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Subject: Tyros, underrated brilliance! rss

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Guy Riessen
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This great game by Martin Wallace just does not get the recognition that it deserves. Martin Wallace mentioned on a recent interview that he considers Tyros to be one of his favorite designs, and I can certainly understand why--the game has escalating tension, and tight game play, that builds to the very end. I don't know all the reasons why it hasn't garnered higher ratings, although it is obvious from some of the remarks in the ratings that quite a few people may simply be playing incorrectly. I’ll discuss the different very cool mechanics of the game as well as some of the basic strategies to consider.

Components
The box is fine, typical Kosmos sturdiness in the long, narrow box format. The cardboard bits were die cut a little poorly--everything lined up fine but the pieces were not cut through enough to allow easy removal. It was easy to accidentally tear the colored portion slightly as the pieces were punched out. I ended up cutting the pieces out with a hobby knife, something unusual for most German games. Perhaps this was just my copy? The player colors were unusual, and I would say having gray and white is not a great idea since in poor lighting the white city markers look gray--they are quite obviously different when you compare them directly, but just glancing at the board doesn't work.

The Game
The game itself is a unique combination of area-influence, initiative timing, and hand management. There is luck involved in that you draw area tiles which indicate which area you can influence in terms of empire expansion next, as well as a hand of cards which will allow player expansion. However, that said, the luck is mitigated in that you can sacrifice 'tempo' or initiative to adjust your hand by trading up to 3 cards with the bank. There is also player-trading, although I think people may be looking for far more of this game play element than is here. Although it is allowed, I would say this is definitely NOT a “trading game.” Don't come to this thinking Settlers (because your motives are much more transparent here than in Settlers and that therefore discourages trading as a mainstay of hand-adjustment) and you might be delighted by this deep, middleweight game.

The Mechanics and Strategic Thoughts
The game has two main phases for each turn, and a variable number of rounds within the second phase. The phases are expanding the 4 neutral empires, and player expansion. At the beginning of the game, the four neutral empires--green, yellow, purple, and orange--begin in randomly determined locations on the Mediterranean map by drawing starting tiles. There is a numbered tile that corresponds to each numbered location on the 7x5 gridded map, with 2 spaces, off limits--one is landlocked, the other is deep water. Since you are Phoenician traders, you are limited to skirting around the edges of the Med, never straying too far from land.

Once the starting locations for the empires is set, each player is dealt 4 face down tiles, which will correspond to locations where they can influence where empire expansion takes place. It should be noted that here, as well as for movement, only orthogonal locations are valid--no expansion or sailing on the diagonal!

In the first phase, the starting player (this rotates at the end of each "turn") can choose one of their tiles that are orthogonally adjacent to an existing empire marker. They then place an empire marker of the same color on that location--that empire has now expanded into that location. In areas where 2 or more empires are adjacent to the tile, the player gets to pick the color. Although you MUST if you can, play a tile, with 4 to choose from you usually have some influence as to which empire is actually expanding--this is important for scoring. On the first turn this cycles twice, with each player getting to place two tiles, one each time.

You are vying with the other players to control, and/or keep hidden which empire will end up occupying the most areas--and you don't always need to control which has the most--keeping secret which one may end up with the least is valuable as well, as it may keep 2 of the 4 empires seemingly less valuable. Initially, the first couple rounds, there is quite a bit of chaos as most of the future expansion is unknown, but that is okay because it will be both the area tiles you play, as well as your apparent intentions for cities, which will help to mold how the other players will lay down their tiles. There is much strategy in the later 3/4 of the game, in timing your area tiles so that the empires you want to expand will expand at the rate you desire. In the beginning of the game, the expansion is more chaotic because the areas you can expand to are so rigidly determined by the tile number and required orthogonal adjacency. Once the empire marker is placed, discard the area tile out of play and draw another.

A brief aside here to point out that score-wise, the smallest empire is a good bet. Especially early on in the game, if you have the resource cards to make a move there, the smallest empire is actually quite valuable because typically it is easy to “lock up” a majority, or enough of a majority to make it not worth an opponent’s turn to try and block you. Say, you end with 3 cities in the smallest empire, that will get you 3x7 or 21 points for the city plus 7 points for controlling the majority of the empire. Once you have a couple cities there, it is costly, perhaps impossible depending on its size, to attempt to take the majority away from you, and because the city value is lower, it’s usually not advantageous to build there at all, leaving you the freedom to reap those points!

If you cannot place a tile, you must show your tiles to the other players to verify that you indeed have no play, then you draw a new tile from the tile stack and place your unplayable one at the bottom of the stack. You skip your tile placement that turn (you do NOT get to place your newly acquired tile on the same turn you picked it up).

All the scoring except one facet, occurs at the end of the game, and the game end on the turn when one or more players have run out of area tiles--sometimes this will mean all of the areas are valid, sometimes one or more will never come out, depending on how many times someone has been unable to place a tile. The one early score possibility that happens during the game is the player who first has a city in each of the empires will get a bonus 7 points added to their score—this will often be blocked at the smallest empire, so you might want to combine an attempt on the city majority of the smallest empire with the “first to have a city in each empire.”

Points are determined by having cities within empires, and boats in control of empire areas. You can only have two boats (no matter the owner(s)) per area. Because there can only be 2 boats per area, it is possible to "lock up" and area with 2 of your own boats. Likewise, it is possible to deny someone points by moving one of your boats into a spot with just one of theirs. You can only build a city if you are the sole boat-owner in a space, so this can also stop city-building. You can also prevent someone from building more boats at any particular city by filling the harbor with two of your boats. So opportunities to ‘block’ opponents abound…however, blocking is costly unless you’re truly looking to negate a few points near the end. Again, it comes down to controlling tempo, if you’re spending a phase round as well as resources to block someone, one or more of your other opponents get what equates to unopposed action. It’s real “iffy” when blocking is worthwhile and when it helps everyone else—it’s also this facet which makes me rate this game higher than, say, Antike, which is more of a straight rush to win.

At the beginning of each turn, each player is dealt 10 new cards. Because you can hold up to 3 cards from the previous round, not every player will have the same number of cards each turn--except the first, of course. During the 'player action' phase you can do ONE, and only one, of several things:
1. Move a Boat
2. Build a City
3. Build a Boat
4. Trade with a player
5. Trade up to 3 cards with the bank
6. Pay 3 cards to choose one card from the discard pile
7. Pass

The cards correspond to the colors of the empires (and represent the majority of that empire's exports), and there are also several gray, wild cards that can be used as any color.

1. Move a Boat. You can move a boat from any location to any empire location (one already marked with an empire tile) by paying a cost equal to the number of orthogonal spaces to the end space. The color of the resource cards used must match the color of the empire that owns the space you end on. Some people have apparently been confusing the need to end on an empire space with a need to move through empire owned spaces--to clarify, you can move through any orthogonally adjacent space, with or without empire tokens, but you must END on a space owned by an empire. You are not locked into your starting harbor at Tyros until empires expand to it! You can move through any space with ships already there, but you can only end your move on a space with no ships or a single ship (owned by you or not). At the end of a move, there can only be a maximum of two ships per space. This can also prevent someone from building ships--if there are two ships on a city space, no more can be built there until one, or both, vacate(s) the space. You can also move a ship to prevent a city being built by your opponent, as below. At the end of the game, when scoring occurs, if you can manage to have your boats in sole control (either by being alone in the space, or by having two of your boats "lock" the space for you) you will get points. The value of these ship-held spaces scales depending on the 'power' of the empire--the more spaces an empire owns, the more points it is worth to have boats in sole control.

2. Build a City. If only your ships are occupying a space, you can choose to build a city for a cost of 4 resource cards (all the color of the owning empire) if you have two ships there, or 5 resource cards if you have one ship there. When you place the city you must remove one ship from the space--obviously it must be one of your own ships because you cannot build if someone else also has a ship there. Cities are valuable because they are worth points at the end, and they cannot be negated once built--ship points can be negated if another player can move one of their boats into the same space before scoring occurs. The value of the city scales depending on how 'powerful' the empire is at the end of the game--i.e. If the green empire has the most 'owned' spaces, players who have cities there will score more points. The first player to build a city in each of the four empires will also receive a bonus 7 points.

3. Build a Boat. You can build a boat in any of your cities, provided there is space in the harbor. If there are no boats on the space, you can build a boat for the cost of 1 resource of the color of the owning empire--a city built in green's empire, can produce a boat for 1 green resource card. If there is already a boat (regardless of boat owner) in the space it will cost one resource card of the owning empire's color plus one extra resource of any color. If there are two boats there already, you're out of luck--no more boats can be built there until one or both move.

4. Trade with a Player. Any combination of resource cards can be traded with another player. This can, and does happen, but it doesn't happen enough to make it a major component of the game. And it will usually be quite apparent that it is mutually beneficial to BOTH players--the motives behind trades are fairly apparent, so you won't be tricked into a trade that overly advantages one player. If you cannot successfully trade with another player, you CAN choose a different action.

5. Trade up to 3 Cards with the Bank. You can discard one, two or three cards and draw the same number from the draw stack. At first it may seem strange that this is not limited, however, it is costly in terms of tempo, to do this much, AND it is limited by the fact that there will be very few cards left in the draw pile, after each player gets their 10 starting cards. This rule ends up being pretty fun because what happens is everyone rushes to get their definite plans completed (be they building cities or boats or both) through the first cycles and then there is a rush to cycle cards to hopefully get the chance to build more boats or to position boats for city building next turn. The discards don't get shuffled when the draw pile is depleted, so once this starts it won't last long!

6. Pay Three Cards to "Buy" one from the Discard Pile. This is an expensive choice, but there are times when it will be necessary to complete a plan—when you just need that one more purple to buy the city, or when the draw pile has already been exhausted.

7. Pass. Unlike some games, when you pass, you will still have the option to do something when your turn comes around again. However, other than sacrificing tempo, there is another potential cost to passing, since the turn will end when all players pass in a row. So if you want to continue to play, make sure at least one player after you won't pass—yes, this can and does happen, so think hard before you pass with 8 cards still in your hand since you’ll have to discard (and therefore waste) 5 of those if everyone notices and passes as well!

These seven options continue around the table several times, until finally, all the players pass in a row. As long as one player doesn't pass, there will be at least one more cycle around the table. There are times when you might want to pass, rather than say, building a boat, because you want to see where someone might put a city, or build a boat of their own. You can only retain 3 resource cards between turns, so any extra you have when the turn ends, must be discarded. Typically as the turn nears its end, you'll be trading cards with the bank (the draw pile) to eek out another boat-move or boat-build before the turn ends.

When the turn does end, shuffle the discard and anything left in the draw pile together and pass the 1st player marker to the left. Then deal out another 10 cards to each player--this means after the first turn, each player will start with between 10 and 13 cards.

The game ends when, at the end of a turn, one or more players has no more area tiles to place--there can be tiles which are left unplayed, so don't count on that number 8 tile coming up to seal the deal for the largest empire!

Conclusions
For quick players you can play the 4-player game in about an hour. Players who think a lot will obviously make it take longer—that said, most of your moves can be planned while the other players are taking their turns, so encourage this! Waiting until your turn to start to think about what you're going to do is the biggest slowdown for this game. I truly don't understand why one of the complaints is the length of this game--it is a great length for a medium -weight game--an hour is near perfect for the weight. We especially like it because it is the heaviest game we can play in a single lunch hour with 4 players--very cool! Other similar weight games like Power Grid, Tempus, Antike are played over 2 lunch hours.

In terms of the pure complexity, it is quite easy--it's the depth of choices that make it "medium weight," similar to Power Grid and Antike, rather than the rules which are straightforward and not complex. The game play is fast and fun, with tension building in a smooth scale along the playing time axis--the tension builds ever steeper as you get closer to the end, but unlike Power Grid, it is a steady slope rather than an end-rush. As you get closer to that last tile, you're planning out a couple turns ahead how to influence the trend towards the strongest empire, as well as how to maybe sneak up and snatch the city majority of the backwater small empire everyone else ignored. All the while trying to massage your resources into just what you need to grab those final points. Another complaint I've seen is that the game has inordinate swings of points based on empire position--this just isn't true...the difference between having a couple cities in an empire in the lead, and one in second place, is 4 points (12 points per city vs. 10). Add to that fact that the difference is more than offset by having the city majority in any empire, and the complaint must stem from misunderstanding the scoring or the rules. The games will end with fairly tight scoring, with the difference between first and last place rarely being more than 10 or 15 points in games that score 60 to 80+ points. Make sure you watch those small empires closely, it is easy for one player to casually get a couple cities before you notice and garner a city-majority bonus which everyone will wait for “the other guy” to oppose—meaning it’ll probably end unopposed! Although to truly optimize your scoring you might want to play with a calculator, a couple times playing will garner you a pretty good "feel" for the relative scores, and therefore, where you might wish to direct which empire. The combination of building your own empire of trading cities while influencing the power of 4 different neutral empires which all the players "trade" with, is fascinating, exciting to watch, and really makes every game different.

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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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Preach it brotha! I've liked Tyros quite a bit ever since I picked it up some three-four years ago, and it's gotten a generally good reception with my diverse gaming acquaintances. I find it plays best with three, but is still excellent with four. I'm glad to see a nice in-depth article about this underappreciated find!
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L. Stitz
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Tee-hee-hee-hee-hi-hihihi-hu-hua-huar-huarrrRRRrrrrrr.
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This is a great game -- though it gets little playtime with my group as we seldomly are 3-4 players (either 2, or 5+). However, while being simple to learn, it has clever mechanics that can lead to great comeback games.

I too think this game is underrated. If I could, you'd get two thumbs for this review.
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Alkis Moraitis
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Sydney Olympic Park
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We gotta get out while we 're young, `cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run...
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This is the 1st game I purchased 3.5 years ago to enter this hobby, and it is as excellent now as it was then. I always use it to initiate new gamers into the more satisfying game experiences. It is a prime example of how good a game can be found in such a small box.
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José Carlos de Diego
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This is a great game. I too think this game is underrated. A Masterpiece. I love this game.
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Richard Lea
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Thanks for this. The game has been sitting in my cupboard, getting no attention because of its low profile. You have just inspired me to give it a try without delay.

Can you tell us more about the interview with Wallace?
 
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Guy Riessen
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rplea wrote:


Can you tell us more about the interview with Wallace?


I just "re-found" it -- it was a special episode of the Dice Tower podcast
http://audio.funagain.com/thedicetower/TDTS02-TheDiceTower-S...

Worth taking a listen

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