GERMAN VERSION here: Sünder oder Heiliger? Beides! Eine bebilderte Spielübersicht (German version)
Disclaimer: Since 2012 I am kind of associated to the Zoch team and participated in several week-long prototype meetings and more. So this is not a subjective review (which would be biased), but only a first pictorial overview to decide, whether Mea Culpa might be your cup of tea – or not.
I played Mea Culpa for the first time April 2012. Back then many things were quite different - very many things, to be precise. The game was kind of a rough diamond - a rock of precious marble - without a distinctive form. Since the last version this spring the game became foremost much leaner, clearer, a process during which the game sculptor of Zoch and the designers Rüdiger Kopf & Klaus Zoch watched out not to cut away the wrong parts. Now the finished game will be released at Essen. First things first: It is one of the most complex games ever done by Zoch, more than, say, Mangrovia. The recommended age on the box says: 14+ (half because of the theme, probably, half because of its weight – IMO a solid 3.0 on the BGG scale).
The components “out of the box” - and assembled.
The basic concept
Welcome to the Luther jubilee! Here the accompanying “Tetzel-game”. Johann Tezel (1460 - 1519, see pic on the right), according to Wikipedia, lived his life to the fullest: selling of indulgences, collecting money to support the construction of St. Peter at Rome, shady connections to some bankers, an unsound lifestyle, adultery, gambling fraud ... here we are, at the beginning of the 16th century and a game of Mea Culpa.
For those who missed the history lesson about the Protestant Reformation: The selling of so-called “Letters of indulgence” was based on the obvious idea to buy yourself out of your sins instead of repent properly. Basically the start of Modern times including neo-liberalism. At the beginning of the game's development this core idea was buried away a little bit under a complicated trading system and a map of Europe. But as I mentioned before, this core was carved out, and here, in short, what emerged:
As a player you influence some important people during your gaming life: Pope, Emperor, Merchant and a “Petty Sinner”. All those guys help you in several ways.
Pope, Emperor, Merchant, Petty Sinner – each of them can do you a favour ... Oh, Vanity! Each one let paint his likeness in oil!
Yet this influence is already sinful (corruption!), as are a lot of other benefits you grab during the game. And similarly to real life you get entangled in more and more sins leading you closer and closer to hell. Inevitably, during the whole game you never go upstairs.
There (left) you are aiming all game long - despite the luring putti blowing their horns so nobly (right)!
But! At the final scoring you will be able to show your pay for the hard labor: Letters of indulgence! These are allocated in larger quantities only two times during the game, though. Each time, when one of the cathedrals is completed. Whether you get any at all depends on how devotedly you have donated for this very church.
The colorful letters of indulgence (varying in rarity) cast long shadows – large numbers of them are only available, when one of these cathedrals is finally finished.
At the very end we have a look at our collections of letters and see, who has the best one – complete sets push us straightforward upstairs towards Heaven’s Gate. The player ending closest to Heaven wins the game.
Herein lies the main conflict and the question regarding your strategy:
Do you pile up sin for sin onto your “account” to get benefits galore and outperform all the virtuous players
at the end of the game? Or do you resist all temptations during gameplay and end up in a position
uncatchably close to Paradise – even with much less letters of indulgence?
As usual in a Zoch game, the components are top notch. The opulent and colorful world of Early Modern History by artist Franz Vohwinkel comes with a satirical touch and besides its glory and richness everything makes sense and is clearly laid out.
Before the first game some careful handicraft work has to be done. Well, back then people used to work more with their hands, right? So, here it’s the same and besides the usual punching out you need to fold and assemble things, until tally sticks and chests are ready for play.
Very well solved: The folding works great and everything really fits
Tally sticks? Well, you should keep an eye on your copy of these 6-sided “etched posts” with 1 to 6 notches on their sides. They are used to keep track of how much each player sins during a round, which might lead to a jump right down the stairs to Hell.
”All the world’s a board” – W. Shakespeare
An important element on the board is the Stairway to Heaven: The lower steps consist of flaming coal, then the steps get cooler and stony and filigree, ending floating through the sky towards Heaven’s Gate. In the center of the board we place the four portraits of our “main characters” (oil on thick cardboard), each pointing to the area dedicated to it.
The Pope points to the Dens of Sin, where the players will accumulate sins throughout the game, the Emperor as the responsible authority towards the building sites of the kingly cathedrals including the builders’ hut ...
... the Merchant towards the Market and the Petty Sinner towards the House of
the rising sun Pleasure with its 6 rooms. Franz Vohwinkel loves his details. An apple someone couldn’t refuse,
a coastal vessel to get goods from faraway countries, a blatant preacher of indulgences,
even the grass is brown and trampled where more people walk, for instance in the front
of the House of Pleasure. So, it is okay to humbly hide your initials somewhere, isn’t it?
Enough sauntering around the board – let’s start.
Each player chooses a color and gets the matching
Meeple Poor Soul (all four of them sharing the “0” corner place of the Kramer-stairs), a screen with lots of information on its back, seven sin stones, a tally stick and a chest for donating. On top of that, a couple of coins (“Taler”), that has to be enough for the start. Life wasn’t a bed of roses even back in those times.
The uneven supply of four different goods (brown bread, red wine, purple cloth and white jewels) plus grey indulgence stones go to a cloth bag. 7 of these cubes are drawn randomly and placed onto the corresponding market stalls.
Place the money supply, the two wooden parts for each of the cathedrals to be built and the letters of indulgence in four colors beside the board. The building crews go to their hut, the Pope stones to the Dens of Sin and a draw deck of 24 beneficial cards onto the spot near the House of Pleasure (the hot spot for crooked deals). Four of these cards are displayed on the rooms Nos. 1 - 4, rooms 5 and 6 offer exclusive amenities. As you suspected, each room can only be visited once per round, then its benefit is gone. After a short distribution of some stuff (the dismal legacy of your piffling forefathers) you start the game, round per round.
A game round:
Each of the approximately 10 rounds have the same sequence:
- Choose characters
- Take actions in character order (multiple times)
- Compare the tally sticks
1. Choose characters
Bids: Purple 2, Black 5, Yellow 6, Green 8.
Rarely your plans match your cash position ...
Each player bid secretly for choosing first one of the characters for this round. Bid more and have a larger variety to pick from, bid less and you have to take the one nobody else wanted. The bid is the sum of the number of notches you choose on your tally stick (1 to 6) and the Talers you add. First questions arise immediately: Which character do I want? And which ones are wanted by the other players? How much do I have to bid to get, what I want (maybe only the minimum bid of “1”?). Where am I money-wise, and where is my position on the staircase? And what are my plans for this round anyway (the higher your tally stick at the end of the round, the more probable your fall!)?
The players simultaneously show their bids, get angry, sigh, shout, laugh, cheer and jubilate, then choose their characters, one by one. Three of these have a privilege executed immediately by the player who chose it.
The Emperor dictates, which cathedral is continued to be built, which is extremely important (see under “Cathedral Completed!”).
The Pope may take one of the three Pope stones and puts it to another Den of Sin, which is extraordinary important (see under “Stone by stone towards Hell”).
The Petty Sinner must place two of his sin stones into the “Den of Petty Sins”. Now he may visit the House of Pleasure before the round even starts. Thus, all rooms/cards are for sure available, which is outstandingly important.
The Merchant is doing nothing right now, but later on gets something for free – which is, well, quite important, too.
Important also because all these actions concern all players in different ways. No, Mea Culpa is NOT a multiplayer solitaire game. How else would you supposed to incur guilt?
The money you used for the bid is gone, by the way (only the naughty boy with the most notches on his tally stick keeps it). The number of notches on your tally stick is your start for the round, making your life as an active member of the sinful community rather difficult.
2. Take actions
In order of the numbers on the characters the players take turns multiple times, until the market is depleted. Thus, the players may have a different number of turns. Maybe you don’t even get a single turn this round. This depends on – well, these friendly people sitting around the table.
On your turn you may take one out of four possible actions (or skip this turn): Buy one goods cube or letter of indulgence, sell one goods cube, donate one goods cube or coin, visit the House of Pleasure. Pretty simple, if it weren’t so bloody important, to do all these things. Right now! Instantly! All of them! Therefore, it is possible to take a second action (relief!) – to do so, you have to turn your tally stick one notch higher. Here you are - caught between the devil and the deep blue sea...
The market is quite easy to read
You buy a goods cube by paying it (fixed price on the board), even back in these dark ages. The money goes to the supply, cube behind your screen, done. Buying a grey letter of indulgence cube enables you to pick a green or red letter of indulgence, the cube goes back into the bag.
Luckily you may buy TWO goods of one kind, if available (oh, great!). However, this is called a Sin of greed, so you have to put one of your sin stones into the Den of Greed (well, not so great). You should have chosen the Merchant at the beginning of the round! Then you’d take one goods or indulgence cube of your choice at the end of EACH of your turns. For free. As simple as that.
It’s a scret, into which
compartment you donate
Selling a goods cube is also quite simple. Cube goes from behind your screen into the bag, money (sales price on the board) from supply to behind your screen.
Donating is again simple (man, this game is simple!). Take ONE goods cube or coin from behind your screen, show it to the other players and put it into your chest. Recommended to do every once in a while, if you want your part from the letters of indulgence distributed as soon as the next cathedral is completed (and only there lies victory!). There are only two distributions of that kind during the game, and the two compartments of your chest are attributed to the first or second of them. The other players know, WHAT you donated, but not, into which compartment you put it. Well, at least until the first cathedral was built - after that your donations automatically go to compartment II ...
Of course, donating a bit more would be helpful – as would be the Emperor . If you have secured his support at the beginning of the round, you may pick up to TWO things of your choice and put them in compartments of your choice. Wow, this Emperor is a real friend!
Visiting the House of Pleasure is, as in real life, a bit ticklish compared to the other actions. Here is all wine, women, song, monkey business and weird wangling. In the rooms 1 to 4 you get some benefits helping you or harming others – actually, always both of that. To perform these actions you have to turn your tally stick up. Well, you don’t, if you send the Petty Sinner. This permanent guest has a kind of flatrate: his (your) tally stick stays, as it is.
All kinds of cards at the House of Pleasure.
Top: Get a letter of indulgence (of your choice from the current Emperor, yellow from the current pope), all other players go towards hell a number of steps
Center: You may move a Pope Stone, all other players have to put sin stones into the Den of Lust, you may move a building crew
Bottom: You get money, a goods cube for free, steal money from someone else
Most of them come in variants with different values...
This card is “occupied” (back) – do not disturb
Suite No. 5 is special: You have to put two sin stones into the Den of Lust, therefore you are allowed to take any one card still available and perform its action, but without turning your tally stick higher! After doing so, you flip the card of Suite No. 5 and it is “used”, or to put it more friendly, “occupied”.
Even more special is Suite No. 6: Per round you can snatch one yellow letter of indulgence. This costs a sin stone and a turn of the tally stick, but well, yellow letters are absolutely rare - you can only get them at this suite! So, the House of Pleasure is based on the same principle as the rest of the actions: You want everything. Immediately, before one of your colleagues beats you to it.
Some serious business makes it inevitavle, that the Pope is visiting this establishment. Of course, he is incognito, so you all know, he’s present, but not the exact room.
When the Pope is visiting the House of Pleasure, the player secretly turns his special papal die to the number of the room he wants to visit. The other players now debate about which room this might be, then they call a room they think the Pope has chosen. The Pope shows his die – if the players guessed correct, the active player’s Poor Soul goes further towards hell. If not, the active player doesn’t have to pay any stones of sin or turns of his tally stick he had to do otherwise performing the room’s action.
Similar to this looks an offer early at night. Who goes first? Who is picking what? And what are the consequences? Who burns his fingers? Will the Pope come?
When the Market is depleted, the action phase immediately ends. Now let’s have a look, whose tally stick is showing the most notches ...
3. Compare Tally Sticks
Don’t worry, this only affects one of you. The one with the most notches on top of his tally stick as a result of his character bid, second actions and visiting the House of Pleasure. His Poor Soul goes as many steps down to hell, equal to the difference between his number of notches and the tally stick showing the fewest notches. Up to 5 steps! Well, you should have think about that before sinning, lad!
Green has to face the consequences: His 6 notches (compared to the fewest 2) makes him stagger down 4 steps.
His zigzag walk ends up on an occupied step, so he even has to go one further.
There are two special situations during gameplay I want to explain a little more detail:
Stone by stone towards Hell
There are three Dens of Sin (Greed, Lust and Petty Sins), into which we have to put sin stones every now and then. They fill up more and more, until all three pope stones are stacked (being replaced by the Pope, remember?) at a single Den. This sin is forgiven (for now), for the other two you have to atone. No way out.
The other players (NOT the one who triggered this!) go IMMEDIATELY as many steps towards the glowing heat, as they have stones of sin in these two dens. The stones go back to their owners, the ones in the “forgiven” Den stay where they are. Oh-oh, these seem to be next then, don’t they? Depends on, if there will be a next time at all. Right now, the three Pope Stones go back to their starting position: One stone per Den.
Before – after. Probably Yellow replaced the Pope Stone, since all other players have to go down 3 steps towards the center of the earth...
By the way – what was all the sinning and trading and donating good for again? Oh, yes, we want letters of indulgence – more than available at the market. Letters galore are only distributed twice: when one of the cathedrals is completed. The construction takes its time, though. Usually the current Emperor places a building crew to a cathedral at the beginning of the round. If it's the second one, the building crews are replaced by a wooden nave or spire of the cathedral. And when this happened the second time, so the church consists of two wooden parts, it’s finished, complete, done. Instantaneously.
When placing a second crew, it is easier to simply place the part of the cathedral and put the
building crew back to its hut. If it is the second part (nace & spire), it rains letters of indulgence!
The players now open the corresponding compartment of their chest and show, what they have donated to support the effort. At each cathedral is shown, for which category of donations (bread/wine, cloth/jewels, money) which specific letters are allocated. The two players who have donated most in each category alternately pick from these letters of indulgence until they are gone. All other players get nothing. Category by category it goes like this. And again timing was essential, other players were one action faster, your money was just not quite enough, but others are cursed even worse. These letters of indulgence, together with the ones you acquired by one way or the other during the game have to form sets of four (all colors) at the end of the game. Only green and red ones are for sale, though, blue ones only available through this distribution process, yellow ones only offered in Suite No. 6 (there are exceptions to the rule, of course).
End of the game
Mea Culpa ends after the second distribution following a completed cathedral. And no, how much of the third church is completed does NOT matter, even if it was absolutely obvious until a minute before, that THIS would be the second one and all your efforts were concentrated on exactly the perfect combination of donations for this very cathedral. Have I mentioned already, that life wasn’t a bed of roses, even back in those times?
Now a last comparison of the current numbers of notches on your tally sticks occur and then finally, finally everybody is going upstairs: 8 steps for each complete sets of four different letters of indulgence, 1 lousy step for each surplus letter. Money and goods? Are profane junk and invalid. Who now stands closest to Heaven’s Gate is the winner (obvious, isn’t it?).
Well, that was it. A place in the sun? Only for one.
What’s different – and what’s business as usual?
Don’t let the goods cubes mislead you. Mea Culpa is only by a very far strech a trading of resources into victory points. There are just too many other things going on.
First of all the other players have to be closely watched throughout the game. Interaction in this game might be mostly indirect, but it is nonetheless massive. This has a positve effect on downtime, because there is none. It is much too important what the others do and what they don’t do. What is the Pope donating? Which card is chose by the Merchant? Why now? And will he snatch the jewel away before my turn? What can I do then? And in which order?
Then there is the timing. Oh, crucial timing! Almost everything you can only do, when you don’t want to do it. You are never even sure, if there will be a next turn for you this round – but should you always chose a second action and turn the tally stick higher and higher?
Decisions are plenty and each one is a dilemma. Do I need money? But which goods to donate then? And in which compartment? Which cards from the House of Pleasure do I need at all costs? And how to get along with only a couple of Talers? If I only knew the plans of the other players! I could get crazy!
Mea Culpa is a very delicately balanced game, but not to the extent, that it doesn’t matter, what you do. Its mechanisms are intertwined coherently with a lot of details I left out here. The rulebook (with the nice summary at the sides of each page) and the graphic layout help a lot to get into the game and let it flow.
The diagram on the back of the screen helps to remember what can be done
Besides some known details the feeling of Mea Culpa is very different from any familiar game. The constant struggle for characters, goods, letters of indulgence, beneficial cards and watching how the others stumble down into the abyss can be put into three words: intense, interactive, innovative.
A Game for you?
If playing a game for you means to compose a smoothly running resource-management-machine with nobody disturbing you, forget about this one. But if you love your luck-fest full of happenstence without using your brain, forget about this one, too. Mea Culpa is a game for gamers who want a challenging, strategic game with lots of interaction and tight decisions far off the beaten track.
The course of the game is, compared to other games from Zoch, comparatively merciless. From the first to the last decision it's all about nothing less than your salvation. Plus, the current situation of the game cannot easily be “read”. There are cards on the board, sure, and some cathedrals are more built than others, and the position of the Pope Stones and the Poor Souls on the stairs are not meaningless. But the true current score lies hidden behind screens and within closed chests. If you have missed to pay attention regarding what your opponents did all the time, you have a hard time to get even a single letter of indulgence when the next cathedral is completed.
The selling of indulgences ruined a lot of people already. It is high time this Luther guy starts a revolt against this!
All photos are taken by myself. Only the back of the screen is by Oliver Richtberg, who, by the way, executed the fabulous graphic layout including the folding sheets of this game!
- Last edited Thu Oct 6, 2016 10:00 am (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Wed Oct 5, 2016 8:34 pm
saint germain les arpajon
Many thanks for this review. I'm very interesting for mea culpa and your review confirm it ! Now for me it's very good if anyone translate the rules im french. Then I can take a copy next week at spiel 2016
How well does this scale down to 2 players?
With 2 players, both play with two characters (higher bid first and third choice). The other change is when the letters of indulgence are distributed: Here the one with more donations takes two letters first, then the other player one, and then the first one all of the rest.
I never played this version myself, but I know there was a lot of testing going on and in the feedback discussions all people involved really liked it. As always with 2-player-versions it becomes more intense again than with more players and you KNOW, what your opponent did (remember, what 3 people do, is a lot tougher). Resources, money, cards in the House of Pleasure are all not that tight, and the combination of two characters let you follow a more straightforward plan more easily.
Luis da Ponte Alayza
Looks very nice! It seems to be right on my alley. Looking foward to get a copy.
How many "paths to victory" are there? how many ways can people score?
I'm not saying I invented the turtleneck. But I was the first person to realize its potential as a tactical garment.
Does this play well with 3 players or should you always use 4 players for best results?
Does this play well with 3 players or should you always use 4 players for best results?
Didn't like it with two if that helps.