Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
(Mayfair Games/Kosmos, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, about 30 minutes; $36)
I must admit that I wasn’t very enamored by designer Martin Wallace’s early efforts. Games such as Mordred, Sixteen Thirty Something and Der Weisse Lotus didn’t do much for me. Over the past few years, however, I’ve become increasingly appreciative of his efforts, with Libertè, Volldampf, Age of Steam (Winter 2003 GA REPORT) and Princes of the Renaissance (Winter 2004 GA REPORT) being among my favorite games. So, I was eagerly awaiting his latest creation, La Strada.
Players represent merchants in northern Italy, searching to establish new markets in which to sell their wares. Setting-up shop in larger cities are more lucrative, but there are even more profits to be made if a player has little competition, even in the smaller hamlets. In order to reach these new markets, players must lay claim to unique travel routes, with an emphasis on short, efficient routes. However, claiming routes that make it more difficult for competitors to reach new markets is also a wise tactic.
The board is constructed by placing six large, triangular land tiles into a square frame. These can be placed in a variety of fashions, forming many different layouts. The map depicts several different types of terrain – forest, hills and plains – as well as nineteen different settlement sites. Upon these sites are placed the settlement tokens, which depict four different types of settlements in increasing size: hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Again, since these are placed randomly each game, the board configuration will be different each time.
Players each receive a set of hexagon-shaped tokens depicting roads which they will use to form their travel routes. There are specific tokens for constructing roads through hills, forests and plains. The plains tokens are by far the most plentiful. This mix is very important, since the appropriate type of road token is required in order to build through the corresponding type of terrain. It is quite easy to find oneself out of a particular type of token and thereby be unable to construct a road network through that type of terrain. This can be very disadvantageous.
Each player begins by placing his one workshop tile onto the board. His roadwork network will begin from that space and branch out from there. Thus, it is wise to choose a location that will enable you to reach several different settlements quickly. Care must also be taken in the placement to insure that you cannot be cut-off from large sections of the board by your opponents.
To begin each turn, a player receives six resources. These are marked on that player’s unique track located directly on the board. Players do not have to use all of their resources on a turn and can save unused portions for subsequent turns.
After receiving resources, a player may build as many roads as he desires and can afford. Initially, a player’s road network begins at his workshop, but may subsequently depart from any settlement to which a player has already connected. Road networks can (and will) have numerous branches.
To construct a road, a player places a tile of the correct type (plains, forest or hill) onto the board and pays the appropriate cost in resources. Building a road across the plains only costs two resources, while forests and hills cost one and two more resources respectively. The critical rule here is that a player must COMPLETE a road network from one city (or his workshop) to another city on a turn. He cannot leave a road unfinished. Due to the limited amount of resources available, this means that long road segments are only possible if a player hoards resources from previous turns. The usual tactic is to build short segments from settlement to settlement, hopping around the board in this fashion.
Since the board is tight, it is quite possible to completely cut-off your opponents from certain settlements, or even entire sections of the board if they are not careful. Indeed, that is an important strategy, as players earn more money (victory points) if they have little competition in a settlement.
Each time a player connects to a new settlement, he places a market (cube) onto that settlement. Each player may only have one market per settlement. Further, each player only possesses twelve markets and there are nineteen settlements on the board. It may be wise to by-pass a crowded hamlet or village in order to reach a more isolated one where you can earn greater profits. However, one way the game ends is when one player, at the beginning of his turn, has placed all of his markets, so being too choosey in placing your markets can backfire.
The game can also end if the only settlements a player can reach already contain his markets, or if a player no longer has the correct types of tiles to place in order to take a turn. At this point, each of the settlements is examined and income is earned from each of them.
The mechanism for tallying the value of the markets in each settlement is very easy. The board has a graphic illustration of each type of settlement, one on each corner. Above each illustration are 2 – 4 blocks, which is the maximum number of settlements that can earn money in that type of settlement. For instance, four different players can earn income from a city, while a tiny hamlet can only provide income for up to two merchants. If a third merchant sets-up shop in that hamlet, none of the players present will earn income. This can still be an effective tactic, however, to deny income to opponents.
When the game ends, the merchant cubes for each settlement are moved to the appropriate corner of the board and placed in the correct box, depending upon the number of markets in that settlement. So, three players have markets in a particular village, those three cubes are moved to the village corner of the board and placed in the appropriate box displaying three markets. If there were only one market in that village, that cube would have been placed in the box illustrating just one market. This procedure is followed for every settlement.
Once all markets in the settlements have been transferred to the appropriate boxes, the final income of the players is determined. Each box lists from 1 – 5 gold pieces, which is the income players receive for EACH cube they have in that box. Let’s look at a city to help make this clearer:
If all four players have markets present in a city, this will earn each of them 2 gold pieces. If only three players have markets in a city, they will each earn 3 gold pieces, while if only two players are present in a city, they will each earn 4 gold pieces. If one player manages to grab a monopoly in a city by being the only player with a market present, he will earn a hefty 5 gold pieces!
The income derived from the other settlements is similar, but in a reduced amount based on the size of the settlement. Hamlets earn the least, and can only support up to two merchants. Still, these areas cannot be overlooked, as gaining a monopoly in several hamlets can be quite significant.
The math is easy: players simply tally the value of each of their cubes as indicated on the boxes they occupy. The player with the greatest cumulative total emerges as the wealthiest merchant and is renown throughout all of northern Italy.
The game is very easy to learn, and deceptively simple to play. In spite of its simplicity and short playing time of thirty minutes or so, the decisions to be made are interesting and can be critical. The temptation is to race quickly to as many settlements as possible, but this is not necessarily the wisest course of action. Certainly, players should try to establish markets in the potentially lucrative cities and villages, but it is perhaps more important to keep your road network alive and not become cut-off from large sections of the board. It is also wise to attempt to do this to your opponents, particularly if this translates into you being able to grab monopolies in several settlements.
Further, sometimes you must resist the temptation to spend all of your resources on each turn and instead conserve some from turn-to-turn. This will allow you to build across those expensive mountains and to reach settlements that were seemingly out-of-reach. Still, one cannot delay too long lest you find yourself cut-off and unable to expand into lucrative markets.
The only concern I have with the game is the starting procedure. The rules call for the start player to place his workshop onto the board, followed in clockwise order by the remaining players. The start player then begins the game. This is troublesome, as he likely will have grabbed the most lucrative location when initially placing his workshop. To allow him to also play first seems to be too strong of an advantage. Several methods to correct this problem have been suggested, but the easiest seems to be one wherein the workshops are placed onto the board in counter-clockwise fashion, with play rotating in a clockwise fashion beginning with the player who placed his workshop last.
There aren’t many games that can be played in thirty minutes that pack this much of a wallop. The rules are easy, the goals are clear, yet the decisions along the way are quite interesting. There is a room for some interesting planning, but the “race” element of the game means players can’t dally too long in executing those plans. The mix results in a very satisfying experience, and another success from that good British lad Martin Wallace! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser
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Summer 2004 GA Report Articles