We finally played the boardgame Thurn & Taxis with more than two people last night – we had a Game Night on Game Night with a couple of friends – so I’m confident enough to review and recommend the game. It’s fun, it’s quite simple to pick up, and it moves quickly; it’s probably most comparable to Ticket to Ride among games I’ve reviewed before, but with a little more complexity in scoring, allowing for more ways to win the game without the rigidity of fixed routes.
T&T, which won the Spiel des Jahres in 2006, is played on a map of southern Germany and the borders of a few nearby countries, with 24 cities marked on the map across nine different regions. The object of the game is to amass points by building, turn by turn, postal routes (the House of Thurn und Taxis* ran a postal company in north-central Europe for over two centuries) that connect these cities based on cards drawn from the main deck of 72 cards (3 of each city), with six cards visible at any time. Routes must run at least 3 cities, and you must add to your route each turn or “close” it, placing houses on the cities in the route and collecting any point bonuses; if you can’t add to an open route on your turn, you must discard it and start over, an often fatal error. But your ability to place houses on cities in a route you close is limited by a rule that says you may only place one house per region in a closed route, or place houses in only one region of the route, meaning that a route of seven cities across three regions is inherently inefficient, as is a route that includes many cities in which you’ve already placed houses.
*Yes, I’ve read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and no, I neither liked nor fully understood it, two things that are most likely connected.
The bonuses are the key to winning the game, of course, as you earn points by placing houses on all cities in a region (or pair of regions in the case of smaller regions with one or two cities each), by placing at least one house in all nine regions, or by building routes of five or more cities. Each bonus declines by a point when each player achieves it. There’s also a sequential series of bonuses, where you receive a carriage card for building routes of at least 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 cities, in order, without skipping any of the cards, with the points ranging from two points for the three-city route to ten points for the seven-city route. When a player gets the 7-city carriage card, or places the last of his 22 houses, the game ends, with each player taking one more turn.
Those are almost all of the rules of the game, summarized in under 400 words, but those rules allow enough different strategies to keep the game interesting. You have enough houses for all but two of the cities, so you can try to win by placing all your houses first (there’s a penalty of one point per house left in your pool at game end), but have to sacrifice one or two of the regional bonuses to do so. You can try to race to the seven-carriage card, but may be short in region bonuses, or be late for the long-route bonuses. And you’re always at the mercy of the cards in the pool and the deck.
That proved to be the major wrinkle between two- and four-player games. In the two-player game, I found it easy to look ahead a few turns, because I knew what city cards were likely to be available to me the next time around. In the four-player game, not only is that impossible, but the player who chose cards right before me was executing a similar strategy and going after similar routes, so if a card I needed was in the pool, he’d have a chance to grab it, and I clearly wasn’t fast enough to make the mid-game adjustment. (Also, it is absolutely the wrong game to play with your friend the operations research consultant, even more so if he’s the player going right before you, doing critical-path modeling in his head while he steals the cards you need. But I’m not bitter.) Those adjustments aren’t required in a two-player game, so while the two-player game is fun, there’s a solitaire-ish element to it, while the four-player game has just enough randomness to throw a wrench in your strategy and force you to rethink plans on the fly. Like Stone Age, it seems to me to have a good balance of luck and strategy for this type of game. It’s definitely a good starter game for any of you looking to jump into German-style board games, with enough sophistication to satisfy someone who’s already into the genre.
Some of you have asked me questions, here, on Twitter, and in chat about games by skill or complexity level. Our collection of German-style games has grown to the point where I think I could categorize them roughly for you by my perception of their complexity, both in terms of learning the game for the first time and in terms of repeated play. Links are to reviews on this site or to the top ten rankings for three games (Babel, Metro, Settlers) that I only wrote up there.
Moderately low complexity:
- Zooloretto (very simple to play, one or two small twists in scoring strategy)
- Thurn and Taxis
- San Juan (long, complex rules, but very simple to play after that)
- Stone Age (moderately complex rules, a few simple strategies)
- Carcassonne (simple game, complex scoring strategy)
Moderately high complexity
- Settlers of Catan (very rich strategy)
- Power Grid (the valuation/money component makes its gameplay complex)
- Puerto Rico (played twice, many rules, long setup, complex strategy)