Wednesday, August 07, 2013

More 'Feldian' Fun!

Two weeks ago, I made a post regarding Castles of Burgundy which, as I noted, is one of my favourite titles from one of my favourite designers.  That designer is Stephen Feld and I think it's fair to say that in the years to come, we will look back on 2013 as being the year of Feld.  Why you ask?  Because Feld will be releasing four new titles this year including: Amerigo, Bora Bora, Bruges, and Rialto.  At this juncture only Amerigo has yet to hit shelves and the titles that have are receiving excellent reviews across the board.  In this week's post, I'd like to introduce to you Rialto, which is a some what unique title for Feld in that it trends towards the lighter side of the euro game spectrum.

In Rialto, you will be competing to become the eminence grise of Venice.  I know, I wasn't sure what that meant either.  A little research, however, revealed that the term eminence grise refers to an individual who exists as the power behind the throne, so to speak.  That is to say, an individual who's power and influence, while great, remain somewhat hidden from view.  As such, in Rialto, you will be competing to spread your influence in the city of Venice and, in so doing, to gain the attention and favour of the Doge.  Now, I'll be honest with you: as cool as that sounds, I'd be lying if I told that there was much in the way of actual theme in this game.  Feld is the consumate euro game designer and he is well known for creating brilliant game systems and then shellacing a paper thin themes on overtop.  Seriously though, if euros are you bag than you weren't too concerned about theme to begin with.

So how does Rialto play out?  Well, the game plays out over six rounds, each of which has three phases.  In this respect the first two phases really represent the heart of the game.  In the first phase you are going to be laying out a series of rows of cards.  Each row will have six cards and you will lay out a number of rows equal to one plus the number of players in the game.  The key here is that there are six different types of cards (well, seven if you included the wilds), each of which corresponds to a different stage in the second phase of the game.  There are: Doge, gold, building, bridge, gondola and concilmen cards.  And here's the rub: if you want to participate in the resolution of those stages during the second phase of the round, you will need to have at least one of the corresponding cards in your hand at that time.  As such, the real challenge of the first phase of the round, is to select which row of cards will allow you to particpate the most competitively and broadly in that second phase.  This situation is made even trickier once you realize that the selection of said card rows is conducted in player order -- an order that is itself influenced by the play of the Doge cards during the next phase!  Once every player has selected a row of cards to take into their hand, they will also receive a number of cards drawn randomly from the draw pile -- which means that while you will have some information about what they are capable of doing during the next phase, you can't be entirely certain about the cards that they have in hand.

And this lack of certainly makes things interesting during the second phase because, during the next phase of the round, you'll be participating in a series of mini-auctions in which you'll bid cards from your hand in order to gain influence, money, building right and, perhaps most importantly, the rights to place your councilmen out on to the board.  To participate in an auction you'll need to have at least one card of the corresponding type in your hand and, if you win the auction, you'll receive a powerful and exclusive bonus as a reward.  Now, while all the auctions are important at different points in the game, there can be no denying that participating in and, if possible, winning the councilmen auction is one of the more important ones.  That's because, in many respects, Rialto is a light area control game.  On the main board, you'll find a map of Venice that has been divided up into six regions.  One of the main ways to score points in the game is by placing councilmen into these regions and, if possible, placing the most councilmen into a region.  But, in order to have councilmen to place you'll need good cards -- which can only be guranteed if you can choose early one in the selection phase of the round.  And to move up in player order means winning Doge auctions.  And if you want to build some of the more powerful buildings that let you draw more cards and earn additional VP, well then you're going to need to win those auctions.  But activating buildings costs money -- which you can only get by winning those auctions!  I'm sure at this point you're smelling what I'm selling!  The real tension here is the need to do everything at some point in the game -- but when and how, that's the tough part!

I have genuinely enjoyed playing Rialto and for a variety of reasons.  In the first place, as I noted above, this is a lighter design for Feld, who is normally known for his medium (Castles of Burgundy) to heavy weight (Trajan) designs.  Rialto is a very easy game to learn and to teach and even newer gamers will find the game accessible and non-threatening.  Further, Rialto, which has been designed to play with two to five players, plays well with any number along that spectrum.  The real surprise, however, was how smoothly the game plays with two.  In fact, while you can play the traditional game with two quite comfortably, there are also variant rules which add a dummy player and additional challenge to the two player game.  Further, the game plays quickly; once you know what you're doing, you'll find that you can knock out a three or four player game in about an hour.  This quick play time is due to two factors.  In the first place, the genuine elegance of the design -- the game plays so smoothly and intuitively.  And, secondly, because so much of the game play occurs simultaneously. Finally, despite the simplicity of the rules, there are genuinely challenging decisions to be made.  In my estimation, truly great game design involves producing games where the complexity is located not in the rules but in the decisions -- and here Rialto shines.

So, I like Rialto -- but will you?  Well here's who I think would be interested in a title like Rialto:

* Fans of euro games.
* Folks who are more concerned with elegant game design than a thematic experience.
* Any one looking for a good "gateway" style game that can be used to introduce new gamers to the hobby.
* Folks who appreciate the following mechanics: area control, auctions and hand-management.
* You're looking for a quick but satisfying game that can be used to begin or end you regular gaming sessions.

If this sounds like your kind of title -- well, we've got Rialto in stock and on the shelves!  So come on down and check it out soon.

Thanks for reading!

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