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Subject: A Meeple Pusher Review of: Fresco Big Box (base game) rss

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David McMillan
United States
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Today the Bishop received some astounding news. The Pope has decided to visit the cathedral on his next pilgrimage. Out of all of the houses of worship in the world, he has chosen this one. What an honor! How exciting!

Overcome with emotion and gratitude, the Bishop clasps his hands together in thankful prayer and looks upwards beseechingly and that’s when he sees it. That old fresco is not looking so good. The paint is chipping. The colors are fading. In some places the image has even begun cracking.

“We can’t let the Pope see our fresco like this!” the Bishop thinks to himself. “That would be so embarrassing!”

Resolved to put the best face on things that he possibly can, the Bishop gathers up all of his advisors and they pore over the financials together. Things are pretty tight, but there’s just enough wiggle room in the budget to hire some master painters to repair the damaged fresco and to breathe some life back into it.

In the game of Fresco, you are one of these painters. Your task is simple… restore the fresco. But knowing your goal and achieving your goal are different things entirely. You’re going to need lots of paint and you’re going to need lots of money and your opponents are going to need the same. Only through the efficient allocation of your resources can you hope to come out of this as the most influential fresco painter of all time.


The Fresco Big Box contains the basic game and a whole host of expansions and mini-expansions. This is going to be the first of several reviews in which I will discuss the various expansions; how they’re played and what they add to the game. Firstly, though, I will review the base game.

So, let’s begin by talking about the components. The Fresco Big Box contains a whole slew of components for the base game and its various expansions, but the only components I am going to discuss here are the ones needed to play the base game.


This game consists of a whole bevy of various tiles, tokens, and wooden bits. Of the tiles there are multiple kinds. There are several small market tiles, some larger fresco tiles, some player references tiles, and several larger ‘action sheet’ tiles. The market tiles measure about .5” x .5” and are double-sided. Each side of the tile contains the same illustration of a single, colored square or a collection of same colored squares. These tiles will be used in the game to represent the various paint colors that are available for purchase during a round. The fresco tiles are about 1” x 1” in size and also contain a collection of colored squares except that all of these squares are different colors. Above these squares is a number which represents the tile’s victory point value. On the backside of each fresco tile is the illustration of a coin and a paint splat (or multiple paint splats) of various colors. The coin is used to represent the income that the completed fresco tile will provide each round. The paint splats are not used in the base game, but are there for the purposes of one of the expansions.

The ‘action sheet’ tile is about 6” x 3”. The front side of the action sheet contains a table of sorts. At the top of each table column there is an icon that represents the different locations that a player may visit on their turn. The first icon represents the market. The second represents the cathedral. The third represents the studio. The fourth represents the workshop and the fifth represents the theater. Beneath these icons are three empty spaces. The backside of these tiles is very similar in appearance, but the location layout has changed. This is because these tiles get flipped during the last round of the game.

Of the wooden pieces there are two basic types: paint cubes and people. The cubes come in two sizes - small and medium. The smaller cubes are the basic colors (red, blue, and yellow) while the larger ones represent colors that are achieved by mixing the smaller colors together (green, purple, and orange). There is a set of small apprentice meeples (5 per player) and larger master painter meeples (3 per player) in four different colors, 4 unpainted apprentice meeples, and a large white Bishop meeple that is almost conical in shape.

And, aside from all of the components already mentioned, there is a collection of coin tokens, 4 large player screens, 4 small player screens, a Leonardo tile (used in the two player game), a linen bag, the rule book, and the game board itself. The game board is rather large in size and it is roughly divided into several areas. Firstly, running along its border is a scoring track. In the upper left hand corner of the game board, nestled up against the scoring track, are the starting spaces. Directly to the right of the starting spaces is the ‘hostel’ area of the board. The hostel is brown in color and the accompanying artwork sort of resembles the floor of a bowling alley. Like the action sheet, this area resembles a table. At the top of each column is an icon, but these icons don’t represent any specific location. They are more informational in nature.

The leftmost icon represents the ‘get up time’. Beneath this are five boxes with various times printed in the them - 5:00 at the top and 9:00 at the bottom. The get up time will be used to determine turn order in each round. The next icon represents ‘mood’. This ranges from -3 on top to +1 on the bottom. Depending upon how early you make your workers get up, their moods will shift and this, if left unchecked, could cost you the use of a worker during your turn. The final icon is used to determine ‘market cost’. The later in the day that you go shopping for paints, the cheaper those paints will be, but there won’t be as much of a selection as there would otherwise be.

To the right of this area is the market area. There are three sections labeled with a Roman numeral I to IV. Each of these sections is subdivided into smaller sections. Sections III and IV have four subsections each. Section II has 3 subsections. Section I has two subsections. These subsections are where the market tiles will be placed throughout the course of the game. These market tiles will determine which paints are available for purchase each round.

Beneath the market area is the cathedral area. At the beginning of the game, before any setup has been performed, the cathedral resembles a large illustration that has been gridded off into a 5 x 5 grid. Nestled in on the right side of this grid is a smaller, rectangular feature that is divided into two rectangles. This area represents ‘the altar’. The top rectangle shows a red square, blue square, and yellow square with the number 2 floating above them. Beneath this are a green square, an orange square, and a purple square and each of these has +1 printed beside it. The bottom rectangle shows a green square, an orange square, and a purple square with a 6 floating above them.

Beneath the cathedral area in the lower right hand corner of the board is the studio area. This area is divided into four sections. The first section features a small illustration that looks like a family portrait. beneath this portrait is a picture of a coin with ‘3x’ printed beside it. The other three areas are blank. In the base game, these areas were where the coin was placed, but the Fresco big box comes with a separate board where the coin is kept. This is because one of the expansions uses these empty spaces.

Directly to the left of this area is the workshop area. This area is divided into six sections that, in the base game, were meant to store the six different colored paint cubes - red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and orange. However, a later expansions added two additional colors - brown and pink - and there is now a separate board included in the big box in which these paints can be kept. This is important as yet another expansion now uses these six spaces on the game board.

Above this area is the theater area. This is where the players will track their current mood. In this game, a player’s mood directly affects the number of workers (called apprentices in this game) that a player has available to them on their turn. This area is divided into four columns that are broken up into 9 squares each. the top two squares have +1 printed on them. The middle square has a dot printed on it that corresponds to one of the player colors. The lower two squares have a -1 printed on them and the other squares are all blank. Above each of these columns is a printed space where one of the unpainted apprentice meeples will be placed. The hostel area is directly above this and, with that, we’ve come full circle.

The player screens are used to remind players of the turn sequence and which colors turn into what and they’re also there to maintain secrecy. The action board resides behind the smaller screen while a player’s collected money and collected paint hide behind the large screen. During the game, players will be programming their action boards in secret and revealing them simultaneously. This is why two screens are provided. And, aside from all of the components already detailed, the only other thing worthy of note is the rule book.

The rule book for Fresco Big Box is very well written and incredibly detailed with lots of examples and illustrations. As each expansions is introduced, there is a table of contents associated with it as well as a small descriptor that gives a brief overview of which aspects of the base game are changed by the expansions. There is even an illustration at the end of the booklet that shows how the game should be set up if you decided to try to play the game using ALL of the expansions. While there are a few translation issues, all of the rules are very easy to understand and follow. All in all, this is not a bad rule book at all.


To begin setting up the game board, one of each player’s master painter meeples is placed in the starting positions next to the scoring track and another of their master painter meeples are placed onto their associated spaces in the theater area. Next, all of the fresco tiles are shuffled and randomly placed into the cathedral area number side up. The bishop is placed on top of the middle tile. Then all of the paints and coin tokens are separated by type and stored in their proper locations. Once this has been done, you are just about finished setting up the board. The last things left to do are to place the unpainted apprentice meeples into their locations above the theater and to place the market tiles into the market area. The Fresco big box provides a linen bag that these tiles can be drawn from.

Now, each player takes the leftover apprentice meeples of their color, twelve money (thalers) each, and the large and small screen of their chosen color into their possession. Each player is also given one each of the red, blue, and yellow cubes. Next, a starting player order is determined by some arbitrary means. This is to determine who will be choosing their wake up time first and this segues nicely into…


Each round of the game is going to follow the same sequence, but not every turn will find the players going in the same turn order. Here’s how a round is played:

1. Beginning with the player who was chosen to go first, the players will take turns choosing their wake up times - but only for the first round. Subsequent rounds will have the person that is in last place choose first.

2. Players’ moods are adjusted accordingly. They may gain an apprentice or lose the use of an apprentice as a result of this.

3. Players will secretly program their action boards for the round and then simultaneously reveal their choices.

4. Beginning with the earliest wake up time, players will take turns going to the market to purchase paints

5. Players will then take turns performing any cathedral actions they may wish to perform

6. Players get paid at the studio

7. Players will take turns mixing paint

8. Players adjust their mood at the theater

9. The board gets reset, players earn income, and we start over at step number 1

Bear in mind, this is just a general overview of a round. Not every player will be performing every action each round. Which actions the players perform depend entirely upon how they programmed their action boards. Another thing to take into consideration during the course of the game is that no two players can occupy the same space on the scoring track at the same time. Should a player earn victory points that would cause them to wind up on the same space that someone else already occupies, then that player must decide to place their scoring token in front of or behind the existing scoring token.


Each player will have anywhere between four to six apprentices available to them to program their actions with. Each action can be performed three times at most. The first column determines how many market tiles a player may purchase on their visit to the market. The second column determines how many cathedral actions each player may perform. The third determines how many times each player will take the studio action. The fourth determines how many paints each player may mix on their turn and the last one determines how many times a player may perform the theater action.

Each player’s action board is hidden behind their small screen. When it is time to do so, the players will place each of their apprentices onto the action board underneath one of these columns. So, if a player wanted to buy a single tile from the market, they would place an apprentice onto one of the three spaces in the market column, for instance. If they also wanted to follow this up by performing a cathedral action, they would place a second worker onto one of the spaces beneath the cathedral column.

Once the players have all finished programming their boards, the screens are lifted simultaneously and then the actions are performed moving from the left of the action board to the right. In each area, each player will perform ALL of their actions in that area before the next player performs theirs. For instance, the first player would perform all of their cathedral actions before the next player will have a chance to perform any of theirs.


Each player may only shop from a single market stall. Once they have finished shopping, any remaining tiles in that stall are cleared and placed back into the bag. A player is not required to purchase anything, though. They may choose to ‘close’ a market stall instead. To do so, they choose a market stall and place all of the tiles from it back into the bag. The price of each paint tile is determined by the player’s wake up time.


The cathedral actions are perhaps the most difficult part of the game to wrap your head around. Simply put, a player will look at the paints they have available and then survey the fresco tiles that are available in the cathedral. If they have the paints that match the paints on the tile, then they may complete that tile and gain the victory points for doing so. The paints that were used to complete the tile are returned to the supply and the player collects the tile and places it face down in front of their screen to show that they have completed the tile. Taken by itself, that’s not very difficult to grasp. Pay the paint. Take the tile, Earn the victory points. What makes things a bit more challenging is the presence of the bishop.

The bishop presents the players opportunities to earn bonus victory points. On a player’s turn, before completing a fresco tile, they will have the opportunity to move the bishop one space in any direction. If the bishop is adjacent to the tile that the player completes, the player will earn two bonus victory points. If the bishop is standing directly on top of it, the player earns three bonus victory points instead. When the tile is completed, the bishop will move to wherever the tile was. This movement of the bishop is not free, however. Each movement of the bishop will cost the player 1 thaler. Also, players should keep in mind that it is not an imperative for them to complete a tile that is close to the bishop. A player can complete any tile on the board as long as they have the paint to do so.

But, let’s say that you had your eye on a tile and another player completed it before you had a chance to perform your cathedral actions. Fortunately, the game provides you an additional method of gaining a few points. That method is to restore the altar.

Restoring the altar is easy. Give up a red paint cube, a blue paint cube, and a yellow paint cube and earn two victory points. Or, you can substitute any of these colors with the tier two colors - green, purple, or orange - and receive the base two victory points plus an additional victory point for each tier two color. A mixture of red, blue, and orange would be worth three victory points (2 base + 1 tier two paint) while a mixture of purple, purple, and yellow would be worth four victory points (2 base + 2 tier two paints). But, you may never double up on any of the basic colors. Yellow, yellow, and green would not earn you any victory points, for instance. If you provide one of each of the tier two paints, you will earn six victory points.


A player taking this action will earn 3 thalers for each apprentice that they have assigned to it for a maximum of 9 thalers in the course of a single round.


A player choosing this action will have the opportunity to mix paints twice per apprentice that they have assigned to the action. A player is not required to perform both ‘mix paint’ actions. Sometimes a player may only have the paints available to mix one tier two paint or they may not want to mix two paints.


A player choosing this action may improve their mood twice per apprentice that they have assigned to the action. New apprentices are not received until after the players have chosen their wake up times at the beginning of a round. As such, even if this mood improvement would push the player into a bracket where they would be able to receive an additional apprentice, they do not receive the new apprentice immediately.


To reset the board, the market tiles are gathered up and placed into the bag and new tiles are drawn and laid out. Then the master painters that are in the hostel are moved into the area above the hostel. And then players earn income. Each fresco tile has an image of a coin on its backside. This is to denote that for every face down fresco tile that a player has collected, they will collect 1 thaler during this step.


The last round of the game begins when there are six or fewer fresco tiles in the cathedral at the beginning of a round. When the last round of the game begins, the players will flip their action tiles to side 2. Once this round has played out, each player will receive 1 victory point for every three thalers that they have in their possession. The player with the most points is the winner.


What separates a good game from a great game? A great game draws the player into the world of the game thematically and makes sense mechanically. And usually the theme will support the mechanics and vice versa. A great game leaves the players wanting more. A player walking away from a great game will find themselves analyzing what they did wrong and what they did right and will find the players desperately looking forward to the next experience and each experience with the game will feel fresh and exciting because no two of those experiences will be the same. A great game will find the right balance between complexity and length. It will present enough interesting decisions to make the player feel like they have achieved something, but it won’t get so bogged down in details that the player can feel every single minute that passes by. A great game is engaging and appealing to the eye. And these are just a few hallmarks of a great game.

Fresco is not a great game, but it is a good one. While it hits a lot of these notes, there are a few crucial places where it all falls apart.

Fresco is a beautiful game. The artwork in this game and the quality of the components are all top notch. The game mechanics are simplistic, yet elegant. Everything is very streamlined and very easy to teach and very easy to grasp. Theme oozes out of every pore. Mechanically speaking, everything makes sense and every element belongs. It’s difficult to imagine Fresco with any of the mechanical elements of the game removed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the selection of the turn order. Having the players choose their wake up times beginning with the person that is in last place creates some interesting situations wherein there will actually be players that are vying for that position. And, on the face of it, being in last place would seem to be the place where you’d want to be. Coming in last guarantees that you’ll always get to wake up whenever you want and that you’ll always be able to purchase whichever paints you want at the price that you want. You’ll always have first crack at the fresco tiles. But, after you’ve played a few games, you’ll realize this is not the case. And this is where I take issue with the game.

The best strategy in this game will always be to get as far ahead of everyone else as possible. It’s easy to get distracted by the whole wake up time aspect of the game and it’s easy to lose sight of what this game is really all about - victory points. At the end of the day, this is all that really matters. And the more victory points you have, the better. Even if you’re having to pay an unseemly amount for each paint tile that you collect, as long as you’re converting those paints into victory points, it doesn’t matter. Victory points are victory points. While Fresco has a lot of components and a lot of interesting ideas, the paths that one can take to victory are very limited in scope and this severely limits the replayability of the game. This strategy inevitably leads to a runaway leader problem wherein once you’ve started losing, it’s difficult to not lose and once you’ve started winning it’s difficult to not win.

While I find Fresco to be a delightful game, I also find it to be a game that is short on interesting decisions and replay value. Don’t get me wrong. I love this game and I will play it in a heartbeat. It’s fast. It’s fun and it’s a great game to introduce someone to the hobby. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that as much as I like it, the base game is fundamentally flawed because there is only one path to victory and only the person that can most efficiently use that path will have any chance of winning. The great thing about the Fresco Big Box, though, is that there are a myriad of expansions available that address this.

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David B
United States
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I agree Fresco is a good, but not great, game. However, your dismissal of the game due to runaway leader/lack of more than one viable strategy seems to point to you only playing perhaps a couple of times. First, getting ahead early and maintaining a lead is quite difficult if the other players know what they are doing. Being ahead means you choose your wake up time last. If the other players know how to exploit that, they can run you poor forcing you to waste rounds getting your income back up. There is also a sandbagging strategy that has proven successful. In it, you wake up late as possible, only buy cheap paint, use extra worker(s) in studio, and stockpile money. I have seen players convert a ton of money into points at the end of the game and snatch a surprise victory. Fresco is certainly not Caylus and the paths to victory are indeed more limited than a game of that weight, but there are certainly more options than you claim.

I don't know if the big box edition changed the rule or not, but the edition I have states that the conversion of money to points is 1 point for every 2 Thalers, not 3. This rate is why the sandbagging strategy CAN work.
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A very in depth review and I agree with much of what you said in your review except on two points.

1. I play mostly two using Leonardo (great dummy player mechanics) so it may be that Fresco plays very differently with two, but I have not found a run away leader problem. I do think if other players aren't planning well (blocking leader from good market tiles, mixing paints to score big points on fresco tiles later, etc) they will lose but that's true for any game. Wake up position is a crucial balance between what you need AND making your opponents job difficult.

2. What I really disagree with, most especially with Big Box, is the lack of replayablility. There are something like 12 modules or mini, game altering expansions that can be mixed and matched. Many add an interesting dynamic or complex depth to the game.

Besides that, every game you don't know what fresco tiles will come out and where. Every round you don't know what resources will be available, what portrait bonuses will come out, what your opponent may take from you.

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