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Unlike the last two reviewers, our group really enjoyed Doge. I found Doge to be exciting and fun. The game played quickly, and prompted careful thought. As long as you like a game with some bluffing, I give this one a thumbs-up.
I suppose some might complain about 'blind-bidding' in this game. But I felt there was a lot of information to process around the decisions. You always know what the next seven elections will be. Consideration for whether or not an advisor will be in place at any given election must be given. We frequently abstained from claiming advisors in order to move houses across town.
We expect to be enjoying Doge for quite some time!
Doge is a neat little game. Its great for non-competitive players and families because of its above-average luck factor. The luck isnt so overt as in Settlers, but it lies in the guessing of your opponents moves. Nobody is ever sure of whats happening due to the blind bidding. So its hard for beginners to implement a strategy, but not impossible. In fact, there is more strategy happening on peoples faces than the game board. This I like.
While comparisons have been drawn to El Grande and Taj Mahal (two games I quite enjoy), I saw the parallel, but I didnt feel it. I think Doge is much more reminiscent of Knizias Royal Turf (another light strategy game thats high on luck, high on fun) especially with that 0 betting chip.
The theme works. It doesnt make me feel like Im in Venice, but it does make me feel like Im in a political battle. And this game does a wonderful job of solving the downtime problem so unmistakably avoidable in other games. For this reason, it plays fast. Very few games can boast this kind of tension in such a quick duration. I originally passed on this game because of my ignorance of the designer, but Colovini has done well. Not groundbreaking, but unique.
Doge is the type of game that gives you a lot of choices on each turn, and for me, this is what makes the game so much fun. On each turn players must decide how many districts and which districts they wish to compete in, how many votes each district is going to get, and the respective value for each of these votes--and this is just phase one. In phase two, the elections are resolved and further questions arise related to moving houses or controlling representatives (this is further complicated by the order in which the elections are held for the current round as well as the known order for the elections for next round). Factor in the ever-increasing cost of building palaces and the parliamentary district and you've got quite a game on your hands. You'll find your head swimming with options as new situations arise requiring new decisions and new strategies.
Doge has a lot going for it. First, I find the setting of the game--Medieval Venice--fascinating (sorry, I'm an historian). The Doge was one of the great power-brokers of the Middle Ages as he controlled Europe's major trading center with the East. Second, Doge is beautifully produced with a colorful map and solid wooden pieces. Third, despite the fact that there are so many options on each turn, the game is fairly easy to play. The rules are simple and clear, with little abiguity. Fourth, the game is playable in about one hour. The turns play quickly (all players play phase one simultaniously and phase two involves all players at various times) and the interest level usually remains high. Fifth, because of the way all players reveal their districts in phase one simultaniously and the way the elections are resolved in phase two, each turn is full of tension. Lastly, since there are no dice involved, the game relies more on players' actions than on pure luck (this is not to say that chance plays no role whatsoever).
Doge has its drawbacks too. The early part of the game (when all the districts are open and no palaces have been built) seems to rely much more on chance than later rounds. If someone runs unopposed in a few districts early on, he/she is virtually guaranteed a couple of easy palaces while the other players are going tooth-and-nail over three or four tightly contested districts. This can lead to one player building up a solid lead while the others scramble to catch-up. Personally, I like the way the game develops. Since each player is responsible for where they place their own votes, it gives some sense of control but also allows an acceptable amount of chance. Plus, it's interesting to see if someone who jumps out to an early lead can capitalize and exploit their advantage. The second drawback to the game is related to this, however. If one player gets a lead, and knows the subtleties of the game, it's almost impossible to overtake them. This doesn't necessarily mean whoever gets the early lead will always win, but if they know what they're doing, they probably will.
Still, despite the aforementioned issues, I find the game very worthwhile. Doge is challenging, fast-moving, beautiful, and very re-playable. In fact, as I was teaching a friend how to play the game, he asked me what the overall strategy of the game was. I knew I liked the game and would be playing it for a while when I realized that I couldn't give him a general formula for victory. There are just too many variables. While it's true that certain patterns appear (like using advisors early and moving houses later on) and strategies become apparent, specific situations demand different strategies that may run contrary to those patterns (e.g., the last time I won, I won because of a crucial late-game advisor move to break a tie in a key district). If all of this sounds too confusing, don't let it scare you. As I said earlier, the game is simple to learn, but the strategies are complex. If you like strategy games that give you a lot of options each turn but are playable in about an hour, you'll enjoy figuring out the subtle, yet elegant, nature of Doge.
The heat of scheming political battle increases dramatically during these secret ballots to control the medieval city. Each round, everyone chooses districts and places up to four markers (numbered from 0 to 3) facedown in each. The highest total wins a district. The victor builds two houses there and places the representative from that district as an extra vote in another district yet to be counted. Three houses can be exchanged to build a district's first Palace; further Palaces become increasingly expensive. You win if you have enough Palaces in several districts. It's every Venetian for himself in this Machiavellian scenario.
This is a game about the politics of medieval Venice, which was ruled by a Council of Ten consisting of nine "Advisors" and an elected Head of State--the Doge. Players, representing the heads of prominent merchant families, compete to construct palaces along the frontage of the Grand Canal, so attaining the necessary status to be elected to the supreme office.
The game is beautifully produced with plenty of heft factor to the box. You get a tasteful game-board showing a map of central Venice, a mass of coloured wooden houses and palaces, several big pawns, card sets, and various ballot tokens and control markers. The 8-page rulebook is crystal clear and fully illustrated in colour, with a separate rules summary and game overview sheet for easy reference. So, quality components, but how does it play?
Victory goes to the first player to construct one palace in each of the six districts marked on the map, or alternatively a total of seven palaces in five districts, or eight in four.
In order to build palaces, players have to first construct a number of houses (as in Monopoly) before they can trade up for a palace. The right to build houses in any district is determined by a series of ballots, which are the core of the game. Each player has seven ballot markers numbered 0,1,1,2,2,3,3 and may play up to four of them face down onto a card--also face down--corresponding to one of the districts. When all players have placed their ballots the card is revealed--but not the ballots. Thus a player will know where his opponents have played but not in what strength, giving plenty of scope for bluff and that pleasing sense of having to choose between several desirable options. These actions are repeated three times in a four-player game. The ballot tokens are then revealed in each district in the order determined by a further set of cards of which more in a moment. The player with the most votes gets to place two houses into that district, while the runner up gets to place one. If a player has sufficient houses in the district he may immediately trade these in for a palace. The first palace constructed in any given district costs three houses, the second four, and so on up to seven for the fifth and last palace that can be built there. Thus the cost of the palaces escalates dramatically, and the decisions on where and when to play your ballots become that much harder.
The player who had the most votes also has the option to take control of the Advisor for that district and place him in any other district where he will provide an additional free vote. The Advisor is represented by a chunky wooden pawn showing the coat of arms for "his" district embossed on his head. Control of the pawn is denoted by a cardboard ring of the player's colour which slips over his head like the brim of a hat--a nice colourful touch. Alternatively the player may decline to take control of an Advisor, and elect instead to move a house into or out of the home district of that Advisor. This may well permit a palace to be constructed in another district, thus frustrating the carefully laid plans of an opponent.
A seventh "special" district--the Quarantino--is voted on in the same manner as the central districts, but players do not have the option to build houses or palaces in this location. Instead there are three Advisors up for grabs--two for the player with most votes and one for the runner up. As with the central districts, a player may choose to move a house rather than take control of an advisor, but in this instance may move the house from or to any other location--a powerful option later in the game.
The order in which the ballots are resolved is driven by two sets of seven cards showing the coat of arms for each district, which are displayed along the bottom of the map-board. One set is displayed face up, providing the order of play for the current turn, while the second set is face down. However, one card from the second set is revealed after each district has been resolved so that as the turn progresses players will have increasing knowledge about the order of play for the subsequent round--and can take this into account when deciding where to place any Advisors they may take control of. At the end of the round the first set of cards is reshuffled, becoming the face-down set for the next round.
And that's it. There is a certain randomness about the opening rounds, when any conflict will be the product of chance, or bloody-mindedness, but as the players' positions develop the pressure to compete grows dramatically and a tight finish is practically guaranteed. Play proceeds in rounds lasting about ten minutes, and a typical game will require six or seven rounds.
So what you have is a rather clever game of bluff and tactical placement, nicely themed and beautifully presented. I am not a great fan of bluffing games, but I like this a lot. The systems work well, and the thematic gloss appeals to the medieval historian in me. However, you should be aware that there were very mixed reviews from the Brit-pack at Essen. I think this had something to do with learning the umpteenth new game of the show at eleven o'clock at night, but one ignores the opinion of the great and good at one's peril. With that in mind, it may be sensible to try before you buy. My advice, however, is buy it.