I've played Ostia twice now, hoping desperately to like it, to uncover some deeper strategy or decision making.
I was hoping I'd like secretly dividing your hand into trade/keep, and then secret assignment of cards to sell or influence. But in practice, it doesn't really seem to matter. The neatest element -- the ship/store card which is placed in your hand to designate which cards are going to be auctioned and which stored in your warehouse -- is completely unnecessary. And the bluff cards are almost unnecessary, as well.
I like the concept, I like the components, but the execution does feel quite dry and listless. Ostia feels average all around, which is a shame, as with some minor tweaks I feel this could be a very engaging, interesting game -- you just need to add more important decisions.
Here are some ideas that came up after my most recent playing:
1) IMPROVED SHIPPING/AUCTIONS:
When dealt your five cards at the beginning of the round, you don't immediately choose which card to put into storage. Instead, during your turn to auction, you select two cards from your hand. The card left over after both rounds of auctions is the card you keep for storage.
This adds a lot of flexibility and more opportunities to react to what the other players are doing. As it stands now, you're locked in early to what you're going to be auctioning, and have no way to adapt to the auctions of the other players, exaggerating the luck of the draw in the initial deal.
2) SECRET SENATE BACKING:
Secretly deal 2 cards face down next to the Senate to show influence by outside forces (like the extra cards dealt to see what goods are being sold in the Forum). When revealing donations to the Senate, the phantom cards earn prestige and vie for VPs just like the players. If the phantom cards have a value of 8, and the next highest value is 6, then none of the players earn 3 VP - those would go to the phantom hand.
This adds an element of unknown, and makes people think a bit more about what and how many cards they're willing to contribute to the Senate.
3) SET COLLECTION ELEMENT:
Building/grooming your hand has far less impact than you might first thing. To combat this, one of the players had the idea of adding a set collection element to the Senate. If your donation to the Senate is a 3 of a Kind (3 cards of the same suit) or 1 each of the top 3 card types (let's call it a "Series" so if Blue, Red and Yellow are the top cards, having 1 each of those) is worth 3 extra Prestige - the points used to determine who receives the VPs. In addition, any tie for position would be broken by a player providing 3-of-a-Kind or a Series over a player providing non-set cards.
This adds a bit more strategy and planning to your holdover cards, as well as what cards to assign.
Jake Di Toro
Hmmmm... not the only one, eh?
I sat down to play this for the first time tonight. I only got through 2 rounds, but I felt much the same as you did. Though other players seemed to be enjoying thierselves. I called it off on account of the hour, but I feel that this reaction had a lot to do with that decision for me.
I'll play it through at a later time, and I'll keep these things in mind as variants.
I got to play the game with one of the original playtesters... it sounds like you are playing the game wrong.
The harbour phase of the game is played with open hands... it becomes a perfect information game until your offers are made (the only thing you can keep secret is your money). You know, because of the ship card, exactly what each player will be offering to sell and what they are planning to keep. This makes the selection of offers that much more important... do you take the money from the leader and give him cards that will help his hand, or take less money from another player knowing that he can't use the cards this turn but might hang onto them for a round and burn you next time. Lots of choices!
Once the harbour phase is over the office phase begins. All cards are picked up, bluff cards are added, then beginning with the start player cards are placed in the forum, senate, and storehouse. Each player in turn announces how many cards they have deposited at each location. Remember that only three card types may be placed in the forum and senate combined, which can cause a few problems later in the game.
I've played the game a number of times now and it can become quite the brain-burner. The last game we played ended with scores of 12-11-11-10... you can't get much closer.
We are going to try the 'Advanced Game' next time. The ability to offer 1 or 2 cards would make a big difference in the harbour phase, but having to pay the full amount would make money very tight. I'm not sure if the ability to choose the start player would make that much of a difference, although I can see a definite advantage in going last in a phase.