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Game Overview: Castello Methoni, or Acquiring Triangles for Fun and Profit

W. Eric Martin
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One of the prime appeals of a game like Agricola is that over the course of play, you create a personal farm that serves as a record of all that you did. Win or lose, you have a sense of satisfaction at what you put together: Hey, look at all those cattle! And that oven you built that keeps you from starving! And your two children that now toil next to you and your spouse! Get to work, brats!

While I enjoy such games, I prefer designs that put players in the same gamespace, designs in which we collectively create something that serves as a record of play while also being meaningful in terms of who wins, designs such as Leo Colovini's Castello Methoni from Mandoo Games.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
After the first game

In this game, the board starts empty, and you have a hand of five cards. On a turn, you take one or two actions, and you have two choices for each action: (1) Discard a card to get two coins from the bank for an active market (but no markets are active to start with), or (2) Discard a card to place a wall on the empty border of a triangle that matches the color of the card discarded, after which you place one of your cubic houses on one side of the wall and a house of either of your neighbors (i.e., the players sitting to your left and right) on the other side.

If you enclose a space with walls, you create a domain — but you must be able to afford the domain to create it, paying 1 coin per triangle in it to the bank and 1 coin per house that is not yours to the owner of that house. If three houses of the same color are in a domain, you remove those houses and replace them with a villa of the same color. If you enclose a market in a domain, that market is now active, and you claim the coin from that market. You then mark this domain with a tower, and you have only four towers, so you can create only four domains...sort of.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
We made a balloon!

When a domain you create shares a wall with another domain, you can annex that domain that same turn by buying out its owner, paying them 2 coins per triangle in the domain, 1 coin per house, and 5 coins per villa. The color of the houses and villas don't matter because it's all owned by whoever has their tower in that domain. If your enlarged domain shares a wall with another, you can annex that domain as long as you can afford to do so, converting three houses of a color to a villa following each annexation.

The house-to-villa transformation matters because it boosts the cost of someone else buying you out. Sometimes, you want to be bought out because each coin is worth 1 point at game's end, whereas each triangle in a domain of yours is worth 3 points. The trapezoid on the right edge of the image below would cost 13 to annex (6 for the triangles + 2 for the houses + 5 for the villa), but it's worth only 9 points...maybe.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

At the start of a turn, for each market in a domain you own, you receive 2 coins from the bank — and coins are worth points, in addition to being a tool to take actions. Additionally, each player has a secret scoring card that shows three adjacent landscape types, and each triangle of those types in a domain of yours is worth 4 points instead of 3, so that domain might be worth 12 points to you, with a market payout next turn (assuming you still own it then) to make it worth 14 — or maybe even 16 or 18.

Finally, the largest domain on the board at game's end earns its owner 10 points, while the second-largest domain is worth 5 points. Ties are super friendly, with a tie for first place giving each tied player 10 points and with second place still being awarded.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Final development of that board

I've played Castello Methoni five times on a copy I bought at SPIEL '19, three times with three players, twice with four, and I'm sorry it took me this long to get it to the table because the game — being a tactical, highly-interactive framework that's filled in by the players' collective actions — is squarely in my wheelhouse. Honestly, I got it to the table only thanks to BGG now selling Castello Methoni in the BGG Store, which created a work-related purpose to play it. No matter how much I anticipate playing a game, if I'm playing it "solely" for fun, it takes a back seat to other games that I'm covering in this space. That's demented, but apparently I can't help it.

Board Game: Masons
Castello Methoni has superficial similarities to Leo Colovini's Masons, which was released in 2006 because in that game, you're placing walls on the board, then placing a colored house on each side of the wall. However, in that game, what you're trying to do is create domains of certain sizes, or certain numbers of domains, or a domain that has certain color houses in it, or a scattering of colored houses outside of domains in order to score goal cards that you have in your hand. Each player has individual goals that they are trying to achieve based on a shared landscape. Castello Methoni feels like a cousin of Mason since you're placing walls and colored houses, but it goes in a completely different direction.

Board Game: Acquire
Every player but one who has played Castello Methoni with me has said, "Oh, this feels like a modern day Acquire" — and the one player who didn't say that has not played Acquire.

Castello Methoni is actually a stock game in disguise with the landscape serving as the stock. You found a company, i.e., create a domain, then either increase the size of that company (by creating an adjacent domain, then merging the two, which costs you nothing) or hope that someone else buys you out. When you're bought out, the money that you receive for that domain is always worth more than what you spent to acquire it, which means you've increased your net worth — but that money might be less valuable than the number of points that domain's owner will receive at game's end, which means the buyer is also increasing their net worth.

Ideally, you're working virtuously with the other players to sort of partner with them to increase your holdings collectively. I've played games in which I annex things back and forth with other players, but at a certain point, it doesn't make sense to buy someone out, so you do need a bit of in-game calculation to determine when you reach that threshold.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My first four-player game

Still, Castello Methoni is far cleaner and smoother than Acquire in how domains merge. You have more control (sort of) over what's going to happen on the game board because you have five cards in hand and don't need to rely on having a specific letter-number tile to ensure that two companies are merged. In this game, a red card lets you play on any border in that territory and a yellow anywhere in that territory, and the combined market/seashore card allows you to play on any outer border space or the border of any market, whether active or not.

You can play at most two cards on a turn, so you play those based on what you might want to do with the other three on the subsequent turn. Ideally, you're setting things up so that you can close out a domain in the future or annex something or build on something someone has done before, but everything you do is contingent upon what other players do — and that's a hallmark of Colovini designs. You exist in a shared game space, and it's extremely difficult to do anything on your own, and whatever you do impacts the immediate choices of everyone else. Anywhere you put down a wall, any other player (if they have the right cards) can place two walls and create a one-triangle domain. Anyone with the right two cards can create a one-triangle domain adjacent to another domain, then (depending on their cash) annex it.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Our games have played out very differently. In one game, everyone tried to get markets first because you're getting ducats from the bank — but everyone was building very tiny domains, so little money was going into the bank, so a market was worth no more than any other space. The next game played out completely differently, with us largely ignoring markets for the first half of the game. You can count cards and hope to set up a large domain that no one else can close before your turn comes around again — although domains that start large are ripe takeover targets since they contain fewer houses per triangle. (Buying a triangle + a house costs 3 coins, but that triangle is worth "only" 3 points at game's end, so you're breaking even on the purchase unless the domain is one of the two largest or in your secret scoring areas.)

The look of Castello Methoni is old-school German design where everything is made for function. The landscapes look nice, but the board is crisply divided into land types along the line of older Colovini titles such as Clans and Alexandros. There's no transition between land types; the board is strictly divided so that you know exactly where everything is and what is connected to what.

I go into yet more detail about the game, such as how you can affect the pace of play, in this overview video. I was going to hold off on creating a video until I had played a couple of times with five players — a set-up that would give you only 12 starting money compared to 15 with four players and 20 with three — but I also thought that I had waited long enough on this game already and wanted to share my joy with it before too much more time had passed...

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Mon Jun 21, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: TRAILS, or Pacing the Land for Points

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: TRAILS
On June 20, 2021, Henry Audubon's TRAILS from Keymaster Games will debut at the U.S. retail chain Target, with TRAILS being a standalone sequel to the 2019 game PARKS from the same designer/publisher team. (Keymaster has noted that the game will have wider availability later in 2021.)

TRAILS is a relatively straightforward design: On a turn, advance one or two spaces in the direction you face, then take the action shown on that space: collecting one of three resources, swapping one resource for others, or taking a photo. If you land on the space where the bear is located, the bear rips your face off moves to the location you roll on the bear die, then gives you the action of that space in addition to the action of the space where you moved.

When you reach the trail's end, you turn around, receive a sun bonus, move the sun toward the trailhead, then use the resources you've collected to claim merit badges. By expending your canteen, you can move any number of spaces, but you refill that canteen only at the trailhead, so at minimum you need four actions to complete a round trip, with the maximum being twelve actions.

When the sun moves off the trailhead, each player takes a final turn, then you count points from badges and photos to see who wins.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Chase that bear for extra action

More abstractly, TRAILS is a game of getting resources, then converting them to points. To get resources, you land on a space, swap for what you need (since you gain one resource with each swap), get lucky with the bear, or (possibly) use a badge as claimed badges sometimes reward you with resources or a swap in addition to points.

Resources will rain upon you steadily as you criss-cross the trail, and they may or may not be relevant for the badges available. You have one badge in hand and two at each end of the trail, giving you a mix of public and private targets to work toward. Sometimes an opponent will snipe a badge that you were hoping to claim, but the replacement badge revealed at the end of that player's turn has nearly the same cost, so whatever; at other times, you'll be left with a pocketful of useless acorns. Maybe you should have used that canteen to hop to trail's end, but perhaps doing so would have left you one acorn short because you needed to stop in the forest first. Hmm...

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My holdings at the end of a three-player game

As you add more players to TRAILS, that badge you hold in your hand becomes more important since only you have access to it, giving you something to work toward that can't be claimed by another. The randomness of the badge flips adds a luck element to the game that you have to live with. You can try to squat on resources so that you can acquire a badge no matter what turns up, but you have a resource limit of eight, so when you have a badge that costs five acorns or three rocks+two leaves, you don't have room in your pouch for much else, which can lead to you feeling like you're trudging for multiple turns just to finish the thing so that you can move on to something else.

In addition to the badge in hand, the photos provide another mystery element to gameplay. When you take a photo action, you draw two cards from the deck, keep one, and discard the other; alternatively, you can claim the top card of the discard stack, but that's another person's trash, so why not take your chances on drawing two cards and keeping one since you will (almost) inevitably get something at least as good as the trash? Besides which, if you draw, then the card you collect is secret. Points from photos are revealed at game end, and whoever has seen the most birds — which are present on both photos and badges — receives a bonus 4 points.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

These hidden elements — the birds and photos — keep you from calculating everything, but the pace of the game is determined by player movement, and aside from photos you have to move to the end of the trail to score, so you have only limited control over how long the game lasts. The same can be said for the bonus bear actions. If you jump ahead of others so that you can land next to the bear and roll the die, you might luck out and move the bear behind opponents so that they can't bear on their turn, or the bear might end up in the perfect spot for them to use. More generally, you can try to take actions to hinder others — swiping badges ahead of them, moving the bear out of their path — but the luck of the die and card flips might make your efforts meaningless.

The pace of badge acquisition escalates over time as the game board tiles flip when the sun moves away from them, with a space now providing two rocks, leaves, or acorns instead of only one. This allows you to move those more expensive badges to your collection, but everyone else is collecting more resources, too, which increases the difficulty of planning to collect certain badges at trail's end since they're likely to be claimed by someone else first.

For more of my thoughts on TRAILS, which I've played seven times on a review copy from Keymaster Games, check out this overview video:

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Mon Jun 14, 2021 6:48 pm
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Game Preview: So Clover!, or Not Just One Clue Giver

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Where in this grid would you place four of these five cards so that the written clues "match" the printed words on the adjacent cards?

Board Game: So Clover!
Cover and design not final

That one sentence describes the essence of So Clover!, a party game from first-time designer François Romain and non-first-time publisher Repos Production that is due out June 26, 2021 in Europe and July 16, 2021 in the United States.

Do I need to write more so that you understand how the game works? Or can you decipher pretty much all of it from the image above?

So Clover! is essentially a successor to Just One, a 2018 design by Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter for which Repos Production won the 2019 Spiel des Jahres. The details of gameplay aren't the same in the two designs, but they're both co-operative party games in which you need to give clever — but not too clever — clues so that someone can figure out what you're trying to get them to guess. (More thoughts on Just One here.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The game lasts only a single round. Each player has a secret clover board, and they place four cards at random in the center spaces. They look at the two keywords next to each a blank space, then write a single word — whether a common word, a proper noun, a number, an acronym, or a compound word — in each blank space. Remove the four cards, placing them face down and shuffling them with a random fifth card from the deck.

Once everyone has prepared their boards, someone reveals their board and five cards, then keeps a blank face while everyone else argues and deduces which cards go where. If they guess everything correctly on the first try, the team earns 6 points; if not, the clue giver removes incorrect cards from the board, and the team takes another shot, earning 0-4 points depending on how many cards they place correctly. The maximum score for a game is six times the number of players.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In all likelihood, you will not care about the final score, another similarity with Just One, as well as with Repos' 2013 party game Concept. I've now played eight times on a mock-up preview copy from Repos with all player counts, and I have no idea how we've scored in those games — but I do know that I've had a blast trying to generate clever clues and figure out the cleverness of others.

So Clover! is one of those games that I want to play with people who I'm meeting for the first time so that I can find out what they're like. In that way, the design is much like Vlaada Chvátil's Codenames, but now with all players having the opportunity to both give and guess clues in the same game.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Another similarity to Codenames is that each time you play, you're confronted with a combination of cards that you might never see again, a situation that pushes your mind to be creative because you can't rely on what you've done the previous times you've played — and as in Codenames, your clue choices are audience dependent. You need to imagine yourself in their position to consider whether they could possibly make the backwards connection.

Similarly, when you're the one guessing which cards go where, you can sometimes reverse engineer your choices by trying to imagine whether given the two printed words next to a written clue, you would have written that same clue — or you at least understand why someone else would have done so.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

So Clover! is somewhat harder for young players to participate, with one preteen giving a clue of "IDK" in one game and not great clues another time. In Just One and Codenames, you're not in the spotlight with your clues — or you're just part of the guessing team — so you don't face the stress of giving bum clues and feeling like you've let everyone down. When teaching So Clover!, you might consider telling players that if nothing seems like a great clue for the pair of words, give a great clue for just one of the words and hope your other clues can carry the day.

I give more examples of gameplay in this video, giving you yet another set of cards to place in a grid while solving a grid that my wife created before I started recording. See whether you think I made the right placements:

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Mon Jun 7, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Cubitos, or Rolling, Regretting, and (Sometimes) Racing

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Cubitos
No matter how many times I think I'm ready to talk about a game, I always come up with more to say after I've locked my thoughts into a write-up or video. This happened again most recently with Cubitos, a John D. Clair design that U.S. publisher Alderac Entertainment Group released in February 2021.

I had played Cubitos four times on a review copy from AEG at the end of 2020, put the game aside when BGG's GameNight! released a video overview in January 2021, then revisited the game for two more plays in May 2021 before recording a video overview of my own, included below.

Then I discovered more to say, which I'll include below, only to fall short of whatever comes to mind after this post goes live.

So it goes.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Cubitos is ostensibly a racing game in which each player starts with the same set of lousy dice and tries to use these dice to reach the finish line first. Seven of your starting dice (the light gray ones) show only a single coin on one side, while the other two (dark gray) feature one coin, one foot — the currency used for movement in the game — and four blank sides. You're not going fast anywhere with that assortment of dice, so you'll need to use the coins to buy better dice.

Eight colors of dice are available for purchase, and the effects of the faces on a colored die are generally determined by the associated card in play for that particular game. (Some colored dice have feet and coins on their faces, and those abilities remain the same from game to game.) The rulebook includes seven suggested races to show off all the different cards in the game, but you're free to choose cards at random.

The game also comes with four racetrack game boards, and each track has its own assortment of bonus spaces, shortcuts, and (somewhat) inaccessible water terrain.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

On a turn, you roll some number of dice, with a baseline of nine and with you rolling more dice if you have gained fans, have fallen behind the leader, or have a die power that lets you break the rules. In the image above, for example, I used a red power on my previous turn that allows me to roll white and green dice in the current turn without them adding to my total. Look at all those feet! Well, potential feet. I haven't rolled those dice yet, so those feets might fail me now.

When you roll dice, you move non-blank results — i.e., hits — to the "Active" area, then decide whether you want to roll again. If you have at least three active dice and roll nothing but blanks, then you've busted for the turn, receiving only a notch on the fan track as consolation. Apparently they admire your willingness to try.

If you stop without busting, then you use feet to move — spending four coins as a foot, if you wish — after which you can buy at most two dice of different colors, placing those new dice and all used dice in your discard area.

As is customary in pool-building games such as Dominion, Ascension, and The Quacks of Quedlinburg, over time you hope to lower the percentage of garbage in your pool of resources and instead have things that will fuel you to success.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

What's curious about Cubitos compared to other racing games is that often you have no desire to go anywhere. Instead you might choose to bounce between bonus spaces on the game board as my opponent John was doing in the image above. He hit the "gain two fans" space, then the "lose two dice" space over and over again, trimming the fat and replacing it with blocky, colorful muscle while I foolishly(?) moved ahead on the track like someone who was in a race.

This aspect of gameplay is similar to what happens in Dominion, with you typically trying to shove as much gas as possible into your deck before you start racing for valuable (yet useless) victory point cards that will run out. Dominion isn't a racing game, but it has a racing feel since VP cards are limited and you need to accelerate the "right" way so that you don't bog down before players hit the collective finish line of an empty VP deck.

Cubitos works similarly, with you trying to find the right balancing point between improving and moving — yet you have wider variability in what happens on a turn thanks to the randomness of the dice. Sometimes you'll roll eight blanks and bust, and sometimes you'll do that multiple turns in a row — and sometimes you'll hit with nearly everything multiple turns in a row, and unlike in Dominion, you're typically not penalized for moving forward "too soon".

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Where Cubitos differs from other pool-building games is that everything you have is visible. In Dominion, Quacks, et al., when you acquire new stuff to juice your engine, that stuff goes into your deck or your bag, and no one knows when it will appear in the future. You can be surprised by what you draw and what your opponents draw. With Cubitos, your choices are all out in the open. I can see all the dice you bought, and I know what you're rolling on a turn and what's sitting on the side. I'm not surprised by what you might do, only by the specifics of what you roll — but I'm possibly not even paying attention to that since for the most part, we roll dice simultaneously and what I roll almost never affects what you can do.

What's more, what I do on the track doesn't affect you either. Unlike in most race games, in Cubitos you can occupy the same space as someone else. We're effectively ghosts who just happen to be racing one another as the only two ways we interact are via the red dice that reward whoever has the most symbols on a turn and the limited colored dice pool that might run out. (I've played only two- and three-player games, so admittedly dice shortages would probably be more of an issue with four players.)

The only time we stop trying to be clever with the dice combos and pay attention to one another is typically in the final quarter of the track when someone might be able to reach the finish line. Only then do we slow down and force players to roll in player order, typically to see whether the leader crosses the line and we need to push hard to catch up. Only then do we stop being ghosts and realize that other people are at the table. I wish the game did more to push us into one another's way because sometimes the most memorable moment of a race isn't who crosses the finish line first, but the unexpected Budd-Decker-style interactions that happen along the way.

For more thoughts on the game, including my take on the game's storage system, check out this video:

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Thu Jun 3, 2021 1:00 pm
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Coffee Traders: A Heavy Roast with Donkeys, Piggybacking, and More

Candice Harris
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From gallery of candidrum
Coffee Traders is big, heavy, new release from publisher Capstone Games and designers André Spil and Rolf Sagel, the duo behind the heavy, economic, oil business game Wildcatters. Wildcatters was originally released in 2013 from Dutch publisher RASS Games with a new-and-improved second edition released in 2018 from Capstone Games. In Wildcatters, players are oil barons who develop oil fields, bid for oil rights, and build rigs, oil tankers, trains, and refineries, competing to deliver more oil barrels, and collect more shares and money than their opponents.

In Coffee Traders, Spil and Sagel continue with their heavy, business-driven, player interaction-filled design formula, but this time in a completely different setting with a refreshing, unique theme focused on fair trade coffee organizations. After playing multiple games of Coffee Traders with a review copy provided by the publisher, I wanted to share some initial impressions and insight on what you can expect.

In Coffee Traders, each player represents a coffee trading company from Antwerp, Belgium in the 1970s. While the game was originally designed for 3-5 players, after the demand for two-player games skyrocketed due to the pandemic, Spil and Sagel created a special two-player variant while the game was in production, with this variant being included in the game.

Your goal in Coffee Traders is to help farmers from different parts of the world partner with cooperatives, to hire contractors to construct buildings that will help improve their communities, and to have traders in Antwerp import as much coffee as possible to meet the demand. To become the world's best coffee trader and win the game, you need to have the most victory points (VPs) at the end of the game. VPs can be earned in several different ways, and in some respects Coffee Traders can feel like a point-salad game, although it's definitely not a full-on, "main course" point salad — it's more like a point "side" salad. It's also worth mentioning that all points are scored at the end of the game; there is no VP track on the board.

From gallery of candidrum
Table set up for a four-player game

Coffee Traders is a beautiful table hog and quite a beast to set up, especially if you tackle it on your own. There are tons of components to familiarize yourself with initially, but they're all well-labeled in the rulebook and the quality is top notch across the board — the wooden pieces, metal coins, game board, and player boards are all great. Plus, there's definitely a wow factor when it's all set up.

From gallery of candidrum
Inside the rulebook
The box cover, game board, and player boards are all gorgeous and well-illustrated kudos to Daan van Paridon and John Rabou. Just about everything oozes vintage coffee trading vibes. When you open the box cover, it feels like you're opening a crate of coffee beans. The rulebook, title "The Coffee Trading Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to the Industry", even has this worn-out look and feel with coffee-themed flair and realistic-looking coffee stains on various pages that will sometimes make you think you actually spilled coffee on it. I appreciate these thoughtful, thematic touches sprinkled throughout Coffee Traders.

From gallery of candidrum
Example of Colombia and Ethiopia cooperatives mid-game
Looking at the game board, there's no denying there is a lot going on. Fortunately, everything is well-organized and the graphic design is on point. The main part of the game board features five color-coordinated cooperatives — Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Brazil — where most of the action takes place. Each cooperative also has an associated shape icon to make it clearer for players when differentiating colors is an issue. A chunk of your victory points can be earned from the area-majority scoring of the cooperatives at the end of the game.

Each cooperative has a town center that starts the game with six (tan/neutral) workers which players will place on plantations in order to harvest coffee. There are also spaces in each cooperative for plantations and constructed buildings.

From gallery of candidrum
Arabica track
On the right side of the board, you'll find the Arabica track, with a track for each cooperative. These are your standard euro tracks akin to what you find in Terra Mystica and Tzolk'in. There are a couple different ways to bump on these tracks during the game to gain benefits. The tracks are identical regardless of which cooperative, and they are structured so that there are advantages to focusing on a track or two and beating your opponents to the top, and alternatively, there are also benefits if you decide to diversify and work your way up all of the tracks.

On the left side of the board are coffee bars from around the world, where you can sell coffee during the contract phase. There's also an area for the three randomly0selected milestones, which you'll be racing your opponents to achieve. I find it very interesting how differently the game plays out depending on which milestones are in play.

At the beginning of the game, players place buildings, plantations, workers, and starting resources on their player boards. The player boards are awesome, and they help make set-up and the flow of the game a breeze. In addition, each player also randomly receives contracts for each letter A through E, which are placed on their player boards. Based on the number on the E contract tile, they also receive the corresponding F contract tile. Players use their F contract tile to determine which types of coffee they start with in their warehouse, in addition to where their three starting plantations should be placed in the various cooperatives. After everything is set up on the game board and all players have their player boards geared up, you begin the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Player board set-up for a game

Coffee Traders is played over three periods (rounds), and each period has six phases:
---• Phase 1 (Work) - Players perform actions on their coffee plantations.
---• Phase 2 (Workers) - Players send their workers to plantations.
---• Phase 3 (Trader & Contractor) - Players send traders to Antwerp and hire contractors to construct buildings.
---• Phase 4 (Harvest) - Players harvest coffee from plantations and deliver to fair trade posts and traders.
---• Phase 5 (Contract) - Players fulfill contracts and deliver coffee to coffee bars around the world.
---• Phase 6 (Refresh) - Players perform end of round clean-up.

One thing I appreciate about Coffee Traders is that each phase is spelled out on your player board with excellent iconography so you can progress through each game round simply following your player board from left to right. After you play the game once, or perhaps even after your first round if you're an iconography wizard, you barely have to refer to the rulebook. This is very impressive and incredibly handy for a heavier game with so much going on.

Phase 1: Work Phase

Each round begins with the Work phase where, in turn order, you either perform a cooperative action or pass. You have four different actions from which to choose, and any of the actions can be performed multiple times. You can add a plantation to a cooperative, send workers to plantations, breed a donkey, or get income. Each time you take an action, you track it by placing a wooden cube on your player board marking the corresponding action. Your company has three action cubes, but you also have a bonus supply that includes an additional action cube you may choose to use.

From gallery of candidrum
Left half of the player board
With the first action, you can add a plantation to any of the cooperatives by taking the leftmost plantation from any row on your player board and placing it on an open plantation space in the cooperative of your choice. On your player board you have level 1, 2, and 3 plantations that correlate to the quality of the coffee they'll produce, and essentially give you influence for end-game area-majority scoring.

When placing a plantation on the game board, there are a few things to consider. First, each cooperative has three rows with a varying number of spaces allotted for plantations. You can build level-1 plantations only on the first row, level-1 or -2 plantations on the middle row, and level-2 or -3 plantations on the highest row. In order to add a plantation to the middle (1/2) or highest (2/3) row, you need a connection to your existing plantation(s) in lower rows using donkeys and pathways, or you need to have a truck. You start the game with one donkey in your company supply, and additional donkeys are hard to get. Trucks are even harder to get, but they are powerful considering they can save you the effort of needing a donkey connection (three total donkeys!) to your initial plantation on the first row in order to place a plantation on the highest row.

Some plantations have a cost (coins) and/or bonus (donkeys, workers, civet cats, Arabica track advancements) associated with placing them which is noted on your player board. In addition, if you are placing a plantation in a cooperative where you currently have no plantations, you also need to add a worker from your worker pool into the cooperative's town center.

When you add a plantation to the middle (1/2) or highest (2/3) row, you also get to bump on the Arabica track for the corresponding cooperative. Plus, the first two players to add a plantation to the highest row also get an animal or wild animal token as a bonus. These tokens allow you to bump on the corresponding Arabica track and the tokens themselves are added to a track on the right side of your player board which can lead to VPs at the end of the game.

With the second action, you place workers from the town center of a cooperative of your choice onto one of each player's plantations. As a bonus, if you add a worker to at least one of your opponents' plantations from taking this action, you immediately advance one space on the corresponding Arabica track. There is a penalty in phase 2 if any of your plantations do not have a worker on them and you start the game with only two workers in your worker pool. Therefore, this action is something you'll likely do to help yourself out, but with the bonus Arabica track bump factored in when also helping your opponents, it makes it even more enticing. Sometimes you might even perform this action in a cooperative where you don't need a worker on any of your plantations to specifically bump on a particular track.

Breeding a donkey is the third, and most expensive, action you can choose. To breed a donkey, you have to spend two action cubes, instead of one like all the other actions, then you take a donkey from your personal supply (not your company supply) and immediately place it on an available pathway in a cooperative above one of your previously-placed plantations. Breeding a donkey is a very expensive action in a game where it feels like you never have enough actions or resources, but it can be essential at times considering donkeys are so important for getting more of your plantations out onto the game board, yet so difficult to get into your company supply.

The last action, income, is simple, yet also very often necessary. You have two options when it comes to gaining income: either place a civet cat from your personal supply in Sumatra on the game board, or take two coins from the general supply and place them in your company supply. Money is pretty tight in Coffee Traders, so it's always helpful to have extra coins on hand. Each of your civet cats in Sumatra will give you 1 Kopi Luwak (wild) coffee during the Harvest phase, which is very helpful when you fulfill contracts and deliver coffee to coffee bars in the Contract phase.

Once all players have passed, it's time to start phase 2.

Phase 2: Workers Phase

The Workers phase is usually pretty quick, and the goal is to make sure all of your plantations have a worker on them; otherwise you'll get hit with a penalty which increases each round.

First, all players may simultaneously place workers from their worker pool onto their own empty plantations in any cooperative. Then, in player order, players can optionally place workers on other players' plantations if all of their own plantations have a worker. If you do place a worker on another player's plantation you advance one step on the corresponding Arabica track as a bonus as mentioned in the Work phase above. I love that Coffee Traders incentivizes you to help your opponents with this bonus. It always seems to stir up interesting conversations around the table and can lead to some light, unofficial negotiations.

From gallery of candidrum
Indonesia cooperative with workers on each plantation

Each player starts the game with two workers in their worker pool and once they're gone, it can be rough since it's not easy to get more of them. So while there might be a rush to add a bunch of plantations, you have to make sure you have a way to get workers on them, either from your worker pool, by taking the "send works to harvest" action in the Work phase, or by making nice with your opponents and getting their help.

At the end of this phase, for each of your plantations without a worker, you have to pay any combination of one coin or one step backwards on the Arabica of your choice. The amount paid per plantation is equal to the current round number, e.g., in round 2, the penalty is two coins/steps backwards on Arabica track(s) per plantation without a worker.

Phase 3: Trader & Contractor Phase

In phase 3, in turn order, each player can perform one of three different trader/contractor actions on their turn or pass. Unlike most phases, if you pass, you can still choose to perform an action on a future turn during this phase. This phase will continue until all players have passed in succession.

Each cooperative has an Antwerp trading house section and as an action during this phase, you can pay two coins and place one of your traders on the first trader position in a cooperative of your choice that doesn't already have traders. You want to place traders into the Antwerp trading house so that your traders receive coffee in the Harvest phase.

From gallery of candidrum
Cooperative w/ two traders in Antwerp Trading House
and three constructed buildings
As the active player, after placing your trader, you get a stock counter, which generates coffee income in the Refresh phase and may even help you build a warehouse in the Harvest phase. Then all other players may choose to follow your trader action without paying for it. This happens in player order from the current active player. If a player decides to follow (piggyback) your trader action, they place one of their traders in the next available trader position. However, the number of trader positions is one less than the number of players, so not all players will actually be able to piggyback and place a trader. If all players but one end up piggybacking, the player who is not present in the trading house gets a coin as a consolation prize.

As an action in the Trader & Contractor phase, you can also pay two coins to hire a contractor to construct a building. On your player board, you have warehouses, various stations (washing, drying, and sorting), fair trade posts, and a hospital. Warehouses are built in the warehouse section of your player board, while the other types of buildings are constructed on the game board in a cooperative of your choice.

Each type of building has an associated icon that dictates which spaces it can be built on in each cooperative. When placing a building in a cooperative, you gain bonuses listed on your player board and some of the cooperative spaces also allow you to bump on the corresponding Arabica track. Similar to placing traders, this action can also be piggybacked, but not quite for free. The active player pays two coins and any players who choose to piggyback have to give the active player a coffee of their choice. In addition, they have to place their building in the same area as the active player. Although when the active player constructs a building in a cooperative, the piggybacking players can place whichever type of building they choose.

The last action available is to pay two coins and remove one trader permanently from the game for two Arabica track advancements. Other players cannot piggyback this particular action.

Players start the game with three traders (four in a three-player game), and it never feels like enough for what you want to do considering you have to use a trader for all three of the actions above in addition to every time you piggyback another player's action. You can't do everything, so you have to be strategic when choosing how and when to use your traders. Thankfully, you do have an extra trader available in your bonus supply that you may be able to leverage in this phase.

I also mentioned the bonus supply in phase 1 above, so let me give a bit more context on that. Each player starts the game with a bonus supply that includes one action cube, one trader, and three coins. Each round you may freely choose to use two of these three bonus items. As an example, you could use your extra action cube in phase 1 and then use your extra trader in phase 3, but then you cannot use the three coins. Alternatively, if you use your extra action cube and the three coins, you lose access to your extra trader. There is some flexibility here, though. In the last example, if you were able to put three coins back into your bonus supply from your company supply, you then would gain access to use your extra trader.

One caveat with using the three coins from your bonus supply is that they must be paid back to your bonus supply at the end of the round or you'll lose victory points, so while the action cube and trader are true bonuses with no strings attached, the three coins are more of a temporary loan. The bonus supply is always a huge help and having the flexibility of different options really helps open up an interesting decision space as you formulate your strategy each round.

Once all players have passed or run out of traders, it's time to harvest some coffee.

Phase 4: Harvest Phase

From gallery of candidrum
In the Harvest phase, the workers on all plantations harvest coffee and deliver it to fair trade posts and traders. Each plantation with a worker harvests two coffees for the corresponding cooperative, then the coffee gets distributed as follows: first to fair trade posts, then to the first trader, and the rest is divvied up to amongst the traders.

For example, when harvesting in the Colombia cooperative in the photo on the right, 14 coffees will be harvested since seven plantations each have a worker. There are no fair trade posts built and Green is the first trader in Antwerp, so Green would get one coffee for being the first trader, and there would be 13 coffees left to distribute to all the traders starting with Green. Green would get five total for being the first trader and the others would get three coffees from this harvest. Remember, in the previous phase you have to pay two coins to snag the first trader spot, while others were able to piggyback for free, so it's only fair that you get more coffee from the harvest.

The more you understand how the game works, the more strategic and deep phase 3 can get when you're trying to balance your available traders and your money, and gauge what your opponents might do in preparation for the Harvest phase. If you leave a cooperative open and run out traders to piggyback, you might let some of your opponents get a ton of coffee to themselves.

However, there is a five-coffee limit when distributing to the remaining traders, so in the example above, if Green was the only trader in the Colombia cooperative, they wouldn't walk away with 14 coffees; they would get only six total: one for the first trader bonus, then another five max because of the limit. It would still be a pretty beefy turn especially if they managed to score six coffees and none of their opponents got any from that particular cooperative.

When you gain coffee from harvesting, adjust the appropriate cube in your warehouse on your player board. You repeat this harvesting and distribution process at each of the cooperatives that has fair trade posts and/or traders in Antwerp; otherwise the harvested coffee is wasted. Then each player with at least four coffees in all five of their warehouses immediately receives a civet cat, which is placed in Sumatra. Finally, each player receives one Kopi Luwak (wild) coffee for each of their civet cats in Sumatra, then the cats are returned to each player's personal supply.

From gallery of candidrum

Now that you presumably have your warehouse stocked with coffee, it's time to deliver it, make some money, and gain additional benefits.

Phase 5: Contract Phase

In the Contract phase, players perform actions in reverse turn order to fulfill a contract or make a delivery to a coffee bar. In either case, you spend the matching type of coffee and receive some benefit(s). Alternatively, you can pass and move your turn order marker to the unoccupied space closest to the "1" space. This gives the last player in turn order a good chance of improving their turn order position for the next round.

From gallery of candidrum
Right half of the player board

When you fulfill a contract, spend the matching coffees and remove the contract from the game, taking the corresponding money and bonuses noted on your player board. You also get to take the top Arabica counter (if available) from the contract bonus area that matches the letter of the delivered contract which allows you to advance on the matching Arabica track. These tokens will also be added to the far right side of your player board for potential points at the end of the game.

From gallery of candidrum
Coffee bars
When you deliver to coffee bars, pick an open space, spend the matching coffee, then place one of your coffee bean scoring markers on the corresponding space. Then take the coin bonus listed on the space, and if you deliver to the final spot on each track, you also get to take the animal counter, which will give you a bump on the corresponding Arabica track.

When delivering to coffee bars, you can make a second delivery the same way. If you choose not to make a second delivery in the same turn, you must immediately pass and move your turn order marker.

Many of the spaces on the coffee bar tracks are also worth points. Plus, there's a mini area-control game happening in each column. At the end of the game, the player with the most coffee bean scoring markers on each track gains 4 VPS, and the player with the second-most gains 2 VPs. If your opponents are neglecting the coffee bars, it's a great opportunity for you to swoop in and stack up some points — but the bonuses you get from fulfilling contracts are especially juicy. For example, when you fulfill your contract E, you get four coins and you can get a free build action or a truck! That particular contract is also worth 9 points at the end of the game. Then if you complete both contracts in a given row, you also gain access to another bonus.

I'll also note that at any point during your turn, you can spend Kopi Luwak coffee as any type of coffee, you can trade any combination of coffee for one type of coffee using your current trade value (4:1, 3:1, or 2:1), or you can purchase coffee, so as you're earning money from fulfilling contracts and delivering to coffee bars, you can spend money and do trades to get what you need to hopefully get more contracts fulfilled and deliver more coffee to the coffee bars. Of course, if it's not round 3, you might want to hang on to some money for the next round.

Turn order is really important in Coffee Traders, so sometimes even if you do have more coffee and/or money on hand, it might be better to pass and get a better turn order position for the next round. Also, you have to consider timing when fulfilling contracts versus delivering to coffee bars. The coffee bar spaces can get filled up quickly, so sometimes it's better to prioritize them over fulfilling contracts.

It'll also depend on the milestones that you're playing with. One game I played, we had a milestone to make a deliver of value 2+ to all six coffee bars, so most players hit the coffee bars hard, racing to snag points for that milestone. On my most recent game, there was a milestone to deliver all six contracts, so most players prioritized contracts over coffee bar deliveries. It would be interesting to play a game with both those milestones in play at the same time and see how things pan out.

Phase 6: Refresh Phase

After all players have passed in the Contract phase, there are some end of the round clean-up steps you'll perform, mainly to prep for the next round, including returning your traders/contractors and action cubes to the appropriate areas on your player board, adjusting your coffee storage based on your available warehouses, receiving coffee for any stock counters you have, and refilling your bonus supply. Remember, if you took three coins from your bonus supply, you now have to return them from your company supply. For each coin you can't refill, you have to take a -3 VP token, then you'll take the coins from the general supply.

If it's not the third round, start the next round by circling back to the Work phase; otherwise, proceed with end game scoring.

End Game Scoring

From gallery of candidrum
Milestones
Coffee Traders includes a handy dandy score pad for tallying up VPs at the end of the game. First, you score for area majority in each of the five cooperatives. To do this, at one cooperative at a time, determine each player's total quality value based on plantations and buildings, then award 16/8/4 points for first/second/third highest quality value, respectively.

Then you score points for items (i.e., workers, donkeys, trucks) in your company supply, the topmost covered VP space on your counter track, points from the Arabica tracks, fulfilled milestones and contracts, coffee bar deliveries and majorities, and points for plantations and buildings constructed. The player with the most victory points wins.

As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to score points in Coffee Traders. While the area-majority scoring in the cooperatives initially feels like the main way to get points, it usually ends up making up less than half your total score from what I've seen so far. There are many directions you can go strategically to rack up points.

It's also worth noting that because of all the ways you can score points, it's hard to tell who's winning and where you stand point-wise in the midst of the game. It doesn't necessarily bother me, though. I think it just pushes to me focus more on simply trying to do the best I can each game. Plus, I find that the mystery makes it pretty exciting when you're tallying up points at the end of the game.

From gallery of candidrum

My first game of Coffee Traders was a bit bumpy since we were all new players. I think it was a result of it being a heavy game and also a game that feels different from other games I've played, but there are also a few unclear rules in the rulebook that caused confusion. There aren't a ton of videos available on the game yet, at least at the time I learned it. Thankfully, the BGG forums came to the rescue and clarified things.

After I had the first game under my belt, my future games went much, much smoother from a teaching perspective, and I also played much better from having more experience with the game. This is not meant to scare anyone off from trying Coffee Traders; it's meant solely to set your expectations.

That all being said, I thoroughly enjoyed all of my games of Coffee Traders! There are some really hooky elements such as getting rewarded for placing workers on your opponents' plantations and having the opportunity to save your money and piggyback on other players' actions. With the piggybacking, I found it important to pay attention to what other players were doing and keep a close eye on how many traders they have left to see if you can take an action that they won't be able to piggyback on. Or heck, maybe you want to construct a building in a desirable cooperative in hopes that most players will want to piggyback and they'll have to give you some coffee.

Coffee Traders often feels like a very challenging puzzle because you need to make sure you have the right resources at the right time; donkeys, money, and traders are always tight, so you have to plan and set yourself up for success. This is something that's hard to fully grasp until you play the game once, and then the more you play, the better you'll get at it.

I love the player interaction in Coffee Traders, and the fun conversations that stem from it. Especially in the first round, players need to take the "send workers to harvest" or they'll be penalized in the Workers phase and also harvest less coffee in the Harvest phase. It's nice that you get to bump on the Arabica track if you help your opponents, but you also have to spend a precious action cube to do it. Maybe it's better to wait and see if someone else takes care of it? Or if you do, make sure everyone knows so you can badger them for a favor later.

From gallery of candidrum
Each game also plays out a bit differently depending on how your opponents play and which milestones are out. You will constantly want to be the first player to do everything, which really keeps you engaged. Most often this happens with milestones, but it also happens with the Arabica tracks since there is a space on each track where only the first player there gets a bonus donkey, and only the first player to the top gets an extra 4 VPs. You will also want to get one of your plantations on the highest level in various cooperatives since there are bonus tokens, but not everyone can get one. There are so many things you'll feel like you're racing for, and I dig the pressure and tension it adds to the mix.

There are also some opportunities to be a bit mean, if that's your thing. With your plantations needing to be connected by donkeys, if positioned right, you can completely block your opponents out of a plantation row by placing your donkey on a pathway before them. This is even more incentive to get yourself a truck and leave the donkeys behind.

The Harvest and the Contract phases are both very satisfying. Whenever we were going through the process of figuring out how much coffee each cooperative generated, then distributing the coffee to players in the Harvest phase, it felt like we were winning a coffee lottery. Then in the Contract phase, you get to cash in on all the coffee you just stocked up and get money and a bunch of awesome bonuses. With the scarcity of the spaces on the coffee bars, the different bonuses you can unlock with contracts, and knowing when to pass for a better turn order position, the Contract phase is chock full of tough decisions.

Speaking of bonuses, with the Arabica tracks and all the various ways you can bump on them in addition to contract, building and plantation bonuses, you can set yourself up for some sweet combo opportunities. I feel like each game I played, I had an "Ooo, watch this!" moment by doing something that allowed me to bump on a track or something to receive some bonus that gave me the coin or trader or donkey that I needed to do something else.

All of my games were about 2.5-3 hours with four or five players. If I had to pick a favorite player count between those two, I'd say five simply because the board gets tighter resulting in more tension. My four-player games were great, too. I haven't had a chance to play it with two or three players, so I can't comment on those player counts, but the included two-player variant sounds interesting as it adds André the bot as a third AI opponent. The additional rules for playing with André the bot are minimal, too, which is always nice, so you don't need to constantly have your head in the rulebook.

Beyond its unique theme and cute donkeys, Coffee Traders is a big, beautiful beast that has a lot of interesting things going on that makes it feels different. If you're a fan of heavier games with player interaction, you might want to give this one a whirl.
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Tue Jun 1, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Merchants of Dunhuang, or Picking Up Goods for Now or Later

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Merchants of Dunhuang
I normally post a written overview of a game to accompany my video overview, but this isn't always the case for one reason or another.

Such was the case with Merchants of Dunhuang, a card game for 2-4 players from Gabriele Bubola and Mandoo Games for which I had posted a video overview in December 2020. With the game now available for purchase through the BGG Store, I thought I'd revisit that video and write a bit about the game.

The hook for Merchants of Dunhuang is that you can try to win the game instantly or you can shoot for having more points than each other player — but those goals are somewhat contradictory, and going all-in for one of them might make it more likely that someone else will win by going the opposite direction.

In more detail, the game uses a "pyramid" deck, with one 1, two 2s, and so on up to ten 10s, with the deck being modified based on the player count. During the game, you'll have cards in your hand and cards on the table in front of you; in general, if you have the most visible cards of a number, then you'll have the majority token for that number. If you ever have four majority tokens (or five in a two-player game) and four different numbers in your hand, then you win instantly.

If the deck runs out before someone pulls off an instant win, then you score 2 points per majority token, 1 point per gem (a secondary currency of sorts), and (possibly) points for the cards in your hand, specifically the face-value of a number if you have at least as many of that number or more in your hand as each other player.

Thus, if you want to score, say, 9 or 10 points for having a majority, then you'll want to collect several of those cards — but doing so means that you're not diversifying your hand, which means you can't win instantly.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

You start with only one card in hand, removing two others from the game, which gives you some information to run on when you're considering what it might take to win a majority. On a turn, you move the camel clockwise around the board to the character you want (paying for each space beyond the first), place the card next to that character either in your hand or in your public holdings, then carry out the action for that character (or collect three coins).

I've played Merchants of Dunhuang seven times on a review copy from Mandoo Games, and sometimes money is tight and you can barely move anywhere and sometimes you can pretty much afford whichever card/action combo you want. Sometimes you really want a card but don't care for the action; and sometimes you need the action but don't care for the card; and sometimes the card/action combo is ideal, but you lack the funds to reach that spot — or you have exactly enough, which means your right-hand neighbor will dictate what you can do on future turns since you'll be able to move only a single space.

Frustration compounds turn after turn because you always feel that your sand castle is being eroded by the actions of others, with a majority being lost here and a card you desired there — yet you can also have perfect turns that spin everything in your favor. A lot happens in the 20-30 minute playing time!

The game requires you to pay attention to everyone and react to what they're doing, picking off a majority if they're going for the instant win or using a character's action to forcibly swap cards with an opponent. Your first play will likely seem somewhat random because you'll be focused more on what you're doing than on what's happening at the entire table, but once you get more familiar with the flow of the game and the varied use of the characters — each of which is double-sided, with their order and specific powers greatly changing the feel of each playing — you can try to tilt everything in your favor bit by bit, whichever way you're trying to win.

For more on how the game plays and the specific powers of the characters, check out this overview video:

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Fri May 28, 2021 1:00 pm
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Fight for Prestigious Buildings and Landmarks in Paris

Candice Harris
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Board Game: Paris
In 2020, Belgian-based publisher Game Brewer released Paris, a medium-weight eurogame from the famous design duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling in which 2-4 players take on the role of wealthy real estate investors tasked with purchasing and developing some of the most prestigious and iconic buildings and landmarks in late 19th century Paris.

If you haven't checked out Paris — or if you have and are looking for more — you'll be excited to hear that Game Brewer is releasing Paris: l'Étoile, a new expansion that adds even more variety into the mix. A deluxe version of Paris: l'Étoile was launched on Kickstarter (KS link) in late May 2021. The deluxe edition of the base game is also available in this Kickstarter and is required to play the deluxe edition of the Paris: l'Étoile expansion. After delivery to backers in December 2021, a retail version of Paris: l'Étoile will also be available.

I recently got a chance to play Paris and the new l'Étoile expansion with a prototype review copy provided by the publisher, so I can share some insight on what you can expect.

Off the bat, Paris has an stunning table presence when it's all set up. I dare you to walk by the game and not be curious to know what it's all about if you've never played it before. Paris features a circular game board that is assembled from multiple smaller boards, starting in the center with the 3D Arc de Triomphe, moving outwards to the six surrounding districts, and then to the outer edges with the bonus tile and victory point tracks.

From gallery of candidrum

Each player also receives a 3D player screen to keep their money, keys, and resources hidden from other players, something that is functional for gameplay, but also adds to the visual appeal of Paris.

Paris is played over a variable number of rounds in which players take turns in clockwise order performing two game steps until the end of the game is triggered. The goal of the game is to score the most points, which you primarily earn from bonus tiles and through area-majority scoring of the districts surrounding the Arc de Triomphe...that is, if they end up with a victory point scoring tile.

From gallery of candidrum
Mid-game behind my player screen

On your turn, first you place an available building on the game board, then you perform an action. A turn is deceptively simple when you frame it this way, but with this simplicity comes a great deal of depth from the strategic decisions with which you are faced.

You start each turn by drawing the top building tile from one of the three draw piles and placing it on the corresponding building space on the board. If no more buildings are available when you start your turn, skip this step.

Each building tile has a district name on its back, and on the front, a building value and an icon to indicate the type of building. In addition, some buildings have a benefit, and some have an extra cost.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of building tiles

When you are choosing a building to place, you can see which district it will be placed in, but you don't know its value or any other details until you choose a tile and reveal it. Your odds of knowing the value of the buildings gradually increase as the game progresses and the board fills up since each district has six available spaces for buildings with values 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8.

When you're thinking about which building tile to choose, early in the game you might lean toward the one that has the bank that gives the most francs when you place a key on it, but as the game progresses, you'll likely be targeting specific areas — and considering that you have only three piles from which to choose with at most three different district options, this part of your turn is typically pretty quick.

Each of the six districts has six available spaces for buildings, so there are 36 total building tiles. However, at the beginning of the game you shuffle all 36 tiles, then randomly remove three from the game without looking at them, so you start the game with three piles of 11 buildings and you won't know which buildings are out. This tidbit of hidden information from the players creates a subtle, yet interesting element of unpredictability to the game.

After you choose a building tile, reveal it and place it in the corresponding space on the game board based on its district and value, then perform one of the following actions:

1) Place a key on a bank or on the Arc de Triomphe
2) Move a key to purchase a building
3) Take an end game tile (which is allowed only when no more building tiles are available)

Players start the game with 7-10 keys depending on player count. Your first action option is to take one of your keys from behind your player screen and place it on a bank in one of the six districts or on the Arc de Triomphe. If you place your key on one of the banks, you gain 2-7 francs from the general supply depending on the district. This is the main way to earn money in the game, and you also need keys out on the board to start buying real estate...which leads me to the next action option.

Once you have a key on a bank or the Arc de Triomphe, you can move a key from one of those locations to an unoccupied building or landmark and pay the applicable costs to become its owner.

From gallery of candidrum
A late-game example of a district with keys on the bank, buildings, and landmarks
If you move a key from a bank, you can move it only to an unoccupied building or landmark within the same district. However, if you move a key from the Arc de Triomphe, you can move it to an unoccupied building or landmark in any of the six districts, so while you don't gain any money placing a key on the Arc de Triomphe, it gives you a lot more flexibility later when moving a key to purchase buildings and landmarks.

Buildings and landmarks have a base cost (in francs) equal to their value, and the higher-end real estate also requires you to pay additional resources. For example, you have to spend 3 francs to move a key from a district bank to a level-3 building, and you have to spend 8 francs and a wood resource to move a key from a district bank to a level-8 building. All of the landmarks have additional resource costs, so you need to gain some gold and marble before you can think of purchasing a landmark.

With the "move a key" action, you can also move keys from a building/landmark to an unoccupied higher-value building/landmark in the same district by paying the difference in cost, e.g., moving from a value-2 building to a value-5 building costs 3 francs.

As soon as a district has a total of four keys on buildings and landmarks (not the bank), the active player may immediately place one of the available victory point (VP) tiles on an open VP-tile space in a district of their choice. These tiles offer bonus points at the end of the game to the players who occupy buildings and landmarks with the highest value in the corresponding district. This means each district can score differently each game — and in some cases it won't score at all.

From gallery of candidrum
VP tiles

After moving your key to a building or landmark and paying its costs, you can also receive a variety of benefits. You can gain valuable resource (wood, marble, and gold) and prestige tokens if you're the first owner of a building.

During set-up, each building location is seeded with a resource or prestige token that's all yours to stash behind your screen and spend at your leisure if you're the first one to move a key to purchase a building space. Resources can be bought and sold at any time, and prestige tokens can be sold at any time, based on the values noted on the player screens.

From gallery of candidrum
Resource and prestige tokens on building spaces that haven't been purchased or without a building tile

When you purchase a value-8 building, you immediately gain 2 VPs.

When you purchase a landmark, you can spend up to three prestige tokens shown on the tile to receive the corresponding amount of victory points.

From gallery of candidrum
Examples of landmark tiles

...and even more exciting, when you purchase a value-1 or value-2 building you can take a bonus tile for free by moving your bonus meeple forward on the bonus tile track. You can do the same when you purchase a value-3 building as long as you pay 2 francs first.

The inner track on the perimeter of the board is filled with juicy bonus tiles at the beginning of the game. When you earn a bonus tile, move your bonus meeple forward as many spaces as you'd like on the bonus track onto an available bonus tile, then take the tile and place it behind your player screen. You can move your bonus meeple only forward, so once you pass something, you won't be able to claim it later in the game.

The bonus tile track incentivizes players to purchase lower-value buildings, and when you get the opportunity to gain one, it's always a tough decision since you can move only forward on the track. On the one hand, you want to beat your opponents to get certain bonus tiles, but on the other hand, if you jump too far ahead, you are going to miss lots of other great tiles and leave them behind for your opponents. Once you gain a bonus tile, you can activate it immediately or later in the game at any moment during your turn to gain its advantage.

The bonus tiles are tiered in groups A through C, from weakest to strongest respectively, but they're really all good. In the regular rules, they are placed in numeric order around the bonus tile track, but I prefer the variant in which you shuffle the tiles for each group separately, then randomly place them in the corresponding zones on the bonus tile track, starting with A, then B, then C. Here are some examples of bonus tiles to give you an idea of what's up for grabs on the bonus tile track:

"A" Bonus Tiles
From gallery of candidrum

#2 - Gain wood
#5 - Gain 4 francs
#9 - Move one of your keys to a building or landmark that already has one of your keys


"B" Bonus Tiles
From gallery of candidrum

#14 - Pay 1 franc to receive 1 extra key from the reserve
#15 - Receive 4 VP for each value-3 building you occupy when you use this bonus tile
#19 - Use this as two prestige tokens of your choice


"C" Bonus Tiles
From gallery of candidrum

#25 - Move your bonus meeple up to five tiles back on the bonus track and take the bonus tile present there (This is the only way to move backwards on the bonus tile track!)
#27 - Receive 1 VP for each franc you own at the end of the game
#29 - Receive 8 VP for each landmark you occupy when you use this bonus tile


From gallery of candidrum
Endgame tiles
When the building tile draw piles have been depleted, instead of placing or moving a key, you can take the endgame tile of your choice as an action. Similar to bonus tiles, you can activate an endgame tile immediately or later in the game at any moment during one of your turns.

The endgame tiles aren't nearly as enticing as the bonus tiles, but you'll likely need them later in the game when you are low on resources or money.

When a player takes the last endgame tile, the end of the game is triggered. You finish the current round so that all players have an equal number of turns, after which all players play one final round, then proceed to endgame scoring.

Bonus tile #27 is scored at the end of the game if anyone claimed it, then all districts that have a VP tile are scored. For each district, players add up the value of all of their buildings and landmarks with their key(s) on it, then players with the highest, second highest, and third highest total value receive VPs based on the VP tile. After all districts with a VP tile are scored, the player with the most points wins.

Board Game: Paris: l'Étoile
Paris: l'Étoile Expansion

Paris already has a lot of variability, especially when you play with the variants to randomly place bonus tiles and resource/prestige tokens on the game board. The Paris: l'Étoile expansion manages to crank this variability up to 11 thanks to eleven new bonus tiles that are shuffled in with the base game tiles, then randomly distributed in the corresponding zones (A/B/C).

More variety is typically welcomed to keep games fresh and interesting, but perhaps even more exciting than new bonus tiles are the strategy tiles Kramer and Kiesling have added in the l'Étoile expansion. Strategy tiles give players unique powers that can be swapped out throughout the game. They add a whole new, interesting dimension to the gameplay of Paris.

At the beginning of the game, you randomly deal each player a starting strategy tile, then place the remaining starting strategy tiles and the seven other strategy tiles face up near the game board as an available display.

Each strategy tile grants its owner an ongoing effect that can be used during a player's turn until it's swapped with a strategy tile in the display. Every time you place a key on the Arc de Triomphe, you may swap your strategy tile with another available strategy tile, then your previously used strategy tile becomes available for all players. Similar to bonus tiles, strategy tiles come in a variety of flavors. Here are a few examples:

From gallery of candidrum

From left to right:
• You can secretly look at the top tile of each building tile pile before choosing one
• You're allowed to place multiple of your keys on the same bank or the Arc de Triomphe
• If you place a key on a value-4 building, you can gain a bonus tile

From gallery of candidrum

From left to right:
• You can place a key on a building owned by an opponent
• Gain 2 additional francs each time you place a key on a bank
• Each time any player pays 2 francs for a bonus tile on a 3-value building, you receive those 2 francs

As you can see from the strategy tiles above, these are some really juicy abilities. They all feel very strong, and the kicker is that the expansion includes six others to be explored as well. In my games of Paris with the l'Étoile expansion, it's not uncommon for some players to stick with their starting strategy tile the entire game because they tailored their entire strategy around it, whereas other players would leverage the the Arc de Triomphe more to swap out their strategy tile a couple of times throughout the game. Regardless, twelve different options for unique abilities is great and probably won't get stale for a while...especially combined with the eleven new bonus tiles the expansion also adds.

I have enjoyed my plays of Paris, and I dig what the l'Étoile expansion adds to the mix, especially the strategy tiles. Unique player powers add a new layer to the gameplay, and they can also help give players something to focus on.

From gallery of candidrum
My second game when I snagged the Eiffel Tower landmark!
With or without the expansion, I'm a big fan of the player interaction in Paris. It seems like you're constantly racing to beat your opponents to higher-value buildings, landmarks, and bonus tiles, which feels engaging and sometimes a tad frustrating at the same time.

One thing I didn't mention yet is that when you decide to buy a landmark, either you place your key on one that is already on the game board, or you can first add an available landmark from the general supply to the district that your key is in. The landmark tiles range in value from 9 to 16, and when you place new landmarks, they have to be placed in sequential order, which means that if someone decides to place the value-16 Eiffel Tower landmark as the first landmark in a district, no other landmarks can be added there since all the other landmarks have a lower value. Whoever does this is likely to have the most influence in that district and they box people out since you can't place any other landmarks. It's also just an awesome landmark because if you spend gold prestige tokens when you purchase it, you can gain up to 15 VPs!

The Eiffel Tower burned me on my first game (I'm only slightly bitter...still), but I learned and made sure I was the one to claim it in game #2. My opponents were feeling just as salty as I felt the first game, and I couldn't have been more thrilled. Of course, I lost the game, but I still felt good about that one play. I love that Paris can have these cutthroat moments.

While the area majority struggle brews, you will also have this urge to set yourself up to place the fourth key in as many districts as you can so that you can control where the VP scoring tiles are placed. You are constantly struggle to be first at all the things. There's surprisingly a lot going on for a game that also feels so simple, with you placing a building, then performing an action.

From gallery of candidrum

Paris certainly isn't the most thematic-feeling game, but with its attractive table presence, it does capture the spirit and beauty of Paris well, and it manages to be great at what it is — a solid area majority-driven euro with simple mechanisms and a ton of depth. Paired with the l'Étoile expansion, it gets spicier and adds so much variety that I'm sure no two games will ever play out the same.
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Wed May 26, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Mandala Stones, or Going in Circles, Yet Staying in Place

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Mandala Stones
Filip Głowacz's Mandala Stones from Board&Dice is a 2-4 player game that follows a familiar two-step model: Players pick up stuff in one manner, then score said stuff in a different manner. The conflict between those two manners complicates your efforts to maximize your score, and you need to resolve that conflict better than anyone else in order to win.

That definition could also serve as a short take on competitive games in general: Resolve artificially-defined conflicts better than others to win. Whee, fun!

Let's look at those two manners in a bit more detail:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

1. Pick up stuff: In the image above, you'll notice four black cylinders, which the game calls "artists". On a turn, you move any artist to any open circle on this shared game board, then collect all of the matching stones adjacent to the just-moved artist that aren't also adjacent to another artist, then you place that stack of stones on an empty space on your player board.

2. Score stuff: Instead of picking up stones, you can score stones from your player board. You can score the top stone from as many stacks as you wish for 1 point each (which is a terrible option but sometimes necessary), or you can choose a color, then score all the stones of that color, with the points for each such stone ranging from 1-6 depending on where the stone is located.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In the image above, for example, I could score the two yellow stones, earning 2 points for the stone on the left because I have stacks of two different heights on my board and 4 points for the stone on the right because it's the third stone from the bottom — and 6 points for two stones is far better than 5 points for five stones.

Alternatively, I could score the two purple stones, earning 2 points for the left one and 3 points for the right one because I have stones of two different colors in it. Doing that would open a yellow stone on the far right stack, so I could then score yellow stones and receive 8 points (instead of 6), and I'd open up a location for me to place stones again following a pick action.

Collectively we place scored stones on a path that occasionally has spaces that grant an additional 1 or 2 points, and when we reach a certain distance on the path based on the player count, we finish the round, then see whether we score one of our two starting bonus cards. Whoever then has the most points wins.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Brownie not included

Everything sounds straightforward — and it is, for the most part — but over eight games played on a review copy from Board&Dice at all player counts, we kept having situations like the one above in which someone would place an artist, pick stones, then four stones of the same type would be revealed. (The image above actually has two such locations: middle left and middle right.)

When that would happen, no one would want to move the artist from that spot since you'd typically pick up only 1-2 stones while leaving behind a spot that would give the next player 3-4 stones. Yes, in the example above you could move the artist on the left down one spot, which would then place two artists adjacent to the golden open spot — but if you're not aiming to score yellow or blue in the future, then you wouldn't make that initial move and the logjam would continue.

Here's how one of our four-player games ended, for example:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

One-third of the board was pretty much untouched because none of us wanted to give a sweet stack to the next player, which meant that we almost never had stacks four-high, which meant that the scoring was much flatter than first appearances suggested since we never had more than three colors in the rightmost stack and almost never scored 6 points for a single stone.

I discuss this issue and others — such as the uneven pace of the game, the problem with picking up stones, and the seeming arbitrariness of the bonus cards — in this overview video:

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Mon May 24, 2021 4:07 pm
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Game Overview: Faiyum, or Trying to Please Pharaoh One Action at a Time

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Faiyum
Friedemann Friese's Faiyum — self-published through his own 2F-Spiele in late 2020 — is a tough game to describe if I'm trying to convey the details of exactly what you can do on a turn, so let's step back and take a broader look at the game.

The setting is ancient Egypt, and you are an advisor during the reign of Amenemhet III. You can order certain things to happen — Farm here! Establishment a settlement there! — and if you have the raw materials and funds in hand required for such actions, then those things will happen and as a result you'll gain raw materials, funds, or (most important of all) reputation in the eyes of Pharaoh.

The cards in your hand represent the actions available to you, and everyone starts with the same selection of actions and a bit of money. On a turn, you can (a) play one of those cards, (b) gain access to a new action by buying a card in the marketplace, or (c) carry out administration, which might earn you funds while returning your most recently played cards to your hand.

This last sentence is the crux of the game, the hook that drives much of what you do: You want to play all the cards from your hand before you undergo administration because you'll earn more money when you do — but you recover only the three most recently played cards for free. If you want more cards, you need to pay $1 for each additional card, drawing them from the top of your personal discard pile, or else administrate again on your next turn (even though you'll earn no income since your hand will have too many cards in it).

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Try as you might, you might never get rid of all the crocodiles

So maybe you don't want to play all your cards before you administrate, but if you don't, then you're likely to have little cash on hand, which will make it tougher to acquire new cards and gain new actions.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is something I'm still figuring out.

I've played Faiyum three times on a review copy from BGG — as BGG is serving as the U.S. distributor of the game due to a lack of licensing partners for 2F-Spiele in 2020 — with me losing the game once each with two, three, and four players. My instinct is to purchase more cards and have more options for what to do, but that's probably not the right approach given my 0-3 record.

Instead what you want to do is acquire just enough new actions that work synergistically so that you can cycle through those cards repeatedly — play, then pick up, play, then pick up — with you hammering away at whatever system is working for you until someone else figures out how to make it stop working or something better comes along or you're forced to stop due to a lack of materials. (Workshops, settlements, roads, towns, and other material placed on the board is limited, so you cannot take the same actions forever.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Endstate in my 2p game; note that my white token should be on 100, not 50, as I didn't lose that badly!

The first few times you play, you'll have no clue as to what's in the deck and what you might want to plan for. The next few times, you'll know what's in the deck, but you'll still have a hard time planning because the card market in Faiyum works similar to the one in Friese's Power Grid, with only the four lowest-numbered visible cards being available for purchase. The other four cards show you what might be coming onto the market for purchase, but when a removed card is replaced, something numbered even lower might come out, stranding those other cards in an off-limits zone.

Maybe not, though. Maybe a high-numbered, high-powered card does make it onto the market, and you happen to have enough money to buy it. Is that a good idea? The answer is almost always: It depends.

As I mentioned, everyone starts with the same set of cards, and everything that you place on the game board belongs to Pharaoh, not to you, so you can't lock off certain areas of play for yourself. If you build a settlement, everyone has the chance to send a supplier or marketer to that settlement to gain raw materials. Everyone has the chance to further develop that settlement into a town — assuming that they acquire one of the two cards that allows that action and that they have the resources to make it happen. (In one of my games, the two town cards were discarded from the market, so the higher-numbered cards that relied on towns were worthless. Will this ever happen in one of my games again? No clue — and that variety is a plus in my eyes.)

You can't go into Faiyum planning to be the town-builder, for example, because someone else might buy those cards first. You have to constantly adapt to the changing state of the board, the card market, your resources, and your money to figure out what you can do in the next few turns to maximize what you have — but if something better comes along, you have to be prepared to grab it. Or possibly ignore it. Maybe it's not better, after all.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and count the reputation points earned

Another tricky part about Faiyum is that near the end of the game you need to anticipate the arrival of four disaster cards from a second, smaller deck that you dip into once the main deck runs out. Once the fourth disaster arrives, you can no longer take the administration action, which means that you can use only the cards already in hand and whatever you buy — and if you have not planned for this phase of the game, you will have little to do, gain few reputation points compared to others, and find yourself cursing the time you spent until that point.

In some ways Faiyum is a swimming endurance race that suddenly transforms into a free-diving event, and you need to swell your lungs at the right time or else finish with only two-thirds of the reputation that you could have had. The rules warn you about this situation, and I'm doing so here, but you can still easily miss out should you not be paying attention or the disaster cards flip out more quickly than you had anticipated — and even though it's your own fault for missing out, I would at the same time understand your frustration.

In the video below, I discuss the game in more detail, giving examples of just a few of the dozens of different cards, and make extended analogies of how similar Faiyum is to Carl Chudyk's Innovation — no, really!

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Tue May 18, 2021 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Furnace, or Burning the Midgame Oil

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Furnace
Ivan Lashin's Furnace is a straightforward game: Acquire cards that allow you to gain coal, iron, and oil, then process them from one material into another or (ideally) from the raw material into money. Build up an extracting and processing engine over four rounds, then see who has the most money.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Lots of iron with no way to use it...

The information on the cards is straightforward, with you "reading" them from top to bottom, left to right. In the image above, acquire an upgrade token, optionally sell oil for 4 money, optionally spend an upgrade token and coal to upgrade (i.e., flip over) a card in play, optionally sell two coal for 2 money up to two times, acquire two iron, etc.

How do you gain these cards? The first half of each round is an auction in which players take turns placing one of their four bidding tokens — conveniently numbered 1-4 — on one of the available cards, with you being able to bid on a card at most once and with players being unable to place the same number on a card as someone else.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Shadows obscure the black 2 and 4 tokens on cards 3 and 7

If you place the highest number on a card, you acquire it and can use it once during each of the subsequent production phases; if you bid on a card but didn't acquire it, you use the compensation effect at the top of the card as many times as you bid, so (reading from the top line, left to right) the red player receives one iron, the yellow player two coal, the black player two coal, and finally the red player can convert iron to oil twice while the yellow player can do that up to three times. Cards are placed in order for the auction, so the red player can use the iron acquired on card #2 for the processing on card #7.

The auction in Furnace is brilliantly minimalistic, with each bid mattering and with you having advantages no matter your position in turn order. You can lock in a card as yours by placing your 4 on it — but then the next player knows they can place their 3 on it to get the compensation three times, and late in the game compensation (usually) trumps acquisition since you'll produce with that card only once. That said, if you don't place the 4, someone else might grab the card, which could be the only oil-processing card available that round, so maybe you have to give to get...

You're checking out each person's engine and resources on hand to guess what they want and how they're going to bid and how you can take advantage of that — assuming they do what you'd do if you were them. Sometimes the cards on display force you in a particular direction; if only one processing power for money turns up, then you need to pump out the raw materials to prepare for the next round, ideally shifting up the raw material scale to oil, which returns the most money per unit.

Notice in the image above that the bottom line on each card is grayed out. When cards are placed in auction, you have the compensation effect listed at the top and the basic effect immediately below the image. The greyed-out line shows what you'll get if you upgrade the card, and the image at top shows upgraded cards.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The end state of a two-player game

Your goal in Furnace is money, so don't think you win by acquiring cards, which is evident in the image above as my opponent added only five cards to his production chain compared to my eleven and his score was one-third larger than mine. (With two players, you use a die to simulate the bids of a dummy third player — a system that works far better than I thought it would. I have an extra 2 bidding token thanks to my unique capitalist power, whereas my opponent can spend coal to produce twice with one of his cards.)

Furnace is all about efficiency, with you not wanting to leave any resources behind where they will count for nothing more than a tie-breaker — and in the second half of each round, you can re-arrange your cards as you wish to co-ordinate the inputs and maximize the outputs. As such, this production phase is the mirror image of the auction phase: no interaction, just head's down calculation to see which arrangement of cards produces the best results. Note in the image above how we've arranged the raw materials above each card to figure out exactly what goes where. You might even forget that others are at the same table...

For more on the capitalist powers, the two-player variant, the dichotomy between the two halves of a round, and the variant that somewhat lessens that dichotomy, check out my video overview of Furnace, which has been released in Russia by original publisher Hobby World and which has been licensed by multiple publishers around the world, with a U.S. release from Arcane Wonders coming in Q2/Q3 2021.

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Mon May 10, 2021 4:53 pm
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