Over the last few years I’ve slowly been updating, expanding, and revising my series of articles on Alea games. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four.
This article brings Alea into the mid ’00s with a look at the transition from their old Small Box series to their new Medium Box series. It covers San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV.
Small Box #5: San Juan (A+)
San Juan returned to the gameplay of Alea’s prize-winner, Puerto Rico. On your turn, you pick a role that everyone benefits from, and you try and use the benefits of that role to build production buildings and special-power buildings that will ultimately earn you the most victory points.
Strengths: Innovative Cards
San Juan’s biggest innovation and its biggest strength lies in the the idea that cards can be used either for what’s printed on them or just as a resource. Generally, I find it an amazing idea. First, it notably decreases the effect of luck in a card game, because you only care about what’s printed on about a quarter of your cards, meaning that you have a lot more choice than you would if you used every card. Second, it introduces a lot of variety to the game, because on a given play you’ll only see a small number of the cards in actual use; it may be many, many games before you’ve played everything.
San Juan built upon this strong basis by adapting the basic roles of Puerto Rico to its new card paradigm. Now, many of the roles focus on different ways to draw cards: through selfishness (the Prospector), through overdrawing and discarding (the Councillor, who also includes another mechanism for reducing the luck of card draws), and through a more complex production-sales mechanism (the Producer and the Trader). It’s an excellent example of simultaneously innovating and holding onto classic play.
The result is a slightly simplistic game. There isn’t a lot of nuance in San Juan, and you’re largely driven by what cards you play early in the game. Though there is definitely variety over your first several games, by the time you’ve played San Juan a dozen times, you’ll have seen it all.
Looking back at San Juan, I’d be tempted to say that its replayability ultimately fizzles out … but my 37 plays over the last decade argue otherwise. I certainly don’t play it as much as I used to, but it’s still gotten a play a year since I originally drafted this article for my Journal five years ago or so.
So, I’ll simply say that San Juan has a clean simplicity, and you can make of that what you will.
Though Puerto Rico is widely considered Alea’s best, I’d instead nominate San Juan, largely based on its number of plays.
Puerto Rico (#7) & Gameplay. If you assume that the core gameplay of Puerto Rico is its role selection, then San Juan does an excellent job of adapting that mechanic for a different sort of game. Similarly, you get the fun of building up a city full of different buildings and using that to guide your strategy; it’s overall a masterful adaptation
The biggest omission from the original game is that there’s no more shipping of goods; instead points are generally earned by building a strong production engine that can be used to quickly build expensive buildings. Cutting out one full aspect of the original game might have disappointed some players, but it’s exactly the sort of tough love that’s needed to dramatically reduce the playtime of a game.
The Small Box Card Games. San Juan marked the end of the line for the small box Alea games, and I’m not convinced that was a bad thing. They were all very much card games, even if the later games moved away from the more traditional card mechanics of games like Wyatt Earp (S#1) and Die Sieben Weisen (S#3). However, the medium boxes that replaced the small boxes them stretched the medium a bit more. I’m not saying that card games are bad things, but I’m not certain they were a great fit for the Alea line.
Ironically, the last game in the line, San Juan, really showed the potential for German card games.
The Successors. Two heirs to San Juan followed from other publishers: Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome. In many ways, I think they improved upon the simpler gameplay of San Juan — by providing ways to move cards around your play space (in Glory to Rome) and by offering methods to trade cards directly for VPs (in Race for the Galaxy), both of which notably improved the depth of those games. I think that Race for the Galaxy in particular overshadowed San Juan, making it easy to forget about this very innovative ancestor.
San Juan and Glory to Rome also created an important new category of games: the heavy filler. These were games that could be played in 30-45 minutes, but that still allowed for dense, thoughtful gaming. I was always surprised at the time that there weren’t more imitators, but I no longer am because the category has been overwhelmed by a new type of play: deckbuilding.
Big Box #9: Fifth Avenue (F)
The basic idea of the game is that you’re trying to build up skyscrapers next to spaces with multiple businesses. You build skyscrapers by collecting cards (in 6 colors) then using those cards to win auctions. Part of the trick of the game is that you constantly have to decide whether to build resources, score districts, or add businesses to increase values. Thus, players have a lot of ability to control their destiny.
Strengths: Clever Auctions
Fifth Avenue was one of Alea’s final hoorahs in the auction game space, as the mechanic slowly faded from euro-play; I think its auctions are well done. That’s because they’re multi-dimensionsal. Players choose among many different colors of cards when laying out their bid, and that color determines where they can build their skyscrapers. They also have to decide what value of cards to use, as higher value cards permit less building. Finally, they have to choose when to use scarce black cards, which can be used to improve any auction bid.
As a result, you don’t simply choose how high to bid: you instead have to make a more complex decision that affects several aspects of the game. I find this sort of gameplay a lot more interesting than the simplistic auctions of the ’90s, and so it’s a pity that the category of games died out soon thereafter.
Weaknesses: Everything Else
If there was an Alea game that dropped straight off the RADAR, this was it. I think it’s a very unapproachable game, but I also feel like it was developed pretty poorly, and that’s a shocker coming from Alea. For a while, I gave it a try every year or two. I was sure that there was a good game in here somewhere, but play after play I never found it. Instead, my games were somewhere between “mediocre” and “meh”. I eventually lost patience, dropped my rating from “C-” to “F” and sold it off — the first game I removed from my (incomplete) Alea collection.
I think Fifth Avenue died primarily because of its opaqueness. It’s not obvious what to do and it’s not obvious what the value of doing those things is. I said that the game gave you the opportunity to control your own fate, but that turned out to be a deficit.
This deficit became particularly clear because Fifth Avenue offers three different ways that players can play dramatically wrong: they can make mistakes that can ruin the game when they trigger game-end, when they trigger scoring, and even when they decide how to bid in the very open auctions. I’ve discussed these major problems with the game in an article called “A Game Designer in Every Box”. The bottom line is that I could never figure out how the game was meant to be played and no one I played it with could; I suspect that this problem was true for most of the game playing community, and it’s ultimately because the game designer was not included with the game, to tell you how it should be played.
Beyond that, Fifth Avenue is a kind of awkward and ugly game. I particularly hate the fact that you can take one of four actions each turn, intuitively called, “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”. Each action is also split into three parts: first you do something notable, then you draw cards (with the type determined by the action column on a little chart), then you move a commissioner. This is where I think the development of the game really fell down. This morass should have been polished into something evocative and intuitive.
The Auction Games. Fifth Avenue was Alea’s fourth auction game, following Ra, Taj Mahal, and Princes of Florence. It fits in well with them, because it’s another innovative auction methodology. Ra had its set bids and its lots; Taj Mahal had its unique card mechanics and its everybody-pays results; and Princes of Florence had its auction/action balance.
Despite the general innovations, Fifth Avenue has some similarities to Taj Mahal which also had multiple (colored) currencies that you could bid in and a wild color. However Fifth Avenue takes those possibilities to the next level by having its additional limitations about what you can do based on what you bid. Those similarities might be why Fifth Avenue was brought into the Alea series, but in my opinion they’re the game’s only strengths.
Medium Box #1: Louis XIV (A-)
Author: Rüdiger Dorn
Publisher: Rio Grande (2005)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 5
Other Articles: Alea Treasures #1: Louis XIV & San Juan (9/10)
My Plays: 8
Louis XIV is a majority-control game played out over a collection of 12 connected tiles. Players play cards that each allow the placement of a set of three majority-control markers. In doing so, they try to achieve a variety of different victory conditions on those tiles, to win the resources that those tiles produce.
Strengths: Innovative Majority Control
The majority-control mechanics of Louis XIV are very unique, producing an interesting game. There are three major ways that the game differs from the majority-control norm.
1.) It has a strong geographical basis. Though I love most majority-control games, starting way back with El Grande, too many of them have weak geographical basis; things adjacent to each other don’t matter very much. Contrariwise, in Louis XIV, what’s next to each other matters quite a bit.
2.) That’s because of Louis XIV‘s second unique mechanism. When you place your markers, you get to place a set of three. You could just place them all on the tile corresponding to the card you play — but you can usually do more by laying them out across a path of adjacent tiles, maybe two on one tile and one on another, or maybe one each on three adjacent tiles.
I think this shows how similar majority-control and auction are. Because you have the ability to string markers over several tiles, you’re encouraged to “bid low” by keeping a minimal number of markers on several tiles, only increasing those numbers as other people “bid you up”.
3.) There are several different mechanisms to determine who won a tile: sometimes only the majority player gets the reward; sometimes the majority player gets the reward but everyone else can pay for it; and sometimes everyone gets the reward if they put sufficient markers (2-3) on the space. Because you’re bidding in all of these sorts of auctions at the same time, using the same markers, you have to constantly compromise and/or figure out how to get what you want.
Weaknesses: Dry & Abstract
To be honest, I wasn’t totally enthused by Louis XIV the first time I played it. I found it a little dry and a lot slow, but I think the latter ended up being because some of the players were very APed for that first game. Every other game of Louis XIV that I’ve played has come in a lot faster than that first game.
Because my appreciation of Louis XIV has risen over time, I’m surprised that other players remain so-so on it. However, I got a better understanding of why when I played the game again just before writing up this piece. Several of the players in that game said that it was too abstract, and I’ll agree that there isn’t a very good correlation between the theming of Louis XIV’s court and the play of putting down markers on cardboard tiles. I get no feeling of the intrigues of the sun court.
Players also said that they didn’t think its mechanics were original enough: it was just another of many mid-weight majority control games. As should be clear, I disagree with this point, but the originality of Louis XIV is pretty subtle.
Overall, I consider Louis XIV a very strong contender for a game to be brought out whenever a mid-weight, mid-length game is required. It’s got a nice amount of strategy, a nice amount of tension, and is original enough that I don’t every feel like I’ve played enough of its sort of game.
Small & Medium Boxes. I’d previously said that I wasn’t sure that the card-based small-box games were a good fit for the Alea series. Nonetheless, I was mildly befuddled by the decision to change over to medium boxes. That’s because many of the first several medium boxes could have fit into the small box series. Sure, the purview extended a bit beyond the card-centric games of the past (particularly with Louis XIV), but Witch’s Brew (M#4) is enough of a pure card game that it could have fit right into the previous line. Palazzo (M#2) too, for that matter, even if it uses tiles instead. So, I have to guess it was primarily an economic decision, as Alea can doubtless charge a bit more for a game in a medium box than a card game in a small box. And, in more recent years, Alea has pushed further away from card-based play (concentrating more on dice games in recent years).
Dorn’s Grids. Louis XIV is the game that made me respect Rüdiger Dorn as an interesting designer, and that’s because it made me understand one defining point of his designs. He likes to create grids and then to take normally abstract mechanics and position them on the grid. He did it in Traders of Genoa (negotiation on a grid), Goa (auction on a grid), and Louis XIV (majority control on a control). Maybe that’s why I often think that Goa should have been an Alea game: it’s a part of a neat trilogy, and the other two games are both Alea releases.
San Juan image is cropped from a picture courtesy of Forty One (FortyOne at BGG). Fifth Avenue image is cropped from an Alea picture. Louis XIV image is cropped from a picture courtesy of Toshiyuki Hashitani (moonblogger at BGG), used under a Creative Commons License. Click the Alea Analysis link below for my thoughts on the entire Alea series.