Fugger, Welser, Medici
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Well, there are only so many days of the year when even the prospect of a long game is possible, and so many previous times, something else has come up. And, it was also with some trepidation that I approached a full game session of Doris & Frank's self-described most controversial game. I knew we were in for a long session, and if it went badly, I'd feel guilty for months. Plus, I would have found that a game I'd spent so much money on was not as good as I'd hoped.
But, I was determined to give it a try, and discover its promise, perhaps reveal a hitherto unknown gem, or finally resign it to the ranks of the "games I shoulda known better" list.
Well, first off, this is not a typical D&F game, nor is it a typical "German" game. The theme is certainly one that has been done before--trading goods in Medieval Europe. But, unlike those games, which are usually significantly abstract, with the theme placed over it (however nicely), this game is fairly concrete. Each player starts the game with two Trading Representatives (TR's)--one is the "Son of the House", the other a hired hand. A third may be hired later. The map is a beautiful Doris work of art representing Europe, with "large game path" roads between each city. A player's TR's will travel down these roads slowly and safely, or rapidly, risking broken axles and lost goods, and more importantly, lost time. However, sometimes it is necessary to rush to that next town, because a demand for the goods that you've got has arisen there, and if you're not there in time, you are out of luck. And time is the essence of the game, and the "motor" that drives it. The calendar represents the entire year, with two spaces per month. Offers to buy and sell goods appear on the calendar, at a prescribed time and place, and you must decide which trading events to try to get to, and what to take with you. Sometimes, your TR's are seen to be wandering aimlessly over Europe, only waiting for that next opportunity and the hope that you will be close enough to it to make it there.
Of course, your opponents will also be trying to get to and take advantage of the same markets. As each player arrives in a town, they queue up--the "tie" advantage goes to the first Trading House to arrive. Once the market day arrives, whether goods are up for sale, or whether the inhabitants have a demand for your goods, the players compete in secret bids to buy or sell at the greatest profit, while hopefully depriving your fellow players of the same advantages. The trade goods of the game are represented by maroon wooden cylinders for cloth, brown "cloves" for spice (which our players took to calling 'shrooms), and metal bars for metal. E.g., a town with a demand may want 3 cloth, 2 metal, and 1 spice. If four players have arrived, then all four compete secretly to see who will sell their products. You bid low enough to be just a bit lower than all of your opponents, but not so low that your wipe out your profit margins. Or at least, that is the idea.
However, the next twist to the game is that all of these great Trading Houses wish to become nobility, and the way up that ladder is favors and money. Many of the demands are from Noble customers, and if you are willing to take a little less money, and a Debt Note, they will help your advancement up the nobility table. Sometimes, if you give a little (lot) extra money, you will have a chance to advance a little faster. However, the more money you give up buying your way up the Nobility chart, the less you have to run your business. And it is not at all uncommon to find someone who has nearly all of their capital tied up in merchandise, and just barely enough money to afford getting that merchandise to market. But, to market you must go.
Then, as you are struggling to make these ends meet, along come a bunch of events that can cause great strife, such as robbers on the road, or events that tempt you to spend more of the cash you can ill afford to, in buying more debt notes to support the Emperor's army, or in buying Corruption, which relieves you of having to pay annual taxes, or just in throwing a huge party to show what an upscale person you are, and why you should be allowed into the ranks of the nobility. Some of these perks burn greatly, because while everyone bids, typically only one person gets the advantage, despite the fact that for many of these events, you pay what you bid regardless of whether you win. 1000 Florins bid for corruption, but the other guy bid 1100. Ouch, you're out a 1000, and nothing to show for it.
And, if all of this pain and suffering weren't enough, the one thing you really want is a Country Estate, a Castle to call your own. In the latter part of the game, these "Landsitz" offers come up in the same way as the market offers, and if you have the money, you rush to that town, buy one, and start to enjoy the good life. But wait, you can't even consider buying one until you reach the top of the nobility table, and then, you have to recoup your money once again, because the game will now end when the next person buys their Castle, and then, of these two landed nobility, the one with the most cash wins.
Whew! And I've left out sea travel, and Free Passage markers, and the annual Faire, and Zahltag, and paying taxes, and... and, well, more German than in any other game I've played. I studied the cards and board, I made my own simple translations of all of the event cards, and I even made up a full page glossary of all of the German terms used in the game. And, to top it off, I made turn phase/price chart/and such Player Reference Cards. (If anyone is interested, contact me, and I'll get them up on my web page right away--otherwise, they go on the list of things to do). And I was fairly successful. No one had any trouble with the German, and soon we were handling Nachfrage's and Angebot's and Adelslaufbahn like natives. So, lots of rules, lots of German, and lots of things to do. The one place where we found ourselves snagged was in Doris' beautiful artwork. Trying to find locations was hampered by the fact that the town names were in a Medieval script, which, while beautiful, was often extremely difficult to discern. What does it all translate in to? Well, a long game, the second thing that differentiates it from the rest of the German game milieu. Our first game ran from about 10:45am to 8:30pm, almost ten hours!
The result: despite the fact that the game lasted so long, everyone had a great time. We thoroughly enjoyed the game, even though the main actions of the game are essentially repetitive--go somewhere, buy stuff, go somewhere else, sell stuff, go buy some more--you struggle to maneuver your TR's to the best place, you secretly try to outbid your opponents, and the frustrations of time constraints, and money constraints, the ever changing world of the events, the ebb and flow of success and failure and success. And while I may not be up for playing this game every month, I think at least once a year I would like to set out in my wagon again, head up to Wurzburg to buy some cloth, sell some precious metals over in Wien, and travel out to Portugal/Spain to await those ships from America, laden with New World treasures. A wonderful gaming experience. And, I think we could get this down by a few hours if we didn't spend so much time saying,"Whose turn is it?" And oftentimes the answer was,"We Don't Know, because we were so busy calculating our profit margins."
Chris, our new traditional game winner, emerged victorious with his purchase of a Country Estate. We decided to stop there, although the next estate would likely have gone within the next half hour--Chris was so wealthy even after he bought his estate, it seemed not likely to change the end game here. Chris, Matt and I had reached the level of Noble, while Isaac and Peter were still social climbing. Chris had 3260 florins left, after buying his estate. Matt had 8040. I had 6800, Isaac 7440, and poor Peter, 3580. Which was significant, because Peter had bid high for, and won most of, every trick and advantage that had come down the pike, the result of which was that he was fairly impoverished for most of the game. I was doing fairly well up until the last few months, when I was taking a huge load of goods to a market that would be sparsely populated with other players. But I had to hurry to get there, and so, suffered a broken axle, and a loss of half my goods. Then, as I entered the province where the market would be held, I was beset by robbers, who, despite a huge bribe, still took half the goods I had left. I easily lost over 4000 florins in that debacle, and so close to the game's end, I was ruined, with no time to recoup my losses. Oh, illfortunate wind that blows so cruel.
By the way, I have copy #478 of only 1000 copies of FWM. I now feel honored to own one, glad to have found out what a treasure it is, and thankful to Doris and Frank for one more great game experience. Someday I hope to thank them personally.