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Subject: [Review]Dice Drafting Done Delightfully rss

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Seth Brown
United States
North Adams
Massachusetts
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OVERVIEW
In Grand Austria Hotel (GAH!), you are (unsurprisingly) operating a hotel, where you must feed and then house guests for various rewards. This is done primarily through dice-drafting, with a number of other mechanics interwoven.



COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
120 standard quality cards (guests/staff/politics), 84 chipboard room tokens, 12 Emperor tiles, 9 turn order tiles, 24 wooden tracking disks (6 each 4 colors), 120 food/drink cubes (30 each 4 colors), 14 wooden dice, 4 player hotel boards, 1 main tracking board, 1 action board, 1 overproduced chipboard trashbin marker.

GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF
Each round, dice are rolled and sorted by number. Each player receives two turns per round. On your turn, you may take one of the available guests if you have an open table. Then take a die to take the action associated with that number:

1) Acquire a food cube for each die (no more than half cake)
2) Acquire a drink cube for each die (no more than half coffee)
3) Place a room tile for each die (paying for upper floor rooms)
4) Gain a dollar or Emperor point per die
5) Play a staff card, discounted by $1 per die
6) Pay $1, then use 6s to take any above action

When drafting the die, players may pay $1 to add a single "invisible die" to the number they select. On your turn, you may also feed guests at your tables, move fed guests into available rooms to score them, or activate staff cards.

At the end of rounds 3/5/7, bonuses/penalties are awarded for Emperor points, and players are pushed backwards a few spaces on the Emperor track. When round 7 ends, bonus points are awarded for filled rooms, leftover resources, and certain staff cards, and whoever has the most points wins.



GOOD POINTS

*A colorful, good-looking game. Aesthetically speaking, GAH definitely draws the eye. The boards and guests are all brightly colored, and the combined result is a visually striking game. The artwork, while not exquisitely detailed, is pleasant and generally functional, with a variety of guest portraits, and boards that make it relatively easy to see what's going on. Some of the iconography is a bit arcane on a first play, but most of it does a good job of conveying information, and with a play or two under your belt everything is easy to comprehend.

*Choosing guests provides complex choices. Each round, five guests are available to choose from, and you may pick one ro escort to your open cafe table. But only the oldest two guests are free, while the others have a fee to pick. Guests also vary by which of three different color rooms they will demand (or green guests, which can go in any room), how much of what type of food and drink they require to be satisfied, how many points they are worth when fed and lodged, and what bonus benefit they give you. You might be trying to decide between the free guest that's easier to feed but only offers points, or the guest that costs a dollar to acquire, takes two cake and a strudel to satisfy, but also opens an additional room for you as a bonus. And that's before you start looking at what color rooms you have available.

*A weighted yet well-balanced dice-drafting mechanic. I oft find dice frustrating in games when a good or bad roll makes or breaks your strategy. Tying dice to actions is an improvement, but it still may be the case that I roll better than you. Yspahan was previously my go-to for dice drafting, with a common pool being rolled and players taking turns picking a die number to draft, with power determined by how many dice showed that number. But where Yspahan has a player take all dice of a number to take the action, GAH has a player take only one.

And this is a hugely important difference. A lucky roll in Yspahan may mean the first player can benefit from five 1s, while the other players are left with only pairs at best of other numbers. In GAH, if the first player benefits from five 1s to load up on food, the second player still has four 1s as an option. The result is the best of both worlds; the dynamic value of different numbers based on how many of the number is rolled, but not allowing a lucky roll to give a huge benefit to one player without making it available to other players.

The changing number of dice available for each action also create a nice tension between tactics and strategy. Often, you will strategically have a certain action you wish to take, e.g. get a wine to satisfy a guest, or play a staff card because it will set you up to clear some guests from your full tables. But if there are five of the same number showing, it may be very tempting (with good reason) to pass up your strategic play in favor of a quick five emperor points or five food cubes, even if it means not having an empty table to grab a guest next turn.

*Passing provides additional options. If you don't like the available dice drafting options, you are allowed to pass. This means that not only will all other players draft first, but after they are done, an additional die is removed, limiting both your options and the power thereof. However, you then get to reroll all the dice before making your selection. So if you desperately need an emperor point to avoid the round five penalty, but no 4s (or 6s) are showing, a reroll may be just what you need.

*Emperor track provides a little tension. Speaking of the emperor track, it serves as the main pressing tension in the game. While mostly GAH is a game of maximizing guests, there is some pressure to move up on the emperor track. At the end of rounds 3/5/7, after receiving points, your emperor token is moved backwards #round number of spaces, and then evaluated. If this still leaves you at 3 or more emperor points, you receive the emperor bonus. No bonus for having 1 or 2 points. And if losing those points puts your emperor track back to zero, you suffer the emperor penalty. The bonuses and penalties both increase over time, so while round three might see you gaining three dollars or losing three points, by round seven you might be getting to draw and play free staff cards, or losing ten points. And that will vary by game, thanks to...

*A high amount of variability between games. The in-game card decks will naturally come out in a different order each game, including both the queue of guests that all players have access to, and the hands of Staff cards which function similarly to Agricola's improvements in that they allow you various benefits ranging from single-use boons to permanent rule-breaking advantages to endgame bonus points. The staff you have will certainly effect your strategy, even if it's by deciding it isn't worth the cost to play half of them.

But the game setup varies as well. Hotel boards are double-sided, so players can play on symmetrical or asymmetrical boards. The Emperor bonuses and penalties are drawn from a stack of four possibilities for each round, so you might play differently depending on whether you're dodging a 3 point penalty, or losing the remainder of your cash that you desperately need to feed your guests. There are also 3 "politics" goals chosen for each game, again with 4 choices each for 3 slots. These goals, which award 15 points to the first player to complete them, 10 to the second, 5 to the third, range from maxing out your money track to filling every blue room in your hotel.

The result of all this is a highly variable game which is unlikely to have the same setup twice.

*7 rounds makes a tight game. With only 7 rounds in the game, and two picks per round, everything is at a premium. Running out of money severely limits your options and should be avoided if possible, but I have run out of money every time I've played the game. The rounds go swiftly and keeping up on the emperor track can be a struggle. Getting the right cubes to feed your guests can be tricky. Sometimes you can't clear your tables fast enough and have to skip taking a guest for a round or two. For the vast amount of choice available, the game still feels like some pressure is on, in a good way.



BAD POINTS

*A lot of frontloading when teaching the game. While the rules of the game aren't too difficult once you start playing, when it comes to teaching the game, players with short attention spans may find it difficult to sit through all of the rules. Because there are so many varied mechanics and systems in play, even though each one isn't complicated, the sheer number of different things going on (not to mention the varied icons on the staff/guest cards) means that you will have to take a little while to explain the game before diving in.

*Staff cards are not created equal. While the differing costs of staff cards go some way towards addressing this, the fact remains that drawing better staff cards will put you in a relatively strong position. Even cards that seem similar may not be balanced; the ability to get a cake every round is much better than a strudel every round. Thankfully, the game does address this by providing assigned starter hands for the beginner game, and a staff-drafting variant for the expert game.

*End of the wheel in a 4p game is rough. Because players get two turns per round, a player who goes first in a 4p game must wait for six other player-turns before receiving their second turn of the round. Since each turn consists of a tricky guest decision, a tricky dice-drafting decision, and an uncapped amount of extra actions (which occasionally cascade into combos), the wait for that player can be especially agonizing.



CONCLUSION

Grand Austria Hotel is one of those modern Eurogames that has it all -- a highly variable setup, varied cards to draw during play, dice rolling, action drafting, queue selection, resource cube gathering, special bonuses and penalties, side goals, etc., etc. The main dice-drafting mechanic is quite enjoyable, and the many other systems at play are all integrated into a cohesive whole that is bound to have broad appeal -- I'd expect this game to crack BoardGameGeek's Top 100 sometime in 2016.

IS IT FOR YOU?

If you enjoy modern Eurogames, the short answer is probably yes. The game looks good, provides lots of interesting decisions, offers high replayability, and revolves around various well-designed mechanics. They are all, however, squarely in the genre of modern Euro-style mechanics, so players who dislike games without direct conflict or player negotiation won't find any here.

*review copy provided by publisher
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Stuart Burnham
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Nice, well structured review. Agree with your summary, and the point about teaching it -I think it's definitely one to explain ALL the scoring opportunities first, then the mechanics, but leave the emperor track until last (and then remind players during their first game just how many they'll move back at the end of the next round etc etc!)
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Mike Stevens
United States
Nebraska
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I was going to write a review about this game but this review covers just about all of my thoughts on this game. Great review Seth. It is interesting to note what you had to say about teaching the game. I find it to be a pretty simple game and other than the player aid full of the additional actions that you can take, your turn simply consists of picking a new guest (optional), choosing the dice (mandatory), finishing your turn with additional actions if you choose to. So really you only have 3 things to do on a turn sort of like Ticket to Ride. But I must be a crappy game teacher because every time I teach this game, people have a ton of questions and have stated that it seems complicated.
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Seth Brown
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Yeah, I pride myself on being pretty good at explaining games to my gaming group, but some of their eyes started to glaze over with this one. I think part of the issue was that you can't really draft your first die without being able to evaluate how important playing a staff card from your hand is, which in turn means that the entire staff card explanation has to be frontloaded, as opposed to the guest abilities or emperor bonus/malus abilities, which can be explained later as they become relevant.

Once you start playing, the main rules really are simple. There's just so much extra info to learn first in order to evaluate what to do with those simple rules, is the tricky part.
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