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Penny Press

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Asmadi Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 45-60 minutes; $59.99)

pennypress1In the late 19th-early 20th century, the glue that held the masses together, keeping them in touch with the events of the day and each other, were the newspapers. These publications ran the gamut from high toned conveyers of the news to flamboyant and sensational journalism, commonly known as “the yellow press”, many of them selling for just a single cent. The competition for readership was high and capturing both that competition and the history of the times is Penny Press, the new game by designers Matt Golec and Robert Dijkman Dulkes, which puts players in the roles of newspaper editors with a small army of reporters at their disposal, all determined to corner the best news stories and boost their newspaper to the highest circulation.

Players begin with their own newspaper front page which they will attempt to fill by using their cadre of five reporters to track down and publish the top stories of the day. There are five categories of stories: Crime & Calamity, War, Politics, New York City (the setting for the competition) and the Human Condition. The large mounted board has tracks for all five types (with a sliding scale from 2 to 6) with the track separated by an arrow from the stash of news stories, located at the bottom of each track. News stories all come in the same four geometric shapes (small square, larger square, thin rectangle, thicker rectangle), denoted as A, B, C and D, and all display a star value (from 1 to 3). These stories are stacked, a separate stack per shape and in star order (with the 1 on top and the 3 on the bottom) in each category. Bonus markers for each type of story go on the bonus track (starting with a value of 2). Headline cards are used to prime the board for play.

Each of the 45 Headline cards in the deck displays a contemporary headline that sets the mood. Along with the headline, each of these cards has an advertisement (more on that later), a bonus marker advancement (which moves a specific type of story further along the bonus track) and a stories area which brings new stories onto the board (creating a “news beat”), stories now available for reporters to claim. These revealed stories are placed below the matching column’s arrow, forcing the arrow upward.

On a turn, a player may do one of four things, three of which involve his reporters. A player may take any number of his available reporters and place them on any ONE story on any of the news beats. These reporters may be added to any you already have there, they may even be placed on a story where there are reporters of another player! You may recall reporters by simply taking ALL reporters on a story back home. Or you may choose to reassign a reporter by moving ONE reporter from one story onto another. In all cases, there are no limits to how many reporters may occupy a story. Reporter placement is pivotal for a number of reasons, one of the more important being the way competition affects the worth of the stories you pursue.

A reporter placed on a story indicates reader interest. As interest increases, the value of those types of stories increases as well (indicated by a further rise of the arrow for that category of story moving upward). The more stories available to be reported will push the arrow upward, the more DIFFERENT stories with reporters on them, the higher the arrow will rise. Your last turn option? You can Go to Press.

pennypress2When you Go to Press, you MUST collect ALL stories on the board upon which you have at least as many reporters as any other single player. Stories where you have a presence but are outnumbered stay in place. Opposing players with reporters on stories you have collected get their reporters back and receive “scoop” points to add to their circulation as compensation. Now, you must build your front page.

Each front page is a 4×3 grid. Any stories gathered from top news beats (that is, categories whose arrows point to the highest values) MUST touch the top edge of your front page. Have more than one, then place as many as you can. You then try to fit any other stories on remaining empty spaces.

Each story on your front page is worth the value of its position on its corresponding track. (So, a story valued at 5 points on the track will boost your circulation by 5.) In addition, you may declare one story an “exclusive” if A) it is NOT the highest value type of story and B) it touches the top edge of your front page. Meet those requirements and that story will score double! Any stories you cannot place (no room or wrong shape) will cause you to LOSE the value of that story. In addition, spaces on the front page have negative values printed on them. If they remain uncovered when you complete assembling your front page, those points are deducted from your score. (But don’t worry. The lowest you can score is zero. No negatives here.)

Once done, published stories are kept by the player in his own supply for final scoring, a new Headline card is drawn (with Bonus track advancements and new stories becoming available). Now that advertisement comes into play.

An advertisement is a 1×1 chit that occupies a specified position on your front page (as shown on the drawn Headline card), a position that cannot be moved. This is a double-edged sword. It eliminates one of the negative slots on your front page by covering it but now, when publishing the next time, you have to fit your news stories AROUND it. This can sometimes be a little tricky.

The game continues until someone has published three times (in a four or five player game) or four times (with a two or three player game). That player is now done and, at that point, all arrow markers are flipped to their red side and are “locked in”. The values of news stories from that point on will not change and no Headline cards are drawn. Now all other players may, in turn order, take two more turns, each a normal turn (except now they may only place and/or recall ONE reporter) and/or publish. (If they publish, they get no second turn.) Finally, the newspapers that best covered the leading stories of the day are determined – and that’s where those stars on the stories come in.

Going along the bonus track, players total the number of stars (NOT the number of stories) they have for each of the five categories. The player with the most stars in the each category gets those bonus points. Tie? Then BOTH players get the FULL amount of bonus points added to their circulation. The player who has the newspaper with the greatest circulation wins!

Penny Press is a combination worker placement/auction game using the auction style seen in games such as Evo and Vegas Showdown – with a little bit of Tetris (fitting your stories onto your page) thrown in. The “bar graph” set up allows players to easily see which stories are more valuable and the technique used to chart the ebb and flow of news story popularity is a very visual and innovative device that works very well. You will spend most of your time focusing on grabbing key stories to publish, primed to make the most out of each “going to press” but don’t forget about those endgame bonuses. Holdings are open so everyone knows just how many stars each player has in each category. With five bonuses up for grabs and with each bonus worth a substantial number of points (potentially as much as 20 points each), claiming just one or two of them can mean the difference between victory and defeat. While there are rules for 2 players, the game works best with more rivals to ramp up the auction competition. (There is also a “Newsboy Strike” variation, with its own large newsboy meeple, for experienced players which, in essence, forces players to lose a turn.) In games, details often make the difference and the use of the names of actual vintage New York newspapers (The Herald, The World etc.) as well as those Headline cards invoking the big stories of the day add a welcome atmosphere.

Forest Gump was quoted as saying “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” The same can be said for games by first time designers. Matt Golec and Robert Dijkman Dulkes may be new to game design but it is apparent they have studied the art. Their effort is a solid one as they has given us an engaging and atmospheric entertainment that makes Penny Press worth every penny of your gaming dollar.


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