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SYLLA

Reviewed by Herb Levy

SYLLA (Ystari Games/Rio Grande Games, 3-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $44.95)

 

It is 70 BC and Sylla, the ruler of Rome, is about to abdicate. Who is to fill the impending power vacuum? That’s where YOU come in as players in Sylla take on the roles of leaders of various factions and endeavor to build a strong enough group and bankroll to maneuver themselves into position to ascend to this coveted position of power.Sylla

Sylla, a Dominque Ehrhard design, comes with a mounted board, 32 building tiles, Res Publica tokens (representing Civil Spirit, Leisure and Health), character and other cards (including Great Works cards, Events and Cranes), player screens, play aids and a rulebook.

Building tiles are sorted by letter (A, B, and C, as noted on their backs) and placed, face down, by the board in A, B, C order. The first six A tiles are revealed and placed at the bottom of the board, underneath the colored hex spaces. The Decadence Event card is placed in the bottom position by the board while the rest of the Event cards are shuffled and three placed above it. The Great Works cards are shuffled with the first one REMOVED from play. (That Work will not be available for construction.) The new face up Great Works will be available on the first turn. One of each of the three Res Publica tokens begins on the central space on the token track, Players are randomly given one of the four Revenue tiles and take the set of character cards matching the Roman numeral on the back. It is from these character cards that each player begins to assemble his faction.

Each deck of character cards contain the same five types: Senators, merchants, vestal virgins, legionnaires and slaves. Any FOUR may be chosen to represent your starting faction. All cards depict a certain number of hexes, from one to three (in gold, gray and/or red), on the top of the card. Otherwise, each character (except for slaves) has specific abilities that may (or may not) be used at the player’s discretion. Remaining cards from ALL players are collected and shuffled together to form a draw deck from which additional members of player factions will be recruited. (Each turn, SIX of these cards are drawn and are available for recruitment.)

Each player takes a screen, cubes of his chosen color and begins with a starting bankroll of 3 derniers plus one extra dernier for each merchant in his starting group. All players start with 10 prestige points (their markers placed accordingly on the scoring track). The player who received the revenue market with I on it becomes the first player also known as the First Consul.

Sylla consists of five turns and each turn follows the same seven steps: Voting for First Consul, Recruitment, Building, Revenue, Events, Great Works and, finally, Famine and Crisis.

The First Consul gets a considerable advantage. He goes first in a turn, is the tie-breaker if necessary and also gets one Res Publica token of his choice (which, along with his money, is kept hidden behind his player screen). But this advantage can come at a, sometimes considerable, cost. Players use the Senators in their faction to vote for First Consul. In addition, players may spend dernier (at the rate of 1 dernier = 1 vote) to help syllapcsthemselves to that position. This is an once-around auction with high bidder becoming First Consul. (Spent money goes to the bank.) Now, players, in clockwise order beginning with the First Consul, choose one of the six displayed characters to join his faction. These new faction members may be used immediately in the upcoming phases including the Building Phase.

Six building tiles are available for construction every turn. The First Consul chooses which tile will be up for auction first. The hex color above the chosen tile indicates which color must be bid in order to build that tile. Starting with the player to his left, players may bid a number of hexes of the appropriate color. High bid gets that building tile. Hex bids are “paid” by using the hexes displayed on any/all of the cards in the winning bidder’s faction. Cards used in this manner are rotated 90° to show they have been used; they may NOT be used for any other purpose this turn. The building tile is now placed with the winning player’s holdings and that player chooses the next building tile up for bid. (Only five building tiles may be auctioned per turn. The sixth tile is removed from play.) Buildings have multiple uses. They can increase revenue, bestow some of those Res Publica tokens, give you use of a Crane (which may be used to buy buildings so as to keep your character cards free for other uses) and more. Included in this assortment are fields (not really buildings but treated as such) which help feed your people and avert the harmful effects of famine. Once this phase is over, players collect money: a basic income of three plus money generated by unused merchants and/or income generating buildings. Now, we deal with events.syllasenator

Four events are on display – NONE of them good. To determine which two will happen, players exert influence. One of a player’s cubes is placed on each unused vestal virgin and legionnaire character card in that player’s holdings. In turn, players place these cubes on these event cards. (Placement can be restricted. Some cards specify only legionnaires or vestal virgins are allowed to place cubes there.) The event card ending up with the most cubes on it does NOT happen and is removed from the game. Another event card will be drawn to replace it later. The event on the card with the second most number of cubes will not happen either but remains in play. (The special Decadence card is NEVER removed from play no matter how many or few cubes are placed on it. Should that card get the most cubes, the second most card is removed from play.) The remaining two events happen. Events can cause dire consequences including lowering the value of Res Publica tokens to turning various character cards FACE DOWN and UNUSABLE until that event is removed. (Sometimes, if two interacting events appear at the same time, character cards STAY face down for the rest of the game!) Once events are resolved, Great Works may be built.

Each turn, one Great Work may be constructed. Players have a choice as to whether to participate in the building or, instead, cash in for prestige points. Players combine Senator votes (but only those senators face up and have NOT been used for other purposes) and dernier. Simultaneously, all players vote thumbs up or thumbs down. Thumbs up voters are vying for prestige point rewards. If they have spent the highest (or, in some cases, the requisite number of votes), prestige points are awarded to them. An additional effect is that, based on the total number of votes cast, famine may be reduced or one of the three Res Publica tokens may advance on the token track. Voting thumbs down however, guarantees a conversion of 1 prestige point for every two votes cast by that player. Finally, we come to the Famine and Crisis phase.

At the start of each turn, the famine marker is raised based on how many famine icons are revealed on that turn’s event cards. The value of famine can rise as high as 6. In this phase, the people must be fed. First players check to see how many fields they have. The current value of famine less the number of fields a player has is calculated. If the result is negative, that player LOSES that number of prestige points. A positive value spares that player from loss (although a positive result does not result in extra prestige points). A crisis occurs when any of the three Res Publica tokens reach the bottom rung of the token track. At that point, all players reveal how many of that particular token they have. The player with the most tokens gains three prestige points; the player with the least loses three prestige points. Ties are friendly. If tied, ALL players receive the bonus prestige OR, if tied with fewer, ALL tied players LOSE prestige points. Once these actions are resolved, the next turn begins and we do it all over again.

After the fifth turn, there is a final reckoning involving slaves and Christians. Some character cards display the ancient Christian symbol of a fish. All face up character cards displaying that symbol in a player’s array at game’s end earn him an additional 2 prestige points each. In addition, any face up slaves a character has may be freed at this point. Liberation costs two dernier per slave and each slave freed earns a player 3 prestige points. The player with the most prestige points at the end of the game is victorious and crowned new ruler of Rome.

Sylla is remarkably balanced. Prestige points come from all directions but the loss of points due to famine can be a great equalizer each round. As point totals are tracked each turn, you get a sense of who is in the lead but this can be deceiving. At the final reckoning, points are earned for the Res Publica tokens stored behind each player’s screen. The value of each type of token is based upon where they end on the token track and may be worth anywhere from 1 to 4 points each. Their value is heavily dependent on the events that take place (tending to reduce their value) as well as the Great Events built (tending to raise their value). The smart player will keep this in mind and try to maintain a feel for who is collecting which tokens and, as necessary, manipulate their values to maximize his own position to avoid any unpleasant surprises when hidden tokens are revealed and scored. When the final results are tallied, scores tend to be close. Because of this, every decision is the potentially pivotal one, a situation that keeps player interest and tension high from start to finish.

The graphic design of Sylla works to its benefit. The character cards contain Roman numerals telling you at a glance when the special attributes of the character come into play. Particularly during the first few playings, this helps you weigh the ramifications of character usage. The board itself is laid out so that all phases are in an easy to follow, logical order. Also, since I’ve been critical in the past of the box cover artwork of various Ystari releases finding them uninspired at best, it’s only fair to applaud them now when they’ve got it right. The cover art by Arnaud Demaegd is both attractive and dynamic, fully capturing the Roman Empire theme.

Ystari Games has developed a certain style of play that is instantly recognizable: interwoven game mechanics with involved scoring opportunities. (The only exception to the rule is the recent Metropolys, featured in the Summer 2008 GA REPORT, which is a more linear, lightly themed, abstract). While not a brand new idea, the multiple uses of character cards are used to great effect here serving as the driving force of the game and the key to victory. Whether to use your cards to buy buildings (important in implementing strategies) or save them for specific purposes (such as voting on Great Works or preventing destructive events from happening) are choices that will force you to constantly gauge relative values and weigh alternatives. Because of the game’s balance, there is no sure or “perfect” strategy to guarantee a win. With Sylla, the interwoven aspects of game design are expertly crafted to keep you coming back for more.  – – Herb Levy


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