I have been playing modern board games for over ten years now and had never played a game designed by Mac Gerdts. That is until this last week when I played two of his games with two totally different play groups. Gerdts has designed such notable games as Antike (2005), Imperial (2006) and Hamburgum (2007) which all use an innovative and unique roundel mechanic. And later he designed his most successful game, Concordia (2013) which does not use the roundel, but which has definite similarities to his other games. I was going to do a Concordia review, but after playing two of his games, I wanted to discuss Mac Gerdts design choices and how they have effected my understanding of board game design.
Concordia: A Modern Classic?
First I will discuss Concordia and how impressed I was with this streamlined economic euro. I first heard of this game through watching the Shut Up and Sit Down video review and hearing them rave about it on a podcast. I then missed out on a session of it at a game event because I was already invested in a game, but I looked over at the game and the components looked great. Finally, I had a chance to play it at a friend’s place. It was a five player game and the players who had played it before warned us that it was a difficult game to understand and that new players would likely get defeated badly. I was prepared to take that in stride, as I play games more to explore there design than to win. Somehow I seemed to grasp the game quite well, seeing how I won by a pretty decent margin. Now I know winning the first time you play a game can fog your opinion of the game, but I was very impressed by the games design and saw it as an instant classic in my mind.
In Concordia, players are trading resources in the Mediterranean around Rome. All players start with the same hand of cards. Each card is an action, such as trade, have a province produce goods, move your colonist or buy more cards. Players only pick up all their discards when they play a specific card, so the game becomes a hand-building game (as opposed to a deck-building game like Dominion).
The design element of Concordia that really blew me away was how victory points were scored. Every card in the game had an action and a victory point condition. As an example, one color of the cards gives the player a point for each province that they have at least one city in. That means if a player had cities in five provinces and six of those cards they scored thirty points in that category. This means players balance buying cards of specific colors with meeting the victory conditions on the cards they buy.
Now, as a hobby gamer, one of my favorite experiences is encountering a fresh puzzle to work out in a game. The balance in Concordia was like nothing I’d ever really experienced in games before. There definitely was the sense of using actions with as much efficiency as possible, which is key to success in many euro games. But the game in no way felt like the multi-player solitaire that many medium to heavy euro games have, where all the players navigate the puzzle on their own and then compare scores at the end. Rather, Concordia offers non-stop player interaction and real test in in-game card and action evaluation.
Dealing with Differential Scoring
I think the aspect of Concordia that really inspired me as a player and designer was the level of differential situations. In the game players buy cards from a card row, so they see which cards they will make cheaper for their opponents. Because each card is a scoring multiplier based on the different situations of each opponent, evaluating each card is the real thrill and challenge of the game. A card may be worth only six points for you, but ten or more for one of your opponents. But the action the card provides likely will make it easier for you to increase you standing in it’s specific victory point condition. This all reads very convoluted as I write this review, but while playing the game it struck me as elegant and streamlined. Concordia is definitely not a difficult game to play, each player only takes one action and then the next player goes. Game play is fast paced. But mastering the strategy is very difficult because it is so unlike most other games.
And here is the element I found to be very pervasive in both the Mac Gerdts designs I played, that the players feel they are somehow disassociated from the game somehow. One of the other players who had never played Concordia before said several times during the game “I do not understand what’s going on” and “I don’t get what I am supposed to do now.” These comments were responded to with the usual suggestions by all the other players. But even by the end of the game the player admitted that he really did not understand the structure of the game. I think the reason for this is that Mac Gerdts has found a way to design games that look deceivingly simple, but have very evolved strategies. Concordia looks like your basic city building, trading in the Mediterranean map game with cards. But, players could do very well and still ignore whole aspects of the game. You can win without ever hiring new colonist, you could spread across the whole board or only build a few cities. Success in the game is won by exact timing of buying cards and maximizing actions.
Imperial: Playing at a War Game
In terms of true disassociation, I cannot recall a ever playing a game that rivals Imperial in masking it’s own strategies. I had heard about the game years ago when it came out. I believe I had even read the rules and was even considering buying it, but I was a little intimidated by mixed reviews online. After finally playing it, I can understand why this game garners mixed reviews. I still don’t quite know how I feel about the experience.
In Imperial each player plays a shadow government buying control in Europe during a time of war. The game centers around a map of Europe. The nations build factories, army units and naval units. Area control is won through 1:1 combat as in Diplomacy and the host who taught us the game told us that deals and diplomacy were encouraged in the rules. We played a five player game but we rarely made any deals with each other. This may have been because most of us were new to the game. But I would guess that the nature of the shifting control of countries also hinders players from being that invested in making any long term deals with players.
Although Imperial looks like a predecessor of Risk or Diplomacy, the game has more inspiration from the stock buying game Acquire than any other game. Players buy stocks in each of the six nations, the player with the most money invested controls that nations actions. Victory is scored from having money and stock in the most powerful nations at the end of the game. The mechanics of the nations actions use a roundel, a wheel of actions that a pawn moves around clockwise. Players may have more control over a nations action if they spend some of their personal money. The strategy of the game felt very elusive, much like Concordia, though I am sure the path to victory becomes more clear with repeated plays.
The Fiddly Web of War
Okay, maybe ‘fiddly’ isn’t the exact term for the awkward feel of playing Imperial for the first time. ‘Fiddly’ usually means a game has small, hard to remember rules and upkeep mechanics. There is something about the gameplay of Imperial that is definitely not elegant. The small actions each nation takes are difficult for players to attach to their personal standing in the game. I did understand how each action slowly made a nation more or less powerful. But near the end of the game it becomes clear which nations are on top, yet players still get bogged down making decisions that will have little to no consequence on the final score.
One player described Imperial as having a ‘fog’, which did feel thematic to shadow governments. But, since the fog is so thick the first time a player plays, it results in being forced to perform actions that you do not see the point in making. This made the game seem even more disassociated from the players than Concordia. In Imperial, a player may not have enough stocks to control any nation, which means they simply watch the game and hope for their investments to pay out. There is a bonus that a player controlling no nation gets more options to buy stock, which is apparently even a good strategy in the game.
It is obviously clear from my review that I prefer Concordia over Imperial. I would certainly play Imperial again, given the chance, but there are a few things I dislike about the game. For one, the game has no randomness after the initial setup. I noticed that this was in the games description on boardgamegeek, as if having no randomness is a selling point. For me, a good game should have amount of chance, which will add replayability and excitement to a game. Imperial seems to transfer unpredictability to the chaos of other players actions. The result of actions players take is also lost in the web, or fog, of the interconnected status of all the players stocks in each nation. Whereas I enjoy the predictions and probability required when buying stocks in Acquire, I found analyzing the disassociated war of Imperial’s Europe tedious and confusing.
Of course I would prefer the card evaluation and resource management of Concordia. Though the game has a few stylistic relationships to Imperial, it feels much more like a traditional euro game. The randomness of the card row made for a more manageable pace for me personally. If Concordia gets a reprint I may even add it to my collection.
In conclusion, both games have a style that one can recognize them being from the same designer. I appreciate designers who give their personal stamp to games. I look forward to the opportunity to try out Mac Gerdts other games.
Until next time, have fun and good luck!