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Subject: Louis XIV - My Designer King Does the Sun King rss

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Larry Levy
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[This review originally appeared on the Gamers' Alliance website]

LOUIS XIV (Alea/Rio Grande, 2-4 players, 90 minutes, $22)

Last issue, I reviewed Jambo and I mentioned that when it came out, I had really been looking forward to a game from one of my favorite new designers, Rüdiger Dorn, in one of my favorite game series, Kosmos’ Spiele für Zwei. Well, I really like that series, but I absolutely adore the Alea line, so you can imagine what I was thinking when it was announced that the next game in that storied series (which includes Ra, Taj Mahal, Princes of Florence, and, of course, the brilliant Puerto Rico) was coming from Dorn. Alea has actually stumbled a bit recently; their last two big box games (Mammoth Hunters and Fifth Avenue) have not been well received, although I think Fifth Avenue has gotten something of a bum rap. Nevertheless, some have questioned whether Alea’s best days were behind them. Can Dorn’s latest, Louis XIV, get Alea back on the winning track?

You better believe it. Louis XIV is easily my favorite game from this year’s spring crop and provides a great start to Alea’s new mid-size box line. Like the rest of Alea’s best designs, this is a gamer’s game that should delight seasoned players. Based on the mechanics, you could call this either an area majority or a resource collection game, but it really doesn’t feel like any other game I’ve played.

Louis XIV is themed around the political machinations in the court of France’s “Sun King”. The gameplay really has nothing to do with this theme, but the setting is nice and there’s enough going on that the game doesn’t feel the least bit abstract. The game centers around twelve cardboard tiles called character boards. These show portraits of key individuals in ol’ King Looie’s court, as well as awards that players can win by playing influence markers on them. The most important awards are Mission chips, which come in four varieties (there is also a fifth chip type, crowns, which are wild). The chips are vital because they allow you to purchase Mission cards, which, in addition to providing useful abilities, are the principal source of victory points.

The same layout is always used with the twelve character boards placed in a specific position. Imagine a 5 x 5 checkerboard with the corner spaces colored red. The board layout is just as if they were placed on the black spaces of this imaginary checkerboard. This means the boards touch only at their corners. Check the photo on this page to see what I’m talking about. Four boards are in the center and each of these touch four other boards. The remaining boards are on the periphery and each touches only two other boards.

To start the game, give each player two Mission cards, five coins, and a bunch of influence markers. The game consists of four turns. At the beginning of each turn, a card is revealed which determines how many coins each player gets as income. Next, each player is dealt five Influence cards. Influence cards either show one of the twelve character boards or a question mark. The cards you are dealt go a long way toward determining the actions you will take that turn.

Next, each player in turn will either play or discard one of their Influence cards. When a character Influence card is played, the player takes up to three of his Influence markers from in front of him and places them on that character board. They don’t all have to stay there, though. The player can “walk” the markers to a diagonally adjacent board, as long as he leaves at least one marker behind. If he walked two markers over, he can keep them there or leave one behind and walk the third marker to a third board which is diagonally adjacent to the second board. Thus, a player can play markers on up to three boards by the play of one card. If a “question mark” Influence card is played, the player can only place a maximum of two markers, but they can start on any of the character boards. The second marker can then be “walked” to an adjacent board, as described above.

(Does this sound familiar? It should! Dorn used similar “walking” procedures in two of his other popular games. In Traders of Genoa, another excellent Alea design, the active player walks the disk tower from space to space, dropping off disks in each space. In Goa, the tiles to be auctioned are determined by the players walking from one tile to the next. All of these are different mechanics used in very different ways, but Dorn’s fondness of this very distinctive procedure is fascinating.)

Players usually won’t have enough markers in front of them to play an Influence card with the full number of markers each round. So the other option available is to discard an Influence card. Players only begin the game with a subset of their markers; the remaining ones are in a pile called the general supply and general supply markers aren’t available to be placed when an Influence card is played. Discarding gets these markers into circulation. When a character Influence card is discarded, the player can take up to three markers from her general supply and put them in front of her – these markers are now available to be placed. The procedure is the same when a question mark Influence card is discarded, except that no more than two markers can be recovered from general supply.

Players only play or discard four of their five cards; their last card is discarded with no effect. Now, the boards are scored. As I mentioned earlier, each board shows an award. These are different for each board. Each of the four central boards has a different Mission chip as its award. Since these chips are so important, these boards always attract a lot of attention. Awards on other boards include crown chips (which can be substituted for any of the Mission chips), coins, coats-of-arms (cardboard counters which act as victory points – more about these later), the right to take markers from the general supply, and even the right to add markers to another board. Deciding which awards you want to fight for obviously affects the way you’ll play your cards and your markers.

Two of the boards have cards as awards. One board gives the player an Influence card. This means on the next turn, that player will have one more card than usual. This means that not only will he have an extra card to play, he’ll be going last (since he’ll still have two cards left when everyone else has only one). If he’s the last player, he’ll be able to play the last two cards, which can be very powerful. This makes this award quite attractive, even if beginning players don’t always appreciate it right away. The other board gives the player an Intrigue card. There are twelve of these, one for each character board. If you have the Intrigue card for a board, you have the option of revealing it as the board is being scored, which lets you either place one marker from your general supply or two markers from in front of you onto that board. This “surprise attack” can be devastating, but particularly so if you are lucky enough to get an Intrigue card for a crucial board.

So that’s what can be won – how exactly can you win them? Again, that differs with each board. In addition to the award, each board shows the rules for the competition being held there. There are three kinds of rules. One rule type is “first place only”. For these boards, if one player has more markers present than anyone else, he gets the award. If there is a tie for first, well, as the French like to say, “Y’all get squat!” For the second, and less harsh rule, the board shows a number of coins. Once again, a player with a clear plurality of markers gets the award for free. But every other player who placed at least one marker on the board has the option of buying the award for that number of coins. This can be crucial: since you can’t win on every board you play on, planning to spend some coin (literally) can maximize your awards and let you get things done with but a single marker (at least, as long as your cash holds out). Finally, for the least contentious rule, the board shows a number of counters. Every player who places that many markers on the board gets the award for free, no matter what the other players do.

All of the boards are two-sided. The boards are usually flipped at the end of a turn. The awards stay the same, but the rules for winning them are different on the two sides of the board. This not only injects variety into the game, but has a real effect on gameplay. For example, each of the four central boards begins the first turn with “coin rules” showing. The reverse sides, however, are played using “first place only” rules. That means that the second turn is often a lot more difficult than the first one. It’s always important to see what rules are showing on the boards you’re interested in, as it will strongly affect your strategy.

There’s one final twist. The card that determines the player’s income at the beginning of the turn also gives a location for King Louis. This location will always be one of the four central boards. When Louis comes to visit, the rules are a little different – not surprisingly, he raises the ante. Now, a player finishing in first all by herself not only gets the usual award of a Mission chip, but she also gets a wildcard crown chip for free as well. Way to go, Lou! If there’s a tie for first or a lone player in second, each of those players gets the Mission chip award for free. The remaining players on the board get treated normally (which means they either get nothing or have the option of paying coins to get the chip, depending on which side of the board is showing). Not surprisingly, the board with Louis on it always attracts a lot of attention!

Winning those awards on the boards can be something of a mixed blessing. You see, the player who gets the free award must put all the markers he had on the board into his general supply, which means he won’t be able to play them until he reclaims them by discarding an Influence card. All the other players get their markers returned in front of them. This is a very nice balancing mechanism to keep the players winning the freebies in check. It also means that winning a high stakes battle on a board can put a serious crimp in your plans for next turn; sometimes, you’re better off finishing second and at least getting your markers back!

After the awards are handed out and the markers either returned to the players or put in general supply, the Mission cards can be bought. Each Mission card shows the combination of Mission chips needed to buy it. Two chips are always required, but different cards need different combinations. Cards come in three varieties. The easy cards only need one specific chip and any second chip, but the abilities they give the players are the least powerful. Medium cards require two specific chips, with the chips always being different, and they have more useful abilities. Finally, the hard cards require two identical chips, but have the best abilities. Each player begins the game with an easy and a medium Mission card. When a player buys a card, she returns the chips to the bank and places the card face up in front of her. The card’s abilities can now be used. In addition, the player immediately draws a new Mission card. She can choose which of the three face-down stacks to draw from. Players can buy as many Mission cards as they want in a turn, as long as they can pay the right combination of chips for them.

Mission card abilities are definitely useful and skilled players will modify their play to best take advantage of the abilities they have. Different cards allow you to collect coins, shields, cards, or markers from the general supply; break ties; get bonus markers placed on specified boards; get discounts on coin payments; and other effects. There are twenty different abilities, which give the game plenty of variety.

After the Mission cards are purchased, a new turn begins, with the start player rotating. The game lasts four turns. At the end of the fourth turn, the players score their coats-of-arms. As these are acquired, they are kept face down, but now the players reveal them. Each counter has one of six designs. Whoever has the most of each type of design gets a bonus counter (face down, so that it doesn’t affect the bonus awards). Ties are friendly, so everyone with the most of a design gets a bonus counter. Thus, at least six, and usually more, bonus coats-of-arms are awarded at the end of the game. The more coats-of-arms you have, the greater your chances for the awards, but the luck of the draw means that players often get more or less than their expected number.

Finally, scores are tallied. Each purchased Mission card is worth 5 VPs and each coat-of-arms (including the bonus counters) is worth 1 VP. High score wins.

It’s great when you make a surprise game discovery, but it’s just as good when your high expectations for a game are met. The bar is always set high when Alea releases a game and doubly so when the designer is someone of Dorn’s caliber, but Louis XIV is up to the challenge. This is an excellent and consistently enjoyable game. There’s a lot to think about, there’s ample opportunities for skillful play, and there’s a high fun factor for gamers who enjoy the angst of tactical planning.

The main skill is to take a hand of cards and determine your best course of action. This is harder than it looks thanks to the ramifications of the walking mechanic, which turns out to be a surprisingly effective game mechanic. Besides trying to maximize your chances for winning items, you want to maintain some flexibility, so you can best react to your opponents’ actions. You also need to keep an eye out for next turn; it’s an easy trap to have a successful turn, but leave yourself few markers and little cash, which usually translates to a poor succeeding turn.

The game is principally tactical, since each turn begins with a new hand of cards. But there are strategies you need to be aware of. You can’t ignore Mission cards and hope to succeed, and that means obtaining the correct Mission chips. But it’s very possible to make up a one or two card deficit at the end if you’ve been concentrating on coats-of-arms throughout the game. Finally, the Intrige card and, particularly, the extra Mission card awards can really have a dramatic effect on things, so knowing when to go after these is important. The polarity of the character boards, the amount of markers and coins you have, and your place in the turn order are all factors that must be weighed when deciding how to play your hand.

Other skills necessary to succeed is managing your money, utilizing the powers from the Mission cards effectively, managing your marker supply properly, and knowing how to use the different board award rules to your advantage. Because each hand of Influence cards is different and the Mission cards you receive will vary, each game truly will have a different feel and you’ll find it important to have a mastery of a number of tactical and strategic techniques.

The most controversial aspect of the design is the bonus coats-of-arms procedure at the end of the game. To introduce some uncertainty in the game’s outcome, Alea tacked on a mechanic that is essentially pure luck. Obviously, the more coats-of-arms you’ve accumulated over the course of the game, the more bonus points you’re likely to score, but whether you get your expected number, fewer, or more is simply a matter of chance. This is particularly irksome to some players because it happens at the end of the game, when a one or two point swing seems most meaningful, and there is no possibility of adjusting to an unlucky draw. Weird coats-of-arms distributions don’t decide all that many games, but it does happen and when it does, it seems like a peculiar, high luck way to end a game of great skill. To be honest, I wish Alea had come up with another way of assigning bonus points at the end, but I love the game in spite of this mild flaw. The thing is, you need some method of rewarding players for accumulating a lot of coats-of-arms, or else the game essentially comes down to who can acquire the most Mission cards. The good news is that it isn’t difficult to come up with alternative procedures. I’ve even come up with a couple of no-luck variants myself; if you’re curious, you can find them, along with my rationale for each, at the Geek: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geekforum.php3?action=viewthrea....

There’s more scrutiny than usual on the components for Louis XIV because of Alea’s decision to produce it without a game board. I think the gamble paid off quite nicely. Sure, there’s a small part of me that misses a big solid board, but it really isn’t necessary and thanks to its omission, I have a less expensive game that’s much easier to store and transport. (By the way, it would have been easy enough to play the game on a standard board, in spite of the character flipping – all that would have been needed is a two-sided counter for each character showing the two different rules, and the counter would have flipped, instead of the character board.) One reason gamers don’t seem to be missing the board is the clever way that the available space is used to hold the components during play. Each player’s general supply, the mission chips, and the Influence card discard pile all have their own cubby hole in the spaces between the character boards (the photo shows some of this) and this highly efficient use of space definitely adds to the game’s “coolness” factor. Alea once again employed the brilliant Franz Vohwinkel to do the components and he delivered as usual. The portraits of the courtesans on the character boards are very attractive and add a great deal to the game’s theme (okay, they’re just about the only contributor to the theme!). I wish the coloring used to show which side of the boards are uppermost at the start was a little brighter, but that’s a pretty small quibble. The icons on the boards and cards are easily understood and add to the game’s flow. And the cards, counters, and markers are both functional and attractive. The box may be smaller than the earlier Alea games, but they didn’t scrimp on what they put inside.

Alea’s rules are known for their clarity and ease of learning. Louis’ are good, but not quite up to their usual standard. There are actually typos, which is usually unheard of from Alea. And the rules are longer than you’d expect. Most of this is due to the fact that Louis isn’t a particularly elegant design – there are a lot of little rules and exceptions. So it does take a little bit of time to teach the game. Once you begin play, however, things move quite smoothly and the rules are easily grasped.

Louis XIV puts Alea back in the winner’s circle and maintains Rüdiger Dorn’s amazing streak of world-class titles (his last three releases are Goa, Jambo, and Louis – not too shabby!). The game is a delight for fans of tactical planning and there’s enough strategic elements to keep that part of the gaming brain happy as well. In my own personal ranking of Alea’s brilliant collection of big and mid-size games, I put Louis behind only Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence, which is mighty fine company. Give it a try and you’ll probably agree that good things come in mid-size packages, too!
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