Review: De Vulgari Eloquentia

Review by Doug Garrett of Garrett’s Games and Geekiness
Designer: Mario Papini
Artists: Lamberto Azzariti, Guido Favaro, and Eva Villa
Publishers: Z-Man/Giochix
Players: 2 – 5
Ages: 14+
Time: 120 minutes
Times Played: 3 (twice 2-player, once 3-player) with a purchased copy

Learning the Language of the Common Man by Wandering Around Italy

As a high school English teacher I may have a bit of a bias due to my love of reading and language, but even I was skeptical (though intrigued) when I first heard of Mario Papini’s new game De Vulgari Eloquentia (Z-Man/Giochix).  A game about the birth of the Italian common dialect?  That said, I had heard good things and knew I needed to see for myself if such a game could work.  And does it ever!

Papini uses the setting of Italy and its transition to the ‘Volgare’ or common Italian dialect for De Vulgari Eloquentia.  Italy’s language morphed from Latin to the Volgare as merchants needed a new way to write up their contracts without resorting to the language of the elites.  Ultimately, out of the mishmash of regional dialects on the peninsula the Florentine dialect of Dante became the standard as his Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) found its way throughout the Italian city-states, but St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, written in the Umbrian dialect, also fought for dominance.

Rather than dealing with language specifically, in the game Papini has players focus on the myriad ways that the dialects circulated.  One starts the game as a merchant, and can later join the Church as a religious figure, but in each case he/she wanders Italy in order to gain knowledge, fulfill contracts, develop one’s influence and eventually score the most Volgare Points (Victory Points).  On a turn the active player takes 5 of the purple Action Markers and uses those to mark what he/she chooses to do.  Think of these as Action Points similar to games like Tikal; for example, moving a spot on the board costs one Action Marker and 0 Ducati, while any more movement costs an Action Marker per space and 10 Ducati total.  So, to move 3 regions, one would place 3 Action Markers on the movement spot and pay 10 Ducati.

The game board itself is filled with a large variety of options from which one must choose on a turn.  On one side of the board is a map of Italy, separated into regions and around which one’s pawn can travel (as mentioned above), obtaining money and/or knowledge in various locations, along with bonuses (Events) that appear each round.  Down the center of the board lies the turn track where the bonus or Event tiles sit face up (so players know when and where bonuses will appear), along with influence cubes in 4 different colors that one can obtain.  To the right of the turn order track are numerous tracks representing other ways to gain influence, Manuscripts, or VPs.

On a turn one can choose to spend actions points on the following:

  1. Moving on the map
  2. Taking manuscripts
  3. Gaining influence over Politicians, Noblemen, Abbesses & Amanuenses (manuscript writers).  These are represented in the 4 colored cubes.
  4. Studying at Salterio to gain Knowledge Points
  5. Working a ‘Small Business’ to gain money
  6. Advancing on 6 other different tracks (more on that later)

As you can see there are A LOT of choices one can make, and my biggest concern going into the game was the possibility of Analysis Paralysis.  Though that is a possibility if a player has already exhibited this tendency given the limited number of Action Markers to spend, there is time to plan ahead and sort out options when it is not your turn.  So let’s delve a bit more deeply into these various options.

Moving on the map happens as discussed above, but there are a variety of possible goodies that one might want to obtain.  After placing one’s pawn on one of 5 possible starting cities, one can maneuver around the board gaining Ducati and Knowledge, picking up bonus tiles if one is the first into a particular region with such a tile, or going to one of the various religious cities for special actions.  For example, Convents allow one to convert one’s Merchant character (everyone begins the game as a Merchant) to a Friar.  Moving to a Cathedral city allows a player to change his Friar into a Cardinal – for a price.  Yes, these conversions have both benefits and drawbacks.   No longer will you be allowed to collect the money denoted on certain cities, but depending upon which Friar or Cardinal you choose, you gain a specific bonus AND earn VP’s for end-game scoring.  Two other spots on the board – Franciscan Cities and Abbeys – will be discussed later.

To the left side of the board is the Manuscript area.  Each Manuscript is color-coated, corresponding to a region on the map; IF one has enough knowledge (1-4 or 8), one can obtain 1 Manuscript each round.  Players earn VPs at the end of the game based on the Knowledge level of eachx n manuscript, and a bonus if they collect a set of all 5 colors.  By the way, Knowledge can be difficult to obtain!  Everyone starts with 1 Knowledge, then can advance on the track around the edge of the board as he/she gains more.  However, there are 15 spots between 1 Knowledge and 2 Knowledge, 21 spots between 2 & 3, 35 spots between 3 & 4, and then a final 12 spots to get to 8 Knowledge.  Since gaining Knowledge to obtain manuscripts is a powerful portion of the game, BUT turn order is determined based on least to most Knowledge, competition springs up in this area.

Influence cubes over various groups are the third possible action and there are 4 spots associated with the 4 cube colors.  The cubes available are ONLY the ones present at the current round marker spot.  An interesting side note – cubes that are not taken or that are spent during the game return to the Turn Order Track in the first empty slot.  A single cube will cost the player 1 Action Marker and possibly some money, but 2 cubes costs FOUR Action Markers – a painful cost, but possibly necessary.

Why?  Well, cubes can be used in a variety of ways.  At the end of the game they allow one to use influence (Politicians (red) = 3, Noblemen (black) = 2, Abbesses (yellow) = 1) to be Elected to a more illustrious position in the world.  For example, a Merchant could become a Banker, gaining 6 VPs, or a Cardinal could become Pope and gain 22 VPs.  During the game, though, each has a use as well.  Red Politician cubes (which cost 30 Ducati each) or black Nobleman cubes can be used to fulfill one of the requirements to become a Cardinal. Rather than saving a black cube, upon obtaining one, a player can immediately get rid of it for 20 Ducati.

A yellow Abbess cube is more convoluted in its in-game use.  First, they cost 15 Ducati UNLESS they are obtained when one’s pawn is on an Abbey space on the map.  Yellow cubes can then be spent to advance on two of the other tracks in the game.  The Canticle of the Sun track corresponds to the Franciscan City spaces on the map.  ONLY during certain rounds of the game can a player go to those cities and turn in yellow cubes to advance on this track.  At the end of the game the person furthest along on the track gains 9 VPs and 2nd place gains 4.  The other track – Messenger – has at its end the University of Bologna.  In order to make it to this final spot and enter the University, one must spend a yellow cube AND 10-20 Ducati (depending on when it happens in the game) in order to gain 10-15 points of Knowledge.

Finally, the green Amanuenses cubes are used differently.  When you obtain them they go in front of your player screen.  Then, a player MUST go to an Abbey region on the map in order to convert them to EITHER 1VP each by placing them behind one’s screen, OR 3 Knowledge each, after which they are discarded.

The next two actions just gain you 3-4 points of Knowledge (Salterio) and 10 Ducati (Small Business).  As for the other tracks, The Riddle of Verona can be advanced on only if you are in the north of the country and gains 4-6 VPs; The Papal Library comes into play toward the end of the game and gives 2-4 VPs; a player can Rest, and if first on that track becomes the Start Player regardless of Knowledge position (that person’s token then resets to zero while the others’ remain); and reaching the ‘city harbor’ at the end of the Orient track allows a Merchant to gain 10 extra Ducati when entering a city where money is provided.

WHEW!  One more event, the Stupor Mundi (an auction for Knowledge points at turn 10) occurs, then the game will end sometime after the 12th turn when the second “Pope is Dead” tile turns over ( I guess he gets really ill when the first of these flips over), or definitely at the end of the 16th turn.

This is one of those games that takes awhile to process and absorb, but is worth the time and energy.  Also, it is far less complicated than one might think.  The board is beautiful, capturing the theme well, and like Vinhos, another recent heavy-weight game that I have enjoyed, the theme clearly comes through.  As I said above, the large number of choices may work against a fast playing, especially with someone prone to Analysis Paralysis, but exploring the various ways to gain points makes for a deep game that I see us continuing to request if we have the time.  I can vouch for the fact that it plays very well with 2 players and good with 3.  I’m not sure I will ever play it with more than that though.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (3 plays): Talking with Dan Blum recently, he noted that the design direction being taken is what I refer to as the “kitchen sink” approach, with lots of diverse (and usually thematically appropriate) elements.  The difficulty is that while these games are often initially appealing for these elements, they often get a reputation for being deeper than they actually are.  Such, in my opinion, is the case with De Vulgari Eloquentia.

This is not to say that there isn’t any depth to the game.  But there are weak choices (the Orient chart; I’ve seen twelve individuals decide that that track was not worthwhile, and I agree with them), and there are vexing choices (The Riddle of Verona only benefits the player who advanced furthest along the track).  The Messenger track is an all-or-nothing ride.  The Papal Library seems poorly designed, in my opinion; for one action, a player can get, on average, 2.875 victory points.  For three more actions, you can increase your average number of victory points to 3.36 victory points.  It would make far more sense, in my opinion, to have more Papal Library tiles, and allow players to earn multiple tiles.

But the real problem with the game is that it wasn’t interesting enough to hold up through multiple plays; I enjoyed my second play less than my first, and my third enough to move the game onto my trade pile.  My third play – with five players, all typically fast players – subjectively lasted a little past forever, and the game doesn’t get more interesting over the course.  Add in the fact that the game is _very_ time consuming to teach, and I don’t feel any need to put in a fourth play.  I’m very glad to have played the game, for what it does do right, but I won’t miss it.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I’m not in the position to give an impartial vote to this game because I was involved in the play-testing. The theme sometimes submerges the mechanics and this is a “sign” of Mario Papini that I really like. De Vulgari Eloquentia is not an easy game to master because there are really many ways to score and some of them could look less appealing. I think it suffers, like many games of this kind, when players are not at the same level since some strategies are less evident than others. I really like the game and the theme; my only little concern is about the playing time.

Patrick Brennan (5 plays): It’s all about the VPs and nothing but the VPs. There are so many different ways to earn VPs you’ll be falling over yourself collecting VPs. There are two main strategies, and with each strategy you’re trying to get your “VP to action” ratio as close to the optimal 1:1 as possible. If you get to around 80%, you should be in the running.

With the “knowledge rush” strategy, the aim is to maximise the number of actions acquiring manuscripts (as manuscripts give a 1:1 ratio). You can only get 1 manuscript each turn, so the idea is to rush your knowledge acquisition asap, so you can spend 2, then 3, then 4 actions per turn acquiring VPs at a 1:1 ratio for the second half of the game.With this strategy, you tend to eschew money, become religious quite early on to earn knowledge from your friar selection, move each turn to the next adjacent “earn knowledge” space on the board. You aim to lead the pack in knowledge, getting to each level before the others.

With the “cube rush” strategy, the aim is to acquire cubes, which are close to a 1:1 ratio when you trade them in at game end (especially if you can deprive others of earning these end-of-game points). Here, you need lots of money, you want to be low in knowledge to get first (or second) play each turn to get first choice on the cubes. Once you have lots of cubes, near the end-game, you turn religious to get the high-end VPs from the friar and cardinal tiles, or become the pope. With your leftover actions, acquire as many lower-level manuscripts as you can to preserve that 1:1 ratio.

There’s many variations that lie between these two, and some of the charm of the game is exploring viable “opportunistic” strategies that the others are leaving you because of their single-minded focus on their strategy. There’s not strong competition between players doing dissimilar strategies, but two players doing the same thing can get messy, resulting in for example actions wasted on wanting to go first to pick up cubes first next turn, or to get a favourable manuscript in a needed colour.

On the criticism of some aspects:

a) The Orient track seems a waste. It doesn’t make sense to spend 6 turns in the first few turns to later on gradually earn up to $70 as you travel, when you can simply 7 actions on 7 different turns to earn $70 throughout the game if and as you need it? The latter gives way more flexibility and you don’t usually need that much extra money anyway.

b) The Bologna track requires 9 actions (including the cube) to get 10 knowledge (or 10 for 15 if you do it early).  That’s a lot of actions for no VPs. It’s really only useful if you’re doing a knowledge rush and you need those final knowledge points to get you to the level 8 spot. Still, that’s 13 (or 14) actions for 8 points, not a great ratio so it’s only desirable if you’ve run out of other things to do that give a better ratio and there’s no other way to get the knowledge you need.

c) I don’t mind the Riddle Of The Verona track if I can win it for 5 actions. That’s a 1:1 ratio. If you do it first and spend a whole turn doing it all in one go, that’s usually enough to dissuade anyone else from “probably wasting” 5 actions chasing and competing for it. Still, that results in another track that isn’t competed for.

d) The papal library tile track is another waste. Spending 1 action gets you either 2, 3 or 4 points. That’s a great ratio. Spending 4 actions probably gets you 3 or 4 points, a lower ratio. As a result, it doesn’t make sense to spend more than 1 action here, so it’s a another dead track.

I tend to just accept and / or ignore these and work towards the things I know are good ratio actions. But it’s a shame that the game hasn’t been tweaked to make these more viable as alternative use of actions. Once it’s understood that these are pretty much dead actions, the game does narrow in focus however, resulting in more competition for the better ratio actions and more “game” in later playings.

Re speed, early games are slow while everyone is trying to work out all of the above and put it into practice. Turns get faster with replay though – I know what I want to do and what’s not worthwhile – so I bank on about 25-30 minutes per player.

All in all, it’s a VP hunt when you get down to it, but it is a decent game. The theme is different and there’s enough game there for occasional interested replay. It’s a shame that the overwhelming feeling is one of promises not kept – of wishing there were no dud elements, that the initial illusion of many useful options to use and explore became an ongoing reality. Of knowing it could have been better.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! Doug Garrett
I like it… Patrick Brennan
Neutral…Joe Huber
Not for me… Mike Siggins

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4 Responses to Review: De Vulgari Eloquentia

  1. stefaan says:

    I played this game yesterday and really enjoyed it: it has been a long time since I have seen a theme so original and completely integrated, too much pasted up themes in the last years.
    I can understand your point that variable number of rounds, different character powers and changes in the colored blocks may not be enough to make this game replayable for ever.
    I do not follow your point that the library is poor designed. I took 3 tiles (2 of the track and 1 of my character) and so got 4 points for 3 actions and made sure the other players got less, because unpicked tiles go on top. It helped giving me the edge to win the game. The point that playing with more than 3 makes the game too long is invalid too: our 4-player game with 3 newbies had a duration of a bit more than 3 hours, setup and explanation included. When everyone knows the game and the pope does not die in the lastnpossible turn, I expect this one to finish within 2 hours with 4 players.

  2. Patrick Brennan says:

    If you put a 2 on top, then the next person to pick up a papal library uses 1 action to get 2 VPs (a ratio of 2.0). That’s still better than your ratio of 4 actions (not 3 actions, it takes 4 actions to get to the pickup 2 tiles space) for 4 points (a ratio of 1.0). If your opponent uses those other 3 actions to pick up a manuscript worth 3, then they’re ahead of you by a point over those 4 actions.

    The crux of the game is getting into positions which maximise the chances of getting as many 1:1 VP:action moves as possible. Having a turn or 2 where you can’t pick up manuscripts, or cubes, or progress a “guaranteed” win on the Riddle / Cantona tracks, or otherwise not progress any VPs at all … that’s what will lose you the game!


    • stefaan says:

      To score more with 4 actions than I scored the other player will need to score 1 with each of the other 3. By the end of the game, that’s not easy. It’s a small edge, I do not contest that, but I like the small, not game-breaking mechanisms in this one.

  3. unkle says:

    I agree with Stefaan. Looking purely at VP/actions is not really doable, since you can only take a manuscript per turn. What do you do with your other actions to gain VP during the final turns of the game ? This is, in many cases, a very difficult question.

    Cubes are not scoring you VPs unless you need them for status, money should be in the hands of the Orient guys (a great underrated track I think)…

    The amount of VPs is not infinite, so you cannot fully think in terms of VP/actions. That will just make you do wrong decisions.

    I tend to think the game plays quite differently depending on the number of players, with 4 being probably my favorite ( I played a little more than 10 game games, including 3, 4 or 5 players). My feeling is that the game is really at its best when players are fully aware of the small intricacies of the different options you have. Then, the interaction and tension around the order track is quite amazing, depending on cubes repartition (which will make some options available, like a super-early rush for Muret, or not). From my perspective, a great game that requires several plays for a full grasp of its internal core. It’s not a VP rush, it’s a timing game. All about timings of the actions you make, status change you may experience, tracks you push for, order you need to grab or not…. And when this is clarified for the players, then it’s all about making the others life much more difficult :-)

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