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VILLAGE: AS LIFE PLAYS OUT

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

(Eggertspiele/Pegasus Spiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; $54.90)

 

It takes a village … or does it? Well, let’s not discuss the merits of American politician Hillary Clinton’s book or theories. Instead, let’s discuss the board game Village: As Life Plays Out by designers Inka & Markus Brand.

Published by Eggertspiel and Pegasus, Village is another entry in the long-line of worker placement games, one of my preferred genres. Fortunately, the Brands have introduced several interesting and clever twists, all of which give the game a fresh and rather original feel. Not the least of these twists is thatone’s workers will live their life and eventually die, forcing players to regularly introduce new family members to take the place of these expiring ancestors. Dying, however, isn’t a bad thing, as they may receive fame and accolades (aka, victory points) by being memorialized in the village chronicle. Death, where is thy sting?villagebox

The game recreates life in a medieval village. People get married, have children, pursue careers in various trades, sell goods at the market, travel, seek political office and religious influence, and eventually die, only to be replaced by younger family members as the circle of life continues. The goal is to lead successful and influential lives. It is a novel and interesting concept for a game.

The board depicts a slice of a small medieval village. There are numerous spaces whereupon players will place family members or retrieve influence cubes. These areas include the church, town hall, craft shops, marketplace, well and more. Each space gives the player certain abilities and/or resources, and deciding where to place one’s family members can be a tough decision. Seven spaces on the board are seeded with a set number of cubes ranging from 1 – 7 cubes per space. Ten customer tiles are placed face-up in the market, but only the first five spaces are active. The other customers will move into the vacant spaces once customers’ demands are satisfied.

Players each receive a farm, whereupon they will initially place four family members (each labeled with a #1 sticker) and will store their resources, money and up to five sacks of grain. Their remaining seven family members – numbered 2 – 4 – are set aside. Many of these will enter the game as players choose to have their family members have children.

Each turn begins with the filling of the action spaces with influence cubes. These are drawn randomly from a bag. Initially, there are five cubes of each of the four colors in the bag, along with six black plague cubes. Most of these will be drawn and used to see the action spaces, but the mix on each space will change from turn-to-turn. To add some flavor to the game, the cubes represent different traits or skills, including skill, persuasiveness, faith and knowledge. The black plaque cubes, however, are nastier, forcing the player to lose two steps on their time chart. More on this in a bit.

Players alternate placing family members to the board or taking influence cubes from the board. When a player takes a cube, he places it on his farm and performs the action associated with the space from where he took the cube. These actions are a major part of the game, so warrant a brief explanation. Collected resource cubes will be used in a variety of ways.

Before doing so, however, it is important to understand the concept of time in game terms. Most actions require the expenditure of time. Ringing each player’s farm is a time chart, whereupon players track the movement of time. When the time marker completes the 11-space circuit, one family member expires. The deceased family member is moved to either the village chronicle or the common graveyard. Each has a limited number of spaces and servesas a game-end trigger. Points are earned based on the number of people a player has listed in the village chronicle, but since space is limited there, there is an incentive to have family members die quickly, provided they are employed in the appropriate locations. For example, all folks employed in the craft workshops go to a specific location in the chronicle. Once those locations are filled, all other craftsmen who die are buried in the common graveyard, where no victory points are earned. Points earned from being recorded in the chronicle can be as many as twelve points for five or more family members, so there is pressure to have one’s family members expire rather quickly. This may sound cruel, but it is only a game!village2

Now on to the village locations.

Grain Harvest. The player takes 2 – 4 sacks of grain and places them in his farm. The base amount taken is two sacks, but this can be increased if the player owns a plow and horse or ox. Note that a player may only store up to five sacks of grain in his farm. Grain can be exchanged for money at the mill, but can also be used to satisfy the demands of customers at the market.

Family. The birth of children continues a family’s heritage and provides the players with more options each turn. A new family member (the lowest number available) token is added to the player’s farm.

Crafts. The player may produce one of the goods available, including horses, oxen, plows, wagons or scrolls. There are two ways to produce the desired good.

· Option 1: The player may employ a family member at the desired site, paying the required amount of time to train the worker and produce the desired item. The family member remains employed at that location until removed by the player or until he expires. Employing someone takes a considerable amount of time, but whenever a player desires to acquire another item from that shop the cost in terms of time is halved.

· Option 2: The player may simply pay the indicated types of cubes to purchase the desired item. For example, a smithy would cost knowledge (pink) and skill (orange). No time is spent when acquiring an item in this fashion. It is important to note that coins can always be used as resources whenever needed.

Alternatively, a player may opt to visit the mill, where he exchanges two sacks of grain for two coins.

Market. When the sole cube located at the marketplace is taken, the market is opened and all players may sell goods to the customers. Five customers will be present, each demanding certain items (goods and/or grain). The active player has the opportunity to sell first, followed by his opponents. To sell, a player must surrender the items depicted on one of the customer tiles, plus progress one step on their time track and spend one persuasiveness cube (green). The player receives the customer tile, which will earn the indicated number of victory points – 2 to 6 – at game’s end. Selling continues in turn order until no further sales are made. It pays to keep a close eye on the goods each player has available for sale, as it is possible to make sales that will prevent others from selling that turn.

The points earned from selling to customers can be significant, so this manner of earning victory points should not be ignored.

Travel. Traveling to neighboring villages and cities brings instant benefits (money, resources or victory points), but it also brings significant long-term notoriety (victory points) at game’s end. The more villages visited, the greater the number of victory points earned. Players must follow the depicted routes and expend the required resources and commodity (a wagon) to travel. These items are expended with each segment traveled, so a player must constantly reacquire the necessary items in order to continue his journey. Again, a significant number of points can be earned from traveling – up to 18 at game’s end if all six villages are visited. It is expensive in terms of resources and wagons, but may well be worth it.

Council Chamber. Ahhh … political influence. It seems like this has been around ever since man organized governing bodies. When taking a resource cube from this area, the player may place a family member into the first window of the council chamber, move an existing member to the next window, or simply reap the rewards depicted at or below the level of his family member that has progressed the furthest in the council. The cost to insert or move a member in the council is time and either a scroll or two persuasiveness cubes (green). Benefits, however, are considerable, as the player can either become the start player in the next round, gain two resource cubes of his choice, earn a commodity of his choice or exchange a gold coin for three victory points. The benefit a player can obtain is based on how far he has progressed in the council. Further, 2 – 6 victory points are earned at game’s end based on this progression.

Church. By expending either time or faith (brown), a player may add one of his active family members to the bag, which also contains four neutral monk tokens. During the mass, which is held at the end of each turn, tokens will be drawn and/or selected from the bag and placed into the church, which can potentially earn victory points for the players present. I’ll explain more about this when we discuss the mass.

Well. Normally once all of the cubes from a particular action space are taken, no further player may take that action this turn. The well provides an exception to this situation. The player may expend three identical cubes to take any action on the board. This can prove to be quite useful, so it is wise to collect multiple identical cubes.

Play continues with players taking cubes and placing workers until the village is depleted of cubes. The current turn ends with a mass. During mass, four tokens are removed from the bag. Normally this is done randomly, but each player has the opportunity to pay one coin and remove one of their family members (if any are present). If any family members are drawn (as opposed to monks), they are placed in the first window space in the church. Players may then pay the indicated amount of grain to progress their members in the church. As with the city council, the higher the members rise, the more prestige (victory points) they will earn at game’s end … provided, of course, they survive! Further, the player with the most family members in the church ends two victory points at the end of the turn. Again, a significant number of victory points can be earned in the church, but usually one has to commit numerous family members to that calling in order to reap the rewards.

Turns continue in this fashion until either the village chronicle or common graveyard is filled. A final mass is held and victory points are tallied to determine the winner. End-game points are earned from travel, council chambers, the church, village chronicle and customer tiles. Additionally, each coin is worth one point. The player with the greatest amount has his family celebrated within the village and, of course, wins the game.

I am intrigued by Village. I enjoy games that present players with numerous choices and viable strategy paths to pursue. In all of my games players have pursued a variety of strategies, and final scores tend to be quite close. In one game final scores were 52, 51, 51 and 51! This appears to prove that the game is well balanced and there isn’t one superior strategy. With scores this close, each and every decision is important. I like that.

Strategic paths are numerous, as victory points can be earned from numerous locations and in numerous fashions. Do you concentrate on travel and the marketplace, or reap the benefits of the city council and church? Do you try to get as many workers on the board as possible, or expend time quickly in order to move family members into the village chronicle? There are a lot of avenues to explore and none seem overpowering. A balanced approach seems best, but that is difficult to achieve.

In spite of the presence of the ubiquitous cubes and meeples, the game does evoke the feel of life in a village. For some reason I find it easy to envision the actions I am taking and paths of pursuing as actually relating to the theme. I don’t get that very often from European-style games. Perhaps this is because the theme is rather original and the mechanisms – for the most part – blend nicely into this theme.

Inka & Markus Brand have designed numerous games, including A Castle for All Seasons, (Summer 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) which I thoroughly enjoy. For me, however, this is by far their best design. It has just about everything I enjoy in a game – lots of strategic paths to pursue, tough decisions, originality, nice atmosphere and more. It will certainly garner my support in the upcoming International Gamers Awards voting. I plan to visit this Village regularly. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


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