Ostia: The Harbor of Rome
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Ostia, first century A.D.: Merchants obtain and distribute the resources that the Roman Senate needs to complete civic projects. Those that support the Senate over the next five years will gain special favor in the eyes of the senators. Players receive resources from arriving ships, and after buying and selling with other players, try to assemble the resources the Senate is most eager to receive. However, the needs of the Senate change from year to year.
In Ostia, players must judge when is the best time to provide goods to the Senate. But, players must also sell goods in order to get the income necessary to obtain more resources. And, the Senate watches to make sure that no one uses more resource types than they should...
Will you be clever enough to become the favorite of the Senate?
Sometimes, when I initially read the rules for a game, I get very excited, because there are mechanics in the rules that sound simply fascinating and fun. This was the case with Ostia (Mayfair Games, 2006 - Stefan Risthaus). Ostia has an office phase in which players must secretly allocate resources. In this game about trading in ancient Roman times, this secret distribution sounded like a very fun mechanic, and I was eager to play the game.
After several plays, however, my excitement has dimmed. Even though the resource allocation sounded fun in the rules, it wasn't quite as enjoyable in the game. In fact, the entire game was rather boring. Each time I've played, the game has seemed to drag, and players are wondering if it's over after only a few turns. Ostia has auctions and simultaneous selection - two mechanics I really enjoy - but here they feel repetitive and bland. A few bad (or unlucky) moves can completely put a player out of the game, yet they must continue through the motions for the remaining turns. Ostia has some neat ideas, but together they fail to produce a solid, fun game.
Each player receives a player board with three places for cards on it: the storehouse, the forum, and the Senate. There are also spaces for four wooden storehouses; the player places one of them on an open spot. Each player also is given a ship card, two bluff cards, and fifty-five denarii. A pile of victory point chips, storehouses, and the remainder of the money is placed in the middle of the table. A deck of fifty-one resource cards is shuffled, with one passed to each player, who secretly looks at it and then places it in their storehouse. The rest of the cards are shuffled and placed next to a deck of Senate cards. The top two Senate cards are flipped over with the first having a marker placed on it so that all players know it pertains to this turn. The other card will be used on the following turn. The first round (out of five) then begins, with one player denoted as the start player.
In a round, each player is dealt five resource cards from the deck. The player places these cards in their hand, along with the ship card, which has two icons on it, front and back. Cards placed next to the ship icon on the card, which must be four each round, are to be auctioned off this turn. Cards placed next to the storehouse icon will be added to a player's storehouse. All cards for the storehouse are placed there, and auctioning begins. Starting with the first player, each player auctions off a pair of resource cards from their hand. There are six different types of resources (ivory, wood, wine, olive oil, textiles, and grain), each with a different amount of cards in the deck (6 - 11) and a different starting price (4-9). Starting with the player to their left, each player makes one bid on the cards or passes. The bids must be equal to or greater than the combined minimum price on the two cards. The seller may make the final bid, paying the amount to the bank, and adding the cards to their stockpile. Otherwise, the final bidder pays half of their amount to the bank, and the other half to the seller, then taking the two cards and placing them in their storehouse. The next player then auctions off two of their cards, and play proceeds clockwise until all players have auctioned off two pairs of cards. If no one bids on a pair of cards, the seller must purchase them for half of the minimum price.
Each player then takes their bluff cards into their hands along with all of their cards from their storehouse. Players then secretly place their cards into either the Forum, Senate, or storehouse in any combination they wish, using the bluff cards to hide their true intentions. Players cannot place more than three different types of resources in the Forum and Senate combined. All players then reveal their cards in their Senate and Forum. Players who have accidentally placed more than three different types of resources must lose the most valuable ones, and then play continues.
First, players look at all the cards in all of the Forums. Each player receives money equal to the value of the cards they are selling. Values of cards vary depending on the TOTAL number of cards of that type which are being sold. For example, if I am the only person selling an ivory card, it is worth fifteen denarii. However, if I am selling a wine card, and there are six other wine cards being sold, each wine card is worth only three denarii. All cards being sold are discarded.
Cards in the Senate are then compared. Each resource type is worth a varying amount of victory points (from 0 to 5), which is found by looking at the current Senate card. The player who has offered the highest value of goods to the Senate receives three victory point chips, with the next highest player getting two, and the third highest player receiving one. All cards donated to the Senate are then discarded.
At the end of each round, players may only have as many cards in their storehouse equal to the amount of storehouses that they have. If a player exceeds this amount, they can either discard the excess cards, or buy storehouses (up to four total) for ten denarii each to accommodate their extra resources. The current Senate card is discarded, with the other Senate card becoming the new one for the next round, and another Senate card is revealed. The starting player passes their start marker to the player on their left, and the next round begins. After the fifth round, the game ends, and players receive victory points for cards in their storehouse - one victory point for each DIFFERENT resource type they have. The player with the most money gets three victory points, the player with the second most gets two victory points, and the player with the third most gets one. Victory points are totaled, and the player with the most victory points is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: For the most part, the game bits are of a decent quality. The cards especially are nice, which are each of a different color and have symbols in all four corners. The victory point chips are red wooden discs, and the houses look like tan houses from Monopoly. The money is on thin paper that I actually had to tear out from a pad but is printed on both sides and is in full color. Still, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have preferred chips instead of the paper money - it's a bit too flimsy and fragile. The player boards are nice, with a description of the rounds of the game and the selling prices for the cards. The boards are the highest quality player boards I've seen in a while, and they and all of the other pieces fit rather easily into the thin, square box.
2.) Rules: The eight page full-colored rulebook is exceptionally well done. Everything is explained in great detail with color illustrations of every part of the game. In fact, the last four pages of the rules explain two full examples of play - a normal round and the end of the game. I found the game rules to be of a medium intensity; but after reading the rulebook, I had complete understanding. I found the game easy to teach to people, although the Forum/Senate part usually needs to be shown to be understood. Teenagers took to the game fairly easily, and seemed to forget the "only three types of resources" rule less than the adults. But I've yet to play a game where someone hasn't forgotten the rule - even me!
3.) Unnecessary parts: For the life of me, I can't figure out why the ship cards are included with the game, and now simply don't use them. Players must keep four cards for auctioning purposes - why deal with the fiddly and unnecessary card that must be kept between them and the storehouse cards. We just simply put the storehouse cards on the player boards, and kept the other four cards in our hand - simple, easy, and not needing the ship card. I'm also not sure what purpose the bluff cards have. Yes, they pad out a player's board; but since all players are placing cards simultaneously, does it really matter? I guess canny players are watching the other players to see where they place cards, but it just seemed to be a letdown for me - I was expecting the game to be more exciting.
4.) Auctions: Speaking of exciting, the auctions are anything but. And since the lion's share of the game consists of these auctions, it tends to bog the game down in boredom. Many times players will auction off a pair of cards, only to have the next player auction off the same pair, then to have it done again. This is very anticlimactic, and auctions tend to slow down and not be very exciting. I love auctions as much as the next person; but since no one knows what cards will be auctioned off in future rounds, players have too little information to make an auction more intense.
5.) Forum/Senate: This part of the game is very interesting to me. Do I sell my most valuable card, hoping that no one else will sell it, thus garnering me more money? Or do I put all my cards in the Senate, trying to get victory points. Players simply cannot afford to ignore the Senate, as a player who wins there several times will accumulate an almost unstoppable lead. I normally love simultaneous selection, as players try to outguess each other and play their cards in the best possible way so that they get maximum rewards. In Ostia, however, a player can guess wrongly and be devastated by that fact, getting no money and/or no victory points. When a player gets hosed in Ostia's simultaneous selection, it's a tad more serious than other games; it can literally cost you the game.
6.) Fun Factor: And that's pretty much it - the entire game consists of auctions and simultaneous selection. Yes, there's a little more, and advanced rules (which don't seem too big of a deal to me) will allow a few strategic changes. But really, the game is all about a long series of auctions followed by a sometimes almost sheer guesswork of placing cards. The game mechanics aren't repeats of other games; in fact the game is fairly original as far as I can tell. It's just that the game doesn't feel original, and thus comes across as dry and boring.
If the game I described sounds interesting, and you think that the auctions and card distribution sound fascinating, then you might want to pick up Ostia. But for most people, it's going to be a fairly drab experience. In a world of board games where hundreds of new ones are released each year, Ostia doesn't stand out and doesn't have anything to offer that makes me want to play it. And that mediocrity, more than anything else, will relegate it to the back shelf. Ostia may do a good job; it's just too boring to be fun.
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