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Sanssouci

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Ravensburger, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 45 minutes, $39.99)

sansou1The palace at Sanssouci is simply stunning and one of its stunning qualities is the beautiful gardens that frame the impressive edifice. In the new game from Michael Kiesling, players are the powers behind the gardens as they individually create them along with constructing the various accessories that appear within (mazes, statues, stairways etc.), all with an eye to appealing to nobles visiting the gardens of Sanssouci.

Each player has their own garden layout (a two-sided board) which displays 54 squares made up of 9 vertical columns, each column devoted to a specific garden accessory (labyrinth, statue, pavilion, topiary, stairway, fountain, rose arch, herb spiral, and grape vine) and six vertical rows (colored in beige, white, gray, orange, fuchsia and turquoise and numbered from 1 to 6). Some of these spaces are already filled (including the entire beige row). On top of each row is a noble piece (in the player’s color). Garden tiles in the game (up to 81, depending on the number of players) depict one of those accessories on their front and a gardener on the back. These are mixed and placed in piles with 10 of the tiles randomly placed on the five sets of 2 colored spaces on the main board. Each player also gets an identical set of 18 “playing” cards, drawing two for his starting hand, as well as 2 different secret “mission” cards (which figure in the end game scoring).

On a turn, players play ONE of their two held cards. There are three types of these cards: a “double color”, a “garden symbol” and a wild.

If playing a double color card, the player may choose ANY of the four tiles found on the main board on those two colored spaces. That tile is then placed onto his own garden board in the appropriate space. (For example, if a player plays a card with white one of its color and takes a stairway from the white space, that tile MUST be placed on the corresponding space: white row in the stairway column.) If a garden symbol is played, then the player may choose a tile of that symbol from ANY color space. (So if someone plays a stairway cards and stairways are to be found on the white, orange and turquoise spaces, then that player may take ANY one of those stairways and place it on his board.) If you play a wild card, then there are no restrictions: take your choice of ANY of the 10 available tiles. (This also works for symbol cards if no tile of that symbol is available when they are played. In that case, the symbol card also works as a wild and any tile may be chosen.)

2055(1)Tile placement is both, in a sense, both restrictive AND free! Chosen tiles MUST be placed on their corresponding spaces. But if that space should already be occupied, then that tile may be placed ANYWHERE in the corresponding row or column. But when placed, it is placed face down, on its gardener side. Once your tile is placed, you may move your nobles.

Each turn, you may move ONE of your nobles down towards the higher numbered rows of your garden on a “visit”. Nobles can only travel via connected paths (no jumping over empty spaces) and they MUST end in the same column they started in (although they can snake across other columns to get there). Although they can travel across gardeners, they also may not end their move on one. Once the noble has finished his travels, you score points equal to the number of the row upon which he ends up. Now the empty board space left by the chosen garden tile is randomly refilled, the active player draws a card to get his hand back up to two and the next player goes.

Play continues until all players have played their full deck of 18 cards. AT that point, we score.

To the points earned for noble “visits”, players score 5 points for each column completely filled in (and gardeners counts for fill-in purposes) as well as points for each completed row. (Row are worth 10 points LESS their number value so, for example, filling in row 2 is worth 10-2 or 8 points while filling in row 6 is only worth 10-6 or 4 points.) Finally, those “mission” cards come in.

Each mission card displays one of the 9 types of accessories found in the garden. Players score additional points based on the position of their nobles in that particular column. So, if a player has “stairway” and his noble ended up in the fifth row of the stairway column, he would add 5 points to his score. The player with the most points wins! (Tie? Then the player with the most gardener tiles in his board, gets the victory.)

The color palette of the game, as you might expect since the game is all about gardens, leans heavily on green. That’s not a problem in and of itself as the graphics on the garden tiles are not always exactly the same. This is a good thing as it breaks up any “sameness” and gives each board a subtle difference in its look. The downside to this though is that the depictions on the tiles can sometimes be a little hard to tell apart, at least at first glance. Possibly, the presence of an unobtrusive icon might have been helpful.

Sanssouci seems to be more puzzle than game, a perception deepened by the “expansion” rules adding expansion boards to be placed over the palace garden boards to create bonus and penalty spaces to add another layer of thought to tile placement. Although everyone operates with the same card deck (and it is interesting to see how the same cards spawn different results), there is little interaction here. Players tend to focus on maximizing their own garden’s development and generally ignoring the strivings of the other players. Even if a player wants to take a more aggressive posture and actively try to prevent another player from getting a particular tile, the benefit of using your turn to get the tile YOU need greatly outweighs any benefit derived from preventing your opponent from getting his. But if you play the game aggressively, you’re overthinking it.

The challenge here is doing the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. You are, in a sense, competing with yourself in choosing which cards to play and when as well as trying to do better than the rest of the group who have the same cards to play (albeit not in the same order) at their command. Being able to use a regular garden tile card at a time when you can convert it into a wild can be critical as it gives you a lot of freedom of choice. Holding back your wild card until the moment is right is also key. You do not want to pull the trigger on that too early.

Sansoucci is not your typical game – but that’s a good thing. It is light, very easy to learn and very conducive to family play as all ages can compete on an equal footing. As the gardens take shape, it is surprising just how engaging the whole experience is. But then again, not that surprising when Sansoucci comes from a master game designer like Michael Kiesling.


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