Concordia: A four-sided game review

Concordia boardConcordia is a medium weight strategic board game which combines elements of resource management, economic development, hand management and a tiny bit of deck building. It plays two to five players in a couple of hours and retails for under £40. It was launched at Essen 2013.

Its not cheap, but on the bright side it’s a beautiful game. It plays out in Roman times on a lovely map of the Med  (or just Italy on the flip-side if you’re playing with a lower player count) which is broken down into smaller zones. The massive box also contains a bunch of custom wooden cubes (including cute little anvils!), well designed good quality cards, a plethora of cardboard chits and a beautifully clear rulebook.

In fact, throughout this box is a level of attention to detail that puts most other game publishers to shame.

Concordia rules

As is often the case with games from PD-Verlag you get an extra pamphlet with historic information about all the countries in the region in this period; as well as a really useful setup card in both English and German (the box actually includes two packs of cards, one in each language).

Designer Mac Gerdts has become known for his board game rondel; a system of taking actions he employed in his last five or six games and one I’ve really enjoyed (I borrowed heavily from it for The Empire Engine). But in a surprise this game is rondel-less, instead employing cards for players to use to make action choices.

Each player starts with an identical hand of eight action cards, six colonists (two on the map), six goods, 15 Monopoly houses (AKA settlements) plus some cash. Your aim is to use these resources and action cards to spread your colonists across the map, leaving settlements along the way. You will also pick up extra action cards along the way; when someone buys the last available action card, or places their last settlement, the game ends – and (surprise) the person who scores the most points wins.

Teaching

Concordia action cardsIn essence, this game is pretty simple: discard an action card, do the action, finish your turn – rinse and repeat.

The actions all make thematic sense too; move/settle, trade goods, produce resources (you randomly seed each area with a product before play), draft action cards and pass (where you put all discarded cards back into your hand). There’s lots of other little details, but that’s the meat.

All the cards explain on them what they do, so that should help – but oddly it can make things worse. As the game goes on you pick up more cards and your settlements start to spread, giving you a handful of cards full of small text and a board full of wooden chits – as well as money and resources to juggle on your player board. For some, it can certainly become a little overwhelming and icons may well have helped.

Then there’s the endgame scoring. It’s a simple and ingenious system, but to score well adds another level of decision making; basically, this is a game that’s pretty easy to play badly and something else entirely to feel you’ve got a good grasp of.

Concordia setup

Red player, ready to go

Every action card is also associated with a god – and each god scores differently at the end of the game. For each card of a certain god you have, you’ll multiply that score by one – it might be cities built, colonists placed, zones settled etc.

So when you draft extra action cards you’re not only thinking about getting an extra action, you’re also thinking about what it will do to your score – and so your future actions.

Overall I’ve actually found the game one of the easier ones to teach. Everyone starts with the same cards, so you can walk through those before you start. Also each turn is just one action, so people will soon see all the actions happen on the board. And thankfully there’s a variant in the rules for new players which walks you through the scoring quite early in the game; I’d certainly recommend using it – a fabulous innovation.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: As a Mac Gerdts/rondel fan I was a little sad when I heard this had a new card mechanism instead, but I needn’t have worried. Despite being sans rondel, it still feels like a Gerdts game; epic board, awesome components, snappy turns, deep strategy and tough decisions. My concern is replayability, as at the base level there’s not much variation, but several games in it’s yet to be a factor.
  • The thinker: Concordia is a joy to play. After initial setup (which has several random elements, increasing replayability) there’s very little randomness or direct player interaction. You can form a plan and follow it to the letter, but a good player will react when opportunity presents itself in the actions of other players – making this a perfect blend of strategy and tactics.
  • The trasher: I started out enjoying this; getting my guys out on the board and building my empire. But unfortunately that’s all you do; no conflict, no powers, hardly any uniqueness (there are some unique cards to draft in, but they’re just another way to produce/score) and plenty head scratching late on. I didn’t hate it, but its not a game I’ll be rushing to play again.
  • The dabbler: Concordia surprised me a little. At times I found the decisions to be a little overwhelming, but it was still fun and simple to pick up. And while I didn’t trouble the leaders as much as I’d hoped, playing was a thoroughly satisfying experience and I actually found it pretty relaxing – despite being perplexing at times. The great components and short turns certainly help!

Key observations

Concordia bitsA small but but notable criticism has been there’s a little too much room on the board. This makes an already passive game even less toothless, as one of the few ways to make people suffer is to settle places you know they want to go.

This is because, as in Power Grid, it’s more expensive to settle where someone has built already. But with such an expansive board, often being third into an area isn’t much of a hardship.

Another possible issue already alluded to is replayability. While Concordia goes to great lengths to randomise everything it can while still staying stoically strategic, you can’t get away from the fact you are changing resources into victory points on a map of the Mediterranean. Five resources in custom shapes does not a theme make; we’re in standard euro territory here – which brings us nicely to the final talking point.

It’s not a great reach to then label Concordia emotionless, dry, puzzly, mathsy or mechanical. Is it fair to do so? Possibly. Does it matter? Well, that depends on your opinion of what makes a good game. There are no dice in the box – and no spaceships. It’s unlikely that, at any point, you’ll find people standing over the table with baited breath. But to me this doesn’t sound like criticism of Concordia, it sounds like  criticism of a genre – and Concordia is nothing if not a fine example of a classic euro game.

Conclusion

Concordia bonusesLuckily for me, I love a classic euro game – and consequently so far rate Concordia an 8.5. I’ve really enjoyed each game I’ve played to date, regardless of player number (two to four for me), and feel I’ve got plenty to get from the game in the future.

But the game seems to have taken a bit of a dip in fortunes since gaining a head of steam at Essen in October 2013.

It was one of the real buzz titles during the show, and has gained some fantastic reviews, but the heavy hitters of the podcast and writing worlds collectively failed to include it in their end of year ‘top 10’ lists.

In some respects, I think this says much about the quality of strategy games that came out in 2013: it seemed something of a vintage year, especially with some of the really good 2012 games only getting good distribution this year too (the clearest example being Terra Mystica). It doesn’t help that PD-Verlag is a small player, especially on the US scene where most of the English speaking board game press seems to emanate from.

But hopefully people will continue to discover Concordia, and with it both PD-Verlag and Mac Gerdts. It’s a fantastic game from a great company and clever designer; a rare example of a clever and beautiful strategy game that has a much lower barrier to entry than you might normally expect.

Top 10 Essen Spiel 2013 wishlist: The aftermath

Essen haul 2013After a surprising number of views of my initial Essen Spiel 2013 post a few weeks back, I thought it would be a good idea to follow it up.

My second trip to Essen proved to be every bit as fun, and successful, as the first. With the exception of a slightly fraught boarding process on the return Eurostar at Brussels, all the trains and accommodation went without a hitch (except for the Wi-Fi, or lack thereof – more on that another time…). But did my top 10 pan out the way I’d expected?

Essen Wishlist Top 10 Revisited

  1. Concordia: “This will be a definite buy for me.” And it was, although it wasn’t as definite as it could’ve been. Once I’d started to pick up some bargains I decided I’d only pick up one 30+ euro game, which Concordia was at 35. So I had a good look at quite a few competitors before finally caving in on Saturday morning after a sadly fanboy chat with designer Mac Gerdts. I’ve now played it twice and its looking like a great decision; it plays much like you’d expect from a Gerdts game (short turns, tight play, tricky decisions) and the usual lovely components (including history lesson).
  2. Snowdonia expansions: “Again, these will be definite purchases.” Actually these didn’t turn out to be purchases, as designer Tony Boydell generously gave me them for nothing (I presume for the help with play-testing, rather than me being an upstanding guy…). Due to the wealth of new games sitting on my table Snowdonia hasn’t yet hit the table, but my experience of one of the expansions previously (Mt Washington) means I’m already pretty sure I’m going to love them. I just have to get all the other shinies played first.
  3. Bargains! “Games at crazy discounts – already on the list: Dakota and Artus.” After reading this a friend generously offered to give me their copy of Dakota in return for a copy of The Empire Engine – even more of a bargain! I did pick up Artus for just five euros, while also grabbing a German edition of The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet for only 10 euros and Briefcase for 14 euros. Best of all was grabbing two older games I’d really hoped to find: Rosenkonig for 11 euros – quite the Grail game for me as its been unavailable since I first played it on Yucata.de several years ago – and Nefertiti (plus expansion) for 15 euros. Lastly I got the very poorly rated Anasazi for only two euros – figuring it has nice bits, so if it’s as bad as people say I can cannibalise it for prototype parts!
  4. Warlock: “Auctions/bidding, deck building, tile placement/tableau building and hand management – it ticks all the boxes.” We managed to get a demo of this one and it did seem to tick all of those boxes. However my friend Matt was just as enamoured with it as I was, so I let him make the purchase. It means I won’t get to play it that much, but it wouldn’t have fitted in the suitcase anyway! And our demo was pretty confused, so it will need some more plays before I make a final opinion on it.
  5. Dice games: “Two are standing out for me at the moment: Blueprints and CV.” My research certainly seemed to pay off this year, as both of these games ended up coming home with me. I’ve played Blueprints three times with eight or nine different people and they’ve all loved it; it’s quick and thinky with a surprisingly small amount of luck for  dice game. CV is simply charming and my two plays so far have again been enjoyed by all participants. The artwork is remarkably comical and whimsical, while the marriage of theme to the game really helps set it apart.
  6. Gritty sci-fi games: “Our group likes gritty sci-fi, so why not give them what they want?” While I still stand by this statement, while looking at both Infamy and Enclave I just kept thinking, “Why should I? Its my money and they won’t appreciate it”. And that’s not a knock on the players – they’re simply not into the hobby as much as me and in their eyes we have more than enough games to play already. Infamy looked OK but just sat on a table and wasn’t being demoed whenever we went past. We did get a play of Enclave but it turned out to be an enjoyable if unremarkable euro with a tacked on sci-fi theme – Waterdeep in space, perhaps. OK, but not 30+ euros OK.
  7. Card games: “Yes, there will be hundreds.” And there were, but the two I’d noted didn’t come home with me – three others did instead. I’m pretty sure Cheaty Mages didn’t make it (we found the stand, but it wasn’t there) while we couldn’t get a demo of S-evolution, which at around 20 euros was too expensive to get on a whim when surrounded by so many other bargains. Instead I found a game Zoe had wanted for ages (Nicht Die Bohn! – or ‘not the bean game’, as it’s known) and paid 10 euros for this year’s two games from the Austrian Spiel Museum: Handler der Karibik and Sissi! The former is a nice light push your luck card game, the latter a new take on the classic Bohnanza – the actual bean game. Strange coincidence!
  8. Nice looking euros: “These are my Achilles heal, so I’m bound to come home with at least one other fascinatingly themed gem.” Well who’d have thunk it – I didn’t crack! Our Craftsmen demo was disappointing, while the tables for both Yunnan and Rokoko (which sold out) were permanently packed. Both Madeira and Bruxelles 1893 also looked really good, but my resolve held. I predict one of those four will find its way onto my shelves some time in the near future, but then I said that about Terra Mystica and a few others last year.
  9. Silly racing games: “Both will need to shine to see me part with any cash.” While The Sheep Race won on cuteness, there was hardly any game there at all – especially for the crazy 30+ euro price. I had a test of Banjooli Xeet and that was enough to sell me on, especially as it was under 20 euros. We’ve only played once so far and it went a bit wonky at the end, but hopefully a little rules tweak will make it sing. The art and components are great, as was the first half of the play, so I’m sure we can make this one work.
  10. Mining games: “Not a topic I am drawn to any way…” but luckily I was travelling with a geologist! Again we failed to get a play of Rockwell, which did look really interesting, but on the other hand we didn’t hear a single report from anyone about it either. We did get to play Coal Baron though and it was excellent. Again I left it to Matt to buy, and then we thrashed him into last place that evening! It’s a really great euro though, so he got the last laugh – and he did the same to me at Concordia.

Of the other games I mentioned I just didn’t get a strong enough feeling to take a punt on Origin, but another friend picked it up so hopefully I’ll get a play soon. Lewis & Clark is also still on my list to play, but sold out, while Nations got a very lukewarm reception.

Matt also bought A Study in Emerald and we got a chance to play on the way home in Cologne. It clearly isn’t meant as a two-player game, but we both saw enough to think it’s going to be a lot of fun with more. Crazy, swingy fun perhaps, but fun nonetheless.

In the end I spent the equivalent of £150 on 13 games and more than 10 expansions and promos – pretty good I reckon! I’ve already played and been very impressed with eight of those, with only the cheapest ones left to come, so I’m going to call it as a win. Now, time to start looking for a hotel for next year.

My Top 10 (well, 25-ish…) Essen Spiel 2013 wishlist

Essen 2013 logoIt’s just two weeks until we head off to Essen Spiel 2013 in Germany. It’s the world’s biggest board and card game trade show, but its just as geared towards the public as it is the industry. This will my second visit and I’m buzzing already.

This year I’m heading off with friend Matt, meeting other friends Lloyd and Sherine on Eurostar and then a bunch of others when we get there. On the way back Matt and me will be stopping off in Cologne and Brussels for a few days too, which should add a bit more blogging juice (unless we spend the whole time in the hotel playing new games…).

You may see board gaming as a niche nerd hobby, but it’s probably a bit bigger a deal than you think – especially in Germany. As a nation the Germans don’t see the basic concept of playing board games as nerdy; good quality tabletop games are an accepted part of family life (but yes, I’m sure most of them still sneer at  role-players).

So when I say big, I mean big: We’re talking 150,000 visitors, 827 exhibitors from 37 nations releasing literally hundreds of new games, covering a conference space of around 47,000 square meters – for four days. Big.

So how the hell do you cut down a 400+ new game list down to a manageable size? Well, you use the Essen Geek Mini website of course. And having studiously whittled it down over the past few months, here’s my…

Essen Wishlist Top 10

  1. Concordia: Board game designer Mac Gerdts is the man behind the rondel mechanism that inspired my only design to date, The Empire Engine. His games tend to be thinky and intelligent, while light on oppressive rules, and this one sees him move away from his beloved rondel and into hand management via cards, while keeping a beautiful board involved. This will be a definite  buy for me.
  2. Snowdonia expansions: It looks like there will be three separate expansions for one of my favourite games, Snowdonia, available at this year’s Essen. One of them I did a bit of play-testing for, while the others all look to add a little more variety to a game I can’t ever see myself getting bored of. I won’t talk about the base game as I’ve reviewed it here. Again, these will be definite purchases.
  3. Bargains! While my friends would say my collection is already ridiculous, I’m actually pretty limited in my knowledge compared to many board gamers. This makes Essen particularly fantastic, as German retailers use it to clear lots of good (but not great selling) games are crazy discounts – although you have to be careful, as they’re often German editions. Already on the list: Dakota and Artus.
  4. Warlock: This is a game that I’ll need to demo, but from what I can garner from the rules it looks like there might be just enough of our favourite midweek game – Race for the Galaxy – along with some interesting new twists to make this a real winner. And at 20 euros, the price is right too. Auctions/bidding, deck building, tile placement/tableau building and hand management – it ticks all the boxes.
  5. Dice games: Both Zoe and me are suckers for rolling dice, so I’m always on the lookout for some nice dice games. Two are standing out for me at the moment: Blueprints is a 30-minute dice drafting game, where you complete patterns on cards with different coloured dice, with different colours giving different benefits. CV is a card/Yahtzee game with nice art and a fun, original theme (the story of your life).
  6. Gritty sci-fi games: Know your audience! Our group likes gritty sci-fi, so why not give them what they want? Two stand out this year to me: Enclave (Polish worker placement game, collecting equipment to complete missions) and Infamy (hire criminals, deploy secret units, screw your friends’ plans, complete jobs). both look potentially fun, but I’ll be looking to try before I buy.
  7. Card games: Yes, there will be hundreds, but two in particular have aught my eye: Cheaty Mages looks like silly anime art fun, where you secretly bid on arena battles while trying to cheat the outcomes. S-Evolution looks to have an interesting tack on trick taking games, adding worker placement and evolution to change what rules each player applies in each round – from playing blind right up to using trump cards.
  8. Nice looking euros: These are my Achilles heal, so along with Concordia I’m bound to come home with at least one other fascinatingly themed gem. These are two to three-hour games where you place workers, gather materials and then turn them into victory points. The contenders: Rokoko (dress making…), Yunnan (tea selling…) and Craftsmen (medieval town building…).
  9. Silly racing games: I don’t have one of these, but there are two coming to Essen that like fun. Banjooli Xeet sees you racing ostriches via bluff and dice rolling, while the equally sensible looking The Sheep Race sees you, well, racing sheep – place your bets, then try to alter the outcome of three races to cash in. Both will need to shine to see me part with any cash – although the sheep one looks gorgeous.
  10. Mining games: Not a topic I am drawn to any way, but oddly there are two mining-themed games that look interesting this year. Rockwell looks like an uneasy co-op, where you need to work together to mine – but are looking to make the most profit. Coal Baron looks a more typical euro, but with some potentially interesting movement decisions to be made to bring up the coal.

Just outside the list was a game I love the look of, am not convinced by at all, but can’t seem to shake my interest in: Origin. It looks beautiful yet simple, while it could offer a lot of interesting strategic decisions – or equally could be incredibly dull. I’ll definitely be after a demo of this one (especially as I’ll be at Matagot anyway to collect a Nefertiti pre-order).

And finally, those games I know I’ll love and lust for but – a) will hardly ever get any table time; and b) will be expensive and not discounted: Lewis & Clark, Nations and A Study in Emerald (I’m not linking them to avoid temptation for myself if I read this back for reference – I know how weak I am).

There are a few more, but you know – I’m getting hungry. And there was me thinking this would be a short post. What a nerd…

(NOTE: Follow up post here)