Wings of Desire: A Review of Airlines Europe

My starting hand waits face down before me. I let it wait. I sip some tea, and distribute a starting pile of money to each player. The game is on from the moment I’ve looked at those eight cards. I want a few more seconds of unpolluted anticipation before then. From the off, there are decisions in Airlines Europe to be savoured, so I enjoy letting my hunger build.

I take my cards – they tell me which airlines I am invested in. I have three shares in the green airline, FF Flys, among them. Nobody else need know that yet – though it’ll weigh upon me like an unrevealed infatuation: a secret I’ll be bursting to send astray. Each player must show two of his or her starting cards. For now, I’m not even going to show one of the FF shares. I select a blue and a  purple share to reveal – in Rio Grande and Luck Hans airways: these shares are rather numerous (whereas FF has nine shares total in the deck, Rio Grande has 15). It’s a cagey choice: a single share in a large airline means little in the long term.

My neighbour to the left has put down an orange share, and one in FF. The player opposite, blue and grey. My neighbour to the right, a purple and a black. I think I’m pleased at what I see, but I’m not sure. Mostly I’m reminded why I wanted to pause before play started: the dynamics of this game, as ever, will be fluid and nuanced: it’s an exciting, but challenging story to track. With just two cards each exposed, I already see all my fellow players to be partners and rivals at once. I know too, that they’re thinking the same of me. Is my purple share a lie or a promise?

Starting Hand, Airlines Europe

The hand of cards in question (hands posed by a model)

Many other stock games explore the same dichotomy: the fellow player as both help and hindrance. However, through its use of hidden information – in the form of unrevealed cards – Airlines Europe adds a layer of doubt to the dynamic. If say, my right neighbour develops the purple company we are both invested in, this probably means she has more shares in the company up her sleeve. But how many? Is her stake likely to be too great for me to challenge her to be the largest shareholder?

The hidden information is a large part of what makes Airlines Europe more approachable than most other share-holding themed games. You can read other players’ actions for clues, but there’s a limit to this – and thus, that great absolver, luck, does have significant involvement in the game. But, nevertheless, deducing one’s best course of action based on incomplete information is a sophisticated, valuable and enjoyable process to explore.

The Sky over Berlin, Airlines Europe

The sky over Berlin: When buying route licenses, an airline must take the cheapest available between two cites. So, for instance, to expand to Copenhagen, the black airline must use the three million euro slot. Airlines can become blocked, but this seldom happens. One mild annoyance in play is that non-hub cities are not named on the map – it inhibits talk about map states

Additionally, Airlines Europe stays pretty light and brisk because each player may perform only one action per turn. Four types of action are possible, of which two predominate. Firstly, a player may reveal shares from his or her hand, receiving two million euros per share exposed. Alternatively, the player may add a route or two to the network of any company (if two routes are to be built, these can be in one or two companies) – spending his or her own money to do so, but increasing the value of that company by the amount spent. Each time a player performs the latter action, he or she may also take a share – choosing from five face up possibilities, or taking an unseen card from the top of the draw deck. The value of drawing blind is not to be underestimated. Having secrets is valuable in this game.

The choice to reveal shares as an action is not only a means of raising money. It is necessary to have a share on display for it to score points. There are three scoring rounds during the game: roughly a quarter of the way through, just past the halfway point, and at the end. On each occasion, the player with the largest shareholding in a company receives victory points: the amount of which determined by the value of the company (for instance, if a company is worth betweeen 22 and 27 million euros, the player receives six points, if it is worth betweeen 39 and 43 million, 9 points). A smaller holding in a company can still yield points: for instance a company valued between seven and 10 million euros will give 2 points to its second largest shareholder and 1 point to the third. The fourth and fifth might be rewarded in a larger company.

Through this, the desire to let a secret slip is amplified. If I hold off showing my shares in FF Flys, or at least some of them, my neighbour can cheaply collect a reward which could be mine. If it happens, it’s hard to sit through. But often there can be reward in waiting: my neighbour might grow to believe he possesses the most FF shares, and start to develop the company. At least, he might spend a round or two thinking he’s in control: another card or two revealed – either by other players, or from the draw deck – and one’s feeling of power can dissipate as swiftly as it formed.

Green bonus, Airlines Europe

The four smallest airlines (by number of shares, and number of planes), can each gain a bonus for connecting two specified cites. Green has just connected Stockholm to Athens, and thus an additional seven million euros is added to the value of the company

Two additional actions are also possible, though less common. One is simply to take eight million euros from the bank. Finally a player can trade regular shares – either from his or hand, or from those revealed – for shares in a special airline, Air Abacus. This airline does not build routes: it’s value for each scoring round is fixed. And is high: it is highly unlikely, though possible, that a regular airline will match the 16 points Air Abacus gives to its number one shareholder.

When and what to trade for Air Abacus is a test. While valuable, its shares are not necessarily overvalued: not only must regular shares be traded for Air Abacus (and a player can gain a maximum of two Air Abacus shares in a turn), but making the exchange means foregoing another possible action. It’s a sign of a game developed through years of work by an expert hand (Airlines Europe reworks, and refines a system employed in Alan R. Moon’s earlier games Airlines and Union Pacific, from 1990 and 1999 respectively).

What all this adds up to is a deft, subtle game – as much about the control of information as about the control of companies.  It’s the kind of game where downtime isn’t really downtime, because there’s relevant to you to be read into every decision your opponents make. It’s an absolutely tremendous advert for the nuanced game a simple rule-set can generate. I’d caution against the two-player variant (the glorious fluidity of relations cannot be reproduced in one-on-one play). But, otherwise, you’ll struggle to find a more satisfying, accomplished example of what a modern board game can be.

Airlines Europe was released in 2011 by Abacusspiele, was designed by Alan R. Moon, and is for 2-5 players.

Just Say Yes: A Review of Ys

I like blind bidding as a device in board and card games.

It’s often capable of producing heart-in-mouth moments. The second or so before bids are revealed can be splendidly tense – whether you’re worried that an optimistic low-ball bid will have back-fired, or if you’re scared that you’ve blown too much on something nobody else values.

This stands in contrast to the way in which open auctions often come off, in my view, as scripted and stilted. Unless there’s a mechanism to prevent it, players will very often up the previous bid by the smallest increment available. Once-around systems, where each player only has a single bid can cure this, but in doing so introduce a new problem to be solved: the advantage given to the last player in the turn order. If there aren’t enough separate lots auctioned in a game for this advantage to average itself out, neither version is wholly desirable.

Still, I guess there’s something in being able to use a big bid as a statement of intent. There’s a thrill to an emphatic, public all-or-nothing moment.

Enter Ys. Not only does it mix blind and open bidding, but it also gives its players a high degree of control over which method to apply where.

Blind and public bids in Ys

Blind and public bids in Ys

In the game, players represent merchant-princes or princesses, trying to sell gems and earn prestige in the mythical island city of Ys. They send brokers into various regions of the city to buy gems, or into the marketplace to try and influence the future sale price of those gems.

That’s the principle. But, in playing, the brokers never really become more than chunky wooden pieces, with a number printed on one end. The city, drawn as perfectly circular, is too diagrammatic to be believed in (though it is colourful, and pretty good-looking for what it is). It’s all alright, however. While the theme fails to take off, there’s more than enough to get into without it.

The buying power of a particular broker is represented by the number printed on it (between zero and four). On each turn, a player chooses two of these brokers, and places one face up somewhere in the city, one face down. Thus, one bid is made publicly, one not. Indeed, the two brokers could even be placed in the same section of the city, one revealed, one not, giving opponents a sniff of what a bid might be, but perhaps a misleading one.

Each player places eight brokers in total per round before the hidden numbers are revealed and rewards accordingly distributed. Each game consists of four rounds – meaning a game can easily be completed in under an hour.

Domination of a city quarter means gems. The player with the highest number in a quarter of the city receives two gems, from a choice of four (of three different colours). The player with the second highest number takes a single gem from the remaining two, while the third-placed player takes whatever gem those others didn’t want.

Brokers in the city in Ys

Brokers in the city of Ys. Orange, yellow and black could each have the highest number in the quarter nearest the camera: the reveal will be tense

Each quarter is also sub-divided into three sections. Having the highest number in the port area of a given quarter means picking up a black gem. The highest number in a commercial area is a straight three victory points, while the highest number in a palace area yields what is known as a character card. The name is apt, because the special effects these offer contribute a healthy amount of character to the game. The possible effects are numerous, but a couple of the most fun are the spy and the herald. The spy allows the player holding the card to look at the numbers on three face down brokers which other players have placed, while the herald allows the player to move one broker the regular placement phase has finished. Sixteen powers are available, not all of which will be seen in a single game.

For some, the city might feel too spacious. Even forgetting for a moment that brokers can be placed in the market, that there are 12 sections in total available in the city (in a four player game) into which 32 brokers could be placed, means bidding wars seldom occur. But, again, to me,  it’s fine. Depending on the players, about a third of brokers placed might end up challenged in a given section (and control of a quarter will always be contested). The question isn’t so much how to win control of a specific section – placing a value four broker anywhere should, in most  cases do so – but which contests to enter.

Also, the order in which brokers are placed provides material to ponder. A value four broker placed early can be the statement of intent I talked about earlier. But there’s also something to be said for keeping a strong broker in reserve; there will be weaker face-up brokers waiting to be beaten in the last turn.

Meanwhile, the marketplace is a grid, made of of twelve spaces in a four-player game (which is by far the best number with which play Ys: three is okay, and two is to be avoided). The player with the highest number in a row receives a specific gem – the colour of which was determined by the draw of a card before placement of brokers began.

For the four columns, the owner of a given broker is less significant. Instead, the value of all brokers in a column, from all players, is added together. Each column is associated with a colour of gem (red, yellow, blue and green); the gem with the highest value column associated with it moves up two notches on the track charting sale value. The second place gem moves up by one, third place down by one, fourth place down by two. The player who placed the highest value of brokers into the market can further adjust the value of one gem up or down by one.

Brokers in the marketplace in Ys

The marketplace after all brokers have been placed. Because orange has the only broker in the row with the red gem, it will certainly receive that: there are contests for the others. It's also very unclear how the value of each gem will change this time

The value of gems is only significant at the end of the game: it determines how many victory points each gem will be worth. If, say, red is top, then yellow, green and blue – the player with the highest number of red gems receives 24 points, down to fourth place in the number of blue gems being worth three points. The black gems picked up from the port area of the city are valued separately, on a fixed, slightly strange progression: holding one black gem at the end of the game is worth one point, two is worth four points, three gems are worth eight points and up in increments of four until a cap at seven black gems giving twenty-four points. Any more add nothing.

How to use the market is one of the trickier aspects of Ys. Raising the value of a particular colour of gem early in the game may well mean helping an opponent to victory: while you’re operating in the market, another player can be focusing on the city, picking up the kind of gem you’re making more attractive. Also, the city’s commercial area, and port area offer reliable value – through the straight three victory points, and the fixed-value black gem respectively.

Brokers in front of a player screen in Ys

A couple more aspects to the game. Three of orange's brokers have not been placed on the board. This is because each player must use two brokers at the start of a round to bid for turn order. These are kept in front of the screen, with a final unplaced broker added at the end of a round: the sum of all three is used to resolve ties in the city and marketplace. In the corner of the board, meanwhile, is an area reserved for (a highly recommended variant) where brokers can be removed from the game in exchange for possible victory points

Partly because of this, placing a broker in the marketplace immediately gives a single victory point as recompense. But a broker in the market, even early in the game, can have power in influencing how people use the city. If, say, green looks like it’s going to increase in value, people may commit more resources to sections of the city giving green gems: meaning control of other quarters might be achieved more cheaply.

It comes, of course, down to mind games. Open bids are about sending an unambiguous message, blind bids are about sowing doubt. Each lets the imagination do work. Thus, the value of a placement is partly in what it does to your opponents – which I love, though those who want to analyze too mathematically might find this less appealing. But the interplay of bidding mechanisms makes Ys unlike anything else, and that in itself, is to be commended.

Ys was released in 2004 by Ystari Games, was designed by Cyril Demaegd, and is for 2-4 players.

Creature Comfort: A Review of Zooloretto

There’s a chimpanzee in my barn. I want my neighbour to buy it from me; sadly there’s no room for it in any of the enclosures at my zoo, and I could do with the money I’d make from the sale to move a refreshment stall to a more useful location. For my neighbour, I’d say the chimpanzee looks like the difference between filling an enclosure – securing a load of points – and not.

It seems, though, that my neighbour is hoping to pull a fresh chimpanzee tile from the bag, rather than buy mine. My chimpanzee has been in my barn a couple of rounds, and so far she’s shown no interest in it. However, it’s now late in the game. Looking around the table, nine of eleven chimpanzee tiles are already in play. Some tiles – in the region of twelve or so – will not be used this game (the game ends in the round in which players start to draw from the last fifteen tiles, which are set aside before the game). With every draw that isn’t a chimpanzee, the chance increases that the awaited chimpanzee tiles will not be available.

Pesky chimp, beaming away

Pesky chimp, beaming away

How to nudge my neighbour into helping us both? It’d be considered bad form to solicit a sale openly (at least by the tacit etiquette of this group). Instead, when it comes to my turn I toy – just a little – with the chimpanzee tile I’m hoping to sell, pushing it once up and once down my barn; feigning that I’m only occupying my hands while I struggle a little with my choice of move.

Really, I knew already that I’ll be taking a truck with an elephant on board. It is, after all, a fertile female; I have a fertile male – and, in this game, there’s no need to wait 22 months for the result of a pairing like that.

After what I reckon to be enough time for my (probably not really) subtle coercion to register, I take the elephant. She and her mate do the thing and provide me with an infant. Not bad.

Zoolotetto Elephants

Elephants: male, female and offspring (plus one other - most adult animals are infertile in this game, strangely)

Then I look at my neighbour. Her eyes are actually on my barn. Unbelievably, it’s on. The chimp gets a good home. I get a bit of money to sort out a better location for my refreshment stall.

Would it have been a disaster if I finished the game with the chimpanzee still in my barn? Not entirely: there’s a two point penalty for each type of animal still in the barn at the end of the game. Typical winning scores depend on the number of players, but two points is a deficit which can be overcome to win whatever number are involved.

Not being able to move the stall is a problem on a similar level: at the end of the game, an enclosure with two or more empty spaces will only attract victory points if it has a stall adjacent to it.

Put these two elements together, though, and the sale means my bacon has been saved. In the end, I come second out of four. I might have come last were it not for the sale.

Much of Zooloretto – a quick, family friendly game of zoo-management – consists of similar, deceptively nuanced interaction. And for that I think it offers a tremendous playing experience. The game wholly deserved the Spiel des Jahres award it won in 2007, as it represents a fantastic example of what an accessible modern board game can achieve (and all in 45 minutes). While providing each individual player a meaningful decision practically every turn, the value of Zooloretto as a play-experience is, in large part social – playing it is (in a way which is not always true of other modern board games) playing together.

This is because practically every decision in Zooloretto must, almost unavoidably, be made by assessing an item’s value to both yourself and other players.

On most turns a player will either draw a tile (which will show either an animal, a refreshment stall, or a coin) and add it to a truck, or the player will take a truck with at least one tile already on it. Thus, if you draw an animal you wants it will be a whole round before you have the chance to take it. The chance of an opponent taking a desired tile can be minimized, however, with some thought. Placing say, a panda tile on a truck with another panda will make that truck easy for anyone collecting pandas to take. Put a panda with a zebra – and it might well be that you’re the only one collecting both.

Zooloretto, trucks

Trucks getting loaded. They're wonderful, hefty things

Likewise, if you pull a tile you personally do not need, it pays to be attentive to its value to your opponents. If you grab the chimpanzee your neighbour has been craving, you can’t stop her taking it, but you can make gaining it bittersweet. For example, you might stick it with a kangaroo she has no space for.

More seldom, players may take a third and final form of action – paying money to develop their zoo in some respect (these actions are rare because money is hard to come by in Zooloretto). A new enclosure can be bought, while animals and stalls can be rearranged, a new animal bought from an opponent’s barn, or an unwanted animal can be removed from the game (sent to the great zoo in the sky, the glue factory, or packed off to the circus – it isn’t specified). Each has value in itself, of course, but money actions can also be used as a de facto means of passing when either pulling a tile or taking a truck would be troublesome. Thus, even those money actions which only concern the active player directly are made in relation to the trucks on offer.

Full Zoo in Zooloretto

The zoo is developing nicely. Though the zebra at the top right might be getting a bit lonely

The luck of the tile draw does play a part in Zooloretto – if you’re craving a zebra, sod’s law determines they’re all stubbornly staying in the bag. But, as with Carcassonne, this seldom leaves a player feeling impotent – the choice of which truck a tile is placed on is meaningful (except, of course, when there’s only one truck left).

Unlike Carcassonne, however, players can enjoy a sense of ownership over what the tiles create; even an unsuccessful player should have a decent collection of animals by the end of the game. Which is not to say Zooloretto only suits the terminally uncompetitive. Winning is meaningful: the winner will have done so through good play – but it isn’t a brutal game to lose. And, in part because of that, it’s a game I’d happily suggest playing with almost anyone, whether familiar with other modern board games or not.

Zooloretto was released in 2007 by Abacusspiele, was designed by Michael Schacht and is for 2-5 players.

Ignoble Deeds: A Review of Notre Dame

Released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Stefan Feld. For 2-5 players.

Notre Dame is themed around nobles controlling the districts in the region of the titular cathedral. Experientially, however, much of it is about obstinate behaviour, rather than noble conduct.

I’ll come to why later. First, the surrounding framework of rules had better be tackled. This being a Stefan Feld game, things are fairly fiddly.

Notre Dame is typical of the prolific Feld’s designs, in that it offers players a spaff of assorted unweildy mechanisms they must divide their attention between in order to generate prestige points. However, it does keep turn-by-turn decisions manageable through limiting a player’s options using a small selection of cards.

Set-up for a three-player game of Notre Dame

Set-up for a three-player game of Notre Dame. The board's graphic style might diplomatically be described as muted

Each player has a personal mini-deck of nine cards, representing the nine possible regular actions in the game. Each round, the player draws three cards from his or her deck, choosing one to keep, then passes the remaining two to his or her neighbour to the left. Of course, each player also receives two cards from the neighbour on the other side. One is selected to be kept, and the other is again passed to the left.

In principle, during this phase it should be important  to consider not only what card you want yourself, but also what you will give your neighbour. In practice, with more than two players you’re usually better off focusing on keeping cards that suit you, rather than denying your neighbour: aggressive play in this phase can only directly affect one immediate opponent (your neighbour), meaning a player who does not choose the best card to boost his or her personal score does so knowing that the attack will have no effect on any third party player.

Purple's trusted friend in Notre Dame

Purple's trusted friend in action. Because the trusted friend is versatile, the card which moves him can be a tough one to pass

The opportunity to activate the cards follows. In turn, each player chooses a single card and uses its effect, then – after all players have done this – each plays a second card. The third is not used.

Many actions tempt players to flirt with extreme play. For instance, when the residence card is played, a player takes a cube from his personal supply and places it in the matching section of his or her part of the board. For every cube in that section, including the one just placed, the player receives a prestige point. Thus, with directed play, the player might find himself or herself gaining six or seven points from each time this action is used in later rounds (and, very occasionally, even more).

The bank, meanwhile, yields coins in the same way. Though these do not, in themselves, count towards victory there are a number of opportunities to spend these to gain prestige points.

Person cards in Notre Dame

A possible selection of person cards: the doctor, the juggler and the bishop. Each player can pay a coin to use the power of one of these cards after each round. The bishop, for instance, allows a player to take a cube from his or her general supply, place it in an empty region and activate it immediately. Pretty nifty

Other actions concern limiting the ill effects of rats, which if not attended to, can be a pain in the arse. The spread of rats is represented by the position of a black cube  (a rat) on the beautifully named ‘plague track.’ To combat rats, a player can take either the park or hospital action. In the short term the placement of a cube in either of these districts allows a player immediately to move the rat back one space on this track.

At the end of each round the rat may advance. How far the rat should move is determined by three common cards (revealed at the beginning of each round, called person cards). On the bottom of each may be one or more rats (up to three), though some do have none. The number of rats shown equals the distance the rat should move (though the number of cubes currently in the hospital area is subtracted from this distance). If a player’s rat should move beyond the last space on the track, the player loses two prestige points, and one cube from the board. Also, the rat stays in the last place on the track – meaning it can, and probably will – bite again and again.

This is not the only significance of person cards, however – the people on them are not merely rat-wielding weirdos. Before the rat advances, each player can pay a coin to use the special power offered by one of the three people. For instance, the doctor reduces the plague value for that player to zero (which, if the player has cubes in the hospital, will mean the rat marker moving backwards), while the beggar king gives a player a prestige point for each space beyond the rat on the rat track. Thus, like in the rest of the game, there’s a balance between averting plague-related disaster, and gaining points.

After every three rounds one extra phase occurs. Players who have used cards during the regular rounds of the game to make donations to the cathedral (which converts money to prestige points), gain extra prestige points – in proportion to their share of the total number of visits to the cathedral made by all players. For example, in a three player game, there will be eight prestige points distributed in this phase (providing at least one player visited, of course). If two players visited a single time each, both would gain four points.

Notre Dame itself

Notre Dame itself. Doesn't look all that inspiring here, to be honest

Often, visiting Notre Dame becomes the subject of some form of stand-off. Unless a player has really focused on using the bank, the need to pay at least one coin to place a cube at the cathedral can make visiting feel costly (money is often scarce – and paying to activate a person card frequently offers better value for the coin spent). However, if a player is left to visit Notre Dame alone, he or she gains a lot of cheap points from doing so.

Thus, it becomes about obstinacy, stubbornness (and the luck of the draw). If one player has already visited Notre Dame, who is going to be the second to go, in order to reduce the haul of points for that first player? It’s a job you’ll regularly find yourself wishing someone else would do (because the more players at Notre Dame, the less each gets).

Stubbornness to some degree characterizes Notre Dame as a whole. Frequently, I’ll pass a couple of cards, knowing one of them would be perfect for the player  two to my left. I don’t want to have to keep it: it really doesn’t suit my plans, so I’ll let my neighbour do the dirty work instead (hopefully). Even within his or her own district, a player will often do all he or she can to focus on one section, whatever the wider consequences. For instance, single-minded attention to the residence, with its prestige point pyramid, can win the game even if the plague is left to run wild (though I do not mean to suggest this approach is the strongest in all circumstances, or especially simple to put into practice effectively).

Kind nobles, with clean, healthy districts, are by no means automatically rewarded with victory in this game.

Nevertheless, Notre Dame does a lot in a time-frame of around an hour. It balances different approaches reasonably well, and provokes tough, but not overwhelming decisions. It’s a mess of different systems, but processable (unlike other of Feld’s games – Macao, in particular, I found a trial with its pfaffy card combinations). Just be aware that many of the decisions in Notre Dame are difficult, at least in part, for being mildly sour.

What’s the Catch?: A Review of If Wishes Were Fishes!

Released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Michael Adams and Peter Sarrett. For 2-5 players.

Let’s dive straight in (so to speak) to this game’s most striking feature. Its worms.

Each player in If Wishes Were Fishes! gets six stretchy, squidgy worms made of soft, purple plastic with which to play. They’re each eight centimetres long. They are, quite simply, splendid toys. Though turns are mostly pretty quick – this is at its core a single-action-per-turn, collect-or-sell game – it can be tremendously therapeutic (and plain fun) to have something to mould and massage while you’re not the active player.

Of course, nerds and squares would have it that such toys are not befitting of an adult game (and this game certainly has enough strategic depth to be considered one). Please don’t listen.

Ready to start a two-player game. The worms (those purple things) are wonderful, squidgy, tactile items

Ready to start a two-player game. The worms are impossible to overlook

Yes, If Wishes Were Fishes! could have been dressed in different clothes. The player could have been a non-specific businessperson, rather than a fisherman or fisherwoman. The silly, fun artwork could be stripped away, and replaced with something po-faced. You could have had cardboard chits for worms, and have called them investment tokens. There’s enough muscle in this game to support a sterner styling.

But, as I see it, you’d lose much of the charm of If Wishes Were Fishes! And I don’t see what would be gained (from the perspective of a player – I can see that, commercially, a more serious surface would have made the nature of the product more comprehensible to customers). I love the fact that the cat-fish look like cats. I want to applaud the brave decisions that led to If Wishes Were Fishes! being released in its appealing, exuberant form.

A selection of fishes, with their wishes overhead (though to me it looks like more of a speech bubble than a wish). The left-most wish can be particularly valuable, giving a victory point for each worm the player possesses

A selection of fishes, with their wishes overhead (though to me it looks like more of a speech bubble than a wish). The left-most wish can be particularly valuable, giving a victory point for each worm the player possesses

Anyway, let’s address how the game works.

Players start the game with enough boat-space to catch two fish. Catching a fish is one of three actions available to a player on his or her turn (assuming the player has room enough to collect another fish). This is done by picking a card from a selection of four – each card depicting one of seven types of fish. However, only the first fish in the row is free. To take the second, third or fourth the player needs to use some bait (i.e. one or more of the wonderful worms) – though the mechanism isn’t entirely explicable in thematic terms, in that the bait is placed on each of the fish which are stepped over. Thus, to take the fourth fish, I’d have to put worms on the three I refused. If a player later wants one of those fish, he or she also takes the worms sitting on the card.

It’s the same mechanism as is used in picking races in Small World, if you happen to have played it. Except worms are not, in themselves, counted as victory points in If Wishes Were Fishes!, unlike the tokens spent to choose a race in Small World. And, if there are two-players in a game, starting with six worms each, there will only ever be twelve worms in a game – with three players there will never be more or less than eighteen total, and so on. Partly for this reason, players must be frugal with their worms. If a player runs out, and therefore cannot choose which cards to take, it’s very debilitating. But, on the whole, it’s a neat selection device, and one I don’t mind seeing in multiple games.

A meeple present is the making of a market

A meeple or two present can be the making of a market (though they are moved often)

The second possible action is to sell a single fish already collected in a previous turn. Fish have a base value of two dollars (victory points) each.When a fish is sold, a fish counter in the player’s colour is moved onto a section of the board representing the kind of fish card used – for instance, if blue sold a starfish, then a blue counter is placed by the starfish market stand on the board.

However, one or more meeples representing buyers may be present at the market stand in question. These increase the value of any fish sold to that stand. For instance, the presence of the large white meeple adds three dollars to the value of fish sold to the stand it occupies. If it were at the starfish stand (with no other meeple there), then starfish would be worth five dollars each. So, clearly, selling the right fish is important.

On top of this, market stands will close during the game. When the first stand – whatever kind of fish it might require – has four fish tokens in front of it, then that stand closes. The player who sold the most fish to it gets a bonus of seven dollars, and the player who sold the second most gets three dollars. Subsequently, another market will close when it has five fish (and will pay out slightly higher bonuses to the first and second players), then another at six fish, and another at seven. This final closure sees the game end.

Thus, even a market with a couple of meeples present might become unattractive to most players, if adding fish will trigger a substantial bonus for a player doing well in the game. It’s a neat nuance, but by no means the greatest source of fun in the game. Better even than playing with the worms, is screwing over your opponents with wishes.

At this point in the game, red will fill the market by selling this fish. Though that confirms a majority for blue, the seven points for selling a single fish compensates

At this point in the game, red will fill the market by selling this fish. Though that confirms a majority for blue, the seven points for selling a single fish compensates

Wishes are found on fish cards (the bottom half shows the fish, the top half the wish). When a player selects a fish card from the market, he or she may chose not to keep the fish, but, instead, to use the card immediately to grant the one-off ability depicted. Many of these are connected with moving meeples, meaning a player can increase the value of fish he or she has collected (and, of course, decrease the value of opponents’ fish). Some allow for selling multiple fish cards of the same type, or for removing a fish counter from a market (thereby potentially altering who will receive bonuses when or if the market closes).

This means there’s a lot going on. Too much to plan multiple turns ahead. But enough for some nifty strokes of ingenuity spanning two or three turns. A simple combination might be to take a couple of unpopular fish of the same type, maybe picking up some worms which were spent passing them over, then use a wish to sell them as another, more valued type of fish. There’s luck involved, particularly with larger numbers of players, but there is also potential for some of the subtle manipulation of other players found in stock market games. Perhaps you want the valuable white meeple removed from a market space, because you see the leader has some fish of that kind to sell. You could take the wish that allows for that yourself. Or you could spend a worm, skip that card, and take something that more directly benefits you – hoping the little bribe will get your neighbour to do the job for you.

Still another wish gives the player a dollar for every worm he or she holds (though a player taking this wish must give a worm to each opponent afterwards). This, I’ve found, offers a big potential pitfall to new players. If one player is conservative with his or her worms, and others not so much, a couple of worm-scoring wishes in quick succession can catapult that player into an overwhelming lead. And, once a player has lost most of his or her worms, it’s difficult to regain them – meaning a first play can often be disheartening. In my experience, it’s very rare indeed that any fish or wish is worth  spending two, never mind three, worms. New players can be told this, but, of course, the relative worth of worms, wishes, and fishes really has to be learnt from experience.

Nonetheless, I think If Wishes Were Fishes! deserves hearty acclaim, of a kind it did not meet with upon release. It’s dynamic, fun, and directly interactive – plus a game can often be wrapped up in an hour or so. It’s also as much of a pleasure with two as with more players – rare for a game about market manipulation. Some might advise you to ignore the fluffy, childish trappings, and embrace the hearty game beneath. I won’t. I’d advise you to embrace both.

Two Princes (or Princesses): A Review of The Rivals for Catan

This edition released 2010 by Mayfair Games. Designed by Klaus Teuber. For 2 players.

It’s not my goal to upset anyone with what I write. I’m too old for iconoclasm. I want to applaud what is great in board and card games today. And there are a wealth of fantastic games around that I want to celebrate. But, sometimes, it helps to talk about where things have gone wrong in a game, because we might as well learn from other’s mistakes, rather than making them ourselves.

Mr. Teuber, look away now.

Klaus Teuber’s Rivals for Catan is a revised version of his earlier Catan Card Game, from 1996. Both are games in which the players manage principalities – using resources to build new settlements, cities and their buildings (as well as recruiting some soldiers) for the bloody-minded sake of it. Or to get to a certain number of victory points – which accrued in The Rivals for Catan a few different ways: each settlement gets one point, each city two, some buildings give victory points, and having a decisive advantage in trade and military strength also offers points.

I do not have experience of the Catan Card Game, but the differences between it and The Rivals for Catan do not appear to be considerable. For what it’s worth, The Rivals for Catan is the better looking, featuring pleasant, if chocolate boxy, illustrations by the ubiquitous Michael Menzel.

Rivals for Catan, starting positions

The starting set-up. Not a game suited to small tables. Each players province is entirely separate from that of the other - there isn't competition to control particular regions in this game

Of course, there’s a common progenitor for both these games. Something known as The Settlers of Catan – some kind of variant of Monopoly without free parking in it. But with the same pretense that players might ever want to trade with one another. In seriousness, it’s still pretty good.

However, The Rivals for Catan does not share a great deal with The Settlers of Catan in terms of how it works as a game. The one fundamental respect in which it is similar to its ancestor – its grandfather, you could probably say, if Catan Card Game is its father – is that the production of resources is determined through dice-rolling. In The Settlers of Catan, two regular, numbered six-sided dice are rolled at the start of each turn, in The Rivals for Catan, just one. However, the core of this mechanism is unchanged – any region marked with the rolled number produces a resource

In The Rivals for Catan, this standard die is rolled alongside a special event die. Also six-sided, it triggers one of five results (two sides have one picture), mostly connected with the production of resources. For instance, the plentiful harvest event allows each player to produce one extra resource of his or her choice. Many events will, however, see one or both players lose resources, which is more than a tad frustrating.

Indeed, this isn’t just a trivial irritation. Connected to this are some of the game’s greatest problems.

Rivals for Catan, New Settlement

A new settlement brings with it increased production. In this case playing the Scout - one of the game's most useful action cards - has allowed the player to pick which two types of production region to gain

You, as a player, lack control – and the game’s too long for that to be acceptable. The fact that the game’s most important improvements require a variety of different resources – for instance, building a settlement needs one wood, one brick, one wheat and one wool – means many turns will be spent, wishing for that one missing item which the dice just won’t cough up. Goods can be traded – initially at a rate of three of any single resource for one of any other – but collecting so much of a single material is difficult for much of the game. This potential for stagnation is amplified by the fact that all buildings and developments in the game have precise requirements for their construction – none, say, can use either brick or stone, or either wool or wheat.

As a result, players are often faced with a choice I can’t help but feel they shouldn’t be faced with in a game intended to be pleasurable. Often, the player must either pass turns – two or three in a row is entirely possible – building nothing, impotently watching the other player progress, or he or she may build lesser improvements with those resources that are available, thereby further delaying the construction of the most important advancements. It’s a painful choice, but not in a good way. Trade ships, for instance, are moderately useful (and quite cheap), but they’re nothing on having an extra settlement early in the game.

Moreover, a further problem with the dice-rolling mechanism is that any planning done while the other player is active is prone to being frustrated. There’s a decent chance that a player will lose some of his or her resources – either through the action of the event die, or the other player. As a result, waiting time really ends up just that. While the other player is acting, you may as well sit on your hands. Turns might only be a minute or so long – but it adds up when there’s nothing worthwhile to do in that time.

Rivals for Catan, two key buildings

The Hedge Tavern and the Merchant Guild are both key buildings. Many of the cards in the Era of Turmoil deck stipulate that the player have a Hedge Tavern before they can be played, while many Era of Gold cards need a Merchant Guild. In the Dual of the Princes - which draws on all three special decks included in the game - there is only one copy of each, making them especially precious

Nevertheless, there is some scope to the game when it does get running. Buildings have varied functions, and there are also a number of action cards which can, generally, be played without resources.

In the box are four groups of cards from which players can select. There are basic cards, then three themed sets; ‘The Era of Progress,’ themed around creating more advanced cities; ‘The Era of Gold,’ which offers buildings which give extra value to the otherwise under-utilized gold resource; and ‘The Era of Turmoil,’ a combative set, which makes possible the destruction of the other player’s buildings and units. A game may be played with just the basic set, with the basic set and one other, or with the basic cards and a specified selection from each of the three special sets.

The attempt to include this amount of variety in the game is admirable (though expandability was evidently also a concern – a first expansion The Age of Darkness, was recently released). However, none of the options offered is without its problems. The basic game feels rather trivial – though does work as an introduction to The Rivals for Catan, which is its intended purpose.

Adding in the cards from a given era adds depth. However, each of the three themed sets centres around a particular card – the university in the ‘Era of Progress,’ to take one example, must have been built before many of the other cards from the set can be played. There are two copies of each of these key buildings in each themed set, but it does mean both players are nudged – perhaps pushed outright – into playing in much the same way as one another.

The ‘Dual of the Princes’ – the game played with all three themed sets – gives players more sense of choice, but fails, for me, in that only one copy of the key card from each set is available. As a consequence, the player who first draws, say, the Hedge Tavern for the ‘Era of Turmoil’ will be the only one able to make use of a further three of the thirteen turmoil cards used in the dual (three of the most destructive to the other player). In that a player can, at the end of his or her turn, pay two resources to exchange a hand card for a chosen card from any pile, it means a player minded to do so can snaffle up the hedge tavern, merchant guild or university at the very start of the game. Indeed, it’s possible for the starting player to take one of these on the very first turn, before the other player has had any chance to act.

Rivals for Catan, the dice

Much of the drama in the The Rivals for Catan comes from the role of the event die. Its red face, rolled here, means that brigands have attacked. Any player with more than seven total resources will lose all of his or her wool and gold. Bad news for the sheep in this field

Moreover, with any of these themed sets added, games of The Rivals of Catan tend to be long. Seventy or eighty minutes is entirely likely. It’s not unreasonable to want (much) more control when giving that much time to a game.

There’s a solid foundation here in an inexpensive package. Indeed, if Mr. Teuber wants to look back, I’d happily say there are the marks of a great designer here – neat interplays between buildings and action cards, while the trade and strength advantages are fun to compete for. But, sadly, this isn’t a great game.