Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
COIMBRA (eggerstpiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60 to 90+ minutes; $69.99)
I must admit that with my decades of involvement in the hobby, I find my tolerance for “heavy” games decreasing. Perhaps it is that I find it increasingly difficult to sit through a 45 minute (or longer) explanation of rules. I also find it increasingly daunting to make my way through a 20+ page rulebook, with these massive tomes taking me back to my days of wargaming wherein such verbosity and detail was all-too-common. As I approach my 6th decade on Earth, I find myself looking for less complexity and complication, not only in the games I play, but also in life itself. Yeah … I’m getting old.
That being said, I still occasionally find a complex game that I still enjoy, and on rare occasions captivates me. One such gem is Coimbra from Italian designers Virginio Gigli and Flaminia Brasini. I should not be surprised that I enjoy this one, as those two designers are responsible for two other fairly recent games that I thoroughly enjoy: Grand Austria Hotel (Winter 2016 GA Report) and Lorenzo il Magnifico. Combining their two talents has resulted in a truly superb game, one which is fraught with tough decisions and formidable challenges.
Coimbra, as one would expect, is set in the Portuguese city of the same name. Players are attempting to elevate themselves into the elite of society by providing a variety of services, including the protection of the city’s most influential council members, merchants, clerics and scholars. In order accomplish this, they must constantly find ways to earn money and recruit new guards, as well as gain the good graces of the elite by fostering academic progress, improving relations with the surrounding monasteries, and investing in overseas voyages. So much to do!
At the heart of the game is an extremely clever dice selection and placement mechanism that forces players to consider numerous factors each and every time a die is selected and placed. Each choice has far-reaching repercussions, so much so that it can cause considerable angst. For those who are prone to “analysis paralysis,” this may prove to be too much, especially for their fellow players. Most folks, however, recognize that they cannot fathom all possibilities, so they take their turns in a timely fashion.
The boards – one main and one for each player – are not terribly cluttered and rather easy to understand. The main board depicts the four locations where players will place dice in order to recruit characters or obtain favor tiles. In addition, there are four “Influence” tracks, where players will track their influence with the city’s council members, merchants, clergy and scholars, as well as an area depicting an overview of Portugal, wherein players’ pilgrims will go on pilgrimages (it is what pilgrims do!) to the 14 monasteries scattered across the countryside. The board is completed with spaces for six overseas voyage cards and the score track.
Player boards are even simpler, as they mainly serve to track a player’s gold and guards. They also graphically depict the turn’s phases—which are confusing at first, but become clearer with a bit of experience—as well as the scoring aspects at game’s end.
Since they are at the heart of the game, let’s spend some time talking about the dice. There are 13 dice, four each of grey, orange, purple and green, and one “wild” white die. Both the color and the value of a die are extremely important. All 13 are rolled, forming the pool. In turn order, players will select one die, place it into their castle-like die holders, and place this on one of the four city locations. When placing a die in a section, dice must be arranged in numerical order. Dice in section 1 are placed in ascending order (“1” first), while the dice in the remaining three sections are placed in descending order (“6” first).
Once each player has placed three dice (one will remain in the pool), each section is resolved in the order of the dice, which were arranged as described above. Section 1 – the castle – is the first to be resolved, and in the order of the dice, the players may take one of the four favor tiles displayed there. These four tiles each grant a special ability – gaining coins, guards or victory points, moving one’s pilgrim, etc. All four tiles are returned at turn’s end and are once again available on the following turn. Some tiles also have special crown symbols, which play a role in determining turn order for the next round (the more crown symbols a player has, the higher in turn order for the next round).
The second-through-fourth sections work in a similar fashion, but instead of favor tiles, players may recruit one of the four characters aligned next to that section. The cost of the card is dependent upon the symbol on the card—guards or coins—with the amount being equal to the value of the die used. So, if a player’s die has the value of “4” and the desired card depicts a shield, the player must pay four guards to acquire the card. The player adjusts his guard track on his player board accordingly.
Once a die is used, it is moved to the player’s board. They will play yet another role a bit later in the turn.
Now let’s talk a bit about those character cards. Each card depicts not only a specific character, but numerous other aspects as well. There is a class (same as listed above), influence value, benefit derived and timing (immediate, specific phase, end game) and diplomas (if any). Phew! That is a lot of information. Fortunately, most of this is well organized and very easy to understand. There is, of course, a detailed explanation of each card in the appendix.
When the cost is paid and a card acquired, the player receives an immediate increase on the corresponding track on his player board based on the class of the character. The amount of increase is listed on the card and usually ranges from 0 – 4. So, if a player acquires a merchant (orange) with a value of “2”, he moves his marker two spaces up on the merchant track. The player also receives any immediate benefit the card provides. The card is then placed in the proper location beside his player board, which serves as a reminder when the card’s special power will be triggered. This is designed in a truly helpful manner and decreases the chance that a player will forget to use his acquired cards’ powers.
There is a wide range of powers conveyed by the cards—money, guards, influence, pilgrim movement, cost savings and much, much more. Some of the cards’ powers complement each other, and a player can build an efficient little engine if planned properly.
As mentioned earlier, the dice play dual roles. When claiming and placing dice, a player must consider both of these very important factors. The value of a die determines the order in which they are placed in each of the four sections, which determines the order in which players will make their selection in each of these sections. Later in the round, the color of a die determines from which of the four charts a player will derive income. For example, if a player had selected and placed orange, gray and purple dice during the round, he will take income from the corresponding charts. The higher a player is on a chart, the more benefit he receives. The four charts each provide a different benefit:
Gray (Council Members): Increase the number of guards a player has available.
Orange (Merchants): Increase the amount of cash a player has available.
Purple (Clerics): The player may move his pilgrim the indicated amount of spaces.
Green (Scholars): The player receives victory points.
All of these aspects are very important, so a player should strive to progress on all of these tracks. A further incentive is that bonus victory points are earned at game’s end for being in the top two positions on a track.
Time for another pause to explain the Pilgrim’s area of the board, which reminds me of the merchant movement aspect of the game Village (Summer 2012 GA Report). This section depicts 14 monasteries located across the Portuguese countryside. All of these monasteries are connected by roads, with some being a bit more remote and more difficult to reach. When allowed by character cards and the influence tracks, players will move their pilgrims along the roads in attempts to reach as many monasteries as possible. Each monastery provides a different benefit (guards, coins, victory points, track movement, etc.), all of which are useful and desirable. As an added incentive, some character cards and voyages (see below) will give benefits at game’s end for visiting monasteries. I have seen players ignore this aspect of the game, but they usually have not performed well, as the benefits to be gained are considerable.
The final phase of each round provides players the opportunity to invest in overseas voyages, something Portugal was emphasizing during this time period. Six cards depicting the voyages are available, each listing the end game victory points that will be earned by meeting the listed criteria (types of character cards, monasteries visited or ignored, guards and coins, etc.). Players must pay the indicated number of guards or coins in order to invest, marking this by placing a token upon the card. The game has four rounds, so normally a player may invest in a maximum of four voyages per game. However, one of the favor tiles available each round allows the player to make an additional investment that turn. This can be a much coveted tile!
The game concludes after the completion of four rounds, after which final victory points are tallied. Victory points are earned by:
*Completing the criteria listed on voyages
*Majorities on the Influence tracks
*Acquiring sets of Diplomas
*Character cards that provide end-game bonuses
*Coins, guards and crowns
Phew! In spite of trying to keep this relatively brief, it still took over three pages to describe the game and its mechanisms — and even then I have not described every nuance or detail. Suffice to say, Coimbra is a deep game with some intricately interconnected mechanisms. While in practice this is fairly easy to understand after a round or two, it does take some time to properly explain everything to new players. Indeed, there is a bit of rules overload involved, as it can be difficult at first to understand how everything meshes together. It is a case wherein demonstrating these and perhaps doing a sample turn can be quite helpful.
I would strongly urge players to not be discouraged. While the rules explanation may seem daunting, game play actually is quite smooth and reasonably logical. The pieces of the puzzle do fit together nicely and the resulting picture is astounding. Indeed, it is the best new game I have played in quite some time.
I really appreciate how players must ponder so many different factors with each and every action. Choosing a die may seem simple, but both the value and color of the die matter, as does the location of the placement. Turn order can be extremely important, as there may be characters that a player covets, which will require grabbing high-valued dice in order to have first pickings. This may not be guaranteed, however, as one of the four favor tiles available each round allows a player to add “3” to the value of any of their placed dice. This can alter the order of selection when that section is resolved, allowing a player to jump above their opponents when selecting a character card. Of course, choosing high-valued dice in order to go early when selecting characters also means that the player will pay more for those characters, either in guards or coins. And remember, favor tiles are grabbed in order from low-to-high, so those low-valued dice can also be valuable!
An easily forgotten aspect of dice selection is that the color of the dice selected will determine the type of income a player will receive that turn. Sometimes in the excitement to grab a high-valued die or dice, players overlook this critical aspect and find themselves not receiving the type of income they desired or needed. Players must carefully consider all aspects when selecting their dice.
Choosing character cards can also be tough, as each convey certain benefits and will also allow the player to increase his status on the respective tracks. Sometimes a player desires a particular benefit offered by a character, but would prefer to increase on a different track. Further, some characters offer diplomas, which can be collected for end-game victory points. How the powers granted by cards can complement each other can also be a factor, as well as the end game bonuses they may provide. So much to consider and ponder!
Voyages can be a lucrative endeavor, but it does require the expenditure of guards or money, the type being dependent upon the location of the voyage. Both of these forms of currency are vital for other aspects of the game, so players must carefully manage them. Sometimes acquiring desired characters will deplete a player’s supply of coins and/or guards, making it impossible to invest in a voyage that turn. This can be quite disappointing, and may likely have severe repercussions. As in life, one must carefully and properly manage one’s resources!
All of these considerations, choices and dilemmas–and there are more–make Coimbra a truly challenging game to play. Properly managing and balancing all of the different facets of the game presents players with a true test, and players are often forced to adapt to their opponents’ actions. The overall result is a game that is a truly satisfying, one that leaves me thinking about the actions I took (or didn’t take) and how things may have turned out differently if only I had done this or that. In spite of its “new” status, Coimbra has become one of my favorite games, one I look forward to playing again and again. – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser
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Other Spring 2019 GA Report articles