8/10 A classic strategy game of satisfying mechanisms
I have played at 2 and 3 players, mostly 2.
This classic, designed by Stefan Feld and published by Ravensburger and Alea in 2011, sets you in 15th century France in the Loire Valley as princes of growing estates. Your goal is to develop your lands with livestock, trade, settlements, and of course, castles. The game uses a unique dice-allocation mechanism to draft and place tiles onto your player board.
The game takes place over 5 phases, each phase consisting of 5 rounds. Gameplay is centered around a dice mechanic where each player has two dice, each one representing an action. Everyone rolls their dice each round, giving you two numbers, but these can be modified by workers then spent on acquiring tiles or placing previously acquired tiles onto your estate board, selling goods, or obtaining more workers. The main goal is to fill in regions of your estate. Each region is comprised of colored spaces that can only house tiles of the same color, and each space requires a specific die value to place a tile. On top of that, you must place a tile adjacent to one of your existing tiles. But filling in a region will score points for the region’s size and bonus points based on how early you fill it in; the earlier the better. Each tile you place has different effects. Buildings give you immediate benefits, ships allow you to take goods from the main board and add them to your supply to sell later, knowledge tiles provide special abilities or end-game scoring, mines provide money after each phase, pastures give points for placing animals next to tiles of the same animals, and castles provide an immediate free action as if you had a die of any value.
Stefan Feld is not known for theme, though this isn’t one of his most themeless games, it’s not what I’d call strong. You’ve got building tiles and castles and animals, but aside from the buildings, nothing really provides much theme. The dice themselves don’t seem to represent anything since workers are a different mechanism and silverlings (money) are also separate. What exactly happens when taking a tile? You’re not buying it. Ships only work when first built; want more goods? Build new ships. So no, you won’t find a lot of theme in this one, not that the theme is engaging. Medieval somebodies building things for points is probably the most played-out “theme” in Euro-style board games. Even a medieval enthusiast like myself can’t muster much interest in the theme or setting. But most Euro gamers are accustomed to the lack of theme. It’s the puzzle we’re all here for.
This is where Feld shines. The game’s core mechanism of using dice, just two per round, to resolve actions is simple and clean. But the workers and solid selection of actions mean you rarely feel forced into anything. In the beginning, the decisions might seem simple because you can do just about whatever you want. But the game quickly snowballs into long-term strategies and quick opportunities. The knowledge tiles in particular grant new abilities or end-game scoring that allows you to laser focus your strategy. And the timing of ships, trying to snatch up a good set of… well, goods to sell later, all while making sure you don’t accidentally build yourself into a corner. You’ll have plenty of tough choices without ever getting bogged down in rules and mechanisms.
And there’s enough variety that you never have to play the same way twice. For one thing, the player boards can be turned over to use different estate layouts. Some of which are definitely harder than others (beware starting in a corner!). Expansions increase the number of variable player boards. And the tiles, of which there are many, are shuffled up and come out in different orders except for a few pre-determined slots for mines, castles, and ships which have no variation (though the goods available for your ships do change).
Speaking only of the original, not the new version, it is not a pretty game. It’s drab, brown, with muted colors (the above display is a lie, the game is not that bright). And the physical pieces aren’t great. The cardboard is thin. Very thin. The only good thing I can say about the components is that at least it keeps the game’s cost down, but it’s not a looker.
Rules Clarity and Balance
There are a couple of problems with clarity. One, it will take several games (if ever) before you have internalized the various buildings and knowledge tiles. The buildings, in particular, are annoying when you first play because while they have names, none of them are labeled on the tile. So you have to open the rules and match the picture on the tile to the one in the rules. Some of the knowledge tiles are easy to understand at a glance, but others will likewise require looking up. This is a slightly older game that could benefit from more modern symbology.
The second problem is with a particular rule that many players have gotten wrong, some for several years before discovering the truth. There are bonus tiles awarded to the first and then second player to fill in all the spaces belonging to a particular type of tile on their estate. But many (including my group) misunderstood it to mean that filling in one region on your board qualified. No, it has to be all regions in your entire estate. I think part of the confusion comes from the fact that most players read the rules through when first learning, then only refer back to them when needed. Terminology that hasn’t been internalized yet can become confused (region vs estate). But the rule’s wording could have been clearer by including the word “regions” instead of just referring to the estate since these are the terms that a lot of players seem to have confused.
Other than trying to remember all the building and knowledge tiles, this is a pretty easy game to get back to the table. The rules aren’t complicated, nor are the interactions of the tiles. It gets moving quickly and the decisions become tough only a few rounds into the game. I think I prefer it 3-player over 2 since there are more tiles available and less likelihood of being forced down a particular strategy because your opponent beat you to the tile you wanted. But 2-player is still plenty of fun. It certainly has fast turns at 2, but I don’t think there are downtime issues at 3. I’ve not played at higher player counts, but I suspect downtime could turn into an issue at the high end.