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Subject: Am I a fan? Yes Siam! rss

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Larry Levy
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I love complicated games. Their intricacies lead to deep strategies and varied possibilities and those are the things I play games for. But a game designer has to balance complexity with intractability. Just like it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, it’s certainly possible for a game to be too complex.

The same is true at the other end of the spectrum. Elegance is a much prized quality in a game. There is probably nothing as difficult as making a truly elegant, a truly simple game. However, sometimes simple is, well, too simple. Those are games I tend to avoid.

That was my first thought when I read the online rules to King of Siam. KoS is an Essen game from Histogame (which released the celebrated Friedrich a few years ago). The designer is Peer Sylvester, who has a few party games and abstracts to his credit. He’s probably best known for authoring a couple of German language collections of games for Bambus Spieleverlag (Günter Cornett’s company): Jam Dudel and So spielt die Welt (What the world plays). King of Siam is his most ambitious design to date.

Much of the game will sound familiar to experienced gamers. The board shows eight provinces in nineteenth century Siam. Each of these are seeded with cubes of three different colors, representing three factions fighting for control of the country. The players will also be collecting these cubes over the course of the game. The player with the most cubes of a color owns that faction; the object is to own the faction that controls the most provinces at the end of the game.

Each province has a tile and these are shuffled and then placed in a row from first to last. This is the order in which control will be checked for the provinces. Each player begins the game with the same eight action cards. These do things like let the player add a cube of his choice to a province, swap cubes between provinces, and switch the position of two tiles. The rules are very simple. Each player on her turn either plays an action card and follows its instructions, or passes. If a card is played, the player then takes a cube from any of the provinces (which is how cubes are collected). This increases their strength in that faction, while, of course, simultaneously weakening that faction’s position on the board. If a player passes in one turn, he can choose to play a card in the following turn.

When all the players have consecutively passed, the control of the next province in the row is resolved. The faction with the most cubes in the province wins it. However, if there’s a tie for most cubes, none of the factions takes the province; instead, the British (the ultimate bogeyman of the nineteenth century) take over. In either event, control of the province is set and all the cubes in the province are returned to the supply (this is significant, since the number of cubes is limited, so if a card says to add a cube and there are none of that color in the supply, none are added). The game continues, with the next province in the row ready to be resolved.

The game ends in one of two ways. If the British win their fourth province, then the game ends immediately and the player with the most complete sets of cubes (one from each color) wins. In the more typical instance when all eight provinces are resolved and fewer than four of them are British, the player who controls the faction with the most provinces wins. If this is a tie, then the tied player with control of the faction with the second most provinces wins. If this is still a tie, the tied player who played an action card last loses.

Simple, right? Maybe too simple. That was my thought after reading the rules. After all, each player has only eight turns they can take over the course of the game. The two winning conditions are a nice twist, but even the rules indicate that ending due to Brit control is a rare occurrence. And the whole "try to gain control of the dominant faction through cube pushing" thing has been done more than once before. So it wasn’t a game I was in that much of a hurry to try out.

But one of our group left and the rest of us had time for a short game for three. King of Siam fit the bill, so it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out.

And it was good. Really good. So good that it was no longer simple — it had graduated to elegant.

The first few actions are typical area majority stuff, usually focused on the next province to be resolved, with one player often undoing what an opponent does. But soon the extremely limited number of actions comes into play. And as both the provinces and the actions dwindle down to a precious few, a palpable tension develops. In our game, control shifted back and forth between all three factions several times and each player took turns sitting in the catbird seat. Even the possibility of a British victory, bringing with it a completely different set of winning conditions, arose. Finally, on the very last action, the game was decided. It was a game full of angst and tension, all jam-packed into a mere thirty minutes.

With only one game under my belt, I can’t really give the game a full recommendation. But other members of our group have played additional games and all of them have been enjoyable. Even better, the games have played differently, assuaging any fears about replayability. The early returns indicate that Sylvester has indeed created a wonderfully elegant game that nonetheless has plenty of gaming goodness in it. We’ve only played with three; the game also plays with two or four (the latter with partners). The game didn’t meet my low expectations for it, but that, as your favorite sportscaster is probably fond of saying, is why they play the games.
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Duffy Carter
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Well said. My little group of 3 played it at BGG.con and rattled off 2 additional plays immediately after being so impressed with the first. It was hands down my favorite game of the con, and the same went for the other two folks who played it with me. We even got a shot at Agricola the next day and still preferred King of Siam at the end of the convention.

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Deacon
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Hey, great review. I'm certain to get a hold of this game now.

Cheers.
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Kin
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Thanks for the review, Huzonfirst. I think you hit the nail on the head, when you describe this games as elegant. Seemingly simple, requiring only 3 minutes to teach to play, but it provides depth of play requiring a lot of analysis and thinking. Further, the game dynamics change depending on whether it's a 2, 3, or 4 player game and it scales excellently to all. Certainly, area control through cube pushing has been done hundreds of times elsewhere, but King of Siam really elegantly re-invents that wheel.
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