Mundus Novus Review

This is a game centered around a great core idea, but lacking enough surrounding that core to make for a compelling or engaging experience.  Mundus Novus is a card game brought to us by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, the pair that brought the world Arthurian traitors in Shadows over Camelot before traitorous cylons and BSG were all the rage.  The designers’ history is impressive, studded with the likes of Mr. Jack and Jamaica, but particularly relevant because Laget’s Mare Nostrum from 2003 is the inspiration for Mundus Novus.  Much of that sprawling 2+ hour game has been stripped away, but what is left is the core card reallocation mechanism.  This is a great foundation on which to base a game, but the problem is that there’s almost no game left in the overly streamlined and vacuous Mundus Novus.

How to Play, in a Nutshell

Mundus Novus is a card game.  It comes with 120 resource cards, 44 development cards, 90 victory point chits, 6 event reminder chits, and 1 start player token.  The components are nice with great card quality, but the lack of a player aid for each player to have in front of them is astounding.  The game is simple enough, but the three different charts that determine the conversion of various Resources into points and Developments are something that players absolutely need to have in front of them to play the game smoothly.  I’m not someone who tends to use player aids in most games, but the lack of one in this game struck me as an enormous oversight.

The game is played over a series of rounds, each broken down into four phases, until one of three possible victory conditions is met.  A player wins by either amassing 75 victory points, having all 10 different resource cards in a single round, or having the most victory points if the deck of development cards runs out.  So there are essentially two different ways to win, either convert your Resources into VPs or convert them into Developments that help you gain access to more Resources in a single turn in order to increase the odds of having one of each in a given round.  The four phases of a round are as follows:

(1) Event – Determine the event that modifies the rules for that round based on the icon on the first face up development card on the table.  These events modify the rules for the given round slightly.

(2) Supply – Deal a hand of 5 resource cards randomly to each play.  Then deal 1 face up resource card to the center of the table for each development boat card that players have previously purchased.  The players with boats then draft these resources to supplement their hand, so buying boats gives you a larger hand of Resources in each subsequent round.

(3) Trade – This phase is the heart of the game.  The starting player (or “trade master”) picks a number from two to four, then everyone secretly and simultaneously reveals that many Resources from their hand.  The starting player takes one Resource offered up by another play, which then allows that player to take a Resource offered by another player, and so on, until all of the Resources have been claimed by someone else.  This is a resource reallocation mechanism that tries to incentivize offering more desirable resource cards because your turn order for selecting from what others have offered depends on having your offerings selected.  As an aside, this is actually the same reallocation methodology that is used at some game conventions for prize table selections when every attendee brings a game to give away in order to incentivize bringing more coveted games.

(4) Progression – In clockwise order, each player must spend all of their resource cards and discard any unused resources.  You can spend them in any or all of the following ways: (a) spend a set of identical Resources to take a development card; (b) spend a set of different Resources to earn victory points; and/or (c) spend a special type of wild resource for even more victory points.  There are many different types of development cards but basically they are cards that sit in front of you and give you a special ability for the rest of the game.  For instance, there are boats (as mentioned above) that let you get an extra Resource each round, warehouses that let you save a resource from one round to the next, and all sorts of other special abilities that essentially work towards earning you enough victory points to hit that 75 point winning score.  This is the phase that desperately needs a player aid to assist with the various conversion rates for each type of resource set that can be turned in.

Why You Shouldn’t Bother

That’s it.  You go round and round through those four phases until someone either amasses 75 points or happens to get all 10 different resource cards in a single turn.  The repetitiveness of the game is not its most mind-numbing feature.  What really rubs me the wrong way is that many, possibly most, of your decisions are meaningless.  Keep in mind that you throw away any unused resource cards at the end of each round.

During the Trade phrase, you often have absolutely no reason to select one card over another.  It is not only possible, but likely, that you will often be faced with a choice among several different cards and have no basis on which to make a decision.  If you’ve already made a set to turn in during the Progression phase or know that you can’t possibly do so, then it’s extremely hard to care about the choices in the Trade phase.  You could try to make choices that obstruct your opponents, but it’s impossible in many instances to know what your opponents need or want because everyone’s needs change each round after all Resources are thrown away and a new batch is randomly dealt out.  You want to create sets of three or more alike resources and/or of four or more different resources, but that may very well be impossible in a given round, and knowing which cards to take to prevent your opponents from doing so is often not possible unless you’re Henry Sugar (for Roald Dahl fans… or go read the book right now if that reference makes no sense).

The Supply phase is a similarly boring affair even though it seems like something that should offer interesting and difficult choices.  You must select two to four resource cards to give away, but you have absolutely no idea what your opponents will find desirable in a given round.  What you offer and how sought after it happens to be will determine your turn order in selecting from the Resources offered by your opponents.  There’s a lot of potential here.  It’s a core mechanism that could theoretically force players into making tough decisions about how much to offer up helpful resources in order to help themselves and to balance the benefit they’re providing to their opponents against the potential benefit received from getting an earlier selection in the subsequent phase.  In practice, or at least in Mundus Novus, the reality does not live up to the potential.  The game play has been so streamlined by having each round essentially start fresh that there’s not enough information to base your decisions on and not nearly enough riding on your decisions.  There is simply nothing compelling about the game and nothing to engage the players and make them care about what’s happening.  I’ve played with three completely different groups of opponents and all have had essentially the same reaction — what is the point, there is nothing here to inform my decisions, make them interesting, or make me care.

This is really a shame because, as I said at the beginning, the core mechanism is fascinating.  The concept of resource reallocation, based on players offering up resources and getting an earlier pick if their offering is sought after by others, is very intriguing.  As for the defense that this is a 45-minute card game that is meant to be quick and simple, I don’t think that works here.  I’m a big fan of games that fit into that genre, but even a relatively quick card game needs to have more substance than just an interesting hook.  It needs to provide a basis on which to make decisions and to become at least a little invested in the result.  At first I thought the game’s problem stemmed from the forced reset at the end of each round, but I think the problem here runs deeper than just that.  It’s simply a symptom of the larger issue, which is that there isn’t really much of a game surrounding the core mechanism.  There’s no real framework through which players can engage with the resource reallocation method.  This clever mechanism just sort of hangs out there flapping in the breeze for players to interact with, but there’s no substantive input before reallocation to guide players’ decisions or meaningful output after reallocation to compel players to engage with the clever machinations in between.  As a wise owl might have said, it simply doesn’t take enough licks to get to the center of this Tootsie Pop.

[N.B. I received a review copy of the game from the publisher.]

Other Opinions

Larry Levy (1 play): The real disappointment with Mundus Novus is that I know that the central trading mechanic can work because it’s one of the highlights of Laget’s earlier Mare Nostrum.  On paper, all these elements seem like they should combine to make a good game, but as Tom describes, the final result leaves much to be desired.  Having so many inconsequential decisions is probably the game’s biggest crime.  I should play this again to make sure it wasn’t just one bad game, but right now, I have to give this a “Not for me” rating.  [Editor’s note: I played it 3 times with 3 different groups of people to make sure I was giving the game a fair shake and I can say with a high degree of confidence that the fault lies with the game rather than with any quirk of your experience with it.]

Ben McJunkin (2 plays): [Editor’s note: Since so few OG writers have had a chance to play Mundus Novus, I asked a guest writer, Ben McJunkin, to share his thoughts on the game.  Now I’d really like to go back and edit my review to appropriate some of his insightful points, but instead I’ll just say that I agree with Ben, even where (or maybe especially where) he disagrees with me.]

Although I heartily agree with Tom and Larry that Mundus Novus is a disappointing game (indeed, the initial rules explanation had actually excited me with the cleverness of the core mechanics), I disagree with Tom’s view that its failings are fundamentally attributable to streamlining.  Uwe Rosenburg’s Bohnanza is a wildly successful card game that, like Mundus Novus, employs random draws from an asymmetric card deck and a mandatory, structured trading phase in a race among players to accumulate (mostly) unspendable cash.  When you consider the variety of available infrastructure upgrades and the player-driven events that alter each round’s dynamics, Mundus Novus is actually the meatier, more complex game in this comparison.

As I see it, the disappointment stems from both the opacity of necessary information and the imbalance between a player’s hand size and the game’s hand-management goals.  In the first few rounds, players are primarily seeking sets of three or more identical resources to allow them access to much-needed development cards.  All resources of other types are effectively valueless for the current round (at least until players have obtained enough development cards to draw seven-card hands).  Given the deck composition, players will either draw their set or be just one resource short of their set more than 75% of the time.  This guarantees that each player each round will have at least one trade, and as many as three, that involves choosing among resources that are all utterly worthless.  This is also where information opacity becomes a concern.  Without knowledge of the other players’ aims, a player can’t even use this meaningless exercise to interfere with his or her opponents beyond employing a simplistic probabilistic analysis.  In the early rounds, by the time a player signals the resource he or she is collecting, the set has already been completed.  In the latter rounds, where a player is capable of simultaneously pursuing both a set of identical resources and a collection of distinct resources, meaningful signaling is all-but-impossible.

As you can probably tell, I have spent more time contemplating Mundus Novus in the past few weeks than any other game.  I appear to have enjoyed it far more than anyone I played it with, and I am convinced that the ideas can work (and largely in their current form).  But, as released, the game is simply too saturated with inconsequential decisions to allow the players any sense of purpose or control.  I therefore have to say that Mundus Novus is firmly “not for me.”

Ratings Summary

I love it!
I like it
Neutral
Not for me … Tom Rosen, Larry Levy, Ben McJunkin

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4 Responses to Mundus Novus Review

  1. Mike says:

    I was also in on Tom & Ben’s test drive of this game, and I think they forgot to mention just how fun it is to say, “Mundus Novus.” It conjures thoughts of being in a Harry Potter film, only when you yell it while pointing your wand at the end of the game the other players just look at you as if _you_ are the crazy one.

    Kidding aside, it’s a pretty harmless game that will do to pass the time. (Unlike some games which are actually not very fun experiences at all.) The problem is that we tend to only play good games, so this category of neutral tends to get “bad” reviews.

  2. Stefaan says:

    I do not often post a reaction to reviews, but this one I could not resist. I think you all did not get the way this system gives you information and makes moves meaningfull. If you pay attention what cards everyone gets from the ships, what they might have saved in their warehouses,… you have an idea what every player wants and anyway putting a high card in your offer makes it probable you will have a pick early (and maybe makes you start player).
    There our different strategies: put pressure on everyone by going for money early, try for the big hand of 10 with warehouses and ships, make a combination of docks and small money grabs, play to make some events happen and avoiding some others, combining some of these things. You did not even seriously discuss the personalities anywhere that can be part of a winning strategy (and add some nice historical flavor). I would say this is one of the best new games for a variable number of players (although people cannot know the player count from this review) you could buy for less than 20€ this year on Spiel.
    Can you tell with how many people you played each of your sessions? For a game with 5 different player counts 6 sessions to form 3 opinions is a bit questionable anyway.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Hi, Stefaan. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      To answer your question, my two plays were with 3 and 4 players. Even though I am not an official Opinionated Gamer reviewer, I agree that it would have been nice to have played the game more before finalizing my thoughts. Unfortunately, no one that I game with was willing to play the game a second time (I even offered to play for a cash prize at one point). Do you find that more players or fewer are better? Personally, I thought that the three player game was more enjoyable than the four because there were fewer cards available in the trading phase. With 5 or 6 players, I would think that most players would have no trouble getting the cards they want most of the time, which would make the game more solitary than it already is.

      You note that, if you pay attention to the cards gained through caravels, you have an idea of what everyone wants. The difficulty, however, is that by the time players have more than one caravel (thus allowing you to see at least two of their seven cards), players can benefit from both a set of identical cards and a combination of distinct cards. Imagine that Tom takes a 4 and a 7 for his caravels. Does that mean he wants more 4s or 7s to complete a set, or that he doesn’t want 4s or 7s because he’s building a combination? I have no way of knowing. Perhaps for his first play, Tom takes another 4. Now I might want to stop him from taking any more 4s, but, by this point, the odds are good that he already has a set of 4s and is now trying to take different cards. So, again, I don’t have the necessary informational make good choices

      I think it is interesting that you have found that putting up high cards makes it likely you will get early trade opportunities. It seemed to me that only happened on the last two turns or so. Because 7s, 8s, and 9s only appear half as often as 1s, 2s, and 3s, people were much more likely to attempt to make sets out of low cards. So unless you gave away enough high-value cards to be Trade Master, you were often one of the last to pick with a market full of high-value cards. My strategy (which earned me one win and one second place finish), was to never trade away high value cards unless absolutely necessary. In two games, I was never the Trade Master even once.

      Your point on Wharehouses is also interesting. Do you play them with the stored card face up or face down? The rules do not specify, and we played face down. Face up wold certainly help the imformation-sharing issues. If I were to attempt a variant to correct the issues I had witht the the game, I think I would start by finding ways to have more face-up card play. Given the paucity of information at players’ disposal, the effort of trying to remember what everyone has taken and/or deduce what everyone is seeking far outstrips the extra enjoyment I get from marginally better play. Having more open information would reduce that burden significantly.

      Anyway, I appreciate the countervailing perspective. I always find it fascinating to hear why a game that did not work for me succeeded for someone else. Thank you.

  3. Stefaan says:

    Thanks for your response Ben, you make some interesting points. I likethe game with 5 and 6 because it’s 1 of those rare games you can play with 6 without too much downtime. I guess an important conclusion is that the different opinions come down to different expectations for the game. I see it as just 1 step up from Bang or Saboteur so I like the trading atmosphere it delivers and find it a pro that you cannot completely know what every one is doing, even when there are things to notice to base your decisions on. Your story about people not wanting to play anymore, proves that this is not a game for everyone, but I found the original review (not your reaction), a bit onesided.
    Maybe it’s just the sweet memories to Mare Nostrum that make me like this more…

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