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Bridges of Shangri-La is game that slips through the cracks somewhat. The rules are simple and it plays quick enough to act as a filler game or warm up game while waiting for your whole group to arrive, but it also packs a tactical punch which for small groups could play as the main course for the evening.
The game supports 3 or 4 players. While some posters have played and enjoyed 2 player versions of the game, my inclination is that while anything that causes more enjoyment and interest is worthwhile, the feel, tactics and tension of the game will change dramatically. I can not guess at the intended "feel" the designer was aiming for, but I believe more players, add more tension and agonizing choices. In this light, I would reccommend the full complement of 4 players as the optimal number. While the mechanics and choices are simple enough for a young child to participate, the tactics involved will likely make it more appropriate for mature teens and up.
The box seems a little large for the contents but not overly so.
The artwork on the box is well done with excellent "shelf appeal". The board is also nicely done without the usual scoring/victory point track or tables that detract from the look of a game. The game pieces are simple wooden arches, (representing the bridges that will be used and broken in the game) glass stones (that will mark when a destination has been isolated from the rest of the board), and the student/master chits that form the backbone of the game. Unlike the rest of the artwork, the main playing peices are cartoonish renditions of the several disciplines the students in the game hope to master. I would have prefered artwork to match the rest of the game, but a minor complaint at best.
The rules are easy to understand and simple to implement with minimal reference to the game manual even with your first game. The game board is divided into several mountain villages connected by bridges. Beginning players can choose to set the game up with reasonably balanced oppurtunities by assigning their beginning "masters" to villages as specified in the rules. More advanced players will undoubtedly choose to make their own placement of the starting pieces.
master and student pieces are only distinguished by position on the board. First placement in an eligable position is automatically considered the master. Another eligible piece placed on top of the first, is the student. Players may take one of three actions during their turn. Place a single master, (only in villages where one of your masters already exist.) Place 2 students on any two of your existing master tokens, (each master may only have a single student at a time). Or take the students journey to another village, (which will destroy the path they travelled along, as each path/bridge can only be used once). If a village becomes completely isolated, no other actions can be taken in that village. In the end, nearly all the villages are isolated and the player who owns the most masters wins. The object of the game then is to supply your masters with students and then send them elsewhere to become masters in their own right. Students will become masters in new villages if they came from a "stronger" village (in terms of total students and masters) either mastering empty disciplines or taking the place of existing masters in the weaker village. It is possible to move from a weaker village, but as this frequently results in just losing students, it is really only used to burn bridges while you go as a defensive stategy.
While the rules are simple to understand it is not immediately obvious what the best way to implement them is. There is also significant inertia to the game that if you find yourself too far behind it is nearly impossible to catch up late in the game. In reality the game is really an abstract. Their is little that links the way the game is played or feels to the theme. There is no randomization elements in the game and other than who plays first, no luck elements. It is a combination area control, tile placement and hand management game, pretty much in that order. The main twist in the mechanics is the bridge destruction aspect. Each connecting path between villages can only be used once, The key to victory is figuring out when to make the journey. Similarly, while the turn options are limited, there is enough going on to make the choices difficult, and if your party is prone to analysis paralysis, this game might not be your first choice. Strategies and contingencies must be planned and are not immediately intuitive. A few poor choices will haunt you for the rest of the game.
While I have not played it enough to be an authority, it appears beneficial to be able to react to another players action rather than initiate the action. If a player is building strength in a village, you can place students in the same village or in a neighboring one. The first action, allows you to piggy back on the others journey, when they choose to make it, setting up your own masters in a new location without having to make the journey yourself. The second action could allow you to knock out a bridge before they attack. Even though you lose one or more students doing this, they will not be able to journey from that village again and if isolated, lose the usefullness of all the students they recruited.
There is a large advantage to being the last to enter a village. If another player journeys to other villages you have the chance to get there last and take advantage. With more players, the things that can happen before it is your turn again multiply and I think makes it even more critical to react to the situation rather than initiate it. Placing masters is a good way to advance your position without initiating too much, but by themselves may be vulnerable to replacement.
Simple rules with enough strategy to keep you thinking, engaged and looking for alternate solutions. Plays quick enough (once you've played your first game and your players are not overly prone to analysis paralysis) and well with fewer people that it could be used as a warm up or filler game. Appealing look to the game. Not a lot of bits to lose and relatively easy to improvise spares in case you do.
Nothing really ties the game to the theme, so you have to enjoy abstract games. While players can gang up on a leader, there is little oppurtunity for player interaction. The game is unforgiving in a catch up sense, if you get too far behind, you will stay there.
I think the abstract nature of the game, makes it more overlooked by the geeks here than it should be. The game is a reasonably solid contender in the area of strategy based games and should have a broader appeal. Perhaps the cartoon chits detract enough or make people think the game will be silly so that it is not brought to the table as much.
I rate it 4 out of 5 for having good replayability and tactical choices but without the awe factor of a really outstanding game.
If you like abstracts, you will like it, get it.
If you like strategy over luck games, pick it up online or ebay.
If your group is a mix of different styles, it is worth getting if you can get a good deal.
If you like a lot of player interaction or someone in your group perpetually over analyzes the situation, maybe you should pass on this one.
J C Lawrence
I play and like it as a 90+ minute serious 3 player (only!) game.
This game is anything but a filler. If you play this game as a filler, you are either not playing it right, or you normally play five hour long games like 1870.
I agree. I think my post lends evidence to why I think so. Some players may look at the fact that this game will not take the whole evening to play, is easy and quick to learn, and will only support a few players. Those players may categorize it as a "filler" while they wait for the rest of their group to show up later in the evening. It certainly does not belong in a class of quick and simple fillers like, Hey that's my fish!