Game Night Recap (May 19, 2015)

A small group. Apparently, people have Other Things to do sometimes. Slackers. Anyway, we started with Julie, Jesse, JR, Ocean, and your humble narrator, so we needed something that would work with five people. We settled on an old favorite, Keythedral from Richard Breese. The “Key” series includes some absolutely fantastic games, and this is one of the best.

In Keythedral, the residents of a medieval town want to build a cathedral, and naturally, contributing to the construction is a way for wealthy families to gain prestige and lord it over their rivals. So they send out workers to gather resources from the fields use those resources to buy pews in the cathedral. Early on, pews are cheap, but as the building progresses, they become fancier and more prestigious. At the end, whoever has built the pews with the highest total value will win the game and the right to sentence the other players to death. What? Don’t you play that way?

Never mind. The game begins with the players, in turn order, choosing a terrain tile at random, placing it on the board, and then placing one of five numbered cottages in the spaces between terrain tiles. Each player will wind up placing five terrain tiles and five cottages, and the resulting map will define the rest of the game.

This town ain't big enough for the 25 of us....
This town ain’t big enough for the 25 of us….

Once the tiles are played, the game really begins. Each round, each player in turn will choose a number  fro 1 to 5 (as available) and send a worker from their cottage of the corresponding number out into one of the fields adjacent to that cottage. So if the starting player chooses cottage #3, then each player will put a worker on an empty terrain tile next to their #3 cottage. When everyone has sent the appropriate worker, the next player chooses one of the remaining numbers and the process repeats, and so on through the fifth cottage number. Depending on the setup and the order of play, it is entirely possible – and all too easy – to be unable to send out a worker because all of the terrain tiles adjacent to the called number were filled with workers from prior players’ choices. This would be “F You Play #1.”

When everybody has placed all the workers they can place, everybody collects resources from the terrain tiles their workers occupy. There are five different terrain types, corresponding to five different basic resources (black, brown, green, red, blue – this is not a colorblind-friendly game). Hopefully, the players have planned well to get the resources they will need in the next phase.

Once all resources have been collected, the players, in turn order, take actions one at a time. Actions generally mean buying something in exchange for appropriate resources. The lowest rank of pews, worth four points each, will require a combination of two resource cubes. The higher up the cathedral the game progresses, the more the pews cost. Each pew takes a different combination of resources, and it is possible to plan to buy one only to see someone ahead of you in turn order snap it up. Aka “F You Play #2.” Since everybody’s resources are hidden, you may not be able to keep track of who is in a position to beat you to a prize.

Other actions allow the players to build a house – flipping over a cottage so that in the future, that number will send two workers to different terrain tiles. (Not guaranteed, of course; it is entirely possible for that number to be called after all the potential target tiles have been occupied. Or players can build fences between an opponent’s cottage or house and a terrain tile, preventing that opponent from sending a worker to that tile (“F You Play #3”); or they can remove a previously placed fence by spending two red cubes (wine – get the neighbor drunk enough and he’ll tear down his own fence); purchase a luxury resource cube – iron, cloth, and gold are all generally needed to build the upper pews; or they can buy one of two law cards available each round to get one of several one-time bonuses to use at some point in the game.

As soon as the last pew is taken, the game ends. Pew values are added up, along with some points for leftover resources, and the highest number wins the game. In our case, Ocean ran away with it with 55 points; JR had 45; and the rest of us tied at 44.

Ocean and Julie left, leaving JR, Jesse and myself. We had been eyeing a new game JR brought, so out it came: The Mystery of the Templars. It’s a very pretty game with lots of quality fiddly bits, and a beautiful board.

Welcome to Medieval Europe. Please keep hands and feet inside the 12th-14th centuries at all times.
Welcome to Medieval Europe. Please keep hands and feet inside the 12th-14th centuries at all times.

Did I mention lots of fiddly bits? Yeah.

The game is about Knights Templar trying to rescue (aka steal) relics from the Holy Land, transport them to Europe, and then, once the anti-Templar heat is turned up, move them to one of four havens in the distant corners of Europe. Starting from small holdings in Jerusalem and Acre, the players are meant to purchase buildings in cities around Europe where they can store goods, display relics, and recruit more knights.

The flow of the game is a little tricky to grasp. The game runs fifteen-plus rounds in three periods. Each period is five rounds (the plus is for endgame stuff that we didn’t get to… more on that in a moment), and during each round, the players will: assign knights to escort missions and excavation missions; optionally buy goods; deal with two events; load, move, and unload transports; and do a bunch of things in preparation for the next round.

We didn’t finish the game. We got just over 1/3 of the way through it before giving up. It was getting late, the rules are not terribly clear in many places and – as it turns out – the order in which events come up can make for a very slow developing game. Here’s why.

Each player starts with small holdings in Jerusalem and Acre.

Come onna my domus.
Come onna my domus.

Focus on the stuff in the middle of that picture. The “1” in a gold circle is my chapel, which can hold, at most, one relic. The middle building, with a stack of hidden tokens on it, is my Domus, which can hold up to six tokens (which may be coins in any of several denominations or goods). Finally, on the right is my castle, which can hold two knights. This is very limited space, but there is nothing I can do about that until I can buy a building in one of the European cities elsewhere on the board. Each city has two buildings, which can be of any of those three types. You want to buy buildings that match your needs – e.g., if you have several relics and want to display them, you will need more chapels.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy buildings in any of the provinces except when an appropriate event comes up during the events portion of the round. In the first period (five rounds), there are two event cards that permit purchase of buildings. The cards come out two at a time, so you don’t know when the card will come that activates a couple of provinces, at which time you can buy buildings for 3 coins apiece – if you have the coins sitting in your home Domus; or the other card that lets you buy buildings in active or inactive provinces.  Worse, you can’t sell goods that you have transported from the Holy Land until you have a Domus in Europe. In our game, the cards came up late in the first period, so we were stuck with goods sitting on the board (having transported them somewhat speculatively). JR was the only one who spotted the one place in Europe you can sell goods without a Domus: Marseille. As a result, when the province activation card finally came up, he was the only one who could afford to take advantage of it and establish buildings in European cities. For Jesse and me, who had gone a completely different – and futile – direction, the game was frustrating and pointless.

Had we fully understood how buildings become available, and that Marseille is the only way to make money while waiting for that to happen, it might have been less frustrating (although again, since the events come out randomly, it is possible to get a situation where nobody can buy a building until 1/3 of the game has gone by; I’m not sure that’s a great feature). Also, since the event cards that make buildings available are keyed to specific provinces, it would have been nice to know which provinces were going to be affected during the first period. Speculation is not a path to success in this game.

I think there’s a good game in here somewhere. Its theme is very well-integrated, and the mission and transport mechanisms are (while fiddly and complex) interesting. Overall, while not impressed by the one play, I think it has potential, and would give it another shot.

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