Reviewed by Pevans
RHODES (The Game Master, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 90-120 minutes; about $45)
I was pleased to see a new strategy game from Dutch publisher The Game Master at Spiel ’16, so Rhodes, designed by Pieter Boots (the game is in English, French and German as well as Dutch) was high on my list of games to try. The game is set on the eponymous island in Ancient Greece, where the players are farmers and traders. They each have an agricultural estate and a warehouse in town with ships to move goods from the former to the latter.
Players’ warehouses are shown on the main board, alongside the harbour where the ships dock – both players’ ships and neutral, ‘Egyptian’ ships. Players can buy goods from the ships, the cost decreasing as more ships arrive. The neutral ships may bring gold, one commodity that players’ farms don’t produce. Purchased goods – along with any from a player’s own ships that reach the end of the harbour – go into the player’s warehouse. They use the goods in their warehouse to complete contracts – there are several contract tiles available on the board – which are the main way of scoring points. And what do points make?
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back-track and cover the meat of the game. The rest of the board has areas for some of the actions players can take, various information tables and a scoring track around three edges. The most important item is the “player sequence” table, which is a clever mechanism at the heart of the game. Players’ markers start each round on the left side. Players move their marker right for each action they take. When everybody’s had two actions, the round ends.
Before starting the next round, players choose a new position on the left side for their marker, in reverse order. Taking a top position has a cost, but may be worth it if you need to go early in the round. Conversely, taking a low position brings money or extra goods on their estate. This mechanism is like a mini game in its own right. If I want to go first, is it enough to take second or will somebody pay more – outbid me, in effect – for the top slot? If I want to guarantee going first, then I need to pay. Similarly, how much stuff do I want that I’m prepared to risk being last? And, of course, the last to choose has a free choice of what’s left (there are more spaces than the maximum number of players), while one of the rewards for being last in one round is having first choice of position for the next round. Neat.
This also the point when more neutral ships may arrive at the harbour. Time to look at the actions players can take when it’s their turn. They have two markers to place, indicating which actions they’ve taken and stopping anyone else taking that position – though there’s space for more than one marker on most of the actions. The most obvious one is ‘production’: generating goods (cubes of the appropriate colour) on their ‘estate’. Except that the action is a bit more complicated than that and other players may benefit.
First, the player chooses two production chips to place on the board. The chip shows how much is produced, the position it’s placed in indicates which good. The player then distributes that number of cubes of the appropriate colour around all players’ estates, starting with their own. A cube is added to each farmland tile of the same colour that isn’t already full. This continues until all cubes have been placed or all relevant tiles are full. The obvious advantage is choosing chips that will give you more cubes than other players – there’s only one ‘1’ chip. This action can be taken twice in a round and, the second time, has to involve chips and goods that weren’t used the first time. Another clever mechanism.
As I’ve mentioned that players have an estate of tiles, you won’t be surprised that another action is buying new tiles – for money. Players start with a ‘farmhouse’ tile and one or two (depending on the number of players) farmland tiles. The tiles they buy can be additional farmland, increasing or diversifying what they produce, or ‘development’ tiles. The latter provide additional activities or bonuses – such as the very useful Wagon, allowing a player to transport a good direct to their warehouse.
The tiles in a player’s estate are triggered when they take the ‘Farm’ action, placing an action marker on their farmhouse. This actually does a couple of things. First off, the player gets the benefit (cash or points) from their farmland (only the cheapest tiles don’t do anything except produce and store goods) and development tiles. Then they must fill one of their ships with goods and add it to the end of the queue in the harbour, pushing the other ships along. A ship that reaches the end is emptied to the owning player’s warehouse.
The ‘Harbour’ action is how players complete a contract. First they have the opportunity to buy goods from ships in the harbour. These go into their warehouse. Then they can complete a contract using the goods in their warehouse. Note that the more valuable contracts require gold, which can only come from the ‘Egyptian’ ships. Players are allowed to use one or two goods direct from their estate to complete the contract – at a price. You can see why the Wagon is useful.
There are two final actions available to players: turning goods into cash and cash into points. The first is to sell goods to the market: first player to do so in a round gets more money. The second is to spend money buying points. Money (and gold) is worth points at the end of the game, but players get a better rate buying them during the game. The game ends when there are no more contracts, but players complete the round before totting up the scores.
From the available actions, you can see how an “engine” can work. Develop your estate to produce more – and different – goods, which you then ship to the harbour (or sell for cash). The goods may end up in your warehouse but, if someone else buys them first, they’re providing you with the funds to buy what you need to complete a contract. Or just buy points.
As far as I can see, the major source of victory points is the contract tiles. Players can see what goods each other is collecting, so there’s potential for grabbing contracts other players are lining up. Completing contracts requires goods – or the money to buy them. Which in turn requires an estate that produces the right goods – either direct for contracts or to sell for the cash. Hence, the early stage of the game has to be building up your estate with a key decision being when to concentrate on completing contracts.
However, it seems that the most important thing is to be aware of what the other players are up to. (Although the game lists as for 2-5 players, I would suggest 3-4.) There’s no point lining up a lucrative contract if another player can take it first. Conversely, if you see another player collecting the goods for a contract that you can take, grab it.
The publisher describes this as “a light, strategic board game” and suggests it’s suitable for family play. I think it’s a middleweight strateg y game and have to say that I can’t see my family coping with it – except for the gamers amongst them. Rhodes provides an entertaining challenge for out-thinking the other players without melting a significant number of brain cells. I give it 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – Pevans
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