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OLTREMARE: MERCHANTS OF VENICE

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Mind the Move, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, about 60 minutes; about $30)

 

Part of the thrill of tearing the shrink off new games is seeing if a gem lurks underneath. Such a thrill happened with Oltremare, one of the unexpected treats of this year’s Essen Game Fair.

Oltremare: Merchants of Venice, designed by Emanuelle Ornella, is one of those games that fit into the category of “card game that’s a board game”. Games in this category present gameplay that transcends the normal parameters of what we generally consider a card game. We’ve come across this phenomena before – Verräter (Winter 1999 GA REPORT), for example.OltremareboxThe game consists of a four piece “puzzle” board, 10 wooden counters (2 each in 5 colors), 5 merchant cards (in matching colors), 32 harbor bonus markers, and a deck of cards. In addition to the merchant cards, there are 5 summary cards (which explain what the harbor bonus markers do), a Venice card (which will trigger intermediate scoring) and 98 goods cards which are the crux of the game.

The board shows trade routes around Venice (with a scoring track along the perimeter). The 32 harbor markers are randomly mixed and placed, face down, on the trading port spaces on the board. (Excess markers are discarded.) The cards are shuffled and, in turn, cards are drawn. The first card to name a harbor goes to the first player. This is his starting point and where he places one of his wooden counters (which is his “ship”). That card also serves as the first card in that player’s Cargo stack. The same procedure is followed for each player. The other wooden cube is placed on the scoring track at number 11 (to indicate the starting bankroll of 11 ducati). All players take their color-coded merchant card and a summary card. The Venice card is inserted approximately midway through the deck, players are dealt a starting hand of four cards and play begins.

Each Cargo card contains a wealth of information that controls the flow of play. Commodities come in seven varieties: spice, silk, sugar, silver, wine, wood and corn (which looks suspiciously like wheat!). The top of the of the card shows “Maritime Power” icons which indicate how many cards (from 3 to 6) you can hold in your hand at the start of a turn, the good the card represents and the value you will receive for stacking multiples of that good in your Cargo pile, “Load” icons to determine how many cards you can play on your turn and finally, two of the four “Action” icons which “make things happen”.

On a turn, players perform each of the following actions:

1. Maritime Power Phase – If a player has more cards in his hand than allowed by the number of icons on the top card of his Cargo stack, he must DISCARD the excess, face down, into a second stack – his Pirate stack.

2. Trading – The active player may attempt to deal with other players for cards and/or ducati. To encourage trading, any player who makes a deal with the active player earns ONE Prestige Point (charted on his merchant card) which will earn him ducati later on. (The active player receives NO Prestige Point for that deal.) If a trade is not possible, the active player may BUY up to four cards, either from the draw deck or his Pirate stack at the cost of 3 ducati each. (Four ducati if his bankroll has shrunk to 0 or less!)

3. Main Phase – This is where those Action icons go into effect.

A player may play from his hand the number of cards indicated by the Load icons on the top card of his Cargo stack. The number and type of Action icons are very important.

There are four Action icons: Ducati, Pirates, Market and Sailing. Icons on played cards are cumulative. If there are one, two or three (or more) Ducati icons on the cards, a player will receive 1, 3 or 6 ducati (and move his marker on the board perimeter accordingly). One, two or three Pirate icons result in 1, 3 or 6 Cargo cards drawn from the deck and placed, face down, on that player’s Pirate stack. One, two or three Market icons result in the player drawing 1, 3 or 6 cards into his hand from the Cargo deck. One, two, three or four Sailing icons, force the player to move his ship precisely to a port one, two, three or four spaces from his starting point. Should a ship land on a port with a harbor marker on it, the player takes that marker and now can enjoy the special privileges that marker bestows.oltremare2

There are six types of harbor markers: Compass (allowing a ship to immediately “beam” into another harbor space anywhere on the board), Fight the Pirates (negating any Pirate icons played), Favorable Terms (reducing the costs of buying cards), Local Authority (giving the player ducati equal to the number of Maritime icons shown on his top Cargo stack card less three), Big Deal (adding one to the number of ducati action icons played to score higher totals) and Plain Sailing (earning the player 1 ducati for each ship icon played). Harbor markers stay in effect as long as the ship doesn’t move from that harbor. Once it does, the marker is flipped over and any new marker claimed goes into effect. (Harbor markers are not discarded – except for the Compass – and will be scored at game’s end.)

With all actions resolved, players now add the played Cargo cards to their Cargo stacks in any order they choose. The idea here is to place them so that you create runs of the same type of cargo. Depending on the cargo, the value increases dramatically the longer the run.

When the Venice card appears, Prestige Points (earned through trading) are scored. The player with the most points adds 6 ducati to his total, the second most player adds 3 with the third most adding 1. If a tie, both players get the same amount of ducati. Once done, all Prestige values go back to zero and the game continues.

Once the last Cargo card is drawn, the game is over and the final scoring done. First, players go through the Cargo stack and see what runs they have created. For example, corn has a value of 1, 3, 5, 8 and 12. Have a run of three corns and you score 5 ducati. Manage to string five corns together and you will add 12 ducati to your score.

Next, harbor markers are checked. As with prestige, the player with the most gets 6 ducati, second most 3 and third most 1. But there is a tie breaker here: the player with the most DIFFERENT types of markers wins the tie.

Now, ducati for prestige is done (as it was when the Venice card appeared). Finally, players LOSE 1 ducati for EVERY card in their Pirate stack.

The player with the most ducati wins the game!

Game play is very well balanced. Generally, the cards that allow you to hold a large hand of cards only allow you to play ONE of them! As you might suspect, cards that limit you to a smaller hand allow the play of three or four. You have to decide how you want to achieve your objectives – and be very careful about it. The “stacking” aspect of play, similar to that found in Bohnanza (Fall 1997 GA REPORT), is actually handled better here as you control how your cards are stacked to maximize your scoring.

The trading phase may serve a purpose but it can also result in a bit of down time as traders try to force deals. Either a trade is there or it isn’t. To coin a phrase, you can’t get blood from a stone and to keep on trying to do so, just drags the game down. We recommend a house rule which limits trade time as much as possible. The rules, while well written, are printed in such small type as to make you wonder why a magnifying glass wasn’t included in the box! Surely, doubling the type, thereby increasing the one sheet of rules to two sheets, wouldn’t have been a prohibitive production cost. Harbor markers and play aid cards also suffer by being too small for easy recognition. Size DOES matter!

The strong design elements and playability of Oltremare (as well as its small size and initial 12 Euro price) account for its sold out status at its Essen Game Fair debut. Fortunately, a second printing of the game is on its way so that everyone can enjoy this jewel. Oltremare is ultra rare: a small company release with big play value! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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