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EL CAPITAN

(Z-Man Games, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, 60-120 minutes; $55)

 

One of the great games that has flown under the radar in recent years is Tycoon, a candidate for the Spiel des Jahres that received feature treatment from us nearly 10 years ago in the Summer 1998 GA REPORT (and reprinted in this issue). This brilliant game by the design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Horst-Rainer Rösner was even honored by us in our Game Classics series (Spring 2007 GA REPORT). Now, notice of its demise seems a bit premature as the game has undergone a resurrection of sorts, with a change in theme, artwork and a few rules tweaks under the banner of El Capitan. So, with the basic gameplay essentially intact, let’s concentrate on the changes in this new edition. elcapitan

First of all, there is the theme. Gone is the business about the business of building hotels and factories around the world. Instead, we are merchants trolling the Mediterranean Sea in the 15th century constructing warehouses and fortresses to protect our holdings. As a result, the cities found in the game are, of course, different, with modern metropolises exchanged for such venerable European cities as Marseille, Valencia, Venezia and Napoli. Players start with a bit more money (20 Florins here instead of $15 million in the original) but loans are still a necessary evil if you expect to construct the warehouses and fortresses you will need. The board layout is similar to the original with nine cities found in a 3 x 3 grid on the main board. However, to accommodate a fifth player and provide more room for expansion and “sea roving”, El Capitan provides three additional city tiles and a pirate ship.

One or more of the three expansion tiles, each depicting a city, may be added to the base game. These cities function a bit differently than the standard cities in the game, each with their own set of special rules and situations.

Lisboa, for example, provides cheap warehouses. The player anchoring in the first harbor there pays NOTHING for a warehouse; the second harbor only requires payment of 1 Florin per warehouse. More importantly, building a warehouse gives you an IMMEDIATE payout (although, it should be noted, payouts tend to be less than the “normal” payout of other cities). Porto is the only city with THREE harbor spaces but room for only one fortress. The ease of building warehouses is tempered with the fact that if a warehouse is closed down (“renovation” in the original game), that warehouse isn’t poised for a future return. Instead, it is REMOVED from the game. The third new city is Islas Canarias which bring the pirate into play. A player docking in Islas Canarias may move the pirate ship to ANY other city and, essentially, players with warehouses in that city must pay a “protective charge” ranging from 1 to 3 Florins (depending on the round) for each building owned by a player there. (While Lisboa and Porto add some new decisions to the gameplay, Islas Canarias is the least satisying, bringing unnecessary chaos into the game dynamics.)

As in Tycoon, players are rewarded for spreading their influence to different cities but in El Capitan, players earn a greater reward in two different ways. The standard awards for presence in a city has significantly changed from the original. The payoffs (old and new) are:
Cities Visited Tycoon El Capitan
2                     2              –
3                     5              5
4                      9             10
5                    14             15
6                    20             20
7                    26             30
8                    33             45
9                    40             60

Secondly, there are now “proliferation cards” that did not exist in the original game. The first player to construct in 9 cities now is rewarded with the first proliferation card worth an additional 15 Florins, the second player to do so gets 10 Florins with the third player earning an additional 5 Florins. elcapitanpcs

In Tycoon, the emphasis for raising money is firmly placed on developing majorities in hotels and factories with diverse holdings accounting for a nice portion but not the lion’s share of income. El Capitan tries to equalize strategies by making diverse holdings an equivalent and equally viable strategy, leaving players with the choice of building and taking cash from strong holdings in certain select cities, racing around the board to plant a presence on as many cities as possible or doing a combination of the two. But with the inclusion of those proliferation cards, not only is there a bigger reward for diverse holdings than in the original, players can “double dip” and get a SECOND reward for the same diversity. This “rich get richer” device, rather than balancing the strategic approaches of the game, tends to tips the balance in a different direction. (We recommend leaving the proliferation cards out of the game entirely.)

In an attempt to explain the inexplicable reasons for the failure of Tycoon despite its SdJ nomination and exceptional gameplay, the artwork of the original has sometimes been blamed. The artwork, it has been postulated, was too “old” looking and suggested a “roll and move” type of game. So, the theory goes, people who would have loved the game simply passed it by, misled to its true nature because they were fooled by the art. In an ironic twist, the new edition shows a tremendous change in graphics (Mike Doyle credited for the work) and, unfortunately, creates more problems than it solved.

The Mike Doyle artwork, in and of itself is fine, fitting with the theme. But as it applies to a game of sailing the oceans, it simply misses the boat, failing for several reasons.

The dominance of deep red-brown coloring throughout the game makes the game very dark and oppressing and, more significantly, hard to read! Although the cards use a small “grid” and gold circles to indicate where, on the board, cities are to be found, the grid is small and overwhelmed by the dark colors undermining the grid’s usefulness. The stylized lettering used on both the cards and the board make identifying cities difficult (and that’s not helped by choosing cities with similar names such as Valencia and Venizia or Tunis & Tangier). And, while the paintings used in the center of the cities are attractive and interesting, they lose any impact they may have had since they have been shrunk in size to fit the small spaces on the board.

El Capitan is an ambitious attempt to revive a great game. Despite the flaws as outlined above, the game is worth buying if you wish to play this classic with five players and/or if you don’t already have a copy of the original. But if you are lucky enough to have Tycoon sitting on your shelf (and your gaming group consists of no more than four), you could easily update the game by applying the new cities payout to refresh this Kramer-Rösner classic. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy

 

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Winter 2008 GA Report Articles

 

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