Trumpet, lump it or dump it. A Review of “The Palaces of Carrara”

I finally was able to get my hands on a German version of the game. Yeah, the delay was self-imposed; the game is readily available from Amazon.de and often from several U.S. OLGS outlets. I had other games I wanted to acquire before this one. But, its number came up and it arrived on my doorstep courtesy of UPS and Games Surplus.

Since its arrival several days ago, I have played in four times. Two plays were two-player and the others were a three-player and a four-player. The two- and three-player sessions were with players that are gaining experience with Eurogames and certainly above the “casual gamer”. The four player session was with a full complement of heavily experienced Eurogamers.

The Basics
The maximum player count in the game is 4 and the advertised play time is about 60 minutes. You can get more of that type of metadata here: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/129948/the-palaces-of-car…. The data I wish to discuss is the gameplay and the elements of the game.

The basic gameplay is that you will be purchasing marble of various qualities and costs from the quarry market in order to build different structures in any of the six cities depicted on your player board. Each city has increasingly stringent requirements on the quality of marble they allow you to use in those constructions. The cities also indicate that they give you victory points or money when the constructions in them are scored. When you score the constructs you will also receive “objects” which are wooden pieces related to the construct (a Palace will give you a “crown” object while a Biblioteca will give you a “book” object, etc. There are six different construct types and therefor six different object types).

Each player has a blind that hides their money and the marble blocks they have purchased and the objects they have collected. This is important because the game end conditions vary from session to session. Each game requires three different ending conditions and will end when a player has met all of these conditions and announces the end of the game. Individual conditions vary wonderfully, from a certain amount of money to a certain number and/or type of objects (think “set collection”) to building count or type and so on.

At least one of the ending conditions will always involve open information. So the players will have to rely on what they saw happen in the past as well as what they see in front of them to judge when the game will end. But if you simply and diligently seek a successful ending for yourself, you will have no problems!

Some of the end game cards will also offer bonus scoring opportunities at and game. Things like objects collected in various sets, the value of the buildings you built, etc. There will also be one open information scoring bonus card that does not include and end game condition. This card is usually a valuable guide to play (for example: you get extra points for building the most constructions in various cities).

There are two key mechanics in the game worth highlighting. The first key mechanic is the pricing wheel that is the marble market. Marble comes in six colors and each of the colors is consistently more valuable than the preceding color which relates directly to the cities selectivity in marble quality. The decisions to be made about when to spin the wheel (and reduce prices for all but add more marble to the market) and what to buy (some marble even becomes free) are terrific!

The second key mechanic is scoring. Without going into the details too much, you can score building types or you can score specific cities, regardless of how you score, you’ll get either victory points, or money or both. But the selection of the building types and their placement in the cities (driven of course by the marble quality and quantity you have available) is a pretty deep relationship to the scoring and when you score – yes, you choose when to score. The scoring gameplay exceptional.

The Review
I’ll start off by saying that what I appreciate about this game is that it is balanced in its unbalance! As a player, you and you alone, are responsible for the timing and effectiveness of your scoring and income. If you play well, you will score well and have sufficient funds at hand to support that scoring. If you play poorly, your score and your wealth will reflect that. This means that as players are learning the nuances of the gameplay that the scores can be varied – perhaps causing some to think the game is unbalanced, when it was really your play that was unbalanced. There are no special powers that vary by player, every player is on an even keel and is free to create the points engine of his or her own desire.

Ah, but that engine itself is a balancing act all its own. This is not a typical Euro where you build a nice economic engine and ride its beautiful efficiency to 200 victory points over the course of the seven rounds of the game knowing that there are scoring periods at the end of the third, fifth and seventh rounds. You see, the game’s ending is somewhat non-deterministic in its timing, while being completely deterministic in its requirements. Since you have imperfect knowledge of the progress made by your opponents towards the end game conditions, you must be on your toes at all times. The end of the game can, and often will take you by surprise (especially for new players). It has race-like elements to the engine builder.

I think of the game as sort of like running a software startup company. Being the first to market your product may be akin to being the one to end the game. Getting there means thinking lean and mean and building incrementally and opportunistically towards success while keeping a close eye on your competitor’s efforts! The game, like business, can be simultaneously unforgiving and rewarding.

This game lacks “balancing mechanics”, and I applaud that. There’s no magic way to “go first if you’re in last place”. There’s no way to “take out a loan” to augment your meager resources. There is no “free parking”. The game will not artificially have a close score. I find this refreshing…oh, I and I suck at this game! In my four plays to date, I have won once and been trounced to various degrees on the other occasions.

This game is on my “Trumpet” list. It is fast, fun and challenging. Such simple rules have led to interesting and layered decision making. I encourage all to give it a try and see if you find the same enjoyment I do. Also, don’t be afraid of the German edition. Only the game end cards have text on them that matters, but they have pretty good iconography on them that requires little reference to the rules (you will have to print the English rules however).

Two of the four players in the last session asked that the game return often to our game days.

Element Ratings
For what these rating numbers mean, please see: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/27922/trumpet-lump-it-…

Theme: Lump It
Little or no thematic relevance to gameplay.

Player Interaction: Lump It
The player interaction in this game is alright, typical Euro interaction, not totally multiplayer solitaire. My good moves can often cause adjustments to my opponents’ plans. Deciding when to turn the wheel at the market and when not too do so is nice. Making stuff cheaper and more abundant for you is doing the same for the other players, but when you can get what you want without turning the wheel it is extra nice. Keeping tabs on the progress of other players towards the end conditions is nice also. Competition for the constructions is pretty non-existent.

Luck/Random Factors: Trumpet
The luck or random elements present in this game are limited or actually improve the game play. What buildings are available to be constructed are determined randomly, but they are so varied in type and cost and since there are always nine of them available, it’s more of a “buffet” than a random or lucky draw.

Marble blocks available in the market is drawn from a bag, but since there are only six types and eleven blocks are usually available the luck/random is reduced. The most impact on the marble market is what other players buy up.

The end game condition cards are randomly selected, but this adds only variation to the play, not random effects on your play during your play. Also, if you’re interested, the rules suggest six interesting combinations of cards. In one game we played, we just had the players pick different cards that interested them.

Replayability: Trumpet
End game conditions can be very different from game to game and the pathways to success are challenging and numerous. I think that the end conditions are a key element of replayability in this game. They ensure that you cannot play the same strategy every game. The challenge of play is also important. What to build and where you want to build it matters to both your purchases at the market and to your scoring timing and choices.

Beauty: Trumpet
High quality production values, better than the norm. The cards are of good quality as are the tiles and the wooden pieces. The six different objects are really cool. The board and the wheel are solid quality too. Only the thin card that holds the end game condition cards is below grade – but it isn’t even needed, you can just put the cards in plain view anywhere. Often players will want to hold them and read them anyway.

Casual Gaming: Dump It
Casual gamers may be overly challenged and bewildered by this game. Use only under the supervision of a physician. I think that casual gamers will be frustrated by the scoring – when to score well and how to score well as well as by the end game happening before they are ready – and they won’t be ready.

OVERALL – TRUMPET

 

One comment

  1. Actually I have used the game with casual gamers with great success. The simple mechanics makes it a great “next level” gateway game imo. 🙂
    Great review 🙂

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