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In this tactical game, players place different shaped pieces of walls and towers to form a castle wall, following a special assortment of building rules. Formerly available only directly from the designer, Thomas Fackler, in a very expensive limited edition.
Place all your pieces in the wall that's being built in the middle of the table, and you win! You get a tower, a gate, and five wall segments of different lengths. Players take turns being the Master Builder. On each turn, everyone conceals a piece in his hand, then all are shown simultaneously. If no piece matches the Master Builder's, he then builds the piece he has in his hand; otherwise, the matching players build their pieces. There is also the risky empty-hand strategy: When it works, you can get rid of any chosen piece; but when it fails, you may get stuck with an additional piece! When someone wins, the other players lose points for their leftovers; the greatest penalties imposed are for the tower and gate. In Die Mauer, wall's swell that ends well.
Thomas Fackler has a reputation for producing incredibly expensive games that no one seems to have actually played. At Essen 1998, he released a game called Die Mauer (The Wall) that was still elaborately produced yet much less expensive than his earlier titles. Die Mauer was "cheap" at only about $50 per copy (one copy needed per player), compared to well over $1,000 apiece for his other work. I bought four copies of the Fackler-produced Die Mauer almost as a curiosity, but I liked the game when I finally played it. I told a number of people that if someone produced the game in plastic or wood for a more normal price then many people would want to own it. Zoch Spiel apparently agreed with me, as at this year's Essen they released a copy of the game in wood, undoubtedly very nicely produced like the rest of their games.
I have not played the Zoch version yet, but what follows is a description of the Fackler version that I'm guessing is identical. Each player takes a set of seven pieces to build the wall: one tower, one gate, and five wall sections of various lengths. Through the game, a common wall is built using all players' pieces, and the first player to get all of their pieces built wins the round. Everyone else loses points for the pieces they have remaining, and after three rounds the high score (highest being zero) wins.
There are two rules to follow in building the wall. First, pieces may be added only to either end of the wall. Second, towers and gates must alternate in position, and must have at least one wall section (of any length) between them. Thus, at various points in the construction towers and gates cannot be built, but wall sections are always possible.
During the round, players alternate taking the role of the "master builder." The MB secretly chooses one of the seven wall pieces from his hidden stash, and puts it out in a closed fist. The other builders then each select one of their pieces, and all are revealed simultaneously. If no one chooses the same piece as the MB, the MB gets to add his piece to the wall, reducing his stock by one and moving him one piece closer to ending the round. If others guessed the piece the MB selected, the MB does not build but everyone else does, provided that they can given the rules limitations described above. Lastly, and this is the most interesting rule in the game, if everyone who matched the MB's piece cannot build due to the construction rules, the MB is the only one to build. When one player has built all seven pieces, everyone else loses points for theirs not yet built, with a penalty proportionate to the size of the piece. The tower costs you 15 points if not built, a gate 10, and each wall piece counts the number of turrets it has (from 1 to 6).
This simple mechanism results in some very subtle bluff and double-think strategies. Everyone is trying to get rid of their towers and gates, but choosing when to select these pieces as either the MB or a "guesser" is tricky. Consider the following example:
The Wall so far:
As the MB, you could select your tower (presuming the built tower is someone else's of course) and if no one else chooses the tower you would place it on the right side of the wall. If other person chose the tower, they would build and in either case no more towers could be constructed until at a minimum a wall, Gate, and wall were added to one side. If multiple others choose the tower, you build and put the others in the uncomfortable situation just described.
As the MB, you would not select a gate since it could not be built. If this is your only piece left, however, you're stuck. I'll describe this soon.
Lastly, as the MB, you could choose any wall piece and hopefully be unique, but whether it is placed on the right or left side of the existing wall has important consequences for the next plays. Placed on the right, the situation is identical for the next player. Placed on the left, either a tower or a gate could be played and thus things open up. This could be good or bad for you, depending on your position at this time.
Now consider this situation as one of the "guessers", and determine your strategy of which piece to select. This is the flow of the game, and gives you an idea of the decisions to be made.
The mechanism breaks down, however, when you have only one piece left. You have no choice of piece to select, and if your opponents are keeping close track then they know this and won't let you build, assuming of course that they're not in the same boat. The game can't stalemate, however, as a quick look at the rules will prove. But, the winner is definitely not necessarily the first player to reduce their stock to one piece.
It is difficult to go out three rounds in a row, meaning that the practical goal becomes one of getting rid of your big pieces every round. If you are losing only 2 or 3 points in each round, you'll have a good chance to win. Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same thing, which makes the game both variable and fun.
With three or four players, the game works fine but I imagine that it will nicely support more as well. In the new version, this is more likely since buying even four copies of the original is a stretch. When we played the game at last year's Gathering of Friends, Mik Svellov offered to buy four copies for himself so that next year we could try it with eight people. Bravo, Mik!
I recommend Die Mauer as a game that gets better with repeated play and is deeper than the first look suggests. It is easy to teach and play, keeps everyone involved by design, and completes in less than 45 minutes (with four at least.) It is not strong enough to make me shell out for Fackler's other games, but I hope that someone else produces them with a $30 price tag to try them.