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[This review originally appeared in Counter Magazine]
3-4 players, 90 minutes, $35
designed by Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum
reviewed by Larry Levy
Alan Moon has long been one of my favorite game designers. The Elfen- games, Airlines/Union Pacific, Freight Train/Reibach & Co.; all innovative, thought-provoking, and entertaining games. Over the past couple of years, however, Moon’s offerings have tended to leave me cold. Some were too family-oriented for my tastes; others too abstract; quite a few seemed to be plagued with confusion over what the “best” set of rules for them were. I don’t know if you could call it a slump, but I had begun to wonder if Alan would ever return to the level of excellence he had established during much of the nineties.
Well, I’m happy to say that the Moon Man is back. San Marco, the latest release from what appears to be the Partnership-for-Life of Moon and Aaron Weissblum, is in my opinion the best game to come out of Germany since Die Fursten von Florenz and currently ranks as my favorite Moon design.
The players are aristocratic families striving to gain prestige in Renaissance Venice. If that theme sounds familiar, it's probably because it's identical to that of another recent release, Doge. The two games have virtually no mechanics in common, but I’m sure Ravensburger was less than thrilled to see the appearance of the Colovini game at Essen. Fortunately, San Marco does not repeat the mistake of its predecessor and features a game board that is both attractive *and* functional (they used color--what a concept!).
Speaking of the board, it shows six Venetian districts, each separated from its neighbors by a system of canals. In the time-honored fashion, each district has two point values, awarded to the players with, respectively, the highest and second highest number of aristocrats present. (The aristocrats bear a striking resemblance to wooden cubes.) In addition to each player's supply of aristocrats, there are a dozen bridges and a single token representing the Doge. There are also two decks of cards: an Action deck and a Limit deck.
These cards are the heart of the game, so let's begin with them. There are five kinds of Action cards. Bridge cards allow you to place a bridge between any two neighboring districts (the bridge is identified as yours). District cards let you place one of your aristocrats in either the named district or in an adjacent district connected to it by one of your bridges. Transfer cards let you remove an opponent's aristocrat in any district and replace it with your own. With one of the much feared Banishment cards, you choose a district, roll a die, and remove that number of aristocrats (your choice, but possibly including your own if you roll too high). Finally, Doge cards let you score a single district. You can either score the Doge's current location or move him over bridges to another district and score it (but you have to pay a Victory Point to any player whose bridge you cross).
Limit cards each have a number on them, either a one, two, or three. As we will soon see, these are cards you very much want to avoid (but may not be able to resist).
The game's main mechanism is the old pie dividing rule--you know, I cut the pie in two and you get to choose which half you want, thereby ensuring a fair division. In each turn of the four player game, two players are chosen to divide cards and two are chosen to select. For example, Alice will divide for Bob and Charlie will divide for Doris. Alice and Charlie are each given five Action cards and three Limit cards. They each secretly divide their cards into two piles, with the only restriction that each pile must contain at least one card. Then Alice exposes her two piles, Bob chooses the one he wants, and acts on each of the Action cards in it. Alice then takes the remaining pile and uses all the Action cards it contains. Then Charlie exposes his two piles, Doris takes the one she wants and acts on it, and Charlie does the same with the remaining pile. At the end of all this, all the Action cards are discarded, but everyone keeps the Limit cards that were in the pile they chose. (Limit cards--a second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.) Then it’s on to the next turn of dividing and selecting.
This continues until one or more of the players has Limit cards with a total value of 10 or more. If three or four players have reached this total, then there will be no more turns in that round. (Rounds are called *passages* in the game.) If only one or two players have hit the Limit, then the remaining players participate in one more dividing/selecting turn. In either case, any player with less than 10 Limit points at the end of the passage scores bonus points and the player with the fewest Limit points gets a free Banishment. Then everyone discards their Limit cards and a new passage begins. After three passages have been played, each of the districts is scored and the player with the most points wins.
The most distinguishable aspect of San Marco is the card splitting rule and it is one of the most enjoyable mechanics I’ve ever encountered in a board game. Essentially, you’ll be faced with a Solomon-like division problem about every other turn, each with different cards and under differing circumstances. These problems are challenging and unlike anything else you’re likely to have encountered in other games, yet they can usually be performed reasonably quickly and without excessive angst. Choosing between two piles that have been created for you is simpler, but still requires sound judgement and is almost as much fun.
The reason this works so well is that Weissblum and Moon have provided us with a set of very different kinds of actions. You can’t overstate the importance of the Doge cards, since they’re just about the only way you can be sure of gaining points until the end of the game. Of course, gain enough points early on and you might as well paint a large bullseye on your forehead. District and Bridge cards let you slowly build up your position on the board. Transfer and Banishment cards can tear down the most impregnable of positions and are often highly prized as a result. And Limit cards can deprive you of turns, points, and aristocrats (if you’re the victim of a free Banishment). Different players will have their favorite types of cards and there’s a goodly number of differing strategies that can be attempted. Best of all, each of these decisions are dependent upon the game situation: the desirability of a District card depends upon what aristocrats are present there or what bridges you have in place; a pile with a Limit total of 3 might be a small annoyance to one player, while to another with 7 Limit points in front of her, it’s a major deterrent; and so on. Trying to get into an opponent’s head when dividing the cards is one of the greater pleasures of this game, and successfully predicting how he will choose is very satisfying (particularly if this allows you to get the cards *you* really wanted).
The card division mechanic is strong enough to base an entire game around. But San Marco adds a number of other interesting wrinkles, surely the hallmark of a well designed game. I think the rules for bridges are my favorite. They are very well implemented and fit the theme beautifully. At first blush, bridge cards appear to pale in importance to the other cards, but after a few games, you begin to realize just how valuable a sound network of bridges can be. They give you great flexibility, both in placing your pieces and in moving the Doge. And the points they can provide when other players use them are not inconsequential. The Limit cards allow the division mechanic to work by providing consequences for those desirable actions. They also give a second dimension to the game, which adds even more interest to the division/selection process. Finally, even though the “give points to the first and second largest group in a district” mechanic is far from original, it is used to excellent effect here. One of the keys to the game is to try to be the other player gaining points when the active player scores the Doge and experienced players can often anticipate which district will be scored by observing the location of bridges and the Doge. And the rule that *no one* scores points if there is a tie for second place in a district lends even more importance to the placement of aristocrats and particularly, to transfer cards.
The physical design (by A. Cimatoribus, a name I am not familiar with) is up to the usual high Ravensburger standard. As I mentioned earlier, the board is both functional and very attractive. The background of each district on the board is made up of drawings of buildings and other items, a very pleasing and subtle effect. The only complaint I have with the board is the inexplicable decision not to count the corner squares as part of the scoring track that winds around the outside of the board. In other words, if you don't look carefully, it appears to take six squares to move from 20 to 25, because one of those "squares" is actually the corner of the board. Once the players are made aware of this it only represents a minor annoyance, but it is one that could have very easily been avoided. The cards in the game are sturdy and well designed; my favorite is the illustration on the Banishment cards, which is suitably imposing. And I applaud the use of realistic looking plastic bridges instead of some generic component, particularly since the bridges tie so closely into the theme.
The end result is a game that is thought provoking, unique, and, above all, very enjoyable. There is some luck present, but most of the extremes of card distribution are self-correcting, because of the pie division rule. Games tend to be quite close, since it is not at all difficult to beat on the leader. Actually, a more difficult skill is figuring out who the leader is, since so much of the scoring occurs at the end of the game--experienced players soon learn to at least partially ignore the scoring track and check aristocrats and bridge structure. Although there are plenty of subtleties in gameplay to be discovered, this is a game that invariably plays very well the first time. In fact, my initial trial of San Marco is one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had. I’ve played half a dozen times since then and my opinion hasn’t diminished one bit.
The three player game plays very much like the four player. The main difference is in the card dividing process. On every turn, one player divides six Action and four Limit cards into *three* piles. One opponent will be able to choose from all three piles, and the other will choose from the two remaining piles, leaving the third for the divider. I think I slightly prefer the four player game because dividing for two is a little more enjoyable for me than dividing for three. But the fact remains that if you're looking for a meaty game for three players, San Marco is one of your best choices, which only adds to the game's appeal.
Are there any problems with the game, other than the fact that it can handle no more than four? Well, it's not a game in which you can plan a long term strategy. The game position can change, sometimes dramatically, with every turn. The key is to be able to make the best choices given the current situation. I actually prefer games like that, but not everyone will agree. A more serious potential problem is the time required to divide the cards. This is an unusual mechanic requiring a very different way of thinking. Some players will pick it up right away and some players will struggle with it. If a game has too many struggling players, it can lead to some downtime issues. San Marco definitely works best when played at a brisk pace, so this can diminish the playing experience a bit. If your group is having this problem, I would suggest playing with three. Although the dividing decisions can be even thornier, there's no reason why the divider can't make his choices with the cards face up. Letting everyone see what's coming up, and possibly projecting how *they* would split the cards, effectively eliminates the problem of downtime.
To summarize, San Marco is a very well crafted game featuring fresh, unique mechanics and a fine physical appearance. It's a highly enjoyable design that I would unquestionably recommend to any gamer. Overall, a most impressive creation that places Alan Moon firmly back into the winner's circle and ushers Aaron Weissblum into the select company of star game designers.