In this third part of my look at the Alea games, I’m moving into the small box set which appeared in 2001 and concluding with Alea’s best known release, Puerto Rico (2002). For Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal, see the first article in the series. For Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa, see the second article.
Small Box #1: Wyatt Earp (B+)
First there are sheriff cards, which let you engage in certain actions, like drawing extra cards or adding a new card to a meld of your choice.
Second, exactly who gets points for a meld is determined by looking at the total value of all the cards in that color (which could include quite a variety of sheriff cards) and comparing totals — only the player with the most points played for that outlaw (meld) gets to collect the reward (points).
So, it’s Rummy with variations.
The release of Wyatt Earp was really something new for Alea. They published it in a small box, primarily (one suspects) so that they could sell what was essentially a card game without having to charge a large-box price. Alea would follow this format for the next four years, until they decided to replace it with a new medium-box size (which has similarly been used for some games that are mostly card games).
Wyatt Earp was originally designed by Mike Fitzgerald as a “Mystery Rummy” game, then turned into a more Eurogame by Richard Borg, who sold it to Alea.
Strengths: Interactivity & Choice
When I first played this game five years ago, I didn’t particularly like it. At the time I was playing a lot of the standard Mystery Rummies, and I found this one needlessly complex, mainly based on its scoring conditions. It was only when I played it for the second time that I became more impressed with it.
The cool thing about the scoring is that it really encourages you to interact with the other people, to get your meld scoring more than theirs — or just to get your own value high enough that you earn something (as you can still get a fraction of the reward if you tie). This process is helped along by the way the sheriff cards are designed: they give you many situations where you can make a meaningful choice about how your cards will interact with your opponents’. (The secret for how this works is in the fact that many of the sheriff cards could be used to affect lots of different melds, so you’re not just stuck with what you drew, like in standard Rummy.)
Beyond that, I think Wyatt Earp is nicely thematic, with the increasing rewards (points), the shoot-outs (where some cards may have an affect based on a draw), and the names of everything working really well together.
One of the biggest complaints about Wyatt Earp was that it was really light compared to the Alea series to date. Except it’s not exactly lighter than the rest of the Alea series, it’s just a different sort of game — a real traditional card game, revved up to the next level (and maybe the next level beyond that).
Of course there’s a flip side: as I said the complexity is what turned me off when I first played it. So it may occupy a somewhat delicate spot in the gaming ecology.
Small Box #2: Royal Turf (A-)
Author: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Face 2 Face Games (2006) as Winner’s Circle
Alea Difficulty Scale: 1
Other Articles: Winner’s Circle Review (6/06)
My Plays: 7 (6 when I wrote this)
In Royal Turf you’re betting on horses, then racing them. Each horse has a set of four stats, which correspond to faces on a die. When you’re ready to race, you throw a die, then move a horse of your choice. Depending on the face and the corresponding stat, you might get to move a horse a lot or a little. All seven horses have to be moved before you can move any of them again. At the end of the race, first, second, and third place score, and last place penalizes. Pretty simple.
I have to admit to being befuddled as to why this game was ever put in a small box, given that it’s got a board and figures and everything. This game was also another pseudo-reprint in the Alea series, since it had appeared previously in a somewhat different form as Royal Turf Racing, which had been published in 1995.
Strengths: Fun, Strategy & Lots More
I like Royal Turf quite a bit for a few different reasons. First, it’s fun. Knizia has correctly sussed out how to make the die roll exciting, because you’re often looking for special symbols that can move a horse much more than he’d get to on average. On the other hand, it’s relatively strategic too. You can manage your strategy from the start, by choosing horses to bet on such that every roll is good for you. But, that’s not the only betting strategy. You might go contrarian instead, for example. During play that strategy turns into clever tactics, as you try to keep your horses ahead and others behind based on specific rolls.
One of the other things that impresses me about Royal Turf is that Knizia encourages players to be nasty to each other, something that you don’t see a lot in German games. That’s because of the penalty for the last-place horse. Often slowing a horse down is about self-interest: you’re just trying to be sure to not come in last with your own bets. But along the way, you’re hurting one of your opponents too.
Finally, the betting in Royal Turf can also be quite interesting if you use the hidden betting variant. I think it doubles the fun of the game, because it’s great pretending the whole time that you like a horse that you didn’t actually bet on and watching all of the other players trying to stop it from winning (while your real horses glide in).
Generally, I think Royal Turf is another of Alea’s stars, albeit a very light one. I just wish Winner’s Circle (which is the copy of the game I have, as the Alea edition is long out of print) didn’t have such bad coloration on the horses. There’s two that I always have to watch out for, lest I get confused.
As you can see, I really don’t have a lot bad to say about Royal Turf. If folks don’t like it, I’m sure it’s largely about the randomness implicit in the game … but that’s pretty much the game, and Knizia does a masterful job of managing it.
Wyatt Earp (S#1). Royal Turf is an interesting contrast to Wyatt Earp, because where the first was definitely a card game, the second is definitely a dice game. It’s like a one-two of randomness in gaming.
Bix Box #7: Puerto Rico (A+)
Author: Andreas Seyfarth
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2002)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 7 (which is the top to date for an Alea game)
Other Articles: The Tao of Board Gaming I (12/09), Alea Treasure #3: Puerto Rico (10/12)
My Plays: 13 (11 when I wrote this)
A role-selection and resource-management game where you’re trying to create resources in order to sell them (to generate gold) and ship them (to generate victory points). You in turn use the gold to build new buildings, which helps with all your other tasks.
Strengths: Polished Economics & Roles
First up, Puerto Rico has a fun foundation. It’s an economic engine game where you’re building up the parts to a machine and trying to fit them together. Building always gives players a sense of accomplishment, and that’s clearly the case here.
The creation of an economic engine pretty much defines the strategy of Puerto Rico, but you have great opportunities for individual tactics too, where taking a certain role at a certain time can really advantage you and hurt your opponents. That’s the best of both worlds, where you feel like you have a big game plan, yet every turn is quite important.
All of this combines to create an interesting differentiation of players. The strategy of my engine building helps to define my tactics in a way uniquely different from any other player.
Finally, I think that even today you can’t write an article about Puerto Rico without lauding its use of roles. They’ve certainly gotten very common through the sub-method of worker placement, but Puerto Rico’s use of them still seems clean, elegant, and intelligent.
Weaknesses: Programmed Gaming
With all that said, the main reason that I almost never play Puerto Rico is because it can be too programmed. Playing Puerto Rico with a know-it-all who “understands” all the best moves at every point is pretty much the definition of not-fun, and the almost-zero-luck of Puerto Rico encourages that type of gamer.
Nonetheless, Puerto Rico is deserving of its rating as one of the top Eurogames.
A Beautiful Design. It’s easy to think of Puerto Rico as being overhyped nowadays, because it’s been so highly lauded for so long. It’s also pretty easy to forget about Puerto Rico, because so much other highly hyped stuff has come out since; in fact, years often go by when I don’t play it. But, in playing it again, I am newly astonishing how at elegant the game is.
You compare it to something like Agricola (which I think I enjoy playing more), and it’s obvious that Agricola has many warts and lumps, as opposed to Puerto Rico’s really smooth veneer, where everything seems to just blend together seamlessly.