I first had the opportunity to play this latest Leo Colovini design and UberPlay/Kosmos release on the first day of the Spiele Faire in Essen. Not only was I honored to have Mik Svellov and Stuart Dagger as my fellow gamers, but we also had the privilege of being taught the game by UberPlay’s Jeremy Young. Experiences like that border on the surreal for me.
To be honest, I was less than enthused with my inaugural playing. I’m not sure why. The game worked, and, indeed, was filled with tough choices and seemingly considerable depth. However, it felt dryer than a bottle of Chianti. Further, in spite of the exotic theme, there was no shaking that the game felt decidedly abstract. Overall, the game just failed to generate much excitement for me … or for my two opponents. I was rather disappointed.
Still, I couldn’t let it go with just one playing. When my copy arrived, I vowed to get it to the table at the first opportunity. That opportunity arose as our evening drew to a close. I was joined by Elizabeth, Keith and Jim for a journey to the fabled land of Shangri-La.
The theme is rather unusual. All of the fabled tribes inhabiting the mystic land of Shangri-La have mysteriously vanished. The various tribes of the surrounding mountains immediately sent their wisest masters and most astute students into Shangri-La in hopes of expanding their culture and becoming dominant in this newly vacated land.
The board depicts the 13 villages that comprise Shangri-La. Each village has space for seven different “masters”, one of each type. These villages are located on the peaks of the mountains and are all connected by a series of roads and bridges. The wooden bridges are placed on the roads, spanning the gaps between the mountain peaks. The overall appearance is dark and brooding. Sadly, this atmosphere is spoiled by the player tokens, which are exceedingly bright with cartoon-like artwork. The two just don’t jive, and one has to wonder what the developers were thinking. I can understand using bright colors so that they will contrast with the darker board, making them easier to see. The artwork, however, is simply baffling.
Each player has a set of 42 tokens, six each in seven different classifications (known as “disciplines”). Players alternate placing one token from each of their classes into the villages. These tokens are known as “masters”. Beginning players can use the suggested set-up if desired.
On a player’s turn, he has the following options:
1) Place a new Master. A player may placed into a village if (a) there is a vacant spot of the type matching the tile, and (b) the player already has a master of a different type located in the village.
2) Recruit Students. Students are sent to learn at the feet of the wise masters. Each master can teach one student of the same type (how is that for a teacher to student ratio?). The player may place two students, either into one village – in which case the students must be of different types – or into two different villages. Student tiles are placed directly on top of a previously placed master tile.
3) Begin a Journey of the Students. After having studied at the feet of a master, students in a village grow restless and seek to journey to neighboring villages to either learn from a new master or become masters themselves.
When a journey is declared, ALL students in a village move along a path and across a bridge to a neighboring village. The player must have at least one student present in a village in order to declare a journey from that village. What occurs in the destination village will depend upon several factors and is based on which village is “strongest”. Strength is determined by comparing the total number of masters and students in each village.
a) Situation 1 – The village of origin is strongest. In this case, any student entering a village with an empty village space of its discipline is placed onto that space and becomes a master. If the space is occupied by a master of its own color, the tile is placed and becomes a student of that master. If, however, the space is occupied by a master – with or without a student – that tile is evicted and the newly arriving student becomes the new master. Evicted tiles return to their respective player’s stockpile.
b) Situation 2 – The destination village is strongest. In this case, conflicts are resolved with the newly arriving student being evicted. If there is no conflict, it is resolved as in Situation 1.
c) Situation 3 – Both villages are equal in strength. In this case, the village with the most masters is considered strongest. If this is tied, then the destination village is considered the strongest.
Once a journey is complete and all positions rectified, the bridge connecting the two villages crumbles, rendering that path unusable for the remainder of the game. Eventually, a village will become isolated, as all of its surrounding bridges have crumbled. When this occurs, the village is marked with a Stone of the Wise Men. When 11 stones have been placed, the game ends and the player with the most masters on the board is victorious and reigns supreme in Shangri-La.
There are lots of interesting and often tough decisions to be made during the game. Choosing the action you will perform can often be agonizing. One must always keep a careful and wary eye on the actions of your opponents. The threat of students embarking on a journey is always present and presents a persistent danger to neighboring villages. Players will usually have numerous students in danger of being evicted on each and every turn. Trying to protect them all, while at the same time expanding your own influence, is a tough balancing act. I often get the feeling of being overwhelmed, attempting to stave off disasters on several different fronts, while at the same time attempting to pursue my offensive objectives. On a very small and comparatively insignificant scale, I can understand how the generals in a war feel.
There is also a danger of depleting your stockpile of a particular discipline. This can occur if you concentrate too much on a particular area, continuing to expand from those villages. This can easily result in the continual placement of tiles from just a few disciplines, which will cause those reserves to deplete. This could cause your expansion to come to a grinding halt, which will likely spell doom. It appears that a delicate balancing act must be performed, attempting to expand using tiles from as many of your disciplines as possible.
I must state that I enjoyed my second playing so much more than my first playing … and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I had a better sense of the mechanics and the effects of the choices to be made. Perhaps I was better able to look past the abstract nature of the game and the mismatched components and appreciate the game play more. In any case, I found the game to be challenging, tense and filled with interesting and touch decisions. This second playing elevated the game from the “I’ll play if asked” category to the higher “I’ll request it” classification.
Keith was set-upon early, with several of his students and masters being ousted in aggressive journeys. Jim was expanding rapidly and rarely losing tiles when journeys occurred. I noticed this, but we were only able to eliminate a few of his tiles – not enough to prevent him from earning the victory. Elizabeth began slowly, but was able to expand into several villages without competition and grow her presence in those areas virtually unimpeded. She finished a close second.
Finals: Jim 24, Elizabeth 22, Greg 19, Keith 18
Ratings: Elizabeth 8, Jim 7.5, Keith 7, Greg 7