[It has been awhile since we reached back and showcased a game classic that has, sadly, gone out of print. But with Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s classic game about German politics, Die Macher, poised for yet a fourth edition, it seems timely to take a look at another one of his best designs, one that I enjoyed from the moment I first played it. [Admittedly, it helps when the designer himself teaches you the game!] Here, in the review originally found in the Summer 2008 issue of Gamers Alliance Report, Al Newman, a successful and respected game designer in his own right, pays tribute to Tribune.]
Reviewed by Al Newman
GAME CLASSICS: TRIBUNE: PRIMUS INTER PARES (Fantasy Flight Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 1-2 hours; out of print)
Karl-Heinz Schmiel is best known for Die Macher, a game about politics in different regions of Germany. The game is one of the top rated games of all time and has been popular for over a generation since publication in 1986, despite it’s complexity and daunting length (approximately 4 hours). Herr Schmiel has quite a few other published designs but nothing to date as significant as Die Macher. However, this writer believes Herr Schmiel’s new design of Tribune: Primus Inter Pares is destined to grow in popularity and will eventually be accorded the same respect as his earlier masterpiece.
Tribune takes 3 to 5 players back to ancient Rome in the quest to control seven political factions for power and control. The game is open ended and only concludes at the end of a round in which at least one player has satisfied the winning conditions. Interestingly, there are variable winning conditions so that players can elect for an easy contest, a medium contest or something really difficult to achieve. In fact, players are encouraged to create their own win conditions, which gives the game far more depth and dimension than most.
A takeover of each of the seven factions affords a bonus, especially if accomplished with the aid of the faction’s leader. As well, each turn you control a faction, an extra bonus is available. Winning conditions may require a certain number of several of the following; the factions themselves, a Scroll (which can be turned later into a Tribune), the Favor of the Gods, Laurels, Legions or Sesterces (coins). Easy contests typically involve less winning conditions. Harder contests involve more winning conditions.
Game play is accomplished with a deck of cards comprised of seven suits representing the various factions; Gladiators, Legates, Preatorians, Plebes, Patricians, Vestals and Senators. Some of the suits have more cards than others or a greater spread in rank from low to high. Each suit has one Leader, whose value is zero. Players start the game with six cards and choose four to hold, with the remainder shuffled back into the deck. Cards are then distributed face up or down to seven of the board’s eight areas of contention. Areas in which cards are placed face up are light. Areas in which cards are placed face down are dark.
Once the board is “seeded,” players play their action pawns to contend for the cards. Actions are limited by the number of pawns each player has and are also limited in the various areas of contention. For example, with 4 players, each player receives 5 action pawns but only 3 may be placed in the Catacombs. The possibilities are many:
1. Hot Springs (face up): two cards may be purchased for 1 Sesterce each.
2. Forum Romanum (face up): six cards may be purchased for 1 Sesterce each.
3. Latrine (face down): the player either buys the single card placed there for its face value or receives the value in Sesterces.
4. Curia (cards place face up to a value of 5 – usually one or two cards): the player may take all the cards in any column by discarding a card from his hand.
5. Atrium Auctionorum (face down, then turned up when a player competes): the three cards are bid for by the two players who are competing. The winner takes the cards, the loser takes all the cash that was bid.
6. Catacombs (face down): 1st choice from the 5 cards offered costs 4 Sesterces. 2nd choice costs 3 Sesterces. 3rd choice costs 2 Sesterces.
7. Pantheon (face down): this place may only be visited by a player who has already won the Vestal faction. If he can later discard a card of the same color, he wins the permanent Favor of the Gods.
8. Players may visit the Victory Column (Siegessäule) and discard two cards of the same color to receive a Laurel. If the pair is the highest discarded, an extra Laurel is received. The above possibilities are always resolved in numerical order but at any time, a player may also visit the Coin Bowl to take Sesterces immediately. The first to visit receives 7 Sesterces, all others receive 5 Sesterces.
As well, there are two spaces for players to compete in the attempt to take over each of the seven factions. At least two cards must be played from the same suit for initial control of the faction. In later rounds, the player attempting to take over must play either a higher value or more cards than the player currently in control. By game’s end, it may take 5 or 6 cards to control a popular faction.
When these “battles” are resolved, a take over bonus is accorded and if the Leader was involved, a special Leader bonus is awarded. Finally, a control bonus is awarded to whomever is currently in control of a faction. The bonuses are the real currency of the game, wherein most of the winning conditions are achieved. The first to achieve the needed win conditions announces the fact and the game ends when the round ends, allowing all others a final opportunity to catch up. If there is a tie, a point system breaks the tie.
The game has marvelous depth. There are multiple paths to victory and unlike most games, they can change on the fly. Although luck in the draw of the cards plays a minor role, a savvy player who can plan ahead and make quick adjustments will usually have an advantage over his opponents. Furthermore, defensive plays are possible, enabling a whole host of strategies and tactics. Every decision is meaningful and often, an excruciating choice is presented. Do I try to take over the Praetorians now or wait a round? Do I take the cash from the Coin Bowl or take the highly valued “9” Senators card? Do I visit the Catacombs for 1st choice and hope to find the card I need? Strategizing and planning often depends upon the initial draw of four cards. Since each faction accords a bonus for takeover and control, the first turn objective should be to take control of two factions and thus earn two bonuses. Early in the game, it will not be easy to retain control of factions, so players are well advised to conserve resources (cards) and forge ahead in whatever categories they are strongest in after the first turn. [Adding to the game play was a Tribune Expansion, also now out of print, that added an additional small board and some new rules as well as a new Roman family so that six player games were possible.]
Tribune fits the mold of El Grande (Fall 1998 GA REPORT), Tikal (Spring 1999 GAR), Ra (Summer 1999 GAR), Taj Mahal (Spring 2000 GAR), Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GAR) and others of the same popularity and time tested quality. The board and components are graphically appealing and it appears the cards will stand up to repeated play. I recommend this game highly and if you need another player, give me a call. I might just be available to play! – – – – – – – Al Newman
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