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The year is 1519. The explorer Hernan Cortez is in search of fame and fortune. He has found way to Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs. Ruled by Montezuma, the Aztecs are at the height of their power; but soon envy, distrust and--above all--the greed for gold destroy the old empire as the new visitors pursue their own plans. Each player represents an Aztec or Spanish army leader. The aim of the game is to get as many of your own troops into Tenochtitlan as you can.
Piatnik hasn't always had a spotless record with its games, so it's often been a risky proposition to pick one up on speculation. This reputation is unfortunately self-reinforcing, because it results in few reviews for even the games that turn out to be halfway decent. Take Cortez, for example. I hadn't even heard of this 2001 release until I gambled on it in a recent sale. What I discovered was a clever game with lots of player interaction, a bit of bluff, built-in balancing and interlocking mechanics, and a number of worrisome flaws.
I will say right up front that not everyone is going to like Cortez. The player interaction is mostly in the form of direct player conflict, and that may be too confrontational for some. There's lots of open-ended negotiation and the potential for back-stabbing, though not every group will play it that way. It's also very long; my first game ran to 3 hours, and I think it's purest optimism to think that the game could ever be completed in the advertised 90 minutes. The length is the game's biggest drawback, so deliberate attempts may need to be made to limit the negotiation aspect, depending on who you play with.
The game recreates some of the political intrigue that went on in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitln before things got really nasty and the Spaniards started bumping off all the locals. Each player represents a faction -- either Spanish or Aztec -- nominally allied with Cortez or Moctezuma, but in truth looking out solely for Number One.
The game is driven by a great deal of cards, organized into no fewer than four different decks. This makes for a bit of an uphill climb in learning the game as you try to distinguish the bribery deck from the provision deck from the event deck from the warrior deck, especially as everything's in German. However, armed with paste-ups or a crib sheet things fall into place pretty quickly.
It is the event deck which really drives the game. Right before each player's turn, the top card is flipped over, and its effects are carried out by either the active player or everybody, depending on what the event is. The range of events is fairly broad; some move pieces around the board, others equalize the players by forcing them to whittle their hands of cards down to a certain size, others initiate auctions for secondary prizes. One event, planted near the bottom of the deck, ends the game round and rewards the player currently in the lead with some victory points.
After performing the event, a player gets two actions. With these actions, players can strengthen their position in the game, either by drawing extra cards for their hands, or by moving their pieces (white and brown chess pawns for the two nationalities, adorned with little slip-on cardboard collars to identify the owning player) to more strategic positions on the board.
Cortez' attractive board depicts Lake Texcoco, crisscrossed by causeways that connect the villages around the shore (sporting gorgeous names like Tepeyacac and Itztapalapan) with the capital city of Tenochtitln, centrally located on an island in the lake. Now, this is all nice and historically accurate, but it's actually not too important to the game, because apart from a couple of strategic spaces on the board, your pieces can pretty much move around the board at will. The most important spaces on the board are the villages around the edge of the lake, where you can stock up on provisions, and the temples within Tenochtitln, which you will score points for occupying at the end of the game.
The villages around the edge of the board are your first port of call for provisions, which are represented by a large deck of four different kinds of cards. If you end a piece's movement on a village space, you are entitled to draw between two and four provision cards.
The four kinds of provision cards are:
Of course, it's inevitable in a game where you draw cards from a deck that you won't get the exact mix you want, so you will from time to time find yourself with some redundant cards. A very clever mechanism recycles these cards back into play: up to nine times in the game an auction event takes place, where players can bid for a face-down card called, for the sake of the theme, a bribery card. The bids are paid for with provisions, with different kinds of provisions worth different amounts (camouflage the least and gold the most). A winning bidder gets to pay the bid in provision cards, take the bribery card, and finally have a peek at it. Not all bribery cards are worth owning, incidentally: while some award bonus victory points at the end of the game, and others allow you to take an extra action during your turn, a couple of them are of no value whatsoever. Depending on your perspective, it's either a cute touch that proves that bribery doesn't always pay, or an annoying flaw in the game that does nothing more than make players waste their resources. Personally, I think that it nicely keeps the bids for the cards a little more reserved and realistic.
Now, Cortez could hardly be a game about the Conquest of Mexico without a little conflict, could it? So it should come as no surprise that there is going to be the occasional bit of combat. Battles are entirely necessary, because winning one not only entitles you to occupy the contested space, but it also allows you to plant another collar on an unmarked pawn, giving you more presence in the game, and ultimately more points. Likewise, losing a battle is bad, as you will be forced to relinquish control of a piece as well as a possibly strategic space on the board.
The battles are waged between warriors, which are cards you can obtain by discarding a Food provision card. Warriors vary in strength from 1 to 6, there of course being fewer of the stronger ones. When you commit warriors from your hand to a battle, they will be discarded whether you win or lose. All that matters in a battle is the sum of all warriors' strengths, with the winner being the player with the higher sum.
Sounds simple, no? Unfortunately, combat is the single most time-consuming aspect of the game, and since it's unavoidable, it adds considerable length to a game. What makes battles so slow is the incremental nature of them. The attacker plays some warrior cards, face down. The defender counters with some more, also face down. Now the attacker can play some more, then the defender, and so on until both sides are happy with the number of cards they've played. On top of this both sides can proffer weapon cards, provisions which double the strength of one warrior. And all the while the non-combatant players can join in if invited, Cosmic Encounter-style, providing their own warriors and weapons to one side or the other as mercenaries. The sheer volume of negotiation makes each combat drag out to several minutes before the cards are all finally flipped face up and the winner is determined. Oh, and did I mention that the attacker is allowed to try to bribe the defender with provisions to simply roll over and accept defeat (and that this is often desirable to both parties)? As you can see, everything is negotiable.
And so it goes, until the special Wertung event planted near the bottom of the event deck ends the round. The player who has the best position in Tenochtitln at that instant receives a victory point bonus, and then it's lather, rinse, and repeat the whole thing twice more. After the third time through the event deck, a few final victory points are awarded and the player with the most is declared the winner.
It all sounds very neat and tidy, with a great number of interlocking mechanisms balancing the play. But the overwhelming feeling that my group got from a couple of playings was one of boredom. There are precious few choices that one can make in a turn, and most boil down to either the battle variety or the prepare-for-a-battle variety. If that doesn't grab your fancy, then Cortez is certainly not going to thrill you.
Another problem that we encountered was due to the suddenness of the Wertung cards being revealed, something familiar to players of Union Pacific (the effect is more pronounced in Cortez). Players who have most recently had a turn prior to the Wertung are left at a distinct advantage. An unfortunate string of these events can even result in a player getting an unassailable lead. (None of the games I've played actually ended up close, for the record.)
I also disagree with the advice on the box that Cortez can be played by two. The experience was so immeasurably dull that we gave up after the first Wertung. My other games were with four, which I suspect is the ideal number: any less and there isn't enough player interaction; any more and the game would become too long.
Before Cortez comes to my table again, I'm probably going to have to come up with some fixes to deal with the game's length and interest factor. One thought was to limit the open-ended nature of combats, by restricting the number of times cards can be played, or the kinds of deals that can be made with mercenaries. I haven't yet come up with anything specific that doesn't adversely affect the game, however. A possibility for making the game more interesting is to shrink the playable area on the map board, forcing more player interaction. What that will do the length of the game, though, I shudder to think.
Cortez is certainly a clever game, and I get warm fuzzies thinking about the way so many mechanisms interconnect, but with the problems that it has, I doubt this game is likely to be brought out too many times. There are simply too many more enjoyable games to play.