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IL PRINCIPE

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Mind the Move/Z-Man Games, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, 60-90 minutes; $34.99 )

 

If recent releases are any indication, the age of the small game company is dawning. One of the harbingers of this new age is Mind the Move Games. Its first release, Oltremare, designed by Emanuele Ornella, was an instant hit last year, meriting feature treatment in the Winter 2005 GA REPORT. Now another design by Ornella marks this company’s second release: Il Principe.

Il Principe comes in a standard size box (much larger than the one housing the original edition of Oltremare) to hold 100 Building Cards, 15 City Cards, 10 Role Tiles, money chips, shield counters, an Il Principe marker and a mounted board showing regions of medieval Italy as well as a place for the Role Tiles and a scoring track. The rules are only two pages long and come in 4 languages, including English.

Four City Cards are placed alongside the board, available to be built. Each player chooses his unique set of shield markers and places one of these on the scoring track.

A game turn consists of three phases. In Phase 1, all players receive 5 chips (“money”) and four Building Cards from the deck. Building Cards come in five colors (in decreasing value): green, white, red, blue and yellow. Each card has a value of 1. All players discard two of the cards in their hands. This brings us to Phase 2 as these discards are collected, sorted into sets of the same color, and auctioned.

In turn, players may bid or pass on each set of Building Cards. Cards won are taken into the winning bidder’s hand (there is NO hand limit) and the winning bid paid to the bank. After winning an auction, that player receives the Il Principe marker (noting him as the “starting player”) and has the option of building ONE of the City Cards available. (However, NO Cities may be built on the first turn.)

City Cards contain a wealth of information including how many Building Cards – and of what colors – are needed to build that particular city as well as how much money such construction requires. These cards also show the number of Victory Points earned for a successful build as well as a number of shields. Shields represent influence a particular player has in a particular region. Upon building a city, that player may place the specified number of shields in any region bordering that city. Cities border one, two or three regions and shields may be placed entirely in one area or divided.

In an interesting design touch, OTHER players can also score on a build. Players holding Majority Control in a color used in building receives 2 VPs; the Minority holder receives 1. If the building player happens to have a majority or minority interest in a color used, he receives no additional VPs. After all, he is already getting VPs for the construction.

Built City Cards are given to the player and a new City Card is immediately drawn to fill the vacated spot. Cards used by a player in City building are placed, face up, in front of him. These cards will help determine Majority and Minority Control of the different colored cards.

With the Building Card auctions completed and any Cities built as a result, Phase 3 begins. Now ALL players, starting with the player holding the Il Principe marker, may choose to build a City OR play cards from his hand. City building follows the same procedure as when winning an auction. The card play option allows you to place down any number of the SAME COLOR cards from your hand to your array.

Once all players have built or played cards, Majority and Minority Controls are determined. The player with the most FACE UP cards in a color receives the Majority Control marker; the player with the second most FACE UP cards receives Minority Control. As mentioned, Majority and Minority Controls give you the potential to earn VPs when other players build but they also come with their own unique “bonuses”. For example, Majority and Minority controllers in Green may turn over (from face down to face up) any non-green card, control of White earns you 1 VP, Red allows a free draw of a building card, blue enables you to place a shield in any region, and yellow bestows 2 money chips on the controllers. Bonuses go into effect IMMEDIATELY! But Majority Control comes with a price. The player with Majority Control must immediately turn HALF of his cards of that color (rounded up!) FACE DOWN! This generally causes Majority Control to be lost the following turn (but he still reaps VP benefits until then.) Minority Controllers are immune to this effect. Now, we return to Phase 1 as players get 5 money chips, draw 4 more Building Cards and the next turn begins.

Play continues until one of two conditions are met: either less than 4 City Cards are left (ending the game immediately) OR when drawing Building Cards, less than a certain number (from 12 to 20 depending on the number of players) remain. In the second case, players get their 5 money chips (unclear in the rules but, again, the correct way to play as confirmed by the designer) but do NOT draw any building cards. Instead, 2 x the number of players Building Cards are drawn from the remaining deck and auctioned, signaling the last turn of the game. Once this last turn is done, the final VPs are scored.

In Il Principe, VPs seemingly come from everywhere! All along, you’ve been scoring VPs for building Cities and having Majority/Minority Control in colors used in those builds. In the final reckoning, players also earn 2 VPs for any Majority Control, 1 VP for Minority Control, they currently have, 2 VPs for having the most Building Cards in hand, 2 VPs for the most money and 2 VPs for each SET of Building Cards (1 of EACH color) present in their array. (This VP source is mangled in the English rules, falling victim to the language barrier, but this IS the correct interpretation.) Finally, attention turns to the map. For each region in which a player has the most shields, he will score 5 VPs; second most will score 2 VPs. In cases of a tie, BOTH players score the same VP total. At this point, the player with the most VPs wins!

City building is a major source of VPs, both in the actual build as well as the ability to place shields for future scoring. Majority and Minority Control, another critical source of Victory Points, can earn you as many VPs as the City builder if you happen to have the right combinations of color control. But you can’t depend on maintaining control since Majority players are compelled to turn over half of their holdings upon achieving majority status, generally leaving them vulnerable to Majority Control takeovers. The play mechanism intricacies dovetail neatly so that an early lead is not insurmountable and the winner not apparent until the final VP calculations are done.

Il Principe is fast moving but this is a two-edged sword. Since the game only lasts 60-90 minutes, the game tends to feel “busy” and can leave you wishing it lasted longer so you could more fully develop a plan to meet your goals. But long range planning is elusive and illusory as Majority and Minority Controls shift nearly every turn. You should try to build cities where you have some control so as not to distribute VPs to your opposition. However, those subtleties can be lost as players feel compelled to build ANY city to secure VPs and place those shields on the map to their best advantage before time runs out.

On a graphic note, why the incredibly small type for the rules? Ideally, rules should be clear both in expression and in sight. Eyestrain doesn’t make a game more appealing. While the box is a nice size, possibly designed to command more shelf space, the reality of the matter is is that if you folded the board in half or simply left out the area reserved for the Role Tiles, the game would fit comfortably in a box half the size! Surprisingly, the shields used for player pieces are all the same color differentiated only by different symbols making them a bit hard to distinguish. We recommend (and we’ve substituted) those ubiquitous wooden cubes in place of the shields so you can tell at a glance who is occupying the various regions.

Inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, Il Principe tries to take advantage of all sorts of strategy and cunning by combining auctions, set collection and area control, three basic staples of Euro style gaming. The result is an intriguing diversion that doesn’t outlast its welcome. – – – – – – Herb Levy.


 

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