Rialto is an area majority game. What is special about it is the values of the districts being fought over are gradually determined throughout the course of the game, through players actions. Area majority scoring is done only at game end. There are a few other ways to score points, e.g. from buildings and from actions, but the bulk of the points come from the area majority competition.
The game is driven by a card drafting mechanism. At the start of each of the six rounds, a few sets of cards are dealt face-up for players to pick. These cards are used later that round to execute various actions. Actions are executed in the order of action types. To participate in an action phase, you need to play one or more cards for that particular action. The more cards you play, the stronger your action. The player who has played the most cards gains a special bonus. E.g. for the earn money phase the bonus is you earn and extra $1 (well, it's actually florin I think, since this game is set in Venice). Other actions include competing for turn order, constructing buildings, getting pawns from the general supply, placing pawns into the active district of the current round, and scoring points. Among these are two important bonuses. Firstly, in the score points phase (or bridge phase) if you win the bonus you get to place a good bridge between two districts, usually significantly increasing the value of the districts. Secondly, in the gain pawn phase (or gondola phase) if you win the bonus you get to place a lousy bridge (which is actually a gondola) between two districts, increasing their values by a paltry 1pt. You also get to place one pawn in one of these districts. This may not sound like much, but it can be very powerful because it means you can place a pawn in a non-active district.
With 4 players, we had 5 sets of cards laid out at the start of every round. The last player will still have two sets to pick from.
From left to right: The bridge cards score 1pt per card. The bonus is you get to place a bridge tile onto the board to increase the values of the districts at both ends of the bridge. The gondola cards let you take pawns from the general supply. The bonus is you get to place a gondola (i.e. lousy 1pt bridge) onto the board. The mask cards are jokers, and must be played with another card. The hat cards are for turn order. The coin cards are for money. This was still early in the game. In the background you can see that most spaces for bridges and gondolas are still empty. Also only one district has pawns.
When you select a set of cards, others can see what you have selected. However, you also draw two cards from the draw deck, and then discard two cards, before the action phases start. So your opponents will not be entirely sure what cards you have.
The building powers are mostly straight-forward. Some are related to drawing more cards and having a larger hand size. Some are related to playing one card as a card of another type. Some give points. All building powers need to be activated by paying $1, and they can only be used once per round. Money is only used for triggering building powers.
The player board has 7 spaces for buildings. There are three types of buildings, blue, green and yellow, and four levels in each type. The level (top right corner of the building tile) is also the point value. From left to right: (1) upgrade a building to the next level. (2) Draw one more card from those face-up or three more from the draw deck. Also handsize is increased by two. (3) Gain 3pts. (4) Gain 1pt and one pawn.
Having played Stefan Feld's In the Year of the Dragon and also other games where player order is something that can be fought over, I decided it must be quite important, and spent much effort keeping myself in first position. Heng and Ivan didn't really bother to compete, but Allen did, which meant I had to maintain my effort. It was an arms race.
There are six action phases in a round. At first I thought it would be a good idea to claim a good variety of cards, so that I could participate in many action phases. However I later found that this meant my actions were rather weak, and I would often miss out on the bonuses. The game forces you to make choices and sacrifices. At the start of every round, you should pay attention to what cards your opponents are taking, so that you have a rough idea of where they intend to compete. I didn't really do that though, since I was still learning the ropes and couldn't spare the extra effort.
In the early game it was difficult to plan which districts to go for, since the district values were not determined yet. So we had to fight first and talk scores later. Once you have majority in a district, you should try to place bridges that increase its value. Naturally others will try to award you stinking gondolas.
The building powers are all quite handy. I think they are very much worth the investment. You need to remember to maintain a stash of cash to trigger their powers though. Some scoring is done during the game, but most is done at game end, so you need to always keep in mind the end goal. The game is a constant manipulation of the end state, while you score some supplementary points along the way.
In the sixth and last round I made a mistake of underestimating Allen's determination to beat me in the turn order track. I was already 5 steps ahead, and I didn't think he would commit so many cards to try to overtake me. Even so, I kept one turn order card just in case. To my surprise, he committed 5 cards. That meant he moved six steps (taking into account the bonus) and I moved one. We landed on the same space, but since I moved first, his disc was atop mine, and he gained the lead. Aaarrgghh! This affected the end-game scoring of two districts, where he claimed first place while I had to settle for second, gaining half the points he scored. That was about a 13pt different - he gained 13pts more and I gained 13pts less. He won the game by a huge margin while I came a distant third. If I had committed more to maintain my turn order lead, I might have won, or at least come second place.
Game end. The doge track with the hat icon is the turn order track. Allen (blue) and I (green) were on the same space, but because his disc was on top, he had the advantage. The outer track is the score track. Allen outscored us by a mile!
Rialto teases. There are many things you want to do, but you can't do everything. You are forced to choose. Turn order is certainly important. In this game I maintained the lead position most of the time, and didn't have to feel much pain. However I imagine it is painful for Heng and Ivan. They had fewer choices when picking the card sets, and during the card play, they were also disadvantaged when there was a tie for most number of cards played. Even as start player, picking a card set is painful. You not only have to think about what you want to do. You also have to consider that the card sets you leave behind will be used by your opponents to compete with you.
What makes Rialto stand out is how the district values are determined during the course of the game. This presents an interesting challenge to the area majority competition. The game is constant positioning and manoeuvring to set yourself up for the end-game scoring. Other scoring methods are not unimportant, but are supplementary. You need to always keep the end in mind.
My impression of Rialto is: cute. It is quite clean and succinct. It's a medium weight game, with still enough meat to chew on. It doesn't feel overburdened with multiple different mechanisms, like I feel there is in some other Stefan Feld's designs. Rialto is not bad. Crisp.