Continuing my series of articles on the Alea games, I’m now moving into what may be the line’s lowest ebb. From 2002-2003, following the line’s well-acclaimed release of Puerto Rico, Alea published a number of games that didn’t get the same level of respect as what had come before. Two of the games weren’t even translated into the English. Some saw it as the end of a tradition of serious gaming. It might have been at least a road block, as I personally haven’t played any of the games since my Aleathon of 2009.
In any case, I’ll be looking at those three games — the ones that were unfortunate enough to be published between Puerto Rico and San Juan — today. I also invite you to take a look at the pervious articles in this series. For Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal, see the first article. For Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa, see the second article. For Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico, see the third article.
Small Box #3: Die Sieben Weisen (C)
Author: Reiner Stockhausen
Publisher: Alea (2002); no English edition, out of print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 3
My Plays: 1
I’ll take a bit more time to explain Die Sieben Weisen than usual, because it’s likely you haven’t played it. It’s one of those games that falls right between the categories of “auction” and “card play”. Basically, the game contains a deck of cards that has seven suits in it (plus a wild suit) and players will be dealt some of those cards. Each turn each player takes a “role card” which says which suit of cards he’s allowed to play that turn. Then the players partner up into two sides. Afterward, there’s a series of card plays, with each player playing cards (from his suit) one at a time or passing. A player may choose to pass even if he has cards of the appropriate suit left, to save his cards for the future. The group with the most points worth of played cards at the end wins (or you can autowin if you hit +24 over your opponents). The winning side then splits a pair of victory point markers.
The game also contains a bit more color. There are “magic spells”, which allow you to do interesting things during the auction, and which are drawn by the losers. The roles also determine some ordering that varies from round to round, namely: who gets the higher VP marker of the two in the split; who gets to choose a role first next round; and what next round is fought over. Players also get some control over their hand because they draw cards when they pass, then give some of their cards to the next player (which was a remarkably early use of card drafting in Euro Games).
Die Sieben Weisen is a pretty rare game in the US, and thus it was the most challenging Alea game to play during my original Aleathon. I was only able to play it because Aaron, then kind proprietor at Endgame, managed to secure a copy for us to play.
Strengths: Partnership Trust & Signalling
As an auction/card-play game Die Sieben Weisen is fair to good. I think the most interesting question is usually how much you can trust your “partner”, because they may or may not be playing to win, as resources they don’t spend can be saved for next round.
The card drafting I mentioned above also allow for some interesting signaling. At one point the last-place player handed some great cards to the next-to-last-place player, which was a way of saying, “We both got kick ass cards, let’s earn some victory points together, next turn.”
Weaknesses: The Endgame
Unfortunately Die Sieben Weisen largely fails in the end game. There are two major problems.
First, because you get to pretty freely choose your partner every time, the game really pushes toward a balanced score. You usually won’t try and help the winning players and instead will side with the underdog when you feel strong. We had some discussion about whether closed victory points would help this (and whether the points were actually supposed to be open or closed, as our translation of the rules didn’t say), and it came down to the same ‘ole argument about semi-closed victory points that you hear surrounding Tigris & Euphrates and others. In any case, the way we played it with open victory points resulted in scores of 25-25-25-24 as we came upon the final round — which was probably abnormally close, but it is what the game selects for.
Second, you can easily get into a position in the last couple of rounds where it’s to your grave deficit to help your partner win, depending on relative positioning. You can likewise get into the position on the last round or two where there’s nothing you can do to win, depending on who you’re paired with. This is often a problem in games with rotating partners. Nyet! is a (somewhat more clever) card game which similarly can break apart at the finale.
Overall, I was really pleased to get to play this game as part of my series, but I won’t shed any tears if it’s my last play of it.
Wyatt Earp (S#1) & Card Games. I think that Die Sieben Weisen is a really nice match for Wyatt Earp, the first of the small-box games, since they both focus on fairly traditional card play. However, unlike Wyatt Earp, it doesn’t excel; in the former game, it felt like there were lots of opportunity for clever play, while here it felt like there was just some social awareness — and the constant decision of when to play to win and when to cut your losses.
Ultimately, these would be the only two Alea games that are somewhat traditional card games; though there are other card-based games like San Juan (S#5) and Witch’s Brew (M#4), they fall much further from traditional play.
Small Box #4: Edel, Stein & Reich (B-)
Author: Reinhard Staupe
Publisher: Alea (2003); no English edition, out of print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
Other Articles: Basari Review (9/04)
My Plays: 1
Edel, Stein & Reich is ultimately a more complex variant of Staupe’s earlier game, Basari (1998). Since I’m going to compare and contrast both of these games, I’m going to start out with Basari’s rules, and then build them up to the Edel, Stein & Reich release.
In Basari, players move around a board; the space each player lands on lists values in gems and victory points. After arriving at their new spaces, all of the players simultaneously select whether to take gems or victory points (based on the values on his space) or to move further (which moves him toward a +10 bonus at the end of the round).
There are problems if multiple players chose the same option when making their simultaneous selections. If three or more did, none of those players gets to do anything. But, if two people choose the same thing, they got to barter. This is, I think Basari’s most clever feature. You barter by offering gems back and forth, always bidding upward (either by offering more gems or more valuable gems). There are some opportunities for real cleverness, where you can try to force an opponent to go quite high (or drop out!) based on the particular bid you made.
Edel, Stein & Reich makes several changes to Basari: it replaces the board positions with card draws, it replaces the movement option with event cards which can do many things, and it gives a fourth option, a gem exchange, which increases the 4-player limit on Basari to 5.
Like Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich was never released in an English-language edition. Unlike Die Sieben Weisen, I bought myself a copy as one of my earlier eurogames — likely due to its Alea pedigree. When it arrived I dutifully printed up the English rules, probably from BGG, read them, put them back in the box, and then had it sit … for years. The problem was the language issue, which intimidated me. I’ll return to that when I get to the game’s weaknesses …
Strengths: What Basari Said
The strengths of Edel, Stein & Reich are pretty much the strengths of Basari. The core system is cool — with its somewhat-controlled blind selection and a neat bartering system.
Weaknesses: Language, Chaos & Innovation
Unfortunately, I think the game has several problems, starting with the German language on the cards. This combined unpleasantly with the fact that each card had lots of variations (e.g., you can get a VP bonus for red gems or green gems or yellow gems), so that even printing up English translations didn’t make things entirely clear. Perhaps it doesn’t seem fair to essentially complain that Edel, Stein & Reich wasn’t printed in English, but … it wasn’t, and unfortunately there’s enough complexity on the cards for that to make a big difference.
With that said, I think the game has some more substantive weaknesses that go to its core design …
First up, some percentage of players don’t like the chaos of the game, which arises wwhen two of more people (randomly?) choose the same action. One player told me that he thinks that for a game of this sort to work, the choices of other people must be more predictable, and the results of butting heads must be less punishing. It’s difference in preference of game style, so I’ll leave it at that.
Second, Edel, Stein & Reich turns out to be a step down from the simpler Basari in several ways, but more on that in a second.
After I played Edel, Stein & Reich (for the first time!) during my 2009 Aleathon, I came to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t play it again. Thus far that’s been true, and I’ve even sold off my own copy, despite its Alea markings.
Edel, Stein, Reich & Basari Fight. As I noted above, I think that Edel, Stein & Reich isn’t as strong as its predecessor, Basari. Here’s my overall comparison of the two games:
- Changing the board positions of Basari into cards in Edel, Stein & Reich took a surprising amount away from the game. I think a lot of this was purely visceral, as the players no longer felt as connected to what the other players were doing due to the lack of a board.
- The events of Edel, Stein & Reich would probably have been cooler than the movement of Basari if not for the fact they were all in German, which made them annoying exercises in language lookup. Absent that, it would have added some neat variability to the game.
- Adding a fifth player in Edel, Stein & Reich turned out to be a bad thing, not a good thing. I already complained about the chaos of the game, and if you add a fifth player, that just increases the chance of three players butting heads and getting really screwed.
As a whole in its German edition, Edel, Stein & Reich is definitely a worse game for the US market than Basari. In an English edition (if such existed), I might like it better, because it has better art than the current version of Basari, and the event cards have the potential to be cooler when you get used to them … but I’d refuse to play it with five players.
Adel Verpflichtet (#5) & Simultaneous Selection. This was of course the second simultaneous selection game from Alea — and the last that uses it in such an unadulterated form. Of the two, I think that Adel Verpflichtet is the better game, though it’s a bit light and fluffy for me too.
The Small Box Card Games. This was the fourth small-box game, and the third card game in that series. However, whereas Wyatt Earp (S#1) and Die Sieben Weisen (S#3) both supported pretty normal cardplay (Rummy and partnered cardplay, respectively), Edel, Stein & Reich offers something very different. That difference actually makes it a nice complement for the rest of the Small Box series.
Big Box #8: Mammoth Hunters (B+)
Author: Alan Moon, Aaron Weissblum
Publisher: Rio Grande Games (2003)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 3
Other Articles: Mammoth Hunters Review (3/04)
My Plays: 5
Mammoth Hunters is a nicely thematic majority-control game with a couple of twists. Each turn you get to take an action by playing either a dark card or a light card. Dark cards give an action to your opponents, but give you stones; conversely light cards give you an action, but cost you stones. Through those mechanisms, hunters and mammoths and campfires are put on the board.
At the end of each round of play, each of up to 12 regions are examined to see how many hunters they can support (with the precise number being 3 + mammoths + 0-2 per campfire). Hunters in excess of this are killed, with the players with fewer hunters taking somewhat greater losses. Then each hunter scores 1-3 points depending on how many mammoths are in their space. At the end of the round, the player in last place gets to advance the ice sheet (likely killing hunters & mammoths).
Overall, I think that Mammoth Hunters is the most underrated and underappreciated Alea game. I was talking about it with a friend during my Aleathon, saying I didn’t understand it, and he said, “It’s because Mammoth Hunters isn’t Puerto Rico.” And that’s certainly the game’s problem — or at least it was back when people remembered it at all.
Strengths: Innovation & Color
I find the dark/light mechanism highly innovative and I’m surprised that I haven’t seen it in more games — with FFG’s Android (2008) being one of the few exceptions. Besides the obvious resource management, there’s also some interesting calculation of joint interest.
As a majority-control game, Mammoth Hunter offers some interesting innovations to the genre. That’s in part because of the way that figures die during the scoring, and in part because of the way that another component (mammoths) control the actual value of the scoring. Even a decade after Mammoth Hunter’s release, I haven’t seen these innovations in much use — though that may be in part because worker placement killed majority control as a major eurogame mechanic just a few years later.
Finally, Mammoth Hunter is a surprisingly colorful and thematic game with its hunters, mammoths, ice sheets and the rest.
To be fair, some players don’t like Mammoth Hunters for reasons beyond it not being Puerto Rico. In particular, it can be very chaotic:
- The dark cards allow people to punish the leader — though they restrict them from doing it too much.
- The card draws can randomize the game. For example, in one of my games, I felt like I got hosed by having zero hunter-placement cards through the first round of play.
These random/chaotic elements can make the mechanics feel somewhat arbitrary. The result makes Mammoth Hunters feels more like a French game than a German game — and that level of chaos isn’t acceptable for many eurogame players.
I’ll also have to admit that Mammoth Hunters isn’t one of the greats from the Alea series — which would be Ra (#1), Princes of Florence (#4), Traders of Genoa (#6), Puerto Rico (#7), San Juan (S#5), In the Year of the Dragon (#12), Witch’s Brew (M#4), Macao (#13), and The Castles of Burgundy (#14), in my opinion. Personally, I’m happy to play it about once a year and don’t mind that I don’t play it more. I should also note that my rating of Mammoth Hunters has gone up over time. I thought it purely average the first time I played, but as you can see I now give it a strong B+.
Two Infamous Facts About Mammoth Hunters
#1. Rio Grande opted not to print the “#8” on the side of this box for the English edition, much to the consternation of Alea collectors and fans. Some thus bought the German edition, so that their numbered Alea collection was complete, while others pasted on a number 8 to their English box. For me, personally, it was one of the factors that helped me to start removing the cruft from my Alea collection, since it “wasn’t complete” anyway.
#2. A piece of cardstock is used to separate the light and dark components. It looks rather like a strip of bacon.
The Big Box Series. It’s not just that Mammoth Hunters isn’t Puerto Rico — it’s also one of the simplest big box games according to the Alea difficulty scale. The only Big Box games with the same difficulty or less are Chinatown and Rum & Pirates. I think both of those games got more kudos than Mammoth Hunters in their time, but personally I rate both lower, and haven’t kept either in my collection.