Reviewed by James Davis
LISBOA (Eagle-Gryphon Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 120 minutes; $99.99)
The great Lisbon earthquake occurred on Saturday, the 1st of November at approximately 9:40 AM in the year 1755. It was the holy day of All Saints’ Day. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in history with a magnitude of 8.5, possibly higher. It lasted up to six minutes and left fissures 16 feet wide in the middle of the city. Around 40 minutes after the quake, a tsunami rushed up the Tagus River so fast it overran people racing away on horseback. Two more huge waves followed. On dry land, the earthquake had scattered the candles that were lit for All Saints’ Day and created a firestorm the burned for three days.
Eighty-five percent of Lisbon was destroyed from an earthquake, flood and fire. Efforts to reconstruct started immediately after caring for the afflicted. The king directed the Prime Minister, Marquis de Pombal, to carry out the project. The Master Builder, Manuel da Maia, began to create comprehensive plans to rebuild. And that’s where you come in.
In the game of Lisboa, you play as one of the minor nobles who survived the horrific disaster. You direct architects in rebuilding the city from the ruins while at the same time vie for influence and favor with the King, Master Builder and Prime Minister. You need their assistance to gain the materials and land you require. It will not be an easy task to navigate the political and logistical hurdles over the 22 years it took to rebuild.
If it’s not obvious, this game is absolutely drenched with the history of Lisbon during this disaster. Some gamers complain that most board games only have a theme loosely tacked onto it as an afterthought. Well Lisboa is the exact opposite of that. Almost every aspect of the game is geared to accurately simulate or reference an aspect of this historical event.
A few examples: The city plans for rebuilding the marketplace directed that only certain types of businesses could open shop on a certain street. And so the game restricts your building efforts in a similar manner. The rebuilding effort wisely used the rubble left by the earthquake to construct the new buildings. And so collecting rubble in the game is very important. And strangely enough the victory points and the starting player marker in the game are wigs as in the fake hair you put on your head. But as the game rules describe it, wigs were “the universal male consumer product of the 1700s”
The designer, Vital Lacerda, has created both a highly detailed and accurate account of this point in time and a well-crafted and enjoyable board game. Vital grew up in Lisboa and it is quite evident that this is an effort of love. The attention to detail and the inclusion of so much history into the mechanics is amazing.
Speaking of attention to detail, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring attention to the stunning artwork by Ian O’Toole. I consider Ian to be the preeminent master of art for our hobby. Each game he has worked on is not only a visually appealing but also extremely well designed for optimum gameplay. Ian does not take shortcuts. He spends an inordinate amount of time researching the game’s theme and the details of how it will be played. Once he has a basic layout, before he creates the artwork, he prints it out and playtests it thoroughly to find problems with how players will interact with the components. He then makes adjustments and runs through more playtesting. And repeats the process as needed. His goal is to ensure the game’s iconography and each token, board element, card etc. is as clearly understood and easy to use as possible. He tests the thickness of the pieces, the height of stacked tokens, how cards will be used, the size of icons, the space between important areas on the game board and so on and so on.
For example, the ship cards originally were designed to be flipped over when the ships sailed away full of goods. This meant the players would be turning the cards over constantly. This was especially onerous as they were tucked under the player board and had good tokens on them. He decided to instead orient the cards from portrait to landscape. And he completely redesigned the player boards to add a dock area for the ships that allowed for space to serve as a goods track. The problem was solved with an elegant solution that significantly aided gameplay.
And then there’s the art. The outstanding visual design for this game is based on Portugal’s Azelejos tin-glazed ceramic tile work that is still a major cultural aspect of Portuguese history and design. This design decision further cements the historic nature of the game. And the result is absolutely stunning.
It has been said that the art is too busy. But I think Ian has done a great job of making sure the important icons and spaces on the board are clearly marked and easy to distinguish from the artistic design. Once you know where to look, it becomes second nature.
I could go on and on about the details of the art as I am an artist myself. But you are probably wondering about the gameplay. It might be beautiful, but is it a good game? I have great news for you.
First off, Lisboa is complicated. The player aid is eight pages. There is a great deal going on each turn, as is the case with Vital Lacerda’s games. But it all fits together quite well and, after a few turns, the base mechanics become second nature. And the interaction created from the decisions you make every turn of the game is compelling and engaging.
Because of its complexity, I am forced to only give a brief overview here. Fortunately the game’s rules are well written with many good examples, details and historical notes. I did find some descriptions of actions confusing. But after consulting the examples and the player aid they became clear. Nonetheless, this is a game you will want to set up and run through a sample turn or two by yourself to fully understand it.
The game is played in two time periods, 1755 to 1757 and 1758 to 1762. Each turn you will play a card from your hand of five. You can either play it to your player board or to the main board. You play to your board to build up your business and gain influence and to the main board to use that influence within the Royal Court.
On your portfolio you can play a noble card to give you future influence and a treasury card to gain money. Both cards give you immediate one-time benefits (or penalties if the card is very powerful). Those benefits are on the part of the card that is tucked under the player board, making it easy to remember that if something is tucked under, you get that benefit. Once the card is placed, you have the choice of either selling goods or trading with the nobles.
Goods sold go onto the ships either you or your opponents have previously purchased and give you money in return. And if the ship’s hold is full it sails and gives the owner wigs (victory points).
Trading with the nobles allows you to spend a good for a choice from these actions: recruit an official, receive a plan to build a store, build or upgrade a ship, produce goods, gain clergy tiles from the Cardinal or gain a Royal favor.
If you instead place your card on the main board you can either choose to visit a noble or sponsor an event. The nobles are the three men I mentioned earlier: Manuel da Maia (The Builder), Marquis de Pombal (The Minister) or D. José I (The King). The Builder allows you to build a store on the main board, the Minister allows you to take a Decree which are very important game-end victory point cards, and the King allows you to open a public building that surrounds the stores and gives more victory points when a new store is built. And to sponsor an event you simply play a treasury card and take its action.
As you can probably tell from this brief and very simple overview of the main actions, there’s a lot to keep track of. You will need influence to visit nobles and so you will need to build ships, build stores on certain locations, use political cards, etc. You will need money to hire your officials, buy land for a store and open a public building and so you will need to sell goods, use treasury cards and reduce influence. You will need goods to trade with the nobles for actions, to build ships and earn money and so you will need to use your political cards, produce goods from your stores and building stores on certain locations. Fortunately. page four of the player aid summarizes all of this for you so you can easily find how to gain and spend these items.
There is a lot of subtle interaction between the players. It is not a multiplayer solitaire game. You have the option to follow certain actions from other players if you have planned well and gained a Royal favor token previously. There is a treasury track that changes based on selling and acquiring goods that will affect your ability to purchase and sell your own goods. If your opponents have officials in a noble’s court you will need more influence to take the action they provide. Someone else playing a public building may allow you to gain more victory points if you are poised to build a store in the right location.
Resources are scarce. As the game progresses you have the ability to gain more goods but the price of those goods goes down. Influence becomes less scarce as you build on your player board but you need to spend more as the noble’s offices become crowded with the player’s officials. It is very finely tuned in how all of these elements change through game play. It makes the tension of the game constant because there is always something you are searching to gain.
The first time period of the game is ended when a player has collected two sets of rubble cubes to their player board from building stores or when three political card decks are exhausted. The end of the game is triggered when a player has collected four sets of rubble cubes or three political card decks are exhausted again. Then you count up your wigs. You get points from a myriad of things: the hull size of your ships, each completed set of rubble cubes, more stores of a type, cash on hand, Decree cards gained during play, officials in public buildings and Royal favors. Add that to the wigs you collected during play.
Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface of the mechanisms but I hope I’ve given you enough of a flavor of the game to gain your interest. The rules can be downloaded online and there are many video tutorials. I would suggest taking a look there if you have interest to get a much better concept of the game.
Be warned though, the game is long. The box says two hours but your first game will take much longer as you all figure out the complexities. Once you’ve played a game or two however, two hours is a very good estimate. Nonetheless, this is a game for the die-hard euro-style gamer. A newly minted gamer would probably be overwhelmed.
Another reasonable complaint is that, except for the placement of the rubble cubes and Decree cards, there is not much variance between games. I personally believe that the large amount of choices available removes that problem but that is a personal preference.
I love art and I am a history nut. And I like me some deep euro games. Lisboa hits all three of these squarely on target. It’s almost like they made this game just for me. This will be on my “want to play” list for quite some time. Lacerda and O’Toole are masters of their craft. And I hope they continue to collaborate on many more games in the future. – – – – – – – – James Davis
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