This was a special Thursday night meeting because we’d had to cancel Tuesday (because the pub was holding a Chinese Night) and everyone who went to the Spieltage in Essen couldn’t wait to show off their new toys! As it was a Thursday, we couldn’t use the pub, so we spent the evening at a private house in the village, something we used to do routinely after the fire, but haven’t done since the pub reopened.
Typically, almost everyone came which meant we needed a second table! While people arrived and drinks were found, Essen was discussed and the games played and bought were presented. New games were the order of the day, so one table opted for Castles of Mad King Ludwig, while the other began with Istanbul, the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres. It was exciting to break new games out of their shrink wrapping, but something that hadn’t been appreciated, was the time it would take to punch the components and learn the rules.
Although Castles of Mad King Ludwig had a lot of components to remove from their cardboard frame, at least the rules didn’t need to reading as one of the players had played it at Essen and was prepared to teach it. Time was also saved someone the punching by using poker chips – although the components and box are generally really nice, the small cardboard money tokens are a little fiddly.
The game itself is quite a simple game in many ways: the idea is that players buy rooms to add to their castle. A deck of cards is used to determine which rooms are available, and game ends when this deck has been exhausted. The active player, or Master Builder then chooses the respective value of each room. The clever part is the sale, an idea which appears to have been borrowed from Goa, where all monies are paid to the active player except for those spent by the active player, which go to the bank. Thus, the idea is that the Master Builder wants to arrange the tiles such that rooms desired by the other players are expensive, but generally not too expensive, and similar to Goa, having a lot of money is powerful, but when you spend it, you generally give that advantage to the active player.
So, each room has a cost, but also a points value when placed, a size, and some sort of bonus for “completing” it. A room is considered complete when every door leads to another room and this is where there is a spacial element to the game, since it is necessary to ensure that doors are laid out in such a way that rooms can be completed if appropriate. The bonuses vary from an extra turn to money to extra victory point cards that are applied at the end of the game. Some rooms also yield bonuses for “adjacency” which is determined on a room by room basis when the room is placed.
Ably assisted by Purple, Black explained the rules to Blue and Pink and then play began. All was apparently proceeding well, when we discovered that despite the fact she was in the lead, Blue was unsure when the room bonuses applied – on placing, or to rooms added after placing. This confusion was duly rectified (it is on placing) when we discovered that Pink hadn’t quite got a complete grasp of the rules either. And then Purple, who was suffering with post-Essen lurgy, took her turn to have a fuzzy-rule moment. Meanwhile, Black, who was concentrating on keeping everyone else on the straight and narrow found his castle was suffering a little and was starting to fall behind, so he quickly took measures to improve his situation by building a couple of Red rooms which yield a lot of points, though have some significant penalties if you get things wrong.
As the game headed towards the conclusion, Black was clearly in front and pulling away, but that was without the final scoring. At the end of the game there are points available for any bonus cards held by players as well as for winning the King’s Favour. The King’s Favours are scored separately with points potentially available for the everyone as players are ranked and score points accordingly. There are four competitions that change with each game, and in the four player game, first place earns eight points, with four, two and one for second, third and fourth place respectively. In this game, the King favoured castles with the largest footprint of living and utility space, as well as those with a lot of corridors and circular rooms. Having picked up a lot of orange utility rooms early in the game, Blue had a lot of bonus points to score as well as coming first in two of the Kings Favour competitions, taking her well clear of Black in second place.
Meanwhile, Green, Azure, Red and Orange battled their way through learning the rules to Istanbul. This is also a fairly simple game where players are trying to lead their Merchant and his four Assistants through the Turkish bazaar. There are sixteen locations each with an associated action, but to carry out an action, the Merchant needs an Assistant to help out. The problem is, once an action has been completed, the Merchant must move on, however, the Assistant remains to complete the details of the transaction. The play-area is made up of tiles representing each stall, so there are four possible layouts: “Short”, where the distances between places that work well together are small making game-play easier; “Long”, where places that work well together are far apart, which forces players to plan ahead more; “Challenging”, where similar places are grouped together, and “Random”. As nobody had played it before, we didn’t know quite what to expect, so for this game, we chose “Short”.
Thus, a player’s turn consists of moving their stack of pieces (with the Merchant on top) one or two stalls around the bazaar. If the stack ends on a space where there is already an Assistant of the same colour, then the stack is placed on top of that Assistant, otherwise, the bottom Assistant in the stack is removed and placed next to the stack. Then, if the play wants he can perform an action at that stall, for example, buy goods at the fabric, spice or fruit warehouses, sell goods at one of the markets, or buy gemstones from the dealer etc.. If the player does not have an Assistant to collect or leave, then the players turn ends straight away, similarly, if a player meets someone else’s Merchant, they must pay them two Lira each, and forfeit the right to an action. Meeting one of the other characters in the game also has consequences: the Governor allows players to buy bonus cards; the Smuggler allows players to buy or trade goods, and a family member can be captured and sent to the Police Station in return for a reward. The game ends when a player has five rubies.
Each player tried different strategies and tactics and to begin with, everyone was quite close and before long, everyone had with two or three of the five required rubies. At this point, Green and Red looked at the gem dealer and felt that his gems were very expensive and that it was going to be a while before anyone could get enough to end the game. However, Orange was buying goods and then selling them in the market and then used his double buy bonus card to jump from two rubies to four. Meanwhile, Azure had gained a special bonus token that allowed her to change a dice roll and then set about visiting the “Tea House” and gambling on dice rolls. With the ability to change dice rolls, it meant she could call higher and therefore win more money which she took next door to buy her rubies. By the time Green and Red realised that Azure had enough to buy her remaining rubies, it was too late and Azure had secured the win.
Despite having to learn the game from scratch, Istanbul finished long before Castles of Mad King Ludwig, so they decided they liked the gem-stone theme and went on to play a game that is already quite well known within the group, but has been so popular that a copy was also purchased at Essen – Splendor. From the group who had finished, only Green was familiar with it, so he took the responsibility of teaching. Red started out collecting rubies, while Green bought onyx and diamond and Azure and Orange went for across section. Orange built up a stack of chips which enabled him to quickly build a good stack of non-scoring gem cards, these, in turn rapidly led to a lot of low level scoring cards. Red continued to concentrate on Rubies, but branched out a little and gaining some of the high scoring cards. Then suddenly, one player remembered the option to reserve a card and take a gold token and before long everyone was doing it! Green thought he was about to win and activated his saved five-point diamond card to claim three points for one of the Nobles (four onyx and four diamond) only to realise that he already had enough diamonds and it was onyx that he needed! Meanwhile, Azure quietly got on with building a mixed set of gems cross-colour starting with low value, moving on to middle and finishing with high values and with it took the game. No-one secured the patronage of a Noble, though Green came closest as he took second place.
Azure and Orange, Green and Pink headed home leaving Blue, Red, Black and Purple with just time for a quick game of the Romeo and Juliet themed card game, Council of Verona. This is another new game, but it has a lot in common with Love Letter, a quick little game that we’ve all played a lot and are very familiar with. The idea of Council of Verona is that on their turn, they play a card (a Montague, a Capulet or a Neutral) either in Exile or in Council. Broadly speaking, the cards come in two categories: cards with an action and cards with an agenda. So once they’ve played a card, players then they choose whether to perform any action associated with that card and, if they wish, they may then play an influence token on any agenda cards in play. Each player has three influence tokens, a zero, a three and a five. At the end of the game, the influence tokens are evaluated for any agendas that have been successfully fulfilled and the scores totalled up accordingly.
The rules suggest that you play three rounds and draft the cards at the start, but since we were all unfamiliar with the game, all tired and two of us were suffering from post-Essen-lurgy, we decided to play just one quick game and deal the cards out randomly and try to get a feel for it. Blue and Purple played Romeo and Juliet (who want to be together) into Council and added influence tokens, while Red played Prince Escalus (Neutral who wants council to be balanced) and added a token. Blue then played Lord Montague (wants more Montagues on Council than Capulets) and Black, Red and Purple retaliated by shuffling things around. Blue who went last, played Lady Montague allowing her to swap two influence tokens giving her a winning score.
Learning Outcome: New games are a lot of fun!