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Jay Bloodworth
United States
South Carolina
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Maybe you've seen pictures of Oltremare, with it's cute little four piece jigsaw board depicting Mediterrean trade routes and lots of enticing little symbols. Don't be fooled - Oltremare is a card game. It's quite a good card game in fact, a distant cousin of Bohnanza with a more sophisticated mechanics and a less whimsical theme. The small element of board play is interesting and not insignificant, but don't let it convince you Oltremare is not a card game.

Every card in Oltremare depicts one of seven goods, along with a number of other symbols decsribed below. Each player has three sets of cards to deal with: unplayed cards in hand, a face up cargo deck, and a face down pirate deck. Players score victory points at the end of the game based on runs of matching goods in their cargo deck, and each card in their pirate deck subtracts a point. Each player starts with four cards in hand and and one in their cargo deck, and each pirate deck is initially empty. Players also begin the game with 11 "gold", i.e. victory points.

On a turn, the top card on the active player's cargo deck prescribes his options. The top of each card displays several flags. This is the players hand limit that must be honored immediately; excess cards are discarded into the player's pirate deck. The number of cargo nets at the bottom of the card tells how many cards the player must play that turn. If the player does not have enough cards, he must trade with other players or buy cards to fulfill his obligation. Even if he does has enough cards to play, often the player will wish to trade or buy cards to allow for more profitable card play. The hand limit does not matter after the beginning of the turn.

Players may buy up to four cards from either the draw deck or their own pirate deck for three gold each. Players may also trade any agreeable combination of gold and cards with the active player. Anyone who trades with active player at least once during the turn gets one prestige point. First, second, and third place in prestige points score small bonuses at midgame and endgame scoring.

After trading, the active player plays the required number of cards. Each card has two of four possible symbols along its left side. Each symbol represents a certain type of benefit or cost to the player, and the number of matching symbols determine the degree of benefit or cost. Gold symbols earn the player victory points. Market symbols cause the player to draw cards in hand. Pirate symbols force the player to play cards from the draw deck to his pirate deck. Each of these three symbols payoff according to a limited triangular number scale: one gold (or market or pirate) garners one victory point (or card in hand or pirate card), two gets you three, and three or more gets you six. Ship icons relate to the map on the game board. For each ship icon played the player moves his ship (a - surprise - wooden cube) one space along the map, and the player takes the harbor marker (if available) where he stops. Harbor markers give the players different perks until the ship moves again: immunity to pirate icons, buying cards for cheaper, a small income on each turn, or bonus gold for gold or ship icons on cards played.

Finally, the player adds the played cards to his cargo deck in any order he wishes, considering both runs of matching goods in the deck and how the top card will affect his next turn. Play proceeds until the deck runs out, with midgame scoring of prestige points marked by a special card randomly inserted in the deck. Prestige points reset to zero after midgame scoring, and then are scored again at the end of the game. Players also score for first, second, and third place in harbor markers collected at the end of the game. The big endgame scoring, however, comes from the cargo deck. Each different type of goods card shows a payoff table for having runs of that type of good in your cargo deck. Since runs not merely sets are scored, the order of the cards in the deck matters: wine, wine, silver, wine pays off less than wine, wine, wine, silver.

It sounds like there is a lot going on, and there certainly is plenty to think about on your turn as you wrangle for trades and and try to figure out the best combination of goods and icons to play. But it all fits together rather elegantly, and once you know how to read the cards (virtually) all the game play is right there. The trading can be tense, as players are only required to tell the truth about the good on a card they are trading; a player is free to lie about the other aspects of the card (pirate icons, hand limit flags, etc.). I'm sure some groups will embrace the deception and bluffing aspect of the game, others will adopt the convention to not even mention anything but the good type, and some may even be regularly honest. Oltremare will never be the gateway game that Bohnanza is, but it pushes a lot of the same buttons and may appeal more to "serious" gamers with mechanisms that are more intricate without quite being fiddly. It's challenging, it's tense, it's got player interaction, it's got bluffing (it you want it), it plays in an hour - Oltremare has a lot to recommend it for addition to your game library.

Unless you really hate card games.
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