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; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five.
This article brings Alea past the mid ’00s and through the rest of what I think of as its lowest peak. After Palazzo and Rum & Pirates, following on the heels of Fifth Avenue, I was wondering if I should give up on the series … and then the good Feld games started appearing (in part seven!). I think it’s notable that I haven’t played any of these three games since my alea-thon of 2009, though two of them remain in my collection.
Medium Box #2: Palazzo (B-)
Author: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Rio Grande (2005), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 3
Other Articles: Knizia-Thon Part 2: Palazzo & Obscurity (11/07)
My Plays: 6
The object of Palazzo is to build Renaissance palaces composed of multiple floors. You bid for those floors in auctions and/or purchase them. Each floor is made of a specific material, has 1-3 windows or doors, and bears a number from 1-5 (which must be placed in increasing order as you build). The final value of each palazzo is dependent on how many floors it contains, whether it’s all made of one material, and how many doors and windows it has.
Strengths: Auctions & Options
Both the auctions and the options in Palazzo include some clever design.
The auction is built around a Knizia favorite: multiple currencies, something that he’s been very successful with over the years. This auction focuses on three different colors of cards, which are the three currencies.You choose a currency at the start of each auction, and have to remain with it, though you can add in some “neutral” cards to help out — either low-valued “2”s or triplets of cards. The result mixes strategic and tactical decisions and keeps you on your toes.
The options provide a lot of variety, even though there are just three of them. Each turn you choose to either (1) reveal new palazzo tiles, (2) distribute money, or (3) rearrange some already built buildings. This choice is surprisingly hard, because you constantly feel like you’re giving up competitive advantage to your opponents, no wonder what you do. I always love hard choices in a game.
Weaknesses: Simplicity & Scoring
I have minor complaints with the simplicity of Palazzo. Among other things, I don’t think it deserves a “3” on the Alea difficulty scale, because this isn’t at the same difficulty level as the much deeper and more complex San Juan (2005). I mean, generally, I don’t have a problem with simple games, but I expect more depth in my Alea games, and Palazzo doesn’t stand up to the adjacent boxes in the medium series, Louis XIV (2005) and Augsburg 1520 (2006).
However, my real problem with Palazzo is the scoring. Because you’ve got orthagonal scoring for both the height of a building and its composition, I find the scoring very opaque, a topic I wrote about during my Kniziathon of 2007. Perhaps because of that I feel like Palazzo fits into the games-you-can’t-think-about-too-much category. If you play fast and from the gut, it’s fun, but if you start getting bogged down in the calculations of your actual score … it can lose all of its zing. On the other hand, when I don’t think about it, I find that I sometimes lose to a bad decision on the last round that I could have made better if I’d done the calculation, and that’s not a good feeling either. So Palazzo is one of those games that sits at a very awkward position between requiring-calculation-to-win and requiring-non-caclution-to-be-fun.
If I had to describe Palazzo in a couple of words, it’d be “mostly harmless”. I’d play it if it was set out in front of me, and I wouldn’t mind, but I’d expect it to be a muddy game with a ending that wasn’t inspiring.
The Knizia Alea Games. If you asked me off-the-top-of-my-head how many games that Knizia had in the Alea collection, I’d say two: Ra (#1) and Taj Mahal (#3). That’s because Ra and Taj Mahal are both great games. They not only have unique auctions, but also a lot of depth. I could sit down and play either game right now, and it’d be a height of my gaming evening. On the other hand, Palazzo would be that game that I played at the end of the night because there wasn’t time for anything good, or because I had players who didn’t look like they were up for something serious.
All three games are, of course, auctions — though Palazzo mixes that with the unique idea of distributing out tiles some of the time, which is a nice variation for auction play. Palazzo also has some interesting parallels to Taj Mahal. They’re both multiple-currency auction games where you choose a currency that you must stick with, but where you can supplement your selected currency with neutral cards. With that said, even ignoring the rest of the game, the auction of Taj Mahal is much more tense and exciting than the auction in Palazzo, probably because everyone loses everything they bid.
Medium Box #3: Augsburg 1520 (B)
Author: Karsten Hartwig
Publisher: Rio Grande (2006), in-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 4
My Plays: 2
Augsburg 1520 is a game of economics. You’re collecting debts from nobles (which are effectively four different currencies), which you then use to win auctions. You in turn use those victories to increase your money, victory points, and debts — or else to increase your “technology”, giving you better ability to earn money, victory points, and new debts.
In retrospect, I might use the phrase “soulless euro” to describe Augsburg 1520. It’s a dry, abstract, economic-based auction game. Despite that, it manages to stand out somewhat thanks to its originality.
The best element of the game is the auction. Players each bid how many cards they’re going to play and then everyone who “calls” (saying they’re going to play the biggest count of cards, all in one suit) secretly puts down a set of cards. The player with the single highest valued card in his bid then wins. Players thus have to balance their highest valued cards and the breadth of cards they have in a suit, which is a great variation of auction play because of its two-dimensionality. Players can win either by out-valuing their opponents (playing a high card) or by out-counting them (bidding a higher number of cards). Usually it’s a balance between the two extremes.
There are also two interesting victory-point barriers, at 25 VP and at 45 VP. Players have to build a certain structure (a church or a cathedral) to be able to move past those barriers. Building them takes great sacrifices in money (though the cost drops if you build after other people) and also takes winning a specific type of auction (or else playing a “master builder”). These barriers were so important that they became a crucial strategy point in each game I played.
Augsburg 1520’s biggest problem is that its theme is paper-thin, which was an ongoing problem for the Alea Medium Box games at this point. Combine that with the facts that it requires a lot of thinking and that the strategy to get past the barriers can be really brutal. The result is a game that often didn’t feel “fun” to me; instead, it seemed like work (but I say that of a lot of economic games).
I’m also not convinced there’s a huge amount of depth to Augsburg 1520. The little economic machine that you’re building is pretty simple, with just a few different levers, and so there are limits to how many different paths you can take.
Here’s my bottom-line for Augsburg 1520: I only played it twice, despite my love of Alea, once when I bought it and once for my 2009 Aleathon. It hasn’t hit the table for six years since, and though I look at it from time to time, I think of it as “that unfun game where you struggle to get over the point barriers.” Some games are just too much work, and that was the case for me here. Your Mileage May Vary, and if it does, this is probably a forgotten masterpiece.
Chinatown (#2) & Abstraction. I find it easy to forget that Karsten Hartwig designed two Alea games, but this is indeed his second offering after Chinatown (1999). Looking back, I can see the similarity, because they’re both very abstract, to the point that I couldn’t really tell you the theme of either. Otherwise, they’re opposites, as Chinatown was way too simple, while Augsburg 1520 is arguably too tough.
Louis XIV (M#1) & Strategy. Out of the first five Medium Box games, only two of them had much depth: Louis XIV (2005) and Augsburg 1520. Though the Alea Difficulty Scale lists Louis XIV as the more difficult game, I’d gave that rating to Augsburg 1520 instead. However, I could be wrong: it could be that Louis XIV has a more difficult rule set, while Augsburg 1520 is just more difficult to play (andto play well). I’ll also note that I found them both very abstract when I first put them on the table, but Louis XIV grew on me, so that I now feel that its theme is an integral part of the game — even though it’s really as paper-thin as the one in Augsburg 1520.
Large Box #10: Rum & Pirates (C)
Rum & Pirates is a curious piracy game, because there are no high seas, and the boats are just a place to rest your head. Instead, you spend your time wandering a pirate town. Everyone’s in the same clump, but on your turn you place some of your own pirates to get the group to a new intersection, which gives you a special ability. You try and use those special abilities to maximize your own points and meet your own goals. Then you can spend a coin to go again, or else pass on the pirate baton.
Strengths: Possibly Innovative Worker Placement?
When I first played Rum & Pirates, I saw it as an innovative expansion of the worker-placement genre. The genre was just gelling at the time with games like Caylus (2005), The Pillars of the Earth (2006), and Agricola (2007) — which meant that what a worker-placement game was (or wasn’t) was still pretty fluid. Anyway, my theory was that your pirates were the workers, and the intersections were the places that you placed them.
According to my theory, Rum & Pirates was a different sort of worker placement than the others in the field because it was heavily geographically based. That combined with a few other innovative features:
- The worker placement was geography constrained based on what the last person did (e.g., you can only go to nearby intersections).
- There was a resource cost for the placement that was also based on geography (e.g., it takes different numbers of pirates to get to different places).
- There was an option to make additional placements for a separate resource cost (e.g., the gold to take extra turns).
I’m less convinced by my worker-placement argument now, but that’s largely because worker-placement didn’t go in this direction. In any case, the innovation of the core mechanic was probably the best thing about Rum & Pirates.
Oh, and I kind of liked the theming too, in part because it was sort of over-the-top and funny.
Weakness: Simplicity & Randomness
With all that said, I’m not a fan of Rum & Pirates. I gave it a “B” at the time I wrote the first draft of this (years ago), and I give it a “C” now. It’s the only Stefan Feld game that I’ve pulled out of my collection, and one of just two Alea games that I’ve gotten rid of, the other being Fifth Avenue (2004). It’s not that Rum & Pirates is necessarily a bad game, it’s just not a very exciting game either. Here’s why.
Simplicity. Rum & Pirates is quite different from the rest of Feld’s Alea games, and from the large box series generally. Sure, Alea had published the occasional light game before, such as Adel Verpflichtet (1990), but that was before Puerto Rico (2002). Now people were really looking for something different.
Length. Unfortunately, the simplicity pairs poorly with Rum & Pirate’s length which was “too long” just about every time I played it. If it really ran the 60 minutes that the box claims as a minimum, it’d be fine, but I found my games often ran past 2 hours.
Complexity. The length was paired with a surprising amount of complexity in the form of lots of mechanical systems that worked differently. To a certain extent, all of Feld’s Alea games are built up from a lot of different game systems “smooshed” together, but I felt like it really showed in Rum & Pirates, because a simple game should have been simple, and it wasn’t.
Randomness. Rum & Pirates also has a lot of die-rolling to it. You dice to see who wins inn tiles, who gets sleeping positions on the boat, and who gets stung by the scorpion. That’s probably the thing that turns away most serious gamers. Though I’m perfectly happy to have some luck in my games, especially when it’s somewhat controlled (and Rum & Pirates does have rum barrels, which give you some control by offering you rerolls), even I think that there’s too much die rolling in the game. Primarily, that’s because a lot of the die rolling is repetitive. But the high level of randomness also doesn’t meld well with the too-long length.
In general, serious gamers probably won’t be into this game, but then they’re not the intended audience either. It’s families who are … but years later, I’m not convinced it was a great game for them either.
Roundel Games. Though I made an argument for Rum & Pirates being a worker-placement game, I can also see it was a roundel role-selection game. Those games (primarily by Mac Gerdts) use roundels to limit what roles you can select in future turns, creating constraints on what you can do much like this game.
The Simple Alea Games. At the time of its publication, Rum & Pirates was the fifth Alea game to earn just a 1 or 2 on the Alea difficulty scale, following Chinatown (1999), Wyatt Earp (2001), Royal Turf (2001), and Edel, Stein & Reich (2003). Though Alea’s simple small-box games were pretty good, I don’t think they were as successful when they produced simple games in the large-box series, such as Chinatown and Rum & Pirates. Chinatown was just too thin, while Rum & Pirates tried to be less thin, and ended up fighting with itself. The success of the big box line instead seems to have been built upon games with complexity of 4 or higher.
Rum & Pirates image cropped from an original by Toshiyuki Hashitani (moonblogger at BGG), distributed under an Attribution CC license. Alea and Augsburg 1520 images cropped from originals from Alea.