Sunday, 29 May 2016


Plays: 3Px1 (short game).

The Game

Citrus is a tile-laying game. You manage plantations - purchasing them, laying them on the board, scoring points with them, and making money from them in order to buy more plantations. You need to manage your pool of workers, and you need to manage your funds. You compete with your fellow players using an area majority mechanism.

The game starts with a mostly empty board. There are some farmhouses (fincas) - the square tiles, and some landscape tiles - the octagonal tiles. Farmhouses are the hubs from which plantations grow, while landscape tiles are special ability or bonus tiles which players can collect and use. Some positions on the board are marked to indicate where new farmhouses will be built. So you can plan ahead.

On your turn you have only two options - buy plantations, or harvest plantations. When you buy, you buy from this plantation board. You must select a row or column, and buy every plantation in it for $1 each. You must place all newly purchased plantations onto the main board. You can start a new plantation region by placing a plantation tile next to one of the four exits of a farmhouse. If you do so, you place one of your workers to indicate that you own this new plantation region. The four plantation regions growing out from the same farmhouse must be of different fruits (i.e. different colours). This is an important rule. When you place a plantation tile, instead of creating a new region you may extend one of your existing regions. Naturally the new tile must be of the same colour as the region you are extending.

This plantation board is only replenished when there are three or fewer tiles left. There are five now so it is not time yet. When it is replenished, a new farmhouse will be added to the main board. So the plantation board also acts as a timer which drives the game.

When placing a plantation tile, if all 8 spaces surrounding a farmhouse are filled, that farmhouse is scored. You check the ownerships of the plantation regions surrounding the farmhouse. The players who own the most and second most land score points as indicated on the farmhouse tile, and then the farmhouse is flipped over. This is the area majority mechanism. In this photo you can see that we have played wrong. We thought that scoring was done as soon as the four exits were filled. You can see some farmhouses are already flipped over despite being not completely surrounded yet.

The other option you have on your turn is harvesting. You may choose to harvest any number of plantation regions you own. You score points based on how big they are, and you relinquish control over these plantation regions. You also earn money based on how many workers you have on your player board after all the harvesting is done.

There is an intricate balance between these two action types. You want to buy plantations to grow your strength on the main board, but you need to harvest to make money so that you can afford to buy plantations.

This is the player board. I took this photo at the start of the game before workers were sent out to work. The track at the bottom is the money track. You can hold at most $12. The golden circles above the workers indicate how much money you earn after a harvest. Let's say you recall all your workers after a harvest and your player board looks like this. You would earn $8 because the total number of golden circles above your workers is eight.

The octagonal landscape tiles have various abilities. When you lay a plantation tile on top of one of them, you claim it, and you can use it any time thereafter. Examples: the Cart lets you take any plantation tile and place it immediately; the Ox can be played on the main board and is considered to have filled a space (usually this is done to trigger farmhouse scoring); the Money tile simply gives you $3, which can be crucial since money management is pain in the neck.

The game ends when all plantation tiles are laid. Remaining unscored farmhouses and plantation regions are scored, and the player with the highest score wins.

The Play

I played with Allen and Han. We did the short game, with a smaller play area, fewer plantation tiles, and no hills (obstacles on the main board). The short version felt quite complete to me and I didn't feel shortchanged. We made some rules mistakes, e.g. in the early part of the game I thought buying plantations always costed $3 (it should be $1 per plantation), so I always tried to take as many tiles as possible. Due to these mistakes, my grasp on the feel of the game may not be accurate, but I believe I am not too far off.

Playing Citrus reminded me of the golden age of Eurogames - late 90's to early 00's. Not everybody agrees about this golden age viewpoint. Some believe the golden age is now. I can understand why many believe that period from the late 90's was the golden age. Eurogames tended to be simpler then, focusing on a few innovative mechanisms, and unburdened by unnecessary complexities which do not always add depth to a game. Most Eurogames were more concise. They had more character. Nowadays there seem to be so many reused mechanisms with only slight tweaks. Or maybe I'm just jaded. Citrus is not an old game. It was released in 2013. Yet it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling of "those were the best days of my (boardgaming) life". It is like meeting a new friend but you feel like you've known him for a long time. The mechanisms are distilled down to the essentials of what makes the game fun. There is little fat. Maybe the landscape tiles can be considered fat. They give some variety, but I don't feel they are core to the game. They are spice.

I normally dislike area majority. The area majority in Citrus has a spatial aspect which I like. Quite often the same plantation region is used to fight for two or even more farmhouses. The balance between buying plantations and harvesting them is tricky. These two action types are contradictory. When you buy plantations you are trying to strengthen your board position. When you harvest, you are destroying your board position, but you need the money to fuel your next round of expansion. Ideally you want to fully utilise your plantations (to score farmhouses) before harvesting and thus losing them, but that's not always easy to do. If you want to keep many plantation regions on the board, you will have few workers on your player board, and you will be earning money slowly. This tempo is tricky to manage. This is what makes Citrus great. It is agonising and it pulls you in different directions, forcing you to compromise and make tough decisions.

The Thoughts

I like Citrus. Previously I had only played two other games by Jeffrey Allers, Piece 'o Cake and New Amsterdam. I didn't like the former, but I enjoyed the latter. From my experiences with these two games, I wasn't particularly interested in this designer. I didn't like Piece 'o Cake because I didn't enjoy the core mechanism of "I split, you choose". The game is very compact, so disliking the core mechanism effectively means disliking the whole package. New Amsterdam actually feels a little like those "multiple ways to score points" Eurogames which I get tired of easily, but it has some neat ideas, and the many elements of the game when put together makes an interesting whole. Now that I have played Citrus, I have become curious about Jeffrey Allers' games. Citrus has character. I like how straight-to-the-point it is. It gives you its best, with no rubbish cluttering your experience.

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