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Around the year 1900, Hamburg is the gate to the world. In the center of the harbor there is a unique complex of storage houses: The Speicherstadt (warehouse district). The dense web of loading canals and bridges rapidly develops to become a vast terminal for spices, coffee and carpets from all over the world. You are a wholesale dealer residing in Hamburg at the boom years of the Speicherstadt, buying shiploads and serving your clients. Hire firemen to protect your goods and counting offices from occasional fires. The player doing the best business during the course of one year will be the winner of the game.
The Speicherstadt has a simple but highly original game mechanism.
What’s in a name? More specifically, what’s in a game’s name? Sometimes just the name of a game is enough to intrigue and titillate folks. They can entice a curious public to part with their hard-earned dollars in order to investigate the game further. That's good marketing. History of the World, Defenders of the Realm, Tide of Iron – all are games that are good examples of having titles that are enticing. Other games, however, have titles that leave potential buyers – and experienced gamers – scratching their heads in wonder and disbelief. One of the worst in recent memory is The Speicherstadt, released by Eggertspiele and Z-Man Games. The title tells potential buyers little, if anything about the game itself, as the vast majority of folks have no idea that the Speicherstadt is a warehouse district in Hamburg. Even if they did know this, that certainly isn't an exciting theme for a game. This really is a shame, as the game itself is quite intriguing.
Players represent trading houses in the Speicherstadt, acquiring contracts which they hope to fill by obtaining the appropriate cargo from the ships that become available. Other acquisitions can also bring or enhance profits. However, due to the constant threat of fire, players must also compete to acquire the loyalty of the local fire department lest their buildings be reduced to ashes. All of these acquisitions, however, are not easy to obtain. Rather, each one is the result of cutthroat competition at the auction block.
Each player receives three representatives who will be sent to the auction houses to compete for the cargo, ships, firemen and other items that become available. Depending upon the number of players, 3 – 6 cards are revealed. The deck of cards is arranged so that increasingly more valuable cards and firemen will become available as the game progresses. Armed with an initial treasury of five coins, players send their representatives to the auction houses.
In turn, each player sends one of their representatives to the auction houses, placing it on the lowest space available by the card they desire. Players alternate placing their representatives, after which the cards are purchased. The cost for each card is one coin for each representative that has been placed at that auction house. For example, if four representatives are present at an auction house, the player whose representative is on the first slot can purchase the card for four coins. If the first player is unable to or declines to purchase the card, his token is removed and the next representative in line has the opportunity to purchase the card for one less coin. This process continues, with the cost reducing by one coin for each representative removed, until a player purchases the card or all players decline to do so.
This mechanical explanation fails to convey the tenseness evoked by this procedure. There are numerous factors and alternatives to consider, most of which must take into account the possible actions of one's opponents. Players usually have a very limited number of coins to spend on the numerous cards they covet. Opponents will often place representatives on the same card, driving up the cost if a player desires to purchase it. If the player declines, they will then have the opportunity to make the purchase. Players must also constantly assess the financial situation of their opponents, as they can often increase the price of a card beyond what an opponent(s) can afford. Further, there are numerous categories of cards players would ideally like to acquire. Funds, however, are limited, and the keen competition for these cards will usually force players to concentrate on just a few types. All of these considerations and factors make this phase of the game shine.
Players seek to acquire cards that will ultimately yield victory points and perhaps increased income. There are numerous types of cards:
Merchants. Players may sell goods of the specified type for one gold apiece. This helps raise needed cash, and provides a good outlet for goods that are not needed to fulfill contracts.
Warehouse. This allows the player to store up to four goods from turn-to-turn. Normally, a player may only keep one good.
Contracts. These depict two-to-four specific goods that are demanded. The goods are secured by acquiring ships. Fulfilling a contract earns the player victory points, with more points being earned for the more challenging contracts.
Ships. Each ship transports three goods, which are drawn randomly and placed upon the ship card. Upon winning a ship, the goods must immediately be unloaded. The player can assign goods to contracts, sell them to merchants, or store them in their market hall or warehouse, provided they have acquired one.
Firemen. The numerous firemen increase in value from 1 – 5 as the game progresses. Four fires will ultimately strike the district, and the player with the greatest cumulative value of firemen will earn 1 – 4 bonus points. The player with the least fire protection will lose an equal amount of points. This can be significant, so there is usually keen competition for the firemen.
There are also various miscellaneous cards that convey special abilities or victory points.
Players earn income after all purchases are completed and goods are loaded from any ships they have acquired. Players earn a base income of one coin, plus any coins granted by special cards they possess. In addition, any player(s) not receiving a card during the purchase phase receives an additional coin. Since money is so tight, players will often skip purchasing a card juts to receive this extra income.
The game concludes when all cards have been revealed. A fourth and final fire occurs, with points earned and lost as described. Players tally their victory points to determine the victor, with coins being the tie-breaker. Generally, the game takes about an hour or so to play to completion.
As discussed above, the stars of The Speicherstadt are the Demand and Purchase phases. There are numerous options, with many factors to consider and ponder. These phases are usually tense and filled with angst. A player's plans will likely have to be adjusted regularly as desired cards are enough money to accomplish that task. These factors are all big plusses.
The biggest drawback is that each game feels much like the previous one. There isn’t a lot of variety in the cards, and due to the deck preparation, they will appear in roughly the same order each game. Further, each game is relatively short, and there isn't much time to build an effective engine to supply needed income. If you happen to be short on cash for a turn or two when needed cards appear, your plans can be irreparably destroyed. The game may benefit from a greater variety of cards and perhaps an extra turn or two.
Despite of these drawbacks, The Speicherstadt is a fine game, containing tense moments and tough decisions. However, after repeated plays, it has reached a plateau. It isn't a game that I long to play over and over again. I am not averse to playing, but it doesn't call out to me. I think this is more a factor of there being so many great games available that it is extremely tough for a new game to measure-up and have staying power. The game will likely have more longevity for folks new to the gaming hobby as opposed to veteran gamers with extensive gaming experience and collections. So I have a mixed recommendation. If you are fairly new to gaming, you may find The Speicherstadt intriguing. For veteran gamers, the game is certainly worth a play or two, but you probably won't feel the urge to add it to your collection.