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Michael Webb
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Way back in 1995 a chap named Wolfgang Kramer designed a landmark game called El Grande that would redefine the German game industry, pushing everything in the direction of bigger, meatier, prettier. Given the massive success of El Grande, a lesser known title, called Tycoon, was quietly published some years later by Jumbo, and was quickly dismissed by many Euro gamers as 'El Grande Light', and forgotten.

However, in the past year, Tycoon has slowly garnered some praise, and being a fan of several of Kramer's designs (Princes, Java, Tikal, El Grande) I casually waited for a cheap copy of it to appear, and appear it did after a few months of diligent ebay scouring.

To begin with, I believe that the presentation of this game is half of it's negative appeal...the box art, the components, none of these make the game appear to be anything other than a Milton Bradley pre-teen special. I understood these negatives prior to purchasing though, and didn't allow them to dissuade me from trotting it out at my next gaming session. And there, amongst players who love such heavyweights as Age of Steam: Ireland, and Industria, it met with a warm reception.

So how does this game work?

The action all takes place on the large, triple-fold full colour map which depicts 9 international cities. Each city has a ring of 13 squares surrounding it where hotel pieces will be placed, with two numbers in each, the first being the income for the majority holder, the second for the second place holder. Above the city there are two pairs of two squares. The pair on the left depicts a pile of money, and indicates how much it will cost to build hotels, the pair on the right depicts factories, and indicates how much building one of those will run.

Each player is given a total of 18 'hotel' pieces (6 each round), and 5 'factory' pieces as well as a starting hand of 15 million dollars. The object of the game is to gain money via influence majorities (either first or second place) in the 9 cities depicted on the game board, via factory income, and from having a hotel presence in as many cities as possible.

So how do you do this?

By going into horrific debt in the early game, of course!

While at 'home' (plane token off the board), players have the option of taking out either a small (10 million) or large (16 million) loan. Of course, loans come with interest, and must be repaid, either at the end of the current round (some extra cost) or at the end of the game (significantly more).

Once a player has enough funds to be comfortable than the mad scramble for airline tickets begins. A quantity of tickets is available for purchase, 2 being 'direct' flights with a single city named on them which allow you to go there from anywhere on the board, or from 'home'. 'Direct' flights also have 1-3 white squares at their base, and can be used to 'hop' the number of squares indicated on the board (never diagonally) instead of going to the city named. 6 other 'charter flights' are also up for sale, each of these list two cities, and only allow direct travel between those two, but are much cheaper because of their limited utility. Note that there are no tickets required to fly back to 'home', it is always a free option.

There is no limit to the number of tickets you can hold in your hand, so oftentimes players will buy a single direct flight and a massive quantity of 'charter' tickets; effectively planning out their strategy for the entire round.

Because of the public nature of purchases telegraphing ones future moves in that manner can be dangerous though. The first player landing at a city is allowed to place their plane token in the cheaper building cost square, and save 1 million dollars per hotel. This means that some players will prefer to opt for more tactical play, attempting to land in cities that other players covet first, and drive the price of hotel building up.

So what about making money?

There are 3 main ways to make money: hotels, factories, and multiple city presence.

Hotels are the backbone of the game and fuel the other two scoring systems, so they need to be described first. Each round, the players receive 6 hotel pieces to work with; and each city has space for 12 of them to be erected.

The differing cities each have different payout structures, rich cities like Monaco rise in value quickly, while cities like Cape Town are poor, rise in value slowly, and never peak as high. The payout structure for all of the cities follows a bell curve-esque formula though, cities peak in value somewhere in the 8th to 10th hotel placed, and then begin to fall in value. This is balanced by higher building costs though, Monaco might pay out more (peaking at 32 / 16 million), but building a single hotel there costs 4 million while Cape Town (peaking at 16 / 8 million) is a relative steal at 2 million.

Hotel majorities are determined first by number of hotels present, and, in the case of a tie, by whom has the earliest hotel present. This majority breaking system gains a layer of intrigue by another unique rule, the expiration of old hotels.

Each city has 3 red squares in the hotel ring, and once a hotel is placed on one of these squares, the earliest hotel 'expires' and is put into the centre of the city, effectively out of play. The player who owned the hotel always has the option of flying back in, and putting it back into play for free, but in the next available position in the town, not back at it's original location. This makes being the first or second person in town lucrative in the early going, but by the mid to late-game it becomes a serious liability. A majority held by an old hotel is always tenuous, as strong players will force it's expiration, and make a player either alter their plans to come back, or suck up the money loss.

Factories are the second road to income, and each city has space for two of them. Like the hotels, the cost for building them is determined by whether the city is rich or poor. To use the previous example, Monaco's factories cost 8 and 10 million respectively, while Cape Town's are only 4 and 5 million.

Factories pay out based on the number of hotels that are present in the city. The owner is always guaranteed to get the second place value curently showing in the hotel ring, but if the city has the longest (or is tied for the longest) hotel chain on the board then the owner will score the majority value.

The final road to income is to have hotels built in as many different cities as possible. The chart starts out slowly, paying out only 5 million for having a 3 city presence for example, but by the time you get up to 9 it's paying out a massive 40 million, more than any of the cities is capable of!

Of course, the expiration of hotel mechanism again makes this angle interesting, a player sitting on all 9 cities is generally going to be spread very thin, with only 1 hotel in several of their cities. This means that forcing one of their hotels to expire will often force them out of the town entirely, thereby making them come back to reestablish themselves, sometimes at high cost.

The game is divided into 3 rounds, each ending when one player has used up his 6 hotel pieces. At the conclusion of each round, each city is paid out for having first or second place in hotels, and for the factory(s) present, and an additional bonus is paid for having a hotel presence in multiple cities. Everyone is then given a chance to pay off their loans, is given 6 new hotels, and it begins anew. The final winner is determined by cash in hand at the end of the game.

Let it be said here that this game rewards repeated play, and in spades. Unlike most area influence games (which I consider this to be, at it's heart) are forced to be almost purely tactical. You simply cannot plan very far in advance. Tycoon however allows you to play either strategically or tactically.

Do you go for a rich city overload strategy wherein you cement yourself in powerhouses like Monaco and NYC, cashing in early and often via hotels and factories?

Do you go for a diversity strat wherein you jump around plopping down only one or two hotels in each town, with an odd factory for the extra money you'll need?

Do you play the slum lord? Cashing in on the poor cities that others seem to be ignoring and ending each round as quickly as possible?

All of these are solid options.

You can also play tactically however by actively screwing up the other player's strategies. Get your hand in the rich city cookie jar with a factory, eliminate that early hotel and make the multiple city powerhouse crumble. Buy that ticket that the other guy needs, fly into a city you know someone is headed to just to increase their hotel building costs, the options abound.

The different routes to income are well-balanced, and as a result all of these paths are potential winners if they are played with skill.

Are there problems with the formula?

Only one that is glaring, and that is potential ticket luck. Because of the nature of the direct flights (with their 1-3 squares that allow 'hopping' to adjacent cities) one can generally get where one needs to go without too much trouble, but if one player consistently can get what they need, when they need it with the cheaper 'charter' flights, then they are going to get ahead in the money race, and be in a stronger position for the late game.

Honestly, I think this is quibbling though, if you approach the game with an open mindset, you can generally cobble something together from even the most unappealing set of tickets.

Overall, I think Tycoon is a fantastic game, an overlooked gem, and definitely the best game I've ever paid 10 dollars for. I reccommend it to anyone who enjoys area influence games wholeheartedly.
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Jacob Lee
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thanks
This is a really good review. I hope you keep writing more of them. I read your review once and feel like I know this game well now. Thank you.
 
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Scott Nelson
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Does the game Go West usea similar mechanism as tycoon for filling spaces? In GW the tokens are placed in a square and if there is no room, the first one that was there will be taken off and the new tooken will be placed there. Is that kind of what happens in tycoon? Did Colovini "borrow" this idea and change it a tad?
 
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Michael Webb
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I have not played Go West, but the system sounds different, albeit related. I would have to play GW to be 100% on this though.

In Tycoon there is always one piece per square. Certain spots on each city track are shaded differently though, and when a piece is placed on that square, the oldest piece is removed from play and placed in the centre of the city square. On later rounds, the player can come back to the city, and have the displaced piece put back onto the board for free, but it will be at the head of the line instead of the back, which is very significant for Tycoon because "furthest back in the line" is the tie-break.
 
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Kirk Thomas
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I've owned this game for years now but it's never made the table. I'm guessing the lack of knowledge about it allows the box art to dissuade me since, as you say, it makes it look like a MB pre-teen sort of offering. Your review is excellent, and it will definitely prompt me to play now - thanks!
 
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