Monday, April 04, 2016

A Stroll Through the Garden

On my recent trip to Steamboat Springs, though my days were filled with skiing, my evenings were filled with board games. Everyone in the group brought some, resulting in a massive collection -- a home away from home that included a great many options I han't played before. So, over the next few weeks, I hope to be unspooling some reviews.

I'll start with Sanssouci, a game I picked up a bit before the trip. It caught my eye because of its designer, Michael Kiesling. He's the man behind Tikal, Java, Vikings, and others I've definitely enjoyed. From the description and reported playing time (just 30-45 minutes), this seemed to be Kiesling's attempt to go for a swift game with a simple rules set. Could it be as satisfying?

In Sanssouci, players are tasked with creating an impressive garden at the famous palace near Berlin. Each has his own board, a grid for playing tiles; there are nine different symbols across, by five colors deep. Each symbol has its own noble, a token you're trying to advance through the garden (down the column) for maximum points. Tokens move only along orthogonal paths of the tiles you've laid, and though they can briefly step outside their original column, they must always end their movement on their original symbol -- and always at least one row farther along than they began.

The core mechanics are in how you acquire tiles for your garden. Tiles are placed face up on a central board, 10 at a time, two for each of the colors on each player's garden board. Each tile has one of the nine garden symbols. On every turn, you'll take one of the tiles. Its symbol and the color you picked it up from indicate exactly where it must be placed in your own garden. (If that spot is already occupied, you may place it for lesser but still useful effect in the same row or column). But you can't always just take whichever tile you want. Each player has an identical deck of 18 cards, played through in its entirety during the game. On any given turn, you play one card from your hand of two, taking a tile for the symbol or color you played.

There isn't a lot of strategy to be mined here. Bonus cards, kept secret until the end game, do encourage all the different players to focus on different things. Still, you're all fundamentally looking for the same kinds of plays, and all probably wrapped up too much in your own garden to pay too much attention to your those of your opponents. Yet there is some amount of "risk mitigation" that helps fill in for the light strategy. Which card you keep in hand versus which one you play does indeed give you meaningful decisions to make each turn. (On average, it seems like you have around 4 tiles to pick from each turn.) Plus, after a few playthroughs, tracking what is left in your deck will definitely help in your planning.

The result is a game that probably wouldn't stand up to repeated, regular plays, but seems pretty good for less frequent gaming. If you've got just a little more play time to work with, I still prefer Kiesling's game Vikings. But there is more going on in Sanssouci than many games you could play in 30 minutes. I'd call it a fairly good addition to my collection, and grade it a B.

No comments: