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Voice of Experience 2016 Comparative Review

Stick around in the hobby long enough and you're bound to have your odd "house favorites" - games that might not be in most people's collections, or want lists, but have made it to your own table time and again. The 2010 Mario Papini eurogame De Vulgari Eloquentia (DVE) is my example. Since I only knew of its existence by reading this entry in the very first Voice of Experience Contest, I used it to be a good candidate for this article.

The Meandering Quest for Relevance: a Comparative Review of De Vulgari Eloquentia and Ticket to Ride


I acquired DVE and the very popular game Ticket to Ride (TTR) in early 2013. Having played both several times through the first year of owning them, only DVE has been in the regular rotation since. I've introduced TTR to non-gaming family members, but "The Italian Game" has always been favored by my most regular gaming partners, my kids.

This review is a comparison of DVE and TTR, but not in the what should I buy? sense. They are both very good choices, albeit for different reasons.

Part 1. The Obvious

TTR is a Days of Wonder production and has been by far the greater success story. It has a video trailer ( https://www.daysofwonder.com/tickettoride/en/), legions of fans, and an entire series of expansions. It sits at 100 in the overall BGG rankings, but two of its expansions are ranked above it. It also resides at or near the top of the hugely influential Dice Tower's recommendations as one of the best boardgames of all time, so it's obviously liked by a great number of people.

DVE is a lesser-known eurogame whose English language edition (at least, the one I have) was produced by Z-Man Games. It has a BGG rank of 579, not bad these days for a 2010 game, and has a small but dedicated following. In fact, a collection of user-created files contributed to BGG page have likely kept DVE from completely falling into obscurity.

Part 2. Out of the Box

TTR takes place in the early 20th Century, and involves claiming train routes between cities by collecting sets of train cards. Routes are claimed by placing plastic train pieces onto the board, and the colors on the board closely (to me) match the colors of the train cards. Gray routes can be claimed by a set of any color, and there are many "wild" train cards that can be used in any set. The map on the board is famous for its size and quality (despite the curious placement of Duluth and Chicago), and accommodates the placement of its many plastic train pieces throughout the game.

image by Verti

The large, high-quality DVE board has two halves: the left half is a map of 14th Century Italy, divided into regions whose color signifies their dominant local dialect. Players hop around Medieval Italy, taking various actions and gathering influence over the selection of the vulgare, or official non-Latin language of Italy. Every turn, players have a small number of actions to take - spent by placing purple disks around the board - to travel, collect victory points, gather influence and build up their strategy.

image by regulus

The right half of the DVE board features a series of "tracks", or areas where players can invest their actions to interact with the game state. A major task is to trade actions for manuscript tiles, which to me represents translating a written work into the local dialect (matched by color).

image by Siromist

Both TTR and DVE include other quality components that have held up to repeated play, but in both cases have considerable shortcomings.

TTR comes with a large deck of "train cards," which are collected and later played rummy-style to claim routes. These cards are very small and thus difficult to shuffle, and the deck will need to be shuffled a few times throughout the course the game. Hidden objectives are represented as Tickets, which are also hobbit-sized but do not require constant handling. The size of the board also creates an issue where some players must reach for their cards and risk knocking over the rather unsteady deck. However, train pieces are easy and fun to use, and the insert is useful.

DVE has a collection of standard euro-game style wooden cubes, pawns and discs, plus a black bag for the random board set-up. There are also a large number of sturdy punch-out tiles for manuscripts, "papal library" tokens, and tiles describing individual friars and cardinals. The color scheme appears to really work well with the board, but I found a Plano box highly useful for maintain some order (I do not remember if there was an insert).

DVE's big problem is the rulebook. It is rather long and not written in a way that I found useful, at least in the English translation. Fortunately, the Files section of the BGG page has some vital player aids and how-to-play documents that largely solve this problem:

Joe Berger's player aid: /filepage/61723/dve-double-sided-player-aid-english

Zeigreich's How to Play document: /filepage/62920/how-play-de-vulgari-eloquentia

There is also a major error inside the player screens, so players must be aware of the correct rules (the number of votes that each red and black cube are worth) in the rulebook or player aid.

Also notable is that TTR incorporates symbols to be accessible to the color-blind, whereas DVE does not appear to make such provisions:

image by skytostar

I have had no problems playing with DVE's color scheme (whereas I have had difficulty with many other eurogames), but it would appear that the large number of color-coded tiles would make adapting this game quite a task.

Part 3. The Strategy

Perhaps much of the popularity of TTR can be explained in the very simple set of choices that are available each turn: you either draw cards or trade them in to claim routes on the board. Occasionally, you can use a turn to draw extra Tickets for possible endgame bonuses, but almost all turns involve building and spending the sets of these cards.

"If Rummy is a sufficient card game for you, then Ticket To Ride is what you are looking for in a strategic board game." - me, before I knew better

Not to disparage rummy (in fact, Gin Rummy is one of my favorites)... but after a few plays, the strategic levels of TTR do start to reveal themselves. A player's final score in TTR strongly depends on the number of 5-piece and 6-piece routes that are claimed, because they are worth a whopping 10 and 15 points, respectively (3-piece routes score 4, and 4-piece routes score 7, by comparison). Only one 6-piece route can be claimed by a set of cards in any single color, the gray-colored link between Winnipeg and Sault St. Marie, making it a valuable target. However, the short links in the Eastern half of the map can be snapped up quickly and used to block other players from completing their endgame tickets. These tickets often swing the game, since if left incomplete, they work as negative points.

However, experience pays off with TTR in my least favorite fashion: players can get to know the contents of the deck of tickets, and start to guess at which routes their opponents are building. This memorization aspect, and the edge it confers, limits the depth of TTR. This issue is mitigated by the 1910 Expansion, which also includes a full set of "regular-sized" train cards.

DVE provides a wider array of options each turn (usually 5 actions, but many options cost multiple actions), and players will typically have to plan over several rounds in order to obtain their desired endgame goals. Whereas TTR only offers:

1. total routes,
2. ticket bonuses/penalties, and yes,
3. the Longest Route bonus,

DVE has endgame options for:

1. spending votes to become pope (worth a lot of points, but there are lesser options),
2. translating the most manuscripts, of the greatest complexity (which requires a dedicated advancement around the Knowledge Track that decorates the board edge)
3. grabbing a bonus from the Papal library
4. solving the Riddle from Verona
5. serving as the Messenger to Bologna
6. studying the Canticle of the Sun

Admittedly, options 3-6 are merely spending actions to advance your token along a track, but they have certain map-based or resource requirements that involve added planning. Being the first to visit a city on a particular turn also imparts a reward for being at the place where things are happening, an objective still ruling academic life to this day. Players can plan their chase (as well as their options for buying up votes) for these bonuses because they are displayed on the central track for upcoming rounds:

image by xodroolis

DVE also requires the management of resources, in the form of money (usually in short supply, but easy enough to modestly reclaim) and votes. Accumulated vote cubes are kept secret behind the player screens, which serves to limit the token-counting and speed the game a little. Obviously the element of resource management can give DVE the appearance of a "heavy" strategy game, certainly in relation to TTR, but one is more likely to run across canny, experienced TTR players.

Part 4. The Story (and the Endgame)

TTR is themed around early 20th-Century travel, in the outstanding circumstance where money is no object: players simply collect the cards they can find, at the pace of two per turn. Although routes are claimed and possibly strung together at the end for bonuses, players never are anywhere on the map, in particular. Your actions are entirely determined by your plans and cards in hand. Nonetheless, the game gets tighter as players grab valuable routes and start to close off regions.

DVE follows an unusual story, wherein the players are chasing opportunities for either votes or literary prestige. They swap roles between merchant (where money is easier to accumulate) to friar (with a better path for the endgame bonuses), to eventually cardinal (hugely expensive, but it needs to be done). Along the way, there are always multiple options for building progress along the different tracks or translating manuscripts. The tenth turn is marked by the Stupor Mundi event, where a player can call an auction for late-game progress around the knowledge track.

One way to compare the thematic content of boardgames is to consider the circumstances in which they end. TTR ends the moment one player empties his or her supply of train pieces (which are not hidden), so everyone can guess its occurrence within a turn or two. Endgame scoring is then an affair of figuring out who has the longest continuous route, as well as whether the tickets have been fulfilled.

The ending to DVE is thematic and often surprising. The last several rounds start with turning over a "papal event tile," which may display the pope in his deathbed. The first occurrence is merely illness, but the second signifies the last round (and all player pieces are brought to Rome). After everyone has a final turn, the votes are traded in to obtain the title of pope, camerlengo, monk or banker. As one could guess, the biggest prizes are pope and camerlengo, which are only available to cardinals. A few of the tracks yield endgame bonuses, but ultimate success largely swings on who has the votes sufficient for a high-scoring title.

While TTR may convey an old-time Phileas Fogg story to some players, DVE clearly drives a more compelling narrative. Despite its rulebook and setup quirks, it has provided a lot of laughs and down-to-the-wire finishes. The theme of DVE informs its multiple eurogame mechanisms - resource management, auctions, and turn order manipulation, among others. While TTR is more accessible to new players, I recommend obtaining a unique and idiosyncratic game like DVE, especially when its story is told by the events of the gameplay, rather than the box copy.


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Chris Wood
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Ttr would be the last game I would compare it to. That's like comparing catan with castles of burgundy.
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Pete K
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Myoman wrote:
Ttr would be the last game I would compare it to. That's like comparing catan with castles of burgundy.


That's not a bad idea!
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Yaron Davidson
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pkufahl wrote:
Myoman wrote:
Ttr would be the last game I would compare it to. That's like comparing catan with castles of burgundy.


That's not a bad idea!

There are a lot more similarities between Catan and CoB than there are here, which would make such a comparison a lot less interesting, while they are still different enough to also make it not particularly useful.
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Alexandre Santos
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DVE is a game that I've been wishing to try, thanks a lot for this refreshing review!
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Andrew MacLeod
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yarondav wrote:
pkufahl wrote:
Myoman wrote:
Ttr would be the last game I would compare it to. That's like comparing catan with castles of burgundy.


That's not a bad idea!

There are a lot more similarities between Catan and CoB than there are here, which would make such a comparison a lot less interesting, while they are still different enough to also make it not particularly useful.


Until I was well into the review, I thought it had been posted as a joke!
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