The Palaces of Carrara is designed by the formidable duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling (The Princes of Florence, the Tikal series). I have read quite a few positive comments about it, but for quite a while I didn't come across any opportunity to try it. The English version seems to have gone out of print very quickly, although the German version seems to be still easy to find. Essen 2014 is coming, so I decided to give the game a go, and if I liked it I'd try to look for someone going to Essen to help get me a copy.
The game comes with a set of introductory rules and a set of full rules. I'll be discussing the full rules here.
On your turn, you pick one of three things to do: (1) buy bricks, (2) build, or (3) score. If you buy bricks, you first decide whether to turn the wheel. The wheel is a round table on which bricks for sale are displayed. It has six segments, and the prices of the bricks differ by segment. Every time you rotate the wheel, prices usually drop. Some brick types can become free. If you turn the wheel, you replenish it to 11 bricks, and then you pick one segment from which to buy bricks.
The wheel is the bricks marketplace. Every time it rotates, prices will drop. Let's take as an example the segment on the right with two black bricks, one green brick and one red brick. The red one costs $2, the green one $1, while the black ones are free (since no price is listed). However you can grab the black ones only if you select this segment to buy bricks from.
If you decide to build, you get to select one of the 9 buildings available on the board. The number of bricks to use depends on the size of the building, and the quality of bricks used determines in which of the six cities you may build. A picky city like Livorno only approves of buildings using white bricks (the highest grade). A cheapskate city like Lerici is OK with any type of brick.
The nine currently available buildings are in the lower left section of the board.
Buying bricks and building are simple actions in themselves. However the crux of the game is how you make use of them to work towards the third type of action - the scoring action - and also the game-end scoring. You can do the scoring action at most 6 times during a game, and it gives you money, or victory points, or both. The scoring action has three subtypes, two of which are not directly affected by your opponents, but the third one has a racing element. The first scoring subtype is the building type scoring. You pick one building type (there are six) and score all your buildings of that type. These buildings generate VP or cash based on their sizes multiplied by the VP or income value of the cities where they are located. E.g. I have two "Shield" buildings, a size-4 one in Lucca (a 2VP city), and a size-2 one in Massa (a 1VP city). I'd score 4x2VP + 2x1VP = 10VP. I will also gain two Shield tokens, one for each building. There are only five tokens per type that can be scored this way, so sometimes you need to race to grab them if you see your opponents constructing buildings of the same type. Once you've scored for a specific building type, you can't do it for the same building type ever again for the rest of the game, so you need to think carefully when to do it.
The second scoring subtype is scoring by building colour. All green buildings score VP, or all orange buildings make money. Similarly, this is a once per colour per game thing. No building tokens are earned though.
The third scoring subtype is city scoring. Every city can only be scored once per game. If one player has scored a city, that city cannot be scored anymore by anyone. Scoring the city is basically just scoring every building in that city regardless of building type. You earn VP or money depending on the city's type. You also earn building tokens for each building you have built in that city.
This is the player board. When you construct a building, you place it above one of the cities to indicate this is where you have constructed it. Livorno on the left only accepts buildings built with white bricks. Other cities are more flexible, to different degrees.
The row of boxes at the bottom are the scoring boxes. Once you score for a specific building type or building colour, you place one scoring pawn in the box to indicate that it is no longer available.
Your bricks, cash and building type tokens (none yet in this photo) are hidden behind your player screen.
A few game-end criteria are randomly determined at the start of each game. When a player fulfills all criteria, he may declare game-end and earn 5VP for doing so. The round is played to completion, and then everyone scores game-end VP based on the game-end criteria cards. You don't have to declare game-end immediately after you meet all the criteria. Sometimes it can be beneficial to let things drag on a little. However usually the first player who is positioned to declare game-end will benefit more by declaring as soon as possible.
The rulebook explicitly warns players that games can end unexpectedly early. In both games that I played with Michelle and Chong Sean, I was caught unprepared when the games ended. Facepalm moment! Chong Sean had played before, and understood the tempo better. I was simply taking my sweet time trying to build a perfect engine. Michelle was smarter than me. She watched Chong Sean keenly and when she saw him starting to take scoring actions, all alarm bells went off in her head and she knew the end was nigh. I was still dumbly oblivious. I think one big mistake I made was being unfocused. I tried to build in too many places and in too many building types. I ended up being neither here nor there. I think in this game you need to know where to compete and where to concede, and you need to focus your actions and resources.
In both games Chong Sean went straight for the game-end conditions. That is the right thing to do, because the game-end condition cards are also the game-end scoring cards. If you can fulfill all (or many) of the game-end conditions, you will score well at game-end.
There is a tricky balance between quality and quantity. You want to buy higher grade bricks so that you can build in the more lucrative cities, but at the same time you also want to buy as many bricks as possible and as cheaply as possible, so that you can build more buildings and build larger buildings. This balance between quality and quantity often leads to tough decisions.
This was the end of the first game we played. Michelle (red) did not beat me (green) by one point. She beat me by one whole circuit of the score track plus one point. At the top of the board you can see that both Michelle (red) and Chong Sean (yellow) have scored two cities each. I (green) haven't scored any.
This was the second game. I did try to concentrate on the "Shield" buildings, having built four of them, but constructing buildings in so many cities was probably not a good idea. In this particular game, one of the objective cards rewarded the player with the highest valued buildings (by total brick cost) in every city. I went for every city hoping that I'd score some bonus points cheaply if there were one or two cities neglected by Chong Sean or Michelle. In the end I did not win majority in any of the six cities. Sometimes greed is not good.
This was the end of the second game. Chong Sean (yellow) scored 126pts, and he had looped me too! I really suck at this game!
I have decided I want to buy a German version of the game. I find the game very interactive. Despite the simple actions, there is much to think about during play and you need to watch your opponents closely. You are taking small steps from turn to turn, but you want to make sure for each little step you are racing in a coherent direction and not floundering about. You need to have that big-picture strategic view. You need to know what you are fighting for and what you are giving up on. Spend energy on the former but not the latter. Unexpected opportunities sometimes turn up and force you to make difficult evaluations. Do you switch gears slightly to take advantage of this tactical opportunity? Or do you stick to your master plan? Is it worth the effort to deny your opponents? Can you make use of it effectively?
I get a feeling that the game structure (the distribution of the cities, the buildings and the bricks) and the actions that you can take are but the tools. The real game is in the four objective cards that are drawn at the start of every game. They set the stage for the game. Do you need to go for quantity or quality? Do you need to focus on the building type tokens? Do you need to build a large treasury? There can be many combinations of objective cards. It's like buying Memoir '44 and getting a scenario book with hundreds of scenarios.
This is a lean game. Your actions are simple. There aren't many components. It is amazing how rich the gameplay feels despite the modest number of components and the simple framework. I feel the designers have stripped away all unnecessary elements. When I look at each additional element in the full game (compared to the introductory game), I find that every single one of them can have a big impact to the game. They are not small variants that give you a little spice and variability, appeasing you in case you find the base game bland. They are all game-changers. No wonder the designers recommend playing without them for your first game (I didn't heed that advice though).
Playing The Palaces of Carrara is like finding a treasure cave in an erupting volcano. There is plenty of gold and treasures everywhere. You can take your pick, but you need to do it quick, and you want to go for the big ones if possible. All this while others are running around grabbing treasures too, sometimes fighting over the same artifacts. You want to exit with the biggest loot when the cave is overrun by lava.