Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Alderac Entertainment Group/Pegasus Spiele, 2 players, ages 10 and up, 30-45 minutes; $29.99)

pagodaboxAncient China has proven to be a fertile ground for game themes. But rather than farming or raising livestock or ancient warfare, the theme this time around is construction as two people compete to win the Emperor’s favor in the game that bears the name of the structures they are rivals in building: Pagoda.

Pagoda, designed by Arne V. Fuhler, comes with architect boards (and wooden cubes) for each player, a central board, wooden columns (cylinders in yellow, blue, green red and purple), pagoda tiles (5 in each color) and a deck of cards (11 in each of the five colors).

There are five Pagoda tiles for each of the five colors in the game. These tiles are double-sided: one side shows spots for four columns of a single color while the other shows only a single spot of a color. These tiles are stacked, by color, in separate piles. In addition to architect boards, players also receive one card of each color (placed face up in front of them) and also draw 2 cards from the draw deck (kept hidden) giving each player a supply of 7 cards to work with each turn.

The central board set between the players has a perimeter score track (scoring markers start at 0) and six spaces available for pagoda construction. The four spots on these spaces are “color neutral” (that is, ANY color column can be placed there). However, once a column is placed, all subsequent columns on that level MUST be the same color. From this beginning, pagodas will rise.

A finished pagoda consists of four floors and a roof. After four columns on a level have been placed, a pagoda tile MUST follow and that tile must be the same color as the columns supporting it. The floor that is placed now becomes the base for the NEXT level and columns placed there must match the color of the fouir spots on that tile. This continues until the fourth pagoda tile is placed. At that point, the tile placed is flipped to its one spot side. That one spot will determine the color of the roof top column.

Player turns follow a pattern. First, the active player must build at least 1 column (but no more than 3). There is no restriction on building tiles or building on different sites. A column is placed on a matching color spot by playing the matching color card. (So playing a red card allows you to place a red column on an open red spot.) Column placement generates points: 1 point for each level 1 column, 2 points for each level 2 and so on. Now, if possible, you can build tiles.

pagoda2Pagoda tiles can only be built on a completed set of four columns. If a set of four is uncovered, a player may play a card of the matching color and take one of the available pagoda tiles in that color and place it on top of the column with its four spot side face up. Although placing a pagoda tile only counts for 1 point, they reward the player with special abilities (noted by moving your marker from far left to far right on your architect board).

Completing a purple tile allows you to hold 4 cards (rather than 2) in your hand. Yellow allows you to discard as many cards as you want from your display and draw fresh ones. Green allows you to use two cards of any color as one of any other color in placing columns while Blue grants the same benefit in building pagoda tiles. Red allows you to build 4 columns on a turn instead of 3. All of these powers can only be used twice (until another tile of the appropriate color is built). A player may also construct a roof.

A roof may only be constructed if all lower levels have been completed. When the fourth level is complete, the tile placed is placed so that the one spot side is showing. You can only do a roof if you are able to finish the roof by placing TWO columns in that one spot (at the cost of two cards of that color) but, as regards column construction limits, a roof only counts as ONE column. Roof construction earns the player a total of 6 points (1 point for placing the pagoda tile and 5 for completing the double-column roof).

Once a player is done building, his supply of cards is replenished from the draw deck, first drawing to fill in any cards used in his display and then drawing to complete his hand of two (or four) cards. Play continues until three pagodas have been completed in full and each player has had the same number of turns. High score wins!

Graphic design in Pagoda is quite nice as the board fills up in three colorful dimensions as structures grow. (But be careful. Although these pagodas are steady, they won’t survive a solid or clumsy knock when placing columns or tiles.) You are a bit dependent on the luck of the draw in getting the color cards you need for the play you wish to do. This is slightly mitigated by having the option of discarding any FOUR cards to build ONE column of any color. This can be a severe penalty for bad luck but it keeps the game moving. The special powers granted to a player can be powerful which is why limiting the use of them to only twice per built pagoda level makes sense. Players have to pick their spots (literally and figuratively) as to when to use them to best advantage.

Pagoda bears a bit of a resemblance to Nim as players must calculate just how many columns to build on a turn, just enough to be able to erect those roofs but not enough to allow your opponent to build them ahead of you. Because you don’t know precisely which cards are held by your opponent, you cannot be sure what he can do. As a result, you can be tempted to take risks in setting up your scoring for the next turn and face the unpleasant prospect of a pivotal reveal should the opposition have the cards to make the key builds.

Two player games sometimes have a problem finding their audience as multi-player designs get the bulk of the attention. But Pagoda, like the structures that give it its name, is solidly designed and has enough going for it – a pleasing look, a sense of risk and just enough luck – to keep you coming back for more.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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