BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Preview: Colonia

Colonia, designed by Dirk Henn and to be released by Queen Games at the Essen games fair, appears to be the apotheosis of the ‘big’ Eurogame in every regard. Lavishly designed and with, no doubt, equally lavish production values (something for which Queen Games has a well-deserved reputation), the game pulls in many popular Eurogame memes: an abstracted market economy, a stylized medieval setting, and a layered gameplay consisting of multiple resource collection, management and conversion mechanisms.

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It also comes laden down with a mammoth collection of ‘bits’ guaranteed to pique the interest of the average Eurogamer: mulitlple decks of cards, stacks of cardboard components and over 200 multi-coloured wooden cubes. One can only speculate — with mild trepidation! — at the size and weight of the box that will contain all the game’s plunder.

The interested but otherwise uninformed reader can now read through the rules posted on BGG in English and German. Having done so, I can say that the flow of the game appears straightforward, with the board divided into seven numbered areas that represent the actions taken on each ‘day’ of the game’s six ‘weeks’. This is a nice conceit that helps to frame the cyclical nature of the gameplay.

Image: The innovative board is made up of eight die-cut cardboard panels, which lock together like a jigsaw to create a plan of the city of Colonia within which all the action takes place.

Merry-go-round

The fundamentals of the game are this: the players represent so-called patrician families in olde worlde Colonia and each has a stash of cubes representing their family members, and hence their available man-power (this is the players’ primary resource in the game, so let’s call it Resource A). These cubes are progressively commited to each area of the board by the players to take actions there and gain the available rewards. The ultimate goal is to earn victory points in the shape of ‘relic’ cards bought, appropriately enough, on the ‘Sunday’ of each week. However, the degree of abstraction between the player actions and eventual buying of the relics is alarming.

On ‘Monday’ the week is prepared: the flip of a card from a special deck determines the relative balance of the key resources available. This mechanism ensures that each week presents a slightly different challenge to the players.

On ‘Tuesday’ the players determine their relative influence on the week’s affairs (and hence the player order) at the city council by commiting differing numbers of men; this power is effectively a resource which players pay for in cubes/men, so let’s call this Resource B. The remainder of that week’s actions are taken in player order, so this is clearly an important factor.

On ‘Wednesday’ the players visit the market and place family members in exchange for differing quantities of the city’s five wares (leather, iron, wood, linen and fur) — let’s call these Resource C.

On ‘Thursday’ the game moves to the craftsmen’s quarter of the city, where specific combinations of wares can be exchanged, through the ‘payment’ of more men, for five different types of good (saddles, cartwheels, paintings, clothing and footwear); these then are Resource D.

On ‘Friday’ the players visit the docks where boats are waiting to take the city’s goods to far away lands. The players progressively fill up the boats’ cargo holds with the prerequisite goods before, on ‘Saturday’, the boats set sail and earn the players money — Resource E — although since the boats each sail to one of four different countries the money comes in four different flavours (Sterling, Grivna, Mark and Gulden).

And so we come to the end, and on ‘Sunday’ the players finally get their filthy mits on those precious religious relics — Resource F — although each one can only be bought using the correct currency. The players stash their relics behind their screens, a new week begins, and life in Colonia goes on.

Hoopla

After circling the board six times the game is over, and the players are awarded victory points for their remaining money and for the value of their relics. So, just to be clear, it is the relative values of Resources E and F owned by each player at the end of the game that determines the winner. I may be in the minority here, but to me the number of hoops through which players have to jump to generate any points at all seem to be two or three too many. This notion of the sequential conversion of resources into (eventually) victory points appears in many Eurogames — indeed is one of the genre’s defining characteristics — but Colonia seems to stretch the model to breaking point.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Colonia avoids one of the other core Eurogame mechanisms: that of so-called ‘engine building’. Each of Colonia’s weeks is, largely, a clean slate; little of what the player choose to do in one week influences what options they have in the next. Many Eurogames, by contrast, allow players to invest resources in game assets that enhance their individual ability to generate or convert resources in later rounds, and hence allow for some variation in genuine long-term strategy. Colonia, however, appears to be a ‘big’ Eurogame that is, for the most part, largely tactical, which is actually rather refreshing! But I do wonder if hardcore Eurogamers, always on the lookout for their next fix of strategic resource management and engine building will be disappointed, and similarly whether gamers who generally prefer lighter, more tactical fare will be put off by the game’s heavyweight looks.

Image: And just in case Queen’s lavish production values aren’t lavish enough, the game is also to be offered in a limited ‘Collector’s Edition’ with these jaunty-looking meeples in place of the cubes.

All the fun of the fair

There is much to like about Colonia. Its presentation appears faultless, the gameplay elegant and fun, and it’s worth pointing out that of the two groups of gamers I just mentioned, I am firmly in the latter (and hence prefer more tactical, less strategic games). In any case, I haven’t played it yet, so who am I to comment?

I wish Dirk Henn and Queen Games success — they have clearly invested a great deal in the game’s development and production — but the danger, in my opinion, is that the community’s familiarity with Colonia’s collection of mechanisms will indeed begin to breed a little contempt. The package may be elegant, attractive and compelling but there is no ‘shock of the new’ here to delight the gaming crowd; rather, it seems the emperor’s new clothes are getting yet another outing.

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June 11, 2013 8:04 pm

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