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Saint Malo

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Ravensburger, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-75 minutes; $34.99)

saintmalobox2Inka and Marcus Brand have carved out an enviable reputation as game designers, most recently capturing the Spiel des Jahres – Kennerspiel award with their game, Village (featured in the Summer 2012 GA Report). Village was a rather involved representation of life in a small medieval village; in Saint Malo, their latest creation, players are once again involved in growing a town but this time, play is much more stylized and dice play a key role.

As part of the Alea small box series (number 9, in fact), Saint Malo comes in a slim bookshelf box that holds five erasable player boards, a central (also erasable) board, dry erase pens for each player and a set of five special dice.

Every player receives their own board (and dry erase marker) which depicts a boxed grid of 45 spaces representing the city of Saint Malo. There is also room to keep track of your gold coins (you start with three) and logs (you start with two in your lumber storage area) which can come in very handy. It is up to each player to fill in the grid with the elements that will earn him the most Victory Points for when one or more players completely fill the grid, scores will be totaled and high scorer will win.

Each side of each die depicts a different icon representing elements of life in the city. There are churches (suggested by a cross), fortifications (walls), lumber (logs), store houses (orange “crates”) and people (green profiles). The sixth icon is “crossed swords” which represents the looming presence of pirates!

Every turn, the active player rolls the dice aiming to amass the right number of a particular icon of his choice. Players may reroll any dice up to three times and, if unable to get the icon needed, may spend two coins for each a die they wish to transform into any other icon. After the third roll, any crossed swords that remain are charted on the central board. (Crossed swords may not be changed by spending coins. If you are stuck with them, you are stuck with them!) Once you’re finished rolling the dice, you have to decide what you want to do with them!

If logs are rolled, players may add logs to their lumber storage area, paying two coins for “delivery” regardless of how many logs are delivered. Architects use logs to build houses which score Victory Points. (More on that later.)

The orange goods icon represents storage crates and players may add crates to their city provided that crates added on that turn touch, either horizontally or vertically. Merchants use crates to generate money. (More on that later too.)

Rolled wall icons represent fortifications that you may build on the outside spaces of the city. While any icon may be placed on the outside spaces, completing a section of wall with only wall icons will grant a player a bonus (money, Victory Points or a person to add to your city). A completed wall also increases your city’s defense against pirates. (More on that later as well.) And, as you would expect with a medieval city, you might build churches.

Rolls of crosses allow you to place a church anywhere on your grid. Depending on how many crosses you have rolled, you may place a level 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 church as long as the level of the church is equal to or less than the number of crosses rolled. Churches can be a large source of Victory Points in the final scoring.

80503MATAnd then there are those green heads. A city must be populated and rolling those heads allows you to do so. One head will let you place a Citizen which will grant you an immediate Victory Point. Two heads give you a choice of a Soldier (which adds 1 to the city’s defense) or a Priest (who, when placed next to a church, will score 1 VP for each church he is adjacent to – including diagonally). As the number of heads rolled increases, so does the power of the people.

Three heads gives you a choice of an Architect or Merchant. An Architect will build houses (up to 3 of them, using 1 log per house from your supply) which will give you 3, 6 or 9 VPs depending on how many houses are built. A Merchant acts in similar fashion except a Merchant must border goods crates and will generate 1 coin for each crate he is adjacent to – even diagonally. Four heads lets you place a Juggler in your city and he will award you 2 VPs for each different type of person he is adjacent to when placed. Finally, a perfect roll of five heads creates a Noblemen which will immediately add 7 Victory Points to your score.

But while you are merrily going along gathering Victory Points, you need to prepare for the eventual and inevitable appearance of pirates!

As mentioned, each turn, the number of crossed swords left after a player is done rolling is marked on the central board. Depending on the number of players, pirates will appear when a specified number of swords has been charted. Each player is vulnerable to this pirate attack and must have enough strength in his city to defend against them. Each Soldier in the city has a defense value of 1 while each COMPLETED section of wall is worth 2 and a player must have a total defense value equal to or greater than the pirates’. The first time this happens, the pirate strength is only 1 but the pirates rapidly increase in power making them a real threat to cause damage as the game progresses. If you succeed in repelling the attack, there is no penalty. But fail and you must cross off one of the cannons on your board that was, presumably, ineffective in guarding the city.

Play continues until one player has filled in all 45 spaces on his board. After all players have had an equal number of turns, the final scoring takes place. Every player who has managed to fill in all the spaces on his board, adds 5 VPs to his score. Every 2 coins still in your cache is another VP and every log in your storage area also counts as 1 VP. Churches can be a windfall of Victory Points as they are scored IN SERIES. That is, if you have a series of a Church 1, Church 2 and Church 3 (for example), you will score an additional 8 points. Have a complete series of Churches (1 through 5) and you’ll add 20 VPs to your score! You may score multiple series of churches too so, if you manage to construct TWO 1 through 5 series, you add a hefty 40 VPs to your total. But keep in mind, series must be scored in order starting with a Church 1. A run of Church 1, 2, 3 WILL score; a run of Church 4 and 5, missing the lesser links, will NOT. Finally, every cannon destroyed forces that player to deduct 5 points from his score. The player with the most Victory Points when the dust settles is the winner.

Think of the dice rolling of Roll Through the Ages (Spring 2009 GA Report) meeting Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA Report) and you should have a good handle on what to expect in Saint Malo. Although there is luck here (as to be expected with any dice rolling game), the luck factor can be mitigated to a degree through the judicious use of your coins to change a die roll into something better suited to your immediate needs or long range plans. Although relatively simple, what elevates the game play is the presence of real decisions. You need to consider how to best make use of your die rolls in view of the interlocking relationship between money and Merchants, logs and Architects and, of course, walls and soldiers and pirates. You have to evaluate the benefits of filling in multiple grid spaces on a turn (via Architects, for example) versus the long range possibilities (such as building one or two church series). All the while, it is wise to keep an eye on your opponents so that they don’t complete their grids to get those 5 extra VPs that you might not be in a position to claim. Games tend to be highly competitive; 5 VPs can be enough to give you the win. To all of this, Saint Malo adds that “push you luck” factor that many gamers often find hard to resist.

The game is listed as for up to five players but, in this case, less is more as with five, there tends to be too much down time between dice rolls. You’re better off playing this game with four or less. As mentioned, the game uses dry erase markers and a wipe off board. It has been reported that repeated use tends to leave residue behind on the board. Photocopying and laminating the boards might be an option worth considering to avoid any possible problems.

Saint Malo provides a clever look into life of a medieval city combining a certain lightness of design with compelling decisions to make. This makes for an interesting concoction that provides a gaming experience worthy of its slot in the Alea line and a game worth considering for its own slot in your gaming library.


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