from 19 customer reviews
Please Login to use shopping lists.
Venice in its heyday. A few aristocratic families rule the High Council with the Doge as their President. One more family will now be accepted onto the council. A mighty political battle begins. There are relentless attacks in the struggle for power in the separate quarters of the city; clever transferrals and momentous banishments are the order of the day. You will represent one of the families vying for election. You must use any and all means at your disposal to win the favor of the Doge. Gain the highest esteem and you will be the winner!
- 1 Game Board
- 100 Aristocrats
- 8 Prestige Stones
- 12 Bridges
- 62 Action Cards
- 28 Limit Cards
- 1 Doge
- 1 Die
- 1 Marking Stone
Average Rating: 4.5 in 19 reviews
First things first, what are you getting in the box and what does it cost? San Marco comes with 1 game board, 100 aristocrat blocks (25 in each of four different colors), 8 prestige markers, 12 plastic bridges, 62 action cards, 28 limit cards, 1 doge figure, 1 die, and 1 phase marker. San Marco retails for $35.00. The components are generally very good. The board is absolutely gorgeous, with very attractive colors, and is also functional, and not too distracting. While the aristocrat blocks are a bit too small, this seems to be a common problem with eurogames. The bridges would be nicer if they were made out of wood, but the plastic bridges serve their purpose. The cards are small, but workable, and the images on them are clear enough to convey their meaning without being too cryptic. Finally, you may recognize the doge from Princes of Florence. Overall, the components are good (especially the board), but not exceptional.
So what are you doing for 90 minutes surrounded by all these tiny aristocrats? San Marco is an area control game, with a twist. There are six different areas in the game, separated by the Canal Grande, over which players will build bridges to connect the regions. Players earn prestige points by having the most or second-most aristocrats in a region when it is scored. The game is played over three phases, which are subdivided into rounds. During each round, two players are assigned the role of Distributor, and the other two players are given the role of Decision-Maker (for a four-player game; alternatively, in a three-player game, one player is Distributor and the other two are Decision-Makers in each round). Each Distributor receives 5 action cards and 3 limit cards, and divides them into two piles in any way that he or she chooses. In a 4-player game, the Distributor receives 6 action cards and 4 limit cards, and divides them into three piles. Each Decision-Maker then chooses either pile of cards, and the Distributor receives the remaining pile of cards. This mechanism in which one player divides a set of goods and the other player chooses which set of goods to take and which set to leave is the heart and soul of this game. While San Marco is an area control game on its face, it’s really a game of psychology in which you try to figure out what the other player will want and how to divide the cards to make sure you get what you want.
There are only five different types of action cards. First, there are region cards for each of the six different regions, which allow you to play one aristocrat in the depicted region. Second, there are transfer cards, which allow you to transform one opposing aristocrat to your color. Third, there are banishment cards, which allow you to pick a region, role the die, and remove that many aristocrats (the starting setup and banishments are the main source of luck in the game, besides luck of the draw, which is mitigated by the splitting/choosing mechanic). Fourth, there are bridge cards, which allow you to build a bridge connecting any two regions, and bridges increase the flexibility of region cards, allowing you to place aristocrats in neighboring regions, and allow you to move the doge. Finally, there are doge cards, which allow you to score one region, but only those which can be accessed by crossing bridges (and paying tolls for using opponent’s bridges).
The limit cards show either the number 1, 2, or 3, and in contrast to the action cards, are harmful. Basically, when someone reaches 10 or more limit points, the end of the phase is triggered. Anyone with less than 10 limit points gets to play in one final bonus round, and anyone with less than 10 limit points gets bonus prestige points equal to the difference between their total limit points and the most that anyone has, and the person with the fewest limit points also gets one free banishment. Why would anyone take limit points you might ask? The answer is that the Distributor will inevitably put more limit points with the better action cards, so you have to decide whether it’s worth forgoing all the benefits of having fewer limit points to take the better pile of action cards. The trick is that it’s not always clear which is the better pile.
What makes San Marco so great anyway? The key to San Marco lies in the unique divide/choose mechanic, which gives players different roles (Distributor or Decision-Maker) each turn, both of which present very difficult decisions. The Distributor is presented with a handful of cards, which he can divide any way he chooses. It’s necessary to analyze not only your own position, but also your opponent’s, which makes this game anything but multiplayer solitaire. It’s necessary to discern your opponent’s goals and strategies, and try to build a pile of cards that will tempt them, but won’t be too powerful. It’s necessary to figure out exactly what they’ll do before they even know it themselves. The scoring for the game is also very unique and makes the game interesting. You can have control of plenty of regions, but there’s no guarantee that those regions will score you any points, because rather than intermittently scoring all of the regions, scoring only happens in individual regions each time a Doge card is used. Moreover, the rules for ties make scoring even more interesting. If two players tie for the most aristocrats in a region then they both get the amount of prestige points normally allocated to the second place person. However, if two players tie for the second most aristocrats in a region then they get nothing at all. Since the points for first and second place are not very different, this makes all of the players strive not only to get the most in a region, but also to try to have the other players tied for second. Hence, players are once again forced to constantly consider and analyze their opponent’s positions in order to avoid giving away points when scoring the regions they control.
San Marco is not a game for players who don’t want to pay attention or who may be distracted. San Marco requires careful attention and scrutiny, but rewards players with agonizing decisions, followed by more decisions, and then some more on top of that. This is truly a game where you will control your fate, as long as you keep a watchful eye on your opponents, and figure out his plans before he knows them himself.
I've only played this game with 4 people. We all love games, but were bored with the traditional cards and domino games that couples tend to play. I think we're hooked! This was a great deviation to the norm - and was fun for everyone alike. We all can see that there is some fairly interesting strategy elements that come into play, and are having fun trying to learn them all. I think it will take us several Friday Night dates before we truly know which strategies are the right ones. Without giving away any strategical hints - one of the things I love most about this game is the ebb & flow of the balance of power in this game! I also love, and love to watch others as they contemplate how to divvy up their playing cards in hopes that they will end up getting something back that will benefit them in the end.
Only downside that I see is that a max of only 4 people can play.
My recommendation from a born-again board-gamer is to rush out and buy yourself a copy - before they are all gone for good!
One of the many good things about this game is that can you explain it as you play it without detriment, so forget the rulebook recital, just get on with it.
The gameplay is all you could expect: player interaction, teasing decsions and a bit of luck. The theme itself doesn't get too buried beneath the abstractions, thanks to an interesting gameboard and some cute bridges. Venice may stink a bit, but this game certainly doesn't.
Yes, we both like these two games...San Marco and Tikal...but before you decide i think you must know these...according to the games magazine, tikal was the 1. family strategy game(f.s.g.) in 2000 and 11. f.s.g. in 2001 but after that year in 2002 San Marco took the flag from tikal and became the 2. f.s.g. and in 2003 San Marco is the 3. family strategy game.San Marco is easier to play than tikal but that doesnt mean that it has less strategy.It takes less time to play but lots of decision to beat the opponents.I can say that San Marco is a mixure of Acquire and Tikal.There is a little more luck than Tikal but has fewer luck than Acquire in the game San Marco.But according to me, playing the offer system of San Marco is better than the auction version of Tikal.Buy it if you like these kind of games.Sure it will be fun...
I may have hesitated to get in on San Marco but we are making up for it now. I like the card mechanic alot. The rules allows for variety without turning into a bewildering set of options.
Every game seems uniquely different. I don't find this processional in the least. In a short time and many plays, it is up there with my other favorite area control game, the minimalistic and concise Web of Power. San Marco also has a look and components that match up well with the standard (high) Ravensburger quality. No color problems here and everything actually has a space for storage. I am eager to see how this goes with a fourth. Not that this is going to stop me from playing it again soon! A must for any designer/German boardgame collection.
When you first review the instructions for this game you will think this is the 'Pie Rule' gone Amok. (Remember, two boys and one pie, have one cut the pie in two and the other choose which piece he wants.) The game borrows some from Acquire. (First and second get credit, the rest are out of luck.) The game borrows some from El Grande. (Abstract battle for influence in certain regions) And even from an old Waddington classic 4000 AD. (In this case it's transfer rather than hyperspace, islands of Venice rather than stars.) The result is a game which has a feeling completely different from all other games. It is a game with simple rules, random elements, yet a great deal of depth. It's fun to play.
This game has a velvety smooth gameplay. Alan Moon has come a long way since those Avalon Hill games that kept you searching through the rulebook because, 'I'm not sure we are playing this right.'
Simplicity, depth, and fun.......enough said.
I read many reviews on San Marco, mostly praising reviews but when I read Bruno Fadutti's review, I decided to consider it. I played at the Thurs. night store game night at the game store here and played with three new people to the game and the one who brought his copy. The board is colorful and the pieces are wonderful; especially the little bridges. I did have a little challenge figuring out how to divide the cards but when I started not stressing on it and just go with what I thought might be the best split, I really started relaxing with the game. The true test of the liking of the game was all of us continually through the game saying, 'I just love this game' or 'this is fun'. I immediately bought it and one other guy said that has now become the next game on his list to get. The game did take awhile to play and like another review that said people walked by and said are you done yet? because they wanted to play another game, we weren't, yet we were having so much fun, time just went by. I have already told many people about this game.
I purchased San Marco based on the unique card distribution mechanism. Everyone in the family has really enjoyed it and it has gone right to the top of our list of fun games. While it is hard to put together any kind of long-term strategy with this game, this doesn't stop anyone from trying and those efforts are generally frustrated. That level of chaos keeps everyone involved and leads to a very balanced game. There is always hope that fortunes will change with the next set of cards. In a recent game, I got very upset when someone completely decimated my well-thought-out postition with a banishment card. It showed me that a) I really cared what happened in the game and b) overcoming that kind of adversity is part of the challenge and fun of San Marco.
This game is easy to learn and explain, but no 2 games will play alike due to the random mechanisms involved (throwing dice to determine initial placement of aristocrats and random selection of who will divide and decide on the cards). I congratulate the designers of San Marco on a unique and enjoyable gaming experience. This will be played more than [page scan/se=0040/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]El Grande and as often as Settlers in our circle of gamers.
This game deserves 5 stars! When I first began reading reviews about this game before purchase, many people were whining and complaining that the three player game was good but the four player game was disappointing.
Well, I have played several four player games now and I don't have a problem with it at all. With the inclusion of a one minute egg timer (which is a bit harsh, perhaps a two minute egg timer would suffice) we've found there is no down time in this game. Even the biggest paralysis possum cannot avoid the sands of time running out and making his/her move before other players start razzing him/her to hurry it up.
As for the game itself, there seems to be a myriad of decisions throughout the game with plenty of calls like 'WHY did you pick THAT pile???' or 'You picked the pile I expected you'd choose! hehe'. The wooden pieces are sufficient. The artwork on the board itself is indeed magnificent!
Well done, Alan Moon.
Lately it seems that as I teach someone how to play the new games I've gotten, I never win at them (not that this lessens my enjoyment any). Since I introduced Drakon to the Saturday group, I have yet to win a game. I haven't won a game of [page scan/se=0899/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]The Princes of Florence since the first one we played. Then there's San Marco. I thought this would be a great game to teach my parents. I was proved right. It is simple enough that my mother and father grasped it quickly. Then they proceeded to win the two games we played--Dad winning first, then Mom. What's wrong with this picture? :)
The mechanics are great--the 'one person cuts, the others choose first' idea. The cards lend themselves to a lot of different scenarios. Careful placement of bridges is required, or the Doge and the points he could grant will be meaningless to you. Choosing which districts you are in is another prime concern as you don't want to be alone in any district when a banishment is rolled.
The game plays quickly (10 limit points are easy to come by if you haven't guessed your opponents intentions correctly) and the strategy of cards versus what each player wants can be intense. Timing is everything, and mine apparently needs work.
All in all, this game was highly enjoyed. I think it has a permanent place in my parents' gaming rotation along with [page scan/se=0630/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Through the Desert, Aladdin's Dragons, and Elfenland.
San Marco is one of the latest from the publishing duo of Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum. It is a game of resource allocation and territorial control. The 'theme' of San Marco is that players are trying to get their family invited to join the Grand Council of Venice. To do this, they must impress the Doge by having the most aristocrats (little wooden cubes) in the various districts of Venice when he visits (and scores). Since Ravensburger is a German company, it's no surprise that the theme is a little thin but that's of little import. Once you start playing San Marco, you'll be caught up in the dynamic mechanics and theme will hardly matter.
At the beginning of each turn, divider/chooser pairings are determined. The start player is always the first divider (start player rotates clockwise each turn) and the remainder of the pairings are randomly assigned. The divider for each pairing is dealt five Action cards and three Limit cards, which he must divide into two not-necessarily-equal piles as he sees fit. Action and Limit cards are distributed according to the Pie Principle; that is, you divide and I choose. Once each divider has created two piles, the other player in each pairing, the chooser, then examines the piles and chooses one.
Action cards are always useful (though some are more useful than others to various players and in various situations). The actions they allow are:
- Bridge: place a bridge
- District: place a piece in the named district or one connected to it by your bridge
- Transfer: swap one of your off-board pieces for any other on the board
- Banish: pick a district, roll a die and remove that many pieces
- Doge: score the district where the Doge resides (you can move the Doge)
Limit cards are simply number cards with the values 1, 2, or 3 and they are always bad. Once any player has received 10 or more points worth of limit cards, the round ends after one more turn. Any players who already have those 10 limit points, however, do not participate in the last turn of that round. Moreover, players who end the round with less than 10 limit points score a bonus equal to the difference between their limit points and those taken by the player with the most. Best of all, the player with fewest limit points gets a free banishment action at the end of the round.
Obviously, it doesn't pay to miss out on that last turn. Of course, good players will make a habit of putting good action cards with high limit cards during the 'divide and choose' process.
As soon as they are selected, action cards are executed, though the order of execution is at the player's choice.
Each of the three rounds consists of an indeterminate number of turns, usually 3 to 5 per round. Scoring occurs at random times during each round (if it occurs at all) when a Doge action card is played. The player controlling the Doge card decides which district scores, though he must move the Doge marker to that district in order to score it, paying points to cross bridges owned by other players, if necessary. It's not clear from the written rules but the designers have indicated that it is possible to move the Doge even if you don't have any points yet (for that purpose only, you move into negative points). There is also one final round of scoring in which all districts score.
Scores for each district are in 1st place/2nd place format, e.g. 6/5 for San Polo. In the event of a tie, players get second place points if the tie is for first; they get nothing if the tie is for second. This makes it possible to manipulate scoring by using swapping/banishing of aristocrats to shut other players out, e.g. if San Polo held a 2, 1, 1 distribution of aristocrats, only the player with 2 would score. High score at the end of the third round wins.
San Marco rewards a range of strategies, both simple and subtle, and presents a broad array of interesting and difficult decisions. For example, getting a fair number of bridges allows not only free Doge movement when scoring but it also greatly increases flexibility in aristocrat placement using the district cards. Too much focus on bridge-building, however, generally leads to insufficient aristocrat development.
There are usually no easy decisions when it comes to dividing and choosing cards. It can be very difficult to predict what your partner will choose but doing so successfully is often the key to victory. Frequently, in order to be sure that the cards you want won't be taken, you have to sweeten the other half of the pot by putting high limit cards in your preferred pile. Alternatively, you can poison cards you know your partner wants by dumping all (or nearly all) the limit points into that pile. You must be careful, however, that you don't get stuck with a high limit point count. In just about all ways, it's bad to go over the limit. You don't get to score the bonus points, you don't get the extra turn, and you don't have a chance to win the free banishment (which is an extremely effective tool both for hitting the leader and for setting yourself up to score). It is especially painful to get shut out of the last turn of a round if it should happen that one or more scoring cards come up.
It is also often agonizing to make decisions about action card execution. Knowing which district and which player to make a swap with is no easy choice, especially when one increases and protects your lead while another just barely moves you into scoring position. Banishment choices are even more difficult due to the slight randomizing element of the die roll. Do you pick a district where rolling high would mean losing your own pieces in order to take a shot at getting sole possession of the district? Or, do you play it safe and hope you completely wipe out another district where you have no presence?
San Marco nicely incorporates some traditional elements--resource allocation and control of territory--with several new and interesting mechanics--the Pie Principle card choice and 'have a little sour with your sweet' via the Limit cards. These elegant mechanics generate significant player interaction with virtually no downtime and result in a nice level of dynamic tension.
I did have one minor graphic design quibble--the corner spaces on the perimeter Prestige (scoring) track are not actually part of the track. Thus, when you're counting score, you need to skip the corners. Also, the artwork used as background for the districts is, well, unusual. It's a pastiche of Venetian elements (Moorish facades, gondolas, palazzos, etc.) represented in primary colors, one per district. It's not offensive or ugly but it doesn't suit my (admittedly uninformed) taste. However, the graphic designer was clever enough to use different colors for the board and the playing pieces and they work well together, complementing gameplay.
All in all, San Marco is a very well-designed game that represents the best of its genre with some new and interesting mechanics. It plays in about an hour (unless you're playing with players who've fallen prey to the dreaded 'overanalysis paralysis' bug, in which case, you should either beat them about the head and shoulders until they choose or find a new group to play with...) and is simple and approachable enough to appeal to family players while also affording sufficient depth to satisfy more serious players.
As an aside, Ravensburger is publishing San Marco simultaneously in Europe and the Americas and the rules are in German, French, Dutch, Italian, and English. They are to be applauded for being the first major German publisher of strategy games to take this forward-thinking step.
I'm a big fan of El Grande, but it rarely gets played much in my group, in part, I suspect, because of its length (or maybe people just burned out on it). So I'm always on the lookout for a good El Grande Light game. There have been a number in the past year--Web of Power, Wongar, Attila come to mind, all of which I can recommend as well--but I think San Marco is the best of the lot.
Like El Grande, the goal in San Marco is to gain victory points via placement of markers in regions; points are awarded to the first and second strongest players in a region. The much more unique feature of San Marco is players (two in the four-player version, one in the three-player) divide a supply of action and penalty cards and offer the divided stacks for the other players to choose from (the player doing the dividing gets what's left). This is a very tense mechanism that allows players to balance the game themselves. As in most games of this type, not all action cards are created equal. The banishment cards are very powerful; the bridge cards, especially at the end, are much less so; and everyone tends to want the doge (scoring) cards. The penalty cards double as the timing mechanism in the game--a phase ends the round after one player reaches or exceeds 10 penalty points. The player who manages to stay the farthest under 10 penalty points in a phase gets a substantial reward in terms of victory points and an extra banishment action. By combining penalties with action cards, players who are offering cards can leave some agonizing decisions for the players choosing cards (how to stack the decks to offer the choices is agonizing in itself and, at least to me, hard to master). How the offers are balanced is entirely up to you. Do I take the stack that's loaded with penalty points so I can get the scoring card? Or do I take the lesser stack to conserve on penalties?
Of course position on the board has everything to do with the choices, both in terms of offering and choosing. And if someone makes a big move off of the action cards you offer them, you've only yourself to blame. All in all a simple game concept with a ton of implications. Great stuff.
OK, first off, I apologize for the title of this review... I couldn't resist....
Now, as for this game... Thank you Mr. Moon and Mr. Weissblum! I've only played it once so far, but I am very impressed and I can't wait to bring it to the table again soon!
I was a bit worried about writing a review since my name isn't Bob (see the 2 previous reviews), but I just wanted to share my opinion of this great new title. As Bob #2 pointed out, it shares a bit in common with El Grande (particularly in the area of scoring regions), but the card distribution system is what really makes this game stand out. Which cards do I put in which group? Which cards will benefit me and which cards will benefit my opponent? Do I risk giving up some great cards along with a bunch of Limit Cards (penalty cards) in order to get the decision maker out of this Passage early? Truly the stuff of great games....
One note, the first (at the time of writing this review) time I played this, I misinterpreted the rules regarding the Doge. I thought that he could remain in the district he is currently in OR move to ONE neighboring district. I have since learned that you can move him to whichever district you wish via your own bridges (no charge), opponents' bridges (1 prestige point) or no bridges at all (if there are none attached to the district) at a cost of 2 prestige points. This misreading actually made the game a bit more strategic, in a way... Call it a 'variant' if you will!
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that it's a gorgeous game to boot!
Now, what's the story on that cat?
I'm not going to get into the game mechanics since there is plenty of such descriptions in the other reviews.
However, while a great game in its own right, San Marco is particularly great with three players. If you don't have a fourth sometime, and you want to avoid the '2 vs 1' problem that is common with most 3 player games, play this one.
For those of you who loved El Grande, but wished it didn't take an entire night to play or found youself a bit overwhelmed by all the options you have at your disposal each turn, San Marco is for you. The mechanic of the game, although similar to El Grande, is much faster and, in it's own right, unique.
Players try to occupy different territories around the board and receive points depending on who occupies with the most pieces, and/or the second most pieces. But what makes the game truly interesting is the card taking component. This element makes the game a real mind bender at times.
The pieces, board and cards are all top notch in appearance and quality. Rules are clearly written and easy to understand. This one will keep you interested for a long, long, time.
This is Bob H again from Funagain. I must say that I had a great time playing this game--perhaps because I tied for first or perhaps I like Alan Moon.
The guts of the game is in trying to split your cards into two, sometimes three, piles that consist of limit cards and action cards. However, you do not get to choose which pile, a selected player gets to choose first. Once the piles are split, the scoring is very simple and goes quickly.
Once you have reached 10 or more limit points, you are no longer in the action, but you can still score. There is a great balance between obtaining limit points quickly, which usually includes good action cards or taking little or no limit points for little or no action cards. You gotta know when to hold 'em!
I was a little confused on how to score when the Doge crosses over someone else's bridge (Once you play it, you'll understand).
There was some down time, while the players were deciding how to split up the cards, otherwise I would have rated this a 5 star game. The mechanics are unique, with just enough random choices to make the game interesting.
After all was said and done, there were two people tied for first and the third player was only one point behind. It was very well balanced.
Although the map and bridges are cute, there's not much too the game other than dividing the cards. AND in a four player game there's too much luck. If you and your 'partner' don't get the Doge (i.e. Score the points) cards, you'll get killed, and this is 100% luck. I watched as the other team got them time and again, and could do nothing--it's like playing a football game where the other team scores, and instead of your team getting the ball, they flip a coin to see who gets it--and they get it again and score, and again... and you have no way of stopping them. Also, the theme doesn't pull you in. I was wanting something more. Just can't put this one up there with Puerto Rico or El Grande or other 'dilemma' games. It's okay, novel, but a lot of gamers won't play it a second time. I won't.
I agree with most of the posts so far about this game. It's got a realy nifty mechanic (you cut, I choose) for doling out action cards (and penalties), but it's just too mathematical. I guess that's my biggest beef. If there were a way to have less information known, it would move much faster, but with all the cards on the table (literally), a player can ponder every possible ramification of his action before he even chooses a pile.
It reads like it should be a very good 30-45 minute game, and that's what we expected. So, as others in our game group kept passing by our table saying 'are you ready to play something else?,' we kept saying 'it's almost over.' Truth was, it was not almost over, as the turns can take quite a while to sort out if you're trying to make that 'best move.'
And the fact that it looks like an El Grande ripoff (trust me, it isn't, but to the casual passers-by, they were certain that we were somehow playing El Grande) turns off some people who want a short game. Maybe that's for the best, as this is not a short game.
I don't like panning an Alan/Aaron game, but there are other better games out ther (many from Herr Moon himself). So, unless you really like the totally abstract, deep-thinking two-moves-ahead sort of game, you probably won't be leaping up and down to repeat this one.
Every turn of San Marco presents a player with an enormously deep problem space to analyze. Dividing the cards up into offers is half science, half art--you have to analyze the tactical situation on the board, calculate the effect of each action card, and work out what the relative values of each card is to the opponent you're offering them to.
And there's a fair amount of psychology involved as well. You have to guess how well your opponent is going to scope out the situation, so that he'll understand the offer that you're making, and choose what you want him to choose.
This is all very interesting. And then the next player turns up two transfer cards, a banishment card, and two Doge cards, and all of your fine analysis was for nothing. You've worked everything out to the last detail, and now your opponents are going to run over your position in hob-nailed boots.
That's the basic problem with the game. It is, overall, essentially a chaotic game, where a turn of the cards can change everything. But at any given moment, it seems like a game of deep analysis and careful planning.
I like chaotic games. I like games with lots of careful planning. But in San Marco, the one undermines the other.
And for some reason, I and the people I play it with have trouble shrugging off all the analysis. Because you want to make the best move you can. The feeling that ultimately it isn't going to matter is not a good one.
We defy any economist to predict how these assets and liabilities will be distributed, let alone selected! Each player in turn divides the cards in his hand into two groups. Another player chooses one of the groups, accumulates its Penalty Cards, and executes the Action Cards. Players' tasks are immensely challenging. The dividing player then uses the remaining group of cards. Actions may bring about placement, movement, or banishment of Aristocrats in the Venetian districts; alternatively, they may initiate scoring--players with the most Aristocrats in a district earn points. Rounds end when a player reaches 10 Penalty Points, and highest score wins after three rounds of superbly difficult decisions. Last year's Family Strategy Runner-Up is still worthy of your undivided attention.
Could this be the world's hardest division problem? Players take turns selecting one of two groups of cards, formed by another player from randomly chosen cards representing useful Actions and penalty Limits. The "Selector" retains the Limits, and discards the Actions after use, of his chosen group. The "Distributor" similarly uses the other group. Actions govern the placing and removal of Aristocrats in a district, or initiate scoring. You score by having the most Aristocrats in a district. Rounds end when one player reaches 10 Limits; the others get bonuses. Highest score after three rounds wins. "Buy this" is our undivided opinion.
Alan Moon has long been one of my favorite game designers. The Elfen-games, Airlines/Union Pacific, Freight Train/Reibach & Co.; all innovative, thought-provoking, and entertaining games. Over the past couple of years, however, Moon's offerings have tended to leave me cold. Some were too family-oriented for my tastes; others too abstract; quite a few seemed to be plagued with confusion over what the "best" set of rules for them were. I don't know if you could call it a slump, but I had begun to wonder if Alan would ever return to the level of excellence he had established during much of the nineties.
Well, I'm happy to say that the Moon Man is back. San Marco, the latest release from what appears to be the Partnership-for-Life of Moon and Aaron Weissblum, is in my opinion the best game to come out of Germany since Die Fürsten von Florenz and currently ranks as my favorite Moon design.
The players are aristocratic families striving to gain prestige in Renaissance Venice. If that theme sounds familiar, it's probably because it's identical to that of another recent release, Doge. The two games have virtually no mechanics in common, but I'm sure Ravensburger was less than thrilled to see the appearance of the Colovini game at Essen. Fortunately, San Marco does not repeat the mistake of its predecessor and features a game board that is both attractive and functional (they used color -- what a concept!).
Speaking of the board, it shows six Venetian districts, each separated from its neighbors by a system of canals. In the time-honored fashion, each district has two point values, awarded to the players with, respectively, the highest and second highest number of aristocrats present. (The aristocrats bear a striking resemblance to wooden cubes.) In addition to each player's supply of aristocrats, there are a dozen bridges and a single token representing the Doge. There are also two decks of cards: an Action deck and a Limit deck.
These cards are the heart of the game, so let's begin with them. There are five kinds of Action cards. Bridge cards allow you to place a bridge between any two neighboring districts (the bridge is identified as yours). District cards let you place one of your aristocrats in either the named district or in an adjacent district connected to it by one of your bridges. Transfer cards let you remove an opponent's aristocrat in any district and replace it with your own. With one of the much feared Banishment cards, you choose a district, roll a die, and remove that number of aristocrats (your choice, but possibly including your own if you roll too high). Finally, Doge cards let you score a single district. You can either score the Doge's current location or move him over bridges to another district and score it (but you have to pay a Victory Point to any player whose bridge you cross).
Limit cards each have a number on them, either a one, two, or three. As we will soon see, these are cards you very much want to avoid (but may not be able to resist).
The game's main mechanism is the old pie dividing rule -- you know, I cut the pie in two and you get to choose which half you want, thereby ensuring a fair division. In each turn of the four player game, two players are chosen to divide cards and two are chosen to select. For example, Alice will divide for Bob and Charlie will divide for Doris. Alice and Charlie are each given five Action cards and three Limit cards. They each secretly divide their cards into two piles, with the only restriction that each pile must contain at least one card. Then Alice exposes her two piles, Bob chooses the one he wants, and acts on each of the Action cards in it. Alice then takes the remaining pile and uses all the Action cards it contains. Then Charlie exposes his two piles, Doris takes the one she wants and acts on it, and Charlie does the same with the remaining pile. At the end of all this, all the Action cards are discarded, but everyone keeps the Limit cards that were in the pile they chose. (Limit cards -- a second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.) Then it's on to the next turn of dividing and selecting.
This continues until one or more of the players has Limit cards with a total value of 10 or more. If three or four players have reached this total, then there will be no more turns in that round. (Rounds are called passages in the game.) If only one or two players have hit the Limit, then the remaining players participate in one more dividing/selecting turn. In either case, any player with less than 10 Limit points at the end of the passage scores bonus points and the player with the fewest Limit points gets a free Banishment. Then everyone discards their Limit cards and a new passage begins. After three passages have been played, each of the districts is scored and the player with the most points wins.
The most distinguishable aspect of San Marco is the card splitting rule and it is one of the most enjoyable mechanics I've ever encountered in a board game. Essentially, you'll be faced with a Solomon-like division problem about every other turn, each with different cards and under differing circumstances. These problems are challenging and unlike anything else you're likely to have encountered in other games, yet they can usually be performed reasonably quickly and without excessive angst. Choosing between two piles that have been created for you is simpler, but still requires sound judgement and is almost as much fun.
The reason this works so well is that Weissblum and Moon have provided us with a set of very different kinds of actions. You can't overstate the importance of the Doge cards, since they're just about the only way you can be sure of gaining points until the end of the game. Of course, gain enough points early on and you might as well paint a large bullseye on your forehead. District and Bridge cards let you slowly build up your position on the board. Transfer and Banishment cards can tear down the most impregnable of positions and are often highly prized as a result. And Limit cards can deprive you of turns, points, and aristocrats (if you're the victim of a free Banishment). Different players will have their favorite types of cards and there's a goodly number of differing strategies that can be attempted. Best of all, each of these decisions are dependent upon the game situation: the desirability of a District card depends upon what aristocrats are present there or what bridges you have in place; a pile with a Limit total of 3 might be a small annoyance to one player, while to another with 7 Limit points in front of her, it's a major deterrent; and so on. Trying to get into an opponent's head when dividing the cards is one of the greater pleasures of this game, and successfully predicting how he will choose is very satisfying (particularly if this allows you to get the cards you really wanted).
The card division mechanic is strong enough to base an entire game around. But San Marco adds a number of other interesting wrinkles, surely the hallmark of a well designed game. I think the rules for bridges are my favorite. They are very well implemented and fit the theme beautifully. At first blush, bridge cards appear to pale in importance to the other cards, but after a few games, you begin to realize just how valuable a sound network of bridges can be. They give you great flexibility, both in placing your pieces and in moving the Doge. And the points they can provide when other players use them are not inconsequential. The Limit cards allow the division mechanic to work by providing consequences for those desirable actions. They also give a second dimension to the game, which adds even more interest to the division/selection process. Finally, even though the "give points to the first and second largest group in a district" mechanic is far from original, it is used to excellent effect here. One of the keys to the game is to try to be the other player gaining points when the active player scores the Doge and experienced players can often anticipate which district will be scored by observing the location of bridges and the Doge. And the rule that no one scores points if there is a tie for second place in a district lends even more importance to the placement of aristocrats and particularly, to transfer cards.
The physical design (by A. Cimatoribus, a name I am not familiar with) is up to the usual high Ravensburger standard. As I mentioned earlier, the board is both functional and very attractive. The background of each district on the board is made up of drawings of buildings and other items, a very pleasing and subtle effect. The only complaint I have with the board is the inexplicable decision not to count the corner squares as part of the scoring track that winds around the outside of the board. In other words, if you don't look carefully, it appears to take six squares to move from 20 to 25, because one of those "squares" is actually the corner of the board. Once the players are made aware of this it only represents a minor annoyance, but it is one that could have very easily been avoided. The cards in the game are sturdy and well designed; my favorite is the illustration on the Banishment cards, which is suitably imposing. And I applaud the use of realistic looking plastic bridges instead of some generic component, particularly since the bridges tie so closely into the theme.
The end result is a game that is thought provoking, unique, and, above all, very enjoyable. There is some luck present, but most of the extremes of card distribution are self-correcting, because of the pie division rule. Games tend to be quite close, since it is not at all difficult to beat on the leader. Actually, a more difficult skill is figuring out who the leader is, since so much of the scoring occurs at the end of the game -- experienced players soon learn to at least partially ignore the scoring track and check aristocrats and bridge structure. Although there are plenty of subtleties in gameplay to be discovered, this is a game that invariably plays very well the first time. In fact, my initial trial of San Marco is one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had. I've played half a dozen times since then and my opinion hasn't diminished one bit.
The three player game plays very much like the four player. The main difference is in the card dividing process. On every turn, one player divides six Action and four Limit cards into three piles. One opponent will be able to choose from all three piles, and the other will choose from the two remaining piles, leaving the third for the divider. I think I slightly prefer the four player game because dividing for two is a little more enjoyable for me than dividing for three. But the fact remains that if you're looking for a meaty game for three players, San Marco is one of your best choices, which only adds to the game's appeal.
Are there any problems with the game, other than the fact that it can handle no more than four? Well, it's not a game in which you can plan a long term strategy. The game position can change, sometimes dramatically, with every turn. The key is to be able to make the best choices given the current situation. I actually prefer games like that, but not everyone will agree. A more serious potential problem is the time required to divide the cards. This is an unusual mechanic requiring a very different way of thinking. Some players will pick it up right away and some players will struggle with it. If a game has too many struggling players, it can lead to some downtime issues. San Marco definitely works best when played at a brisk pace, so this can diminish the playing experience a bit. If your group is having this problem, I would suggest playing with three. Although the dividing decisions can be even thornier, there's no reason why the divider can't make his choices with the cards face up. Letting everyone see what's coming up, and possibly projecting how they would split the cards, effectively eliminates the problem of downtime.
To summarize, San Marco is a very well crafted game featuring fresh, unique mechanics and a fine physical appearance. It's a highly enjoyable design that I would unquestionably recommend to any gamer. Overall, a most impressive creation that places Alan Moon firmly back into the winner's circle and ushers Aaron Weissblum into the select company of star game designers.