Sunday, 25 July 2010

San Marco

I played San Marco at Carcasean on 22 Jul 2010. I'm back in KK (Kota Kinabalu) again, which means visits to Carcasean to try new games and to revisit good older games with Chong Sean.

The Game

San Marco is a medium complexity area majority game with an I-split-you-choose mechanism at its core. The game is played over 3 phases, where players try to score points by having presence in the 6 regions on the board. The regions are connected by bridges, which restrict movement. The game starts the players owning few bridges, and during the game they can build more. When you place your cube (OK, I'm not sure whether they are supposed to be "people", or "influence", or something else - physically they are cubes) onto the board, if the target region is connected to other regions by your bridges, you can place your cube in an adjacent region instead. When a Doge (i.e. scoring) card is played, you can move the Doge across anyone's bridges, but you pay 1VP to an opponent if you use his bridge.

Setting up the game. 8 cubes of each player are randomly placed onto the board by die-rolling (see die symbol in the regions). The numbers in the regions are VPs for whoever has the highest and second highest presence. The sun on the lower right indicates the phase of the game.

This is how the game works (for a 3-player game). At the start of the round, one player draws 6 good cards and 4 bad cards, and splits them in any way he wants into 3 sets. Then the other 2 players select one set of cards each, leaving one last set for him. As a player claims cards, he uses them to take actions. The simplest cards allow you to place one cube in a specific region, or adjacent one if you have the necessary bridge. The Bridge card lets you build a bridge. The Transform card lets you change a cube to your colour. The Banish card lets you remove cubes from a region - you select the region then roll a die, and then remove that number of cubes from the region. There is a risk of removing your own cubes if the number of opponents' cubes is small and you have your own cubes in the region. The Doge card lets you move the Doge then score the destination region. These are the good cards. The bad cards are number cards ranging from 1 to 3. Once anyone collects bad cards that add up to 10 or more, he's out of the current phase. Other players who have less than 10 do one more round. The differences in bad card values also determine bonus points for players with less than 10. The bigger the gap between your bad card value and the that of the worst player, the more bonus points you score.

Three phases are played, and then the game ends.

Cards in the game. Top: Banishment, Doge (scoring), Transform. Bottom: Region cards for you to play a cube (and then possibly move to an adjacent region).

Close-up of the San Marco region. The Doge is the red dude. Cubes on bridges don't mean aristocrats crossing bridges. I thought they were were I first saw artistic photos of this game. Cubes on bridges indicate ownership.

The Play

I played the game with Chong Sean (who has played before) and Aaron, a new friend. When I did the card splitting, I tended to split them quite evenly - the sets tended to have about the same mix of good and bad cards. Aaron went with a more extreme approach, he often had one very big set with many good and bad cards, and the other 2 sets only had one good card each. Twice Chong Sean could not resist and took the biggest sets, and later this came back to haunt him, because not only he had one less round, the bad value gap also gave many bonus points to Aaran and I, especially Aaron. I had also succumbed to the big set temptation. Eventually Aaron won the game with 61pts. I had 49pts, Chong Sean 45pts.

I did this split quite evenly.

Near game end, when most of the bridges had been built.

The Thoughts

The first thing I have to say about San Marco is that I love the artwork. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of area majority games, so it won't be a game I'll request to play often. The game design is clean and simple. The bridge building is an interesting long term planning aspect that you need to think about. The player who has to split the cards has the toughest job. I think it early games this part can really slow down as new players struggle to understand the implications and to evaluate the cards. However I think once you get familiar with the game this can be done much more quickly. Selecting a set is usually less strenuous, but it is still an interesting decision. Overall this is a middle-weight game, because there are a few aspects you need to think about at the same time. It is not only about area majority. You also need to consider the bridge building, the phase ending condition, and the bad card value gap bonus.

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