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Subject: Playthrough of the Prototype (FallCon 2007) rss

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Rob Bartel
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Full Disclosure: I am a game designer and a handful of my designs are currently under consideration by Valley Games.

I recently had the opportunity to play a prototype of Reiner Knizia's Municipium at FallCon in Calgary. The game is currently available for pre-order from the publisher, Valley Games, and will likely be released sometime in 2008.

Most of you probably know the drill already: A new publisher crops up on our collective radar and, lo and behold, they have a brand new Reiner Knizia game in their upcoming catalog. No doubt they're flattered that ]one of the industry greats has chosen to bless their fledgling endeavor with his next amazing idea. Cue the angel chorus, because if it's Knizia it's got to be great, right?

Well, let's get one thing straight. Knizia is definitely a mover and a shaker in the industry and he's done some truly amazing games. Lost Cities and Through the Desert are favorites in my small collection, Tigris & Euphrates is one of BGG's highest ranked games, and no one can deny the genius he's brought to the Lord of the Rings license. But, with almost 250 games in the database, he's also got a lot of duds and guess where these usually end up... Well, count yourself five imaginary GeekGold richer if you answered "the new publishers."

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that Municipium is actually a remarkably solid game that I'm sure will eventually find its place within the upper echelons of the Knizia canon. I don't know what the Valley Games guys had to slip into the good doctor's tea in order to escape with this particular design but, whatever it was, it was well-worth it.

In the game, players take on the roles of prominent families in ancient Rome, each vying for support among the populace. The gameboard consists of seven buildings within the city, including a tavern, a temple, the baths, a garrison, and a handful of others I don't fully remember. Throughout the game, you'll be moving your seven family members from building to building in an attempt to gain and hold a majority presence, thereby gaining influence with the different citizens gathered there and occasionally being able to activate the location's special power.

Each turn consists of making two moves with your family members, then either revealing the next card in the action deck or activating one of three single-use cards available to each player. The action deck is pretty small, consisting of five unique card types, each duplicated multiple times. The deck will likely be replenished one or two times a game so the inherent randomness of the draw evens out pretty nicely over the course of the game.

Individual card events vary but generally involve actions from all players, not just the one who drew the card. The actions typically involve adding new citizens to the board, activating location-specific powers, and so forth. The three single-use cards, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to do something that will specifically benefit you and only you - the decision of when to make best use them is often a tough one.

As with many Knizia games, Municipium has an interesting scoring system. On the surface, it seems quite simple - everyone is collecting medallions (indications of the citizenry's support, essentially) and the first player to obtain five medallions wins the game. You gain medallions by handing in sets of citizens throughout the game. The trick (and there's always a trick with Knizia) lies in the different ways in which you acquire and trade in citizens.

You're typically trading in your citizens in sets of four: one soldier, one noble, one commoner, and one priest. Soldiers, nobles, and commoners all tend to gather in distinct sectors of the city, while priests serve as a 'wild card' citizen that can gather anywhere. As soon as three citizens converge on a location, two swear allegiance to the family with the majority in that location and the third swears allegiance to whoever has the second-most family members present. But each location also has another two citizens present - one of them is always black (I thought of them as spies but I don't think that was what they were actually called) while the other was randomly selected from the other citizen types. These were claimed on a majority basis whenever a specific unit (a prefect, I think) reached the given location, based on card actions. As the spy can take the place of any other citizen in a set when traded in, he's particularly valuable. And, to add one further bit of nuance, on of the locations' special power, when activated, allows the majority holder to trade in three citizens of any type for a medallion, rather than the traditional set of four uniques.

There are some rules and nuances that I'm missing but that's the basic overview. All told, it plays very well. The limitations on the movement of your family members adds a lot of enjoyable tension to the game (that's one of the problems I have with games like Leonardo da Vinci where worker placement begins to feel too tedious and random). The randomness of the cards and drawing citizens from the bag add an element of chaos to the game but are well-contained within the design and never threaten to overwhelm it - you still feel that you can work towards your goals in a meaningful way and that success is derived from your own efforts. Play goes fast (although the 'wheel within a wheel' turn mechanism where most cards would trigger their own turn sequence led to some occasional confusion). Downtime is minimal and the game doesn't overstay its welcome in terms of length (even with a handful of out-of-game interruptions during play).

I found that the game works well thematically, which isn't always true of Knizia's efforts. There's definitely a level of abstraction involved but I frequently found myself drawing parallels to Jacqueline Carey's Scion of Kushiel novel that I'm currently reading, where a young French nobleman finds himself embroiled in the politics and intrigue of a fading Rome (technically, she calls them by other names in her setting but the real-world analogues are clear).

Valley Games is quickly gaining a reputation for high-quality bits and art (ignore Die Macher - their upcoming wave of games are significantly improved). At this time, however, Municipium remains in raw prototype form. The Valley Games representatives talked a little bit about the metal coins they'll be providing as a pre-order bonus to replace the cardboard medallions and they had some thoughts about making custom wooden pawns to represent your family members, complete with little laurel wreathes you can set upon their brows when they get promoted. All of that is subject to change, however, and it's clear that much of the look and feel of the game has yet to be decided. Overall, it seems to be in capable hands and my only concern is the size of the gameboard which I think is a little crowded and busy once all of the citizens and family members are fully in play. As the graphic design of the prototype board is very plain and basic, I think this will become even more apparent once they begin to apply actual art.

All told, I enjoyed playing the game and am glad to see Valley Games break the "new company curse" when it comes to Knizia games. While not as heavy as Tigris & Euphrates, there's still plenty of depth and theme to the game. To be perfectly honest, I would gladly trade my Tigris & Euphrates in for a copy of Municipium any day.
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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RobBartel wrote:
the graphic design of the prototype board is very plain and basic

Did you play with the original Reiner prototype, with the plain computer graphics and text on the board for each district?

I liked this one a lot too, it's one of the better Reiners I've played, and it's great to see him returning to a more meaty big box design at last.
 
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Mark Slater
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This one is on my Radar
 
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Nicolas Guay
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Memramcook
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I already pre-ordered that one last week but thanks for the reinforcement that it is a good game
 
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Jim Cote
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I've been watching for info on this simply because it's Knizia, but now it sounds really interesting!
 
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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I think you'll be disappointed, Jim, as you don't get to shout Ra! every 5 seconds
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Jim Cote
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Surya wrote:
I think you'll be disappointed, Jim, as you don't get to shout Ra! every 5 seconds

I believe you have me confused with The Kilted One.
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Rob Bartel
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Surya wrote:
Did you play with the original Reiner prototype, with the plain computer graphics and text on the board for each district?


Yes, that's the one. Text and clipart only.
 
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Richard Dewsbery
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I don't remember there being much in thee way of clipart when I last saw it - but that was 2.5 years ago!
 
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Guy Riessen
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Surya wrote:
I think you'll be disappointed, Jim, as you don't get to shout Ra! every 5 seconds


I dunno, there's a fellow rocking back and forth in the corner over there--he's shouting Ra every 5 seconds, and he's not playing anything at all...that we can see....
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David McLeod
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Thanks for the overview.

Pre-ordered.
 
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Carlos Abrunhosa
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Seems to be a great game. I will be in touch...
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This Guy
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I played a prototype of FFG's Tribune at GenCon. From the info and photos here, the two games seem remarkably similar. Anybody played both and care to comment?
 
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Seth Jaffee
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Sounds interesting enough - I was interested to hear more about this game, so I'm glad to have read your (p)review. Thanks!
 
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Flix
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RobBartel wrote:
The Valley Games representatives talked a little bit about the metal coins they'll be providing as a pre-order bonus to replace the cardboard medallions..

Maybe at that occasion, didn't they talk about some sort of plastic generals as well?
 
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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Yawn. The plastic generals thin doesn't have to be brought up in EVER thread with relationship to VG. By the way, that information would be 6 months old by now, and completely outdated. The plastic generals thing has recently been talked about in other places.
 
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