Mr. Carcassonne: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
Klaus-Jürgen Wrede became a household name in the world of modern gaming courtesy of the phenomenal success of his game Carcassonne. Not all the expansion offspring spawned by this mega-hit have quite matched the high standard of their parent, but their sheer variety and large numbers have helped cement and prove the reputation of the original game as a modern boardgaming classic.
But can you think of any other games that Mr Wrede has produced outside of the Carcassonne series? Experienced gamers might come up with the titles of The Downfall of Pompeii (currently ranked #245), and perhaps Mesopotamia (currently ranked #889). But the reality is that Wrede isn't widely known for his designs outside of his specialty in the tile-laying of medieval French cities.
Yet he has produced a number of interesting titles, one of them being Albion, which is the subject of my latest review. I'm somewhat surprised that this game hasn't attracted more attention, given that it's by the designer of Carcassonne, and yet to date here on BGG it has not even received 100 comments! This article serves as a short introduction to the game; consult my pictorial review for the whole nine yards.
Catan-like colonization: Albion (2009)
Albion first appeared at Essen 2009, and at first glance seems to be like so many other euro games - it takes about 60-90 minutes to play, is suitable for 2-4 players ages 12 and up, and features the usual box-load of tokens and player pawns. But there are several things that set it apart, because unlike many euro games there's not the sniff of a cube or the sniff of a victory point. In fact, it's a colonization type of game, where the aim is to be the first player to complete the building of three complete settlements on a map of Albion, the name used to denote England before the Roman invasion.
The theme is quite a good one, and features players serving as envoys of the Roman emperor, in a race to conquer the land, collect resources, develop buildings, and most importantly produce the best settlements. To accomplish this, you'll compete with other players to use resources like wood, fish, stone, and gold (beautifully denoted with tokens shaped to represent these respective items) to construct various buildings on the map. You'll need to move your settlers and soldiers carefully around the various regions on the board, building resource plants (to produce more resources), fortifications (to help with your movement), ramparts (to help with your defence), in the quest to be the first to complete all four stages of three different settlements. In doing so, you'll have to beware of the native Picts, who will at times prove hostile to your building efforts. There's no trading, but from the description just given you'd almost think it sounds like "The Settlers of Albion", and Wrede's take on the classic gateway Catan!
The game has been the subject of some criticism on account of concerns about its replayability, theme, and interaction. More often than not these tend to be overstated, although there is some substance to the concern that the game could become scripted as players figure out the optimal way of ordering their developments from game to game, something which isn't helped by the fact that there are only minimal random elements which would normally help keep a game fresh. Yet it's not entirely fair to state that the game isn't replayable, because there's a significant amount of subtle interaction that keeps each game from being the same. Players will need to compete fiercely to be the most advanced builder in a region to get the benefit of tribute payments from their opponents, and how this competition plays out will change things up from game to game.
While a potential lack of replayability might be the game's biggest weakness, it also has a lot of strengths. In many respects Albion meets the classic criteria to serve as a gateway game: it's got enough theme to make it interesting, a relatively straight-forward rule-set, decent components, and a good amount of decision making, all packed into a 60-90 minute time-frame. It's not an outstanding game, and perhaps that's why we haven't heard more about it - the reality is that it suffers the misfortune of appearing in a very crowded market that already has many superlative games all begging for attention, so its cries to be played can quickly become drowned out by louder voices. But it does have enough elements to make it feel somewhat different from most euros in a competitive field.
As long as you're aware that it has a potentially shorter shelf life than other games, Albion still worth bringing to the table for a number of plays, especially if you like games that are about colonizing or building up your own miniature civilization composed of different buildings by using resources and settlers wisely. If you can pick it up cheaply, you might want to consider taking a look at this somewhat unnoticed game from Mr Carcassonne. Albion is never going to match the height of success achieved by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's Carcassonne, because it doesn't really have enough legs to compete with the very best. But it's still good enough to offer both gamers and non-gamers more than just a couple of sessions of enjoyment. And let's be honest, isn't that more than what some of the more outlandish Carcassonne expansions deserve?
Want to know more? See my full review: Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A colonization type game from the guy who designed Carcassonne
Join the discussion: Have you tried any of Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's games outside of Carcassonne? Is he just a one-shot wonder as a designer?