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Subject: [Review] Phoenicia rss

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Tom Vasel
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I've heard good things about Phoenicia (JKLM Games, 2007 – Tom Lehmann) but wasn't able to play it until later on in the year of 2007. When I finally broke out the game to play, I was puzzled by the rulebook included with the game; it was confusing and difficult to follow. I almost quit my first game because I just wasn't able to follow along. But, thanks to the wonderful resource of www.boardgamegeek.com, I was able to find a better rendition of the rules by Christopher Young, and the game immediately made sense. Phoenicia is reputedly based on the "snowball effect" originated in the game of Outpost, as players build and increase so that they can build and increase more, etc. I've played games with this sort of idea before and enjoyed them, even though they have been somewhat lengthy.

Phoenicia is an amazing game that provides a lot of depth with this same building mechanic but does it in an hour. There is definitely an advantage to players with experience, and a player who falls behind early will likely never catch up. Despite this, it makes a fantastic two to four player game (the five player version is chaotic). The game is fairly simple (despite obtuse rules), and it's very engrossing, offering quite a few paths to victory. It has almost completely replaced similar games in my collection, such as The Scepter of Zavandor, simply because a deeper game that can be played in a short time is a great boon to any game collection.

Rather than go in depth into the rules (I'll point you to Boardgamegeek for that), let me simply talk about different parts of the game.

1.) Rules: Yes, I thought it was important enough to mention this first. Phoenicia is a great game, but I only know that because I played the game rather than read over the rules. The rules are chock full of examples, but they break the flow of the game so much that I just couldn't figure out what the point was. I know that future editions of the game may have updated rules, but for now, if you get the game, go to BGG and download the nicer rules explanation there.

2.) Curve: Teaching the game isn't that difficult, but new players are going to have a tough time deciding how much to bid on each item. The best information a player can have is to have played the game before. I can give you a cheat sheet that shows all the numbers, but sometimes you simply need to get a good feel for the game to bid more knowledgably, and that's only going to happen if you actually see and feel how everything works together. I think a player may need to play once to figure out the game then once again to figure out that the strategy you think will work actually doesn't. Players will likely be most comfortable on their third game.

3.) Components: I was surprised when I opened the box to find a bag of plastic rather than wood. The pawns, houses, and coins are all white plastic that shines like a freshly fallen snow, while the players have large plastic cubes. I'm a bit used to wooden components, but I didn't mind the plastic, especially since it doesn't affect the functionality of the game at all. The cards and buildings are of good quality, and I especially like the symbols on the cards and buildings – everything makes sense – mostly. There are two slight annoyances. For one, we often confuse which of two markers on the scoring track is the scoring marker, and which is the production marker. Also, it can be a bit confusing for new players to realize that when they add a new person to a building, they only gain the difference between the new worker and the last worker. But this comes more with experience – I just wonder if it could have been clearer on the board. The artwork is okay and thematic, although a bit bland.

4.) Time: Even with a full five player game with people who move slowly, I can't see the game taking much more than ninety minutes – and that's the maximum time. What I find amazing is the fact that the game feels so deep within that time.

5.) Players: I think perhaps a three player game may be the sweet spot with this game, but I'm amazed that an auction game works very well with two players. I can count auction games for two players that are good on one hand, and I'm amazed at how interesting this one really is. Auctions are tight, but players won't feel impossibly squeezed out if they pay attention at the beginning. Five players make for a much tighter game, and I think I would recommend playing with the variant that players can win only one building a turn with this amount of players, if only to keep a few players from being completely destroyed.

6.) Money: Phoenicia has one of the more interesting economic systems I've seen. There is some randomness, with cards of random values inserted in the deck – but the range is "4" to "6", and most cards have a value of "5". Combining this with coins and a nice escalating economic system combined with limited storage, the game has a terrific balance. For the first half (maybe longer), players are simply concentrating on getting a good economic system up and going. The second half players must get more points, since that's the main point of the game. Players must also decide which buildings are best – not only for the present – but which may have benefits far into the future. Saving money can give a player a power play on the following round but may cut them out of a good building or momentum on the current turn. Everything fits together very nicely, and I don't know of a building that is underpowered or priced incorrectly.

7.) Interaction: While players are building up their own economic system, there are a very limited number of buildings; and players have to keep a careful eye on what their opponent is buying. Players cannot directly affect one another through attacks or destruction, but the game is short enough that it's a good thing; and the auctions can be deadly enough.

8.) Combinations and Fun Factor: The thing that I like best about Phoenicia is that I thought about it quite a bit after playing the game. What combination of buildings would I take in the next game? Should I have paid less for a building this game or outbid someone for a different building in the next game? It's short, and it's not that complex; but it offers a lot of thought to keep me interested.

Phoenicia was a surprise hit for me; I wasn't expecting much looking at the artwork and fairly dull theme, but the game grabbed me after only a few moments. The building mechanic is one that I really enjoy, and I can't believe that the game feels so "meaty", yet takes only a short amount of time. It plays well with two players (something many multiplayer games – especially auction games – don't), and every game can play out differently based on the randomness of when buildings show up for auction. I highly recommend the game -- just get someone to teach you if possible.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
www.thedicetower.com
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Daniel Brown
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Tom, I also have a very good impression of this game. I have never played The Scepter of Zavandor but I would like to give it a try someday. A longer version of Phoenicia sounds interesting as long as it is not too long.
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Lou Moratti
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I was also very impressed with the game but it suffered from 2 serious flaws to me. The rulebook and the runaway leader problems. The former can be overcome, as you have pointed out Tom, the latter is troublesome to the point of keeping me from a purchase.
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Paul King
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I've played all three games. Phoenicia has the major advantage of playing in a much shorter time than Outpost or Scepter yet keeping the essential elements.

Outpost has the worst "runaway leader" issue, because the big point-scorers are also big income-producers. Scepter has an additional mechanism to hurt the leader, but I'm not convinced that it is necessary. If there is a runaway leader in Phoenicia I suspect it has more to do with the playing - it takes a play or two to work out what the cards are worth .

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Tiberiu Doman
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PaleHorse wrote:
I was also very impressed with the game but it suffered from 2 serious flaws to me. The rulebook and the runaway leader problems. The former can be overcome, as you have pointed out Tom, the latter is troublesome to the point of keeping me from a purchase.


Hear, hear! I did buy the game and after a couple of 2p games I am troubled by the runaway leader issue - I really don't see any way around it. I hope somebody has found a variant that works - I like the civ-lite feel of the game.
 
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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tdoman wrote:
Hear, hear! I did buy the game and after a couple of 2p games I am troubled by the runaway leader issue - I really don't see any way around it. I hope somebody has found a variant that works - I like the civ-lite feel of the game.

If you've only played twice, you're really not experienced enough to know whether runaway-leaders are a problem (I personally don't think so). My recommendation is that you play half a dozen more games, and if you still feel the same afterwards, start a new thread to discuss it.
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