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Subject: Review after first play - so much potential, but... rss

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Ron Temske
United States
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NOTE - edited 12/15/08 - please see additional comments at the end.

I just got my copy of The Great Potlatch this week. I love the theme of this game and found that the mechanics of the game really fit with the theme (it wasn't just pasted on). But I'm getting ahead of myself. Since this appears to be the first review of this game posted, it's worth spending a little time to explain the basic mechanics.

The game is based around the Native American festival of the Potlatch. This festival (practiced mainly in the Pacific Northwest if memory serves) was done to trade, to distribute wealth, to celebrate births, etc. The main festival was around trading and giving. (This is obviously a gross over-simplification added just to set the theme of the game).

The game is played over 8 days (rounds) in the Potlatch, and you get points by making offerings to Ancestors, placing Totems, and participating in rituals. The game is principally played with 2 types of cards - Potlatch cards and Totems. You start with 5 Totems, and these stay with you for the entire game - you will draw many Potlatch cards during the course of the game.

There are 3 main roles in the game:

The Elder
The Elder makes offerings to the Ancestors by placing wooden cubes onto the Ancestor cards. There are 4 cards representing each Ancestor in the game. (These 4 Ancestor cards are played in the common area at the start of the game - they don’t belong to any player). Each Ancestor card has the same 3 Totem symbols on them (also colors to make it easier to tell them apart - red, yellow and blue). There are 2 spots for each Totem/color on each Ancestor card - therefore each card has a total of 6 slots for offerings (2 slots for the 3 different Totems/colors). Each Potlatch card has 3 symbols - Ancestor symbols on the top (which have no bearing for this role), a Totem symbol in the middle, and valuable item icons on the bottom. The Elder can play as many cards (up to 6) that he wishes as long as he has that many cards with the same valuable item symbol on the bottom. The Elder matches the middle Totem symbol to the symbol on the Ancestor cards and places one cube for each Potlatch card played (again up to 6 - this is limited by the 6 cubes each player has). At the end of the game, each cube on an Ancestor is worth 1 point.

The Carver
The Carver takes cubes off the Ancestor cards and uses them to place Totems. Each Totem (again, you receive 5 in your hand at the beginning of the game) has 3 Ancestor symbols on the bottom. You play the Totem by removing 3 cubes from the Ancestors (the cubes you put in place using the Elder role) that match the 3 Ancestors on the bottom of the Totem card. In this way the Elder and Carver roles are tightly integrated - you play cubes onto the Ancestors using the Elder roles; you remove them using the Carver in order to play Totems. By carefully selecting where you place the cubes, you set yourself up to remove those cubes from the matching Ancestors in order to play Totems. Each Totem is worth 5 points at the end of the game.

The Shaman
Finally, the Shaman performs rituals by playing Totem cards face down. He does so by discarding 3 Potlatch cards where the upper Ancestor symbols match the Ancestor symbols on the Totem. At the end of the game, the player with the most rituals earns 4 points.

Miscellaneous Rules
There are a few other points in the game. The starting player in each turn is the player who played the most face up cards in the prior turn. (The face up designation mainly differentiates between the Elder and Carver roles (who play Potlatch and Totem cards face up respectively) and the Shaman (who played Totem cards face down and discards Potlatch cards). Everyone but the new starting player has to take a Bad Reputation Marker (worth -1 point at the end of the game).

The other main rules is that once the starting player has chosen his role (Elder, Carver or Shaman) any other player who chooses the same role must also take a Bad Reputation Marker. Note that there are 2 markers for each role, so there are never more than 2 of the same role in any turn.

I've glossed over some of the steps (how many cards are drawn, how the starting player is determined, etc.). I don't want to just recreate the rules - but I do want to provide a basic flavor for the game.

So - with the basics out of the way, here are my good and bad points on the game:

The Good
• The artwork is great - I love the various Totem symbols, the masks, etc. It really keeps the theme going
• The theme (as mentioned) really works for me. I love the concept of the game, and the play fits in well with the theme.
• The interaction between the Elder and Carver roles works well - there’s a good mix between setting up cubes with the Elder in strategic locations, so that you can remove them on the following turn with the Carver role to place Totems.
• The game plays quickly, and even those with severe analysis paralysis syndrome will make decisions in short order.

The Bad
• The Shaman role really feels underpowered. At the end of the game, the player with the most rituals gets 4 points - not 4 points per ritual, but 4 points total. Since you only get 5 Totem cards per player (and you can never get any more), that’s a very expensive way to use your Totems. (Remember - Totems played face up with the Carver are with 5 each). Since it might take you 2 or even 3 rituals to have the most - that’s 4 points for Totem cards that would have been worth 10-15 if played face up.
• The starting player on turn 1 has a real advantage. The Carver role is useless on turn one (since there are no cubes on the Ancestors to remove). All that role can really do is draw cards to get a better hand in preparation for turn two. Since the Shaman is underpowered, this means on turn one 2 players will likely play the Elder and the other two will have mostly wasted turns.
• There aren’t enough cards. You draw (and discard) a lot of cards in this game. Every role draws a total of 5 cards / turn. In our 4 player game we found that the deck was depleted every single turn (sometimes before even finishing a turn) requiring constant shuffling.

I really want to like this game - there’s so much potential here with the theme, the great artwork, etc. It’s just a shame that the third role (Shaman) feels like such an afterthought. I think with some modifications to the rules the game good really be quite good (perhaps making the Shaman rituals worth 4 points each for the player with the most, rather than 4 points total?) I’m hoping that as the game is out for a while and gets more plays, a revised set of rules will be established. Right now, this is an unbalanced game that I’d have to rate as mediocre at best - but with a little tweaking I think it could be great. In fairness I’ve only played once, so it’s possible we did something wrong - but the rules are fairly short and straight-forward, so I’m pretty sure we played correctly. I’m anxious to see what variants people come up with to help this game reach the potential that I know is there.

12/15/08 Additional comments

One of the things that I love so much about the gaming community is the direct access to the creators of the games we all love so much. Shortly after writing this review I received a personal message from John Clowdus (the creator of this game). John thanked me for my review and also provided a clarification where in fact we were making some errors in our play.

The mistake we made was that we were using Potlatch cards played during the roles (Elder / Carver / Shaman) to determine the starting player for the next round. The correct method is that you discard those cards - and cards are played separately to determine the next starting player. From a balance standpoint, in our play the Elder role was almost always the next starting player - this correction would stop that from happening. I think playing this correctly would have balanced our game a bit more. I do still think the Shaman needs some balance work, but I think this adjustment would provide a better gaming experience.

Again - I'd like to thank John for his personal message and dedication to making his games as good as they can be.

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tim Tim TIm TIM TIMMY!!
Costa Rica
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Thanks for the first review out there for another Small Box Games - game, very cool. I have been waiting a while to hear about this one, thanks
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