Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Towering Achievement

One of designer Stefan Feld's more recent board games (and of all his efforts, surely the one with the largest box) is Amerigo. It's loosely themed around exploring islands and gathering commodities in the New World. It carries many of the hallmarks associated with most of Feld's games, and one big new twist.

As almost always, there's a "Feld track" (as my gaming group calls it), used to determine the order of play each round, and on which players jockey for better position. There's a relatively easy to understand system where commodities of five different types can be found on the islands, and multiplier tokens for each of those can be purchased to enhance end game scoring. There's an array of special chips giving the players who purchase them unique powers during the game.

But the major mechanic of the game is something different entirely. One of the more unusual games in my own collection is Wallenstein. Rare enough that it's a German board game that actually involves taking of territories through warfare, but the mechanic for doing so involves tossing players' cube tokens through a tall tower structure with an array of obstructing baffles inside. The cubes that actually make it to the bottom without getting stuck are used to determine the outcome of fights.

Amerigo takes this same tower concept and uses it in an entirely different way. Here, the colors of the cubes represent all the different actions players can take on their turn. Each round, a fistful of cubes are tossed into the tower, and whatever emerges from the bottom governs the available actions players can actually take. You can do the action corresponding to any one color that emerges; the potency of that chosen action is equal to the number of cubes of the color that showed up most.

The result of this system is clever and fun. And a bit diabolical. Nearly every German board game, and certainly all of Stefan Feld's, puts you in a position of wanting to do many more things than you actually have allotted actions to work with. In Amerigo, the opportunity to take those actions becomes a determining factor as well. You want to take the blue action to move your ships. Do you do that now, or risk waiting for the next time a blue cube happens to fall from the tower? You want to take land tiles with your red action? Well, you can do it now -- but you'll only get to buy 3 points' worth of tiles. Do you delay your entire plan and hope that red drops again soon with more cubes so you can buy more land?

It's a bit challenging to wrap your brain around, and I did rather poorly the first time I played Amerigo. But the second time, having an idea of what was to come, I resolved to focus on fewer things and not let myself get distracted by the shiny objects of sudden opportunities. That time, I was able to win. Yet with the randomly distributed islands with their randomly distributed goods, the random array of point multiplier tiles available for purchase on any given turn, the random bonus tiles, and the ever present chaos of the tower, it seems unlikely that any one strategy you dream up will work every time in this game. You have to adapt on the fly. And yet all this randomness seems to affect players evenly, and results in probabilities you can analyze rather than totally unpredictable events. This is to say, the game doesn't actually feel that random when you play it, which personally is how I like my German board games.

I'm not sure Amerigo has risen to the ranks of a new favorite yet, but it's certainly a game I want to try again. Subsequent plays will help me figure out whether it lands as an A- or B+ on my list. But if you're a gamer, it's definitely one you should experience for yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amerigo is tied with Terra Mystica as my favorite game of 2013.

I'm glad you're enjoying it!