Zoch isn’t particularly known for deep strategy games. Rather, their forte seems to be the production of high-quality children and family games. As such, their offerings are usually not on my “watch” list. However, Salamanca seemed to be a bit of a departure, as it promised to offer a greater degree of strategy and depth than their usual fare. The clincher for me was the fact that the designer is Stefan Dorra, whose creations I tend to enjoy.
The theme and atmosphere aren’t unique, as players place building and landscape tiles in efforts to increase the size and value of their claimed estates. Cards are played to determine player order, followed by each player executing one of three possible actions. In a mechanism identical to that found in another new release, Gold Sieber’s Die Saulon von Venedig, each player passes the card they played to their left neighbor. Play continues until the tiles are depleted, with the wealthiest player claiming victory.
The virtually featureless board depicts an 8 x 9 grid, upon which the building and landscape tiles will be placed. Each player receives 3 “squire” tokens, one “conde” token and a hand of 4 or 5 cards, depending upon the number of players. The board is seeded with five landscape tiles, and five tiles are revealed and placed on the drafting display.
Each turn begins with five new tiles being placed onto the display. Tiles not taken from the previous round remain in place, so often a player will be able to take multiple tiles when making a selection. In turn order, players then each play one card, but they must play a card of a different value than cards played that round. Players then take their action in the order of card values played. The only exception to this is the quirky rule wherein if a “5” is the lowest card played, that player takes his action first.
A player may choose one of the following actions:
1) Place tiles. The player chooses one of the fields from the tile display, and places all of the tiles onto the board. He may, if desired, place a squire token at no cost onto a building tile just placed. If he has no further squire tokens, he may sell an existing building to make one available, but then he must pay to place the squire. Since players only possess three squires, care must be taken when deciding to place them.
A player may elect to sell one or more of his buildings. Income is based on the value of the building, which ranges from 2 – 4, depending upon whether it is a farm, castle or monastery, and the surrounding landscape. Multiple landscapes are eligible, but only if they match the color of the building, are connected orthogonally, and are connected to the building. Each landscape tile increases the sale value by one, with fertile landscape tiles increasing the value by two. Multiple buildings can be connected to the same landscape tiles, so often several players can take advantage of lucrative areas. However, fertile landscape tiles are removed from the board following a sale, which often causes the value of a region to plummet. Being the first to sell can be a huge advantage.
The sale value may be reduced by plagues, which include locusts, rats, poison, and ruins. Plagues are placed onto tiles by when a player chooses to execute the special action of the card they played.
2) Place a Conde token. This token may be placed onto a building already occupied by an opponent’s squire. However, the token may not be placed onto a building whose territory is valued at 7 or greater. Since these valuable territories earn income at the end of each turn, this rule prevents a player from quickly sharing the income from an established area.
3) Perform the function of the card played. Most of these special powers allow the player to place a plague onto the board. One allows the player to exchange a card with an opponent.
After each player chooses and executes his action, played cards are passed to the left. Thus, a high-valued card will then be in the hands of an opponent, which is certainly a factor when considering which card to play each turn.
A round ends with a weekly market, wherein regions with a value of 7 or more earn 2 doubloons for the squire occupying the building, and one doubloon for any conde on the building. While it may seem a mere pittance, this is a regular income, and can be substantial over time. However, there is an increasing pressure to sell a region, particularly if more than one player is sharing the territory. As mentioned, fertile landscape tiles are removed from play following a sale, reducing the territory’s value for the remaining players. Greater profits tend to go to the player who sells first.
The game concludes on the round following the appearance of the final five tiles on the display. Players tally their doubloons, with victory going to the wealthiest player.
I took a chance on Salamanca, as I purchased it without having the opportunity to play or consult with anyone who had previously played. Often, such “take a chance” purchases prove to be unwise. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case here, as I enjoyed my first playing. There are numerous decisions to be made each turn, including which field of tiles to select, which action to select, whether to place a squire, whether to sell a region or hold onto it for income purposes, whether to place or move a conde, where to place a plague, etc. The timing of a land sale is often critical, and adds a considerable amount of tension to the proceedings. All of this is fun stuff.
The game also plays relatively quickly – an hour or so. There is a lot of decision-making, tension and fun packed into that tight time frame. The fact that the game is not limited to just four players is also a plus for me, as my shelves are already overflowing with an over-abundance of four-player games. While I need further playings to cement my opinion, so far I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. It may not be one of Dorra’s best, but it appears to be a decent game.