to school to learn manners, for I found your manners perfect; I said you need to go back to school to study "Risk Management", and (even though I might have said it too rudely, sorry for that) this is not a "personal attack", but rather a comment on your mathematical/analytical ability, lack of which is evident from reading your point on disasters and die-rolling.

You were criticizing the game, the author's work, unfairly. You only deserve to be fairly criticized. Your review might be doing a disservice to those who could have bought and loved the game, were they not dissuaded from purchasing it by your review.
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