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Fresco

[In our years of publication, games from Queen have frequently appeared. The first time was actually a “double dose”. In the Winter 1999 issue, two Queen games were featured: Schnappchen Jagd (designed by Uwe Rosenberg who would go on to even greater success with IGA winner Agricola) and Showmanager (still my favorite design by award winning game creator Dirk Henn). This is the 12th time a Queen release has been featured in these pages and this review adds to my review total: 676! – – – – – – Herb Levy]

(Queen Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $59.95)

 

Reviewed by Herb Levy

frescoThe artwork of the Renaissance can be breathtaking! Beauty created by such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and others did not just happen by accident. It required lots of planning and hard work. Game players will discover this as they are transported back in time to find themselves as master painters ordered by the bishop to do some restoration work on the cathedral ceiling in Fresco.

Fresco, designed by Marco Ruskowski and Marcel Sübelbeck (in cooperation with Wolfgang Panning), comes with a double-sided game board (for 3 and 4 player games), 14 market tiles (and a bag to hold them, 25 fresco tiles, 60 Thalers (the game’s currency in denominations of 1, 5 and 10), 78 “paint pieces” (colored cubes for use in painting the fresco), sets of wooden pieces representing master painters and their apprentices, a bishop piece, four large and small screens as well as two-sided action boards and a large mounted board.

Each player takes a small screen and an action board (with side 1 facing up) to place behind it and a large screen to hide their starting resources of one yellow, one red and one blue paint piece and 12 Thalers. Each player’s persona is represented by a matching set of three “master painters” (large meeples) directing a staff of five “apprentices” (small meeples).

Master painter meeples are placed in three areas of the board. One from each player is randomly placed in the starting spaces track to indicate initial turn order. Another is placed on the hostel track to determine when he (and his work force) will get up in the morning ready for work and off to market. The third occupies the middle rung of the Theater section where the morale (referred to as the “mood” in game terms) of apprentices are charted. (A neutral colored apprentice is placed at the top of each column, ready to come into play if certain conditions are met.)

Fresco tiles display both colors and numbers. The fresco on the cathedral ceiling to be restored is a 5 x 5 grid on the board. An 11 tile is placed in the center of the grid with the remaining tiles randomly placed, face up, on the remaining 24 spaces. The bank and paint cubes form a supply available to all. The bishop piece is placed on the center fresco tile. At this point, play begins.

There are two parts to each turn in Fresco: Set Up Time/Adjusting Mood and Planning/Performing Actions.

The player LAST on the Victory Point track goes first. That player moves his master painter in the hostel onto any open space on the track. This determines WHEN he will get up for work (any time from 5 AM to 9 AM), the change in mood (if any) of his apprentices (ranging from a -3 to a +1 as apprentices do NOT like waking up early) and the cost of supplies at the market (from a high of 4 for the early risers down to 1). The market is where painters get their needed supplies. With four players, the 14 market tiles are placed in the bag and randomly grouped into the four market stalls available. One tile will be left over each time the market is filled. (With 3 players, one booth and three tiles are removed from play.) The earlier you rise, the better the selection of paints available. But the better selection will cost more and rising early tends to make the apprentices less content. These two factors could cause problems. The choice of “wake up” time also determines turn order for phase 2 with the player rising first going first, followed by players in “rising” order.

fresco2Mood changes are immediate. The position of the master painter meeple in the Theater area will rise and fall as moods change. Should the mood increase so that the master painter token rises to occupy one of the +1 spaces at the top of the column, the player can claim the neutral piece there. Conversely, should the mood fall and the master painter occupy one of the two -1 spaces at the bottom of the column, that player LOSES 1 of his apprentices. This can be critical for the number of apprentices you have in play equals the number of actions you may take in a turn! Now those apprentices are put to work as the action phase begins.

Simultaneously, all players secretly place their apprentice pieces on their action board to commit to tasks they wish to perform this turn. There are three spaces for each of the five possible actions on the board (the menu of actions slightly changes when the board flips to side two later in the game): Market, Cathedral, Studio, Workshop and Theater. This means that, potentially, an action could be performed three times on a turn. However, you are limited by the number of apprentices you have.

A Market action allows a player to select one of the available market booths offering paints and buy 1 market tile (displaying one or more paints) for each apprentice committed to the action at the cost determined by that player’s “get up” time. If the player cannot or doesn’t want to spend money on the tiles, he can simply close down a selected booth (at no cost) to keep those paints away from other players.

A Cathedral action allows a player to restore ONE segment of the fresco. Each of the 25 segments displays two or more paint colors and a number. Returning the required paint pieces to supply allows the player to claim the segment and earn that number of Victory Points (moving his marker ahead on the scoring track). The bishop piece moves to the now vacated space. (The bishop plays an important role here. BEFORE claiming a segment, the bishop may be moved 1 space in ANY direction at the cost of 1 Thaler. If the bishop is adjacent to the claimed segment, that player scores another 2 VPs; if the bishop is standing on the claimed segment, 3 VPs are added to the score.) Alternatively, if a player does not have the needed paints, he may “restore the altar” by returning paints for VPs. Returning 1 yellow, red and blue paint piece to supply gains 2 VPs. Should a secondary color, a “blended” paint (orange, green or purple), be used in place of one of the primary colors, 1 VP is added for each blended paint used. If you decide to exchange THREE different blended colors, you can claim 6 VPs for your trouble.

Studio is an easy way to gain more Thalers. Each apprentice assigned to this action brings in 3 Thalers from the bank.

The Workshop allows you to blend paints by exchanging two primary colors for a secondary color. (For example, exchange 1 red and 1 blue for 1 purple.) Each apprentice committed to this action allows you to make TWO blends. Finally, the Theater brightens the mood of the workers. Each apprentice committed do this action moves morale UP two spaces.

With all actions done, the market booths are refilled with paint tiles, each player receives an income of 1 Thaler for EACH fresco tile in front of them and painters on the hostel track are removed, ready to be placed again. Play continues until there are only six (or fewer) fresco tiles remaining on the board. This triggers the final round.

For the final round, the action sheet is turned over to side 2. Side 2 is handled in the same way as side 1 but now the choices are a little different. The theater is no longer an available option but the cathedral may be visited twice. With the final round completed, players, in turn order, receive 1 VP for every 2 Thalers they have. The player with the highest total of Victory Points wins!

Fresco does something that few games do – include expansions with the base game. You may add one, two or all three expansions. While expansions, in general, are a hit and miss proposition (and frankly, very often a miss), in Fresco, they are a definite hit, elevating the level of play and I recommend including all three of them. They add very little to game time but quite a lot to game decision-making and tension. (And if you like them, be aware that THREE more expansions are scheduled to be released later this year.) So what exactly do they do?

The first expansion consists of 18 Portrait cards. The backs of the cards display the letters A, B and C. These are separated, shuffled and stacked in alphabetical order with A on top. Each turn, the top two cards are revealed and are available for selection when a player chooses a Studio action. These cards are all good and will offer either a permanent benefit (each round receive 1 Thaler or +1 point to those awarded by the bishop etc.) or immediate boon (gain 7 Thalers, gain Victory Points). If a player wants to claim a Portrait card and none are available, 3 Thalers are received instead. Should there come a point when the last two cards are revealed, this will also trigger the end game.

The second expansion is The Bishop’s Request. 12 Request tiles are placed in the workshop area. Instead of blending paints at the workshop, ONE apprentice may fulfil a request by first having at least 3 fresco tiles in front of him that display on their backs the needed paints to claim the request but at a cost. Each fresco tile a player has generates 1 Thaler in income each turn. By acceding to The Bishop’s Request, three tiles that would normally generate 3 Thalers are COMBINED reducing the income as, now, those three tiles will only produce 1 Thaler and paint each turn. Of course, claimed request tiles generate Victory Points as well (more VPs the sooner you can meet the requirements) so are usually well worth doing.

The third expansion is Special Blend Colors. This adds higher valued fresco tiles to the set up with the tile valued at 24 placed in the center of the fresco grid (instead of the regular 11 tile) with the remaining 6 special blend tiles replacing, at random, six basic fresco tiles. Tertiary colors of pink and brown are now added to the game with players blending primary and secondary colors to get them (for example, exchanging purple and red for pink). These new colors are necessary to claim the higher scoring fresco tiles and may also be used to “restore the alter” for additional VPs (3 for pink; 5 for brown).

To succeed in Fresco, you have to be able to balance the necessity for getting the paints you need with maintaining a satisfactory mood level among your apprentices. Sometimes, you will need to rise early to get the essential paints even if it means making your work force unhappy. At other times, you will need to take a step back to raise their mood and conserve money. You will never have enough apprentices to allow you to do everything you want to do so maintaining morale is extremely important. (You may be able to win with only four apprentices but I wouldn’t want to try it!) The whole “mood” factor in this game is, in itself, a dose of whimsy seldom seen in games. After all, when was the last time you had to consider the feelings of your game pieces? Balance is also evident in determining turn order; players go in reverse order of accumulated Victory Points. This allows a player falling behind to get the opportunity to decide what to do in the face of the most available choices. It often pays to “hold back” in order to position yourself to get first crack at what you need. These situations can present you with delicious dilemmas – challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting.

While many games can be described as “colorful”, with Fresco, color is key as the board is awash with primary, secondary and tertiary colors that are appealing to the eye. And, as tiles are removed from the fresco, you actually get a feel for the restoration process as the fresco is gradually revealed, adding to the ambiance. The biggest knock on the game is the necessity of a lot of table space as the board is large and the player screens used require additional room. But that is a minor price to pay for such a fine time.

Very often, theme and game mechanisms barely mesh. Fresco, however, is a brilliant blend of theme and execution making it one of the top releases of the year.

 


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