Note: This review also appears in Counter magazine, Issue # 7.
My first opportunity to play this new Wolfgang Kramer / M. Kiesling design was at Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends in April 1999. Jay 'Rio Grande Games' Tummelson had just received confirmation that he would be releasing the game in english and was so excited he hastily assembled pieces from Terra Turrium (another Kramer design) and other sources. The board was taped together photo copy and the cards were cut and paste quality. Thus, the 'parakeet' in me (that's the part that squawks with delight at pretty pieces) was already disappointed. My initial response to the game was mediocre, but this was due in large part to rules ambiguities less than stellar components and the pace of the game which seemed to drag on and on.
Well, I took a chance and purchased a copy, figuring I owed the game another chance. Boy, am I glad I did. With several more playings under my belt, and this time with the 'real' game, I can unabashedly claim that this is a fantastic game, one which will surely compete for 2000 Spiel des Jahres honors. It also certainly doesn't hurt playing with the 'real' pieces, which are nothing to get terribly excited about, but a marked improvement over the drab blocks as used in Terra Turrium.
Kramer has combined elements of several of his past games as well as borrowed from other designers titles, including the 3D design and movement mechanics of Terra Turrium, the limited action points of Tikal, the special action cards of El Grande and the 'leap-frog' scoring track mechanism as used in Doris & Frank's Ursuppe. There's no escaping the fact that the game still has a decidedly abstract feel to it and one gets the distinct impression that Kramer just wanted to continue to tinker with these various mechanics. The theme seems nothing more than an afterthought. Still, the game works. It is a tense, challenging matching of wits with the outcome in doubt until the very end.
The premise is simple enough. Players attempt to maneuver their knights into and up the larger castles, receiving points for each castle in which they they have one of their knights based on a simple mathematical formula: Level of the knight X surface area of the castle. Thus, if a castle has grown to occupy 8 surface squares and you have a knight on the 3rd level of the castle, you receive 24 points (8 X 3 = 24). So, the idea is to maneuver your knights to the higher levels of the larger castles.
The game is played in three scoring turns called 'phases'), each composing either 3 or 4 rounds, depending upon the number of players. Each round, a player has 5 action points which he can use to:
1) Place a new knight on the board. A new knight must be placed adjacent to one of your existing knights at a level equal to or below the level of that existing knight. This costs 2 action points to execute, whereas all other actions cost 1 point. It is critical, however, to get as many of your knights on the board as possible, but the timely placing of a knight at later stages of the game can spell the difference between victory and defeat. Since the number of knights per player is limited, the timing of their placement can be pivotal and is yet another tough decision to be made.
2) Place a new castle piece. This must be placed next to an existing castle piece, or onto it. However, a castle cannot contain more levels than the surface level it occupies. Further, one cannot place a castle piece in such a fashion as to join two or more castles. Thus, certain spaces become 'dead' during the game, and placement can be used strategically to hinder the growth of an opposing castle.
3) Pick an action card from the face-down stack. There are several variants for using these action cards, including the basic game wherein all players draw from a combined stack. My favorite method gives each player an identical deck, which is shuffled face down. A player selects three cards and chooses one, replacing the other two either on top or at the bottom of the deck. This method allows a greater degree of control in the use of the cards as a player can 'look ahead' and know which cards will be available on the next round. The Master version allows each player to hold all ten action cards in their hand and play them as they see fit.
4) Move a knight. Each space moved costs 1 action point. Knights can jump up one level, but no more, and may descend any number of levels. Knights cannot be moved diagonally without the use of a special action card allowing this maneuver.
5) Gain one victory point for each AP spent for this purpose.
Each full turn, players receive 3 or 4 stacks of castle pieces, depending upon the number of players and the round being played. Each of these stacks contain 2 or 3 castle pieces. A player must select one of these stacks to use during each particular round of a turn, so the number of pieces he has available each round is sorely limited. This prevents a massive building campaign wherein players are adding 5 castle pieces per round. If a player opts not to use all of his pieces during a round, he can transfer the unused pieces to his remaining stacks provided no stack contains more than three pieces. So, one can 'horde' pieces for future rounds of that turn or 'phase'. At the end of a turn (er, phase. Damn, I wish Kramer would have just called them turns!), however, all unused pieces are returned to the general supply.
As in many German style games, one is faced with wanting to do more on your turn than allowed by the limited number of action points available. Thus, each turn is one tough decision after another. I've made it no secret that I love this 'limited actions' mechanism in games and the agonizing decisions it forces upon the players. It is used to full effect in Torres.
Each turn / phase is played in 3 to 4 rounds and once a turn is completed, positions are scored. Players get points for the position of their knights (as described above) in addition to a bonus of 5, 10, or 15 points if they have a knight in the same castle as the king. However, the knight must be located in the proper position to earn this bonus: level one following turn one, level two following turn two and level three following turn three.
The Master version introduces special scoring cards which award copious points for achieving certain conditions. These include aligning your knights in a row following certain phases, positioning them on the edges, corners or diagonals of the board, maneuvering them onto different levels of castles, etc. The use of these Master cards adds even more spice and decision making to the game as players must now decide on whether to pursue the traditional scoring methods or seek to obtain these special bonuses. Again, more tough decisions. Delicious.
Scoring is marked on a track which surrounds the edge of the board. Yet another game is borrowed from in this regard, that being Ursuppe. No two scoring markers can occupy the same space, so if a player's marker was moved to a space which is occupied by an opponent, his marker leap-frogs ahead to the next available space. This mechanism does give an incentive to players to use an action point from time to time to move their marker ahead on the scoring track and take advantage of this 'leaping' feature.
At a turn's conclusion, the player currently in last place on the scoring track then has the opportunity to relocate the king to any castle. This is a superb 'equalizing' feature as it allows that player to position the king to a castle which is closer to his knights and further away from his opponents, giving him the edge on capturing the king's scoring bonus for that round. Clever and very effective.
Following the third turn / phase, final scores are tallied to determine the victor.
My games are tending to clock in at about 1 1/2 hours, a bit less with three players, but there is considerable pondering before each move. If you are involved in a match with players who tend to slowly and carefully ponder each and every movement and placement possibility, Torres has the potential to bog down and create interminable 'dead time', a problem many have hurled at Tikal. I have found, however, as in Tikal, a simple advance warning to the players that this potential exists, along with an urging to them to keep things moving along, works quite well. If the problem persists, a timer is always an option.
Contrary to my high praise of the game, a few in our group were not as impressed. I queried them as to why and received several responses.
One claimed he had difficulty grasping the strategy. Admittedly, this is a game which rewards repeated playings, but I don't think that's a reason to dislike a game. The strategy in many, many games only becomes clearer with repeated playings. Heck, I've played many a game wherein I had no idea of what to do until the latter stages. That doesn't make it a bad game, just one in which your understanding and skills improve with further playings.
Another player felt that one's options become more and more limited as the game progresses. I can see that this is definitely the case in the final few rounds of the final turn / phase, but I don't see this as too constricting. Further, I don't think it is present at all in the first two turns. Use of the Master scoring cards, which provide more scoring opportunities and options, certainly helps alleviate this problem.
Is Torres perfect? Well, no ... but it comes awfully close. Those who disdain luck in a game would be hard pressed to find fault with it if they opt for the Master version. This is certainly a matching of wits and optimizing the use of one's action points. Another big plus is that it plays splendidly with 3 or 4 players, and I've heard that it is equally enthralling as a 2 player game. One certainly can't argue with this versatility!
I must say that Torres is a big, big, BIG surprise for me. My initial impressions at the Gathering weren't very favorable, but I'll chalk that up to not having a full understanding of the rules and the fact that we were playing with hastily assembled pieces. I now consider this game to be fabulous and can't wait till I play again. Highly recommended.
Excellent review. I just re-read it after finally acquiring a copy of this game. Unfortunately, I had already thumbed up this review years ago, so I can only leave a comment now.