The Alea Analysis, Part Two: Princes of Florence (#4), Adel Verpflichtet (#5), Traders of Genoa (#6)

This continues my series of updates and revisions to the Alea game articles that I wrote for my personal blog in 2009, as I played through Alea’s entire series of (then) 22 games. For Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal, see the first article in the series.


Big Box #4: The Princes of Florence (A)

Author: Wolfgang Kramer, Richard Ulrich
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2010)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 6
Other Articles: Review (11/03), Alea Treasures #4 (10/12)
My Plays: 3+, with more predating my logging games (2+ when I originally wrote this)

Princes of FlorenceAn auction and resource-management game where you’re acting as a patron for the arts, collecting various sorts of creators who will produce “works” for you; however, you have to provide your clients with the best conditions possible so that they produce the best works, and that means purchasing the buildings, landscapes, freedoms, and other things that they want.

The game is played out over seven rounds, during which the minimum requirements for the production of a work slowly increase. Each round you’ll get to win one auction (which can get you one of six things you need to produce works) and then you’ll get to take two actions (which allow you to get other things you need to produce works — and to produce the works themselves). At the end of the game, points are based largely on the quantity and quality of works you produced, with some bonuses for buildings, extra landscapes, extra builders, and possibly for cards that you purchased.

Strengths: Variability & Tightness 

I think Princes of Florence’s greatest strength is its two-part auction/action structure. Or, to not use the slang of the game: auction/building. Though games like Ra and Taj Mahal are great, there’s a certain sameness to them; I think Alea made a smart move in having this, their third auction game, be something more. Beyond that, I think that using auctions to bootstrap further building and expansion can make for a pretty intriguing game.

The other thing that I really enjoy about Princes is how “tight” it is. Some players say that they don’t feel the pressure, but I always do. With just 21 total things you can do, and with the need to spend 5 or 6 of those creating works, every single move is important. I think Princes broke a lot of ground in creating a game this dense. Though you can see it in many more recent games, such as Alea’s In the Year of the Dragon (or others like Agricola), I suspect it wasn’t seen as much at the time.

One of the other players in my most recent game surprised me by saying that he liked Princes because it was such a good introductory game: he’s several times seen players not familiar with EuroGames do very well with it. Though I find Princes to be a really tough game, I can see where he’s coming from. With limited options and limited turns, new players can easily move through the game, especially with the formulas on each client’s card showing what they should be doing. The ease of the auctions, where no jump-bidding is possible, also really supports this simplicity.

Weakness: Math & Geometry

For me personally, the biggest downside of Princes is its mathiness. Constant counting and recounting never thrills me in a game, and there’s a lot of here. I’ll accept that this a matter of personal preference.

Other players said that they find the geometric placement of the buildings to be another weakness, and I’d generally agree. It requires a level of look-ahead if you want to play well and that’s beyond the complexity of much of the rest of the game; it especially hurts Prince‘s possibility as a game for new players. I think that game designers often underestimate the amount of work that this type of spatial design takes, with Cleopatra and the Society of Architects being another example of a game with a spatial/geographical element that’s much denser than the rest of the play.

Overall, Princes is a very well-regarded Alea game, which I think is largely just. About half of our gaming group thought it was the best of the first four. I personally disagree, as I feel that Taj Mahal coheres more.

General Comparisons

The Luck Factor. In my opinion Princes of Florence marked a big change in the Alea line’s direction. Each of the previous games in the series had some degree of randomness in it; although Taj Mahal started trending toward more complexity (or, at least, more difficulty), it was really Princes of Florence that offered up the first “no-luck” game in the series, with considerably depth of play allowing for very strategic play — a trend that I think culminated in Puerto Rico.

Mind you, there is some luck in Princes of Florence, since you draw several different cards from decks, but the game makes a large effort to downplay that luck by allowing you to select between five cards at any time. There’s still randomness, but it’s a considerably smaller issue when compared to the amount of strategy you can use.

The Designers. It’s hard for The Princes of Florence not to be overshadowed by Ulrich & Kramer’s best-known (and non-Alea) collaboration, El Grande. Where The Princes of Florence is a great auction game, El Grande pretty much created the majority-control genre (and still holds up really well, especially with the “King & Intrigue” cards. Ulrich & Kramer have produced one other major collaboration that I’ve never seen and would love to: El Caballero.


Big Box #5: Adel Verpflichtet (B)

AKA: Hoity ToityBy Hook or CrookFair Means or Foul
Author: Klaus Teuber
Publisher: Überplay (2004) as Hoity Toity, out of print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 5
Other Articles: Review (4/04)
My Plays: 4 (2 when I wrote this)

Hoity ToityAdel Verpflichtet is a classic simultaneous-selection game. Its biggest twist is the fact that you make two simultaneous selections. The first time you choose a location and the second time you choose an action in that location. The end result is that you have a little bit of information about what other players are doing before making your final choice. 

The goal in these selections is to collect sets of antiques and to put on shows for points, but you can steal money and antiques and you can capture thieves along the way, all as simultaneous selection options.

Adel Verpflichtet is an unusual Alea game for a couple of reasons. First, it’s one of just two big-box games that wasn’t printed in English in the Alea version (Chinatown was the other). Second, it was the only Alea big-box game to have been previously published in another version; in fact the original printing of Adel dates way back to 1990, far predating the Alea series itself. Thanks to that original edition Adel picked up both the SdJ and the DSP. Perhaps even more interesting Adel was also one of the very first German games to make it to American shores, as Avalon Hill’s 1991 By Hook or By Crook. Thus, the game had serious pedigree. Still, I’m pretty surprised to see it in the Alea series.

Strengths: Lightness & Players

I think the game has two things really going for it.

First, Adel is a quick, light game. It’s easy to explain and easy to understand, yet does allow as much strategic depth as you can get out of any simultaneous-selection game. Of all the Alea games to date, I think this is the simplest, beating out both Ra and Chinatown, both of which I consider a little more gamerly. (By the by, that makes me think the official difficulty rating is ridiculous. This should be a “1”, below every other Alea game except Royal Turf.)

Second, Alea plays really well with a lot of players. The Alea version supports up to 5, while Überplay’s more recent edition goes up to 6. Because everything is simultaneous, there’s very little downtime, and everyone gets to remain involved in interesting ways.

Finally, I’ll note that the two-step simultaneous-selection process does some interesting things. I think it does introduce some more strategy into the game, as you can see what people are doing (but I’ll talk about the remaining randomness of Adel in a second). Perhaps more importantly the two-step simultaneous selection makes the game more manageable with more players (because you only have to “figure out” what a subset of people are doing in each round).

Weaknesses: Super Light

In a review of the game, I could stop there. However, in discussing how Adel fit into the Alea series, I’ll note that I think Alea players would generally find it too light. Between the simplicity of the system and the randomness of the card draws for antiques, it’s a fair amount less controlled than anything else in the Alea series, except perhaps Chinatown (which similarly has random draws that can really help out an individual, without much you can do about it).

I think Adel Verpflichtet is an amusing game that remains very playable two decades (!) after it was produced. As you can see, it’s gotten as many plays for me in recent years as it did before I originally wrote this Alea series, and that’s because I’ll rarely turn it down.

Comparisons: Looking toward the Future

Basari. This reminds me the most of simultaneous-selection king, Basari — or if you prefer Edel, Stein & Reich … the 2003 redevelopment by … Alea. The original Basari is surely a more elegant game (than either of the others), but I feel that I’m in more control when I play Adel Verpflichtet .


Big Box #6: The Traders of Genoa (A+)

AKA: Genoa
Author: Rüdiger Dorn
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2010) as Genoa
Alea Difficulty Scale: 5
Other Articles: Review (2/04)
My Plays: 3

Traders of GenoaIn Genoa, a negotiation game, you’re trying to earn as much money as you can. You mainly do this via three methods: delivering mail from one point to another, delivering a small order of one good to a location, and delivering a large order of three goods to a location.

I could imagine many methods to turn those three goals into a game, but Genoa doesn’t do anything typical. Instead at the start of each player’s turn he throws some dice to see where the “trading tower” starts, then he can move just a few spaces from that starting location, setting up opportunities for mail delivery and also providing the opportunity to take actions from various buildings. The negotiation comes in two parts: trying to influence where the trading tower goes and trying to purchase an action at some of the locations it’ll visit.

In any trading or negotiation game, the question is always how you encourage the player interaction. Genoa uses a very simple mechanism: each player can only take one action each turn. Thus, as the active player, you (usually) want to use one of the actions to really benefit yourself, but it’s usually in your best interest to sell off as many other actions as you can.

The Traders of Genoa, Alea game #6 (and the last release before they rolled out their Small Box line), went back to the trends of the third and fourth boxes: more complexity, denser gameplay, and less randomness. At the same time it also returned to the mechanic of negotiation, last seen in Chinatown (#2), one of the earlier, lighter games in the series.

Strengths: Better than Chinatown & More

I find it interesting to examine the strength’s of Genoa’s neogiation in part by comparing it to Chinatown, which I wrote about in the first part of this series

They both have random elements, but in Chinatown that randomness can make or break the game, with the locations you draw having a major impact on how well you do. You can similarly get a nice block of tiles in Genoa, but I think it’s easier to trade for a comparable set and beyond that, the adjacent locales are just one part of the game.

Genoa also feels like a much wider game to me. In Chinatown you’re just trying to collect businesses and locations, while in Genoa you’re balancing 8 goods, various types of orders, ownership markers, and mail. There are many more paths to victory in Genoa, and I think that makes it a deeper and more fulfilling game.

The other thing that I really like about Genoa is the fact that you can meaningfully bluff. This is allowed because there are so many overlapping ways to earn victory points. You might pay someone 10 or 15 to deliver a small order very late in the game, but if you also deliver some mail at the same time, your expected gross of 40 turning into 70 can really turn the game in a way surprising to your opponents.

Finally, I appreciate the fact that Genoa makes you stay on your interpersonal toes. If other people are offering more profitable ventures, sometimes you have to leave aside your own plans for a while. It feels like real business, writ large.

Weaknesses: Too Much!

If people don’t like Genoa, it’s probably because it’s too much of a good thing. The negotiation is intense and repeated, and if you can’t take that, you won’t like the game. It can also vary a lot from one group to another. One of my recent opponents told me the horror story of a 5-hour long Genoa game: it can really drag on if you’re in the wrong group.

In the right group, however, Traders of Genoa is probably the best real negotiation game I’ve played.

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