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It is spring in Middleton, and King Florim's land is filled with excitement about the Crystal Faire. During the faire, you find and trade crystals, trying to show your collections for the greatest profit. As a dealer of crystals you begin each trading day by randomly taking crystals and adding them to your collection. After trading with the other players, you have the opportunity to influence the popularity of some of the crystals. King Florim will pay more for the crystals most popular with his subjects. At the end of the day the player willing to show the largest collection of each type is paid according to the size of the collection. Be warned, the King will want his share of each of the best collections. The player who has earned the most money at the end of the faire is considered the best collector.
Designer Alan Ernstein caught my attention with his outstanding Tahuantinsuyu, a fabulous entry into the crayon rail game genre. It was one of the best games of 2004, and is still my crayon game of choice. His follow-up was Ars Mysteriorum was yet another fine game. Instead of route-building, Ars was more of a resource collection and set-building game. I also discovered one of his earlier releases – Junkyard – which provided an interesting twist on the trick-building concept. I was eager to see what would be at the heart of Alan’s 2006 release, Crystal Faire.
This time around, the central mechanisms are trading and, to a lesser extent, bluffing. Players conduct a series of trades wherein they attempt to gather majorities in various types of gems, and manipulate the prices of those gems in order to reap the greatest rewards. Victory goes to the player amassing the greatest wealth after three rounds of trading, price manipulation and gem shows.
Players each begin the game with three offer mats and nine gems, which are hidden behind a privacy screen. The value of these gems is tracked on a central price chart, and will fluctuate as players adjust the prices to suit their needs … and attempt to thwart the plans of their opponents. This manipulation begins immediately, as after receiving their initial selection of gems, each player may increase or decrease the value of a gem by one step.
Each round consists of four main phases:
Every other player then puts forward one offer in the same fashion, revealing only the required number of gems. The value of this offer will be one of perception. If a player really desires one of the offers being made by the active player, he should offer gems that he feels the active player desires. This requires the players to mentally track the gems being collected by their opponents. While this cannot be done with complete accuracy, it can be tracked fairly closely.
The active player then selects one of the offers, and that player gets to select one of the two offers proposed by the active player. The gems are exchanged, with those not visible being done secretly.This process continues until every player has the opportunity to be the active player.
A number of gems equal to one less than the number of players are then drawn from the bag. Beginning with the new start player, each player may either select one of the gems, or choose the start player marker, which he can keep or give to the player of his choice. After this step, a new round is conducted.
When playing with five players, the game concludes after three rounds. More rounds are played when playing with fewer players. Each player receives an additional florim for every two gems in their possession. The player with the greatest wealth is victorious. The game can also end prematurely if during the Trade or Adjustment phases all gems are depleted. This occurred in one of my games and it was a quite unsatisfactory conclusion.
My first playing of Crystal Faire left me slightly intrigued. I seemed to be on the cusp of understanding how one could properly manipulate the trading and value adjustments to control their fate. I convinced myself that there was a level of strategy remaining unrevealed just below the surface, and that further playings would bring this to the surface and give me a better understanding and appreciation of the game.
Sadly, I must say that this has not occurred. The game feels way too forced and random. While the offering mechanism is interesting, the fact that the rules force players to make offers usually means that they are constantly forced to trade gems they had hoped to maintain. This can be extremely frustrating, and caused numerous players with whom I played to grow quite agitated. That usually isn’t a good thing to have occur in a game. My enjoyment of the game wasn’t that terrific after my first play, and it plummeted from there.
The designer insists that bluffing is truly at the game’s center, but I just don’t see it. Its only true presence appears in the Payoff round, wherein players can attempt to hold back a bit, conserving some of their gems for future rounds. This may lead opponents to believe that the player may not have as many gems of a particular type as they may have thought. The danger here is that the value of a gem may fall in future rounds, and more disastrously, the game may end prematurely if the gem supply depletes completely. I just don’t see how bluffing is the game’s major mechanism. Rather, it seems obvious that the trading element reigns supreme.
It is with great sadness that I must give Crystal Faire a thumbs-down. I have thoroughly enjoyed the designer’s previous two releases, and had high hopes for this title. Making this assessment even more difficult is that Alan is a wonderfully nice guy whose company I enjoy. Be that as it may, however, the game just isn’t for me. It hasn’t received a good reception with the folks with whom I’ve played, and I don’t see any prospects for that changing. If there is a hidden level of strategy or understanding just below the surface, I simply haven’t grasped it.