By Robert Florence on November 19th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Have you ever played one of those Euro-style board games that pretends to have a theme? “You are in deep space! You are trading SPACE-WEAPON STUFF.” And you’re sitting there thinking – “I am swapping a red cube for a blue cube. Kill me.” I don’t like those games. I like Euro-games fine, but when they’re all about the mechanics, they should at least be honest about that.
Let me talk to you about The Palaces of Carrara – a game that gets it right.
THE PALACES OF CARRARA
In this beautiful-looking board game, the player can only do one of three things in a turn.
1. Buy blocks.
2. Build buildings.
There are blocks of six different colours, and they sit on a wheel. Whenever you decide to buy blocks, you rotate the wheel, then draw new blocks for the new space on the wheel. There always has to be 11 blocks for sale on the wheel. Now here’s the cool thing – as the wheel rotates, the blocks go down in price. Some blocks even become free. Oh, and you can only buy blocks from one section of the wheel at a time. So here is a DECISION in this elegant board game – WHEN DO I BUY THESE BLOCKS? And another DECISION – WHICH BLOCKS DO I BUY?
So why are we buying blocks?
You buy blocks so that you can build buildings. There are different types of buildings – Cathedrals and Libraries and so on. Each building has a cost. The cost is just a certain number of blocks. What matters is where you build the buildings. On your player board there are six cities. Each city will only allow you to use blocks of certain colours. Let’s say you want to build a Cathedral with a building cost of 4 blocks in the city Lucca. You can only use White, Yellow or Red blocks to build there. So, more DECISIONS – WHICH BUILDING DO I BUILD? WHICH CITY DO I BUILD IN?
And how is this all scored anyway?
In most games, scoring will happen at pre-defined points in the game. Score at the end of a round, maybe. Score at the end of the game. But in The Palaces of Carrara, the players choose when to score. Each player has six scoring markers. As one of your actions, you can SCORE something. You can score a type of building. This will instantly generate the rewards for each building of that type you’ve built. And there are different rewards in every city – different multipliers of money or victory points. Do you see how that feeds into the earlier DECISION? (WHICH CITY DO I BUILD IN?) And do you see how that also feeds into an even earlier DECISION? (WHICH BLOCKS DO I BUY?) And do you understand that to get the best value out of those rewards you need to carefully consider that very first DECISION we mentioned? (WHEN DO I BUY THESE BLOCKS?)
You can only score each building once, by the way. So here we have another DECISION – WHEN DO I SCORE THIS TYPE OF BUILDING? Do you need the money now? Or can it wait until you get another building of that type built? Oh, and it’s not just buildings that you can score. You can also score whole cities. When you score a city, every building you’ve built there generates that city’s reward. But while every player can score every building once if they wish, when a city is scored that city can’t be scored by any other player. When it’s gone, it’s gone. This makes this DECISION – WHEN DO I SCORE THIS CITY? – a vital one. You might not feel like you’re getting a huge reward from scoring a certain city, but if it stops another player from getting a big payout isn’t it worth it? Is it worth it? And when will they score that city anyway? Can you risk waiting another round? DECISIONS.
When these rewards are spat out during scoring, each building also generates an additional reward – a little wooden token from a limited supply. For example, each scored Palazzo will give you a little wooden crown. Each scored library will give you a little wooden book. And all these little wooden tokens are worth 3 victory points at the end of the game. This further enhances those two earlier DECISIONS – WHEN DO I SCORE THIS TYPE OF BUILDING? and WHEN DO I SCORE THIS CITY? Because if you’re the first player to score them, you will be sure of those little tokens too. If you do it late, those tokens might be gone. You’re not getting the full reward. DECISIONS.
Boy, did these sexy designers give us some serious decisions.
Many games also end at a pre-defined point. In The Palaces of Carrara, the players choose when to end the game. In the basic game there are three end-of-game objectives that must be met. You must have scored four times, you must have hit a target amount of reward tokens, and you must have hit a target total value of buildings built. If you’ve met all these objectives, you can call an end to the game yourself. You get some bonus victory points, and the round is played until its end.
The late stages of this game are all about watching what your opponents are doing. Is the game about to end? Have they met all the objectives? How many reward tokens do they have behind their little screen? Do you think they’ll want to play another round or two to score more points? Or will they call it now? What is the state of the game? DECIDE.
You will notice that I haven’t talked about theme at all in this piece. I haven’t talked about why you’re building the buildings, or who you’re supposed to be. When a Euro game is this good, I couldn’t really care less about the theme. And the game doesn’t care about the theme either. It’s a clean, attractive game full of decisions. It’s a game confident enough to call a block a block. If someone was to ask me what the game was about, I’d probably say:
“Oh, The Palaces of Carrara? It’s a game about buying blocks to build buildings so that you can make money and score points. It’s brilliant.”
Because that’s really all it is – a very simple set-up for an hour of tough, tough, tough decisions. Timing is everything. Your opponents need to be watched constantly. Tight, tight stuff, playing 2-4 people in no more than an hour. I guarantee that the amount of stuff going on under the hood of this game will astound you.
AND THAT’S JUST THE BASIC GAME
It’s too soon for me to talk about the contents of the envelope. (There’s an envelope inside the game, with “expansion” stuff inside.) It includes high cost buildings, the ability to upgrade your buildings and cities, and a deck of cards that change the end-of-game objectives every time you play. “Oh, we have to collect SETS of these building reward tokens now?”
It’s way too soon to talk about that just now. The basic game will be plenty for any of you, for starters.
IF YOU CAN FIND IT
And here’s the sickening blow. The Palaces of Carrara is a DOG to find. I mean, it’s a LOST DOG to find. I think Z-Man Games pushed out 1000 copies of the game, and many of them came to Europe. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one, but I’m sure there must be some more floating around out there. Maybe in the comments section here we can help each other out a little on this? This is a game that needs to be played by more people.
I’m not sure that there’s going to be a reprint. Z-Man Games said this just last month – “…due to an international co-production situation, a reprint would cause us to lose money on every copy we would ship. So while I apologize for not reprinting it at this time, I hope you understand the reason why. Should this situation change in the future, we will let you know.”
I’m convinced that there will be copies out there, dotted around our indie gaming shops. It would be a shame if this great game didn’t get into more hands. If you’re German, you’re probably on easy street. I think there are a lot of German editions doing the rounds. SO YOU GERMANS HAVE NO EXCUSE FOR MISSING OUT ON THIS.
Anyway, yeah. There is no shame in calling a block a block. That’s all I’m saying.