Village: A Review

Design by:  Markus and Inka Brand
Art by: Dennis Lohausen
Published by:
999 Games
Pegasus Spiele
Tasty Minstrel Games (review copy provided by TMG)
2 – 4 Players,
listed time 60-75 minutes (perhaps 90 for the first game)
Review by:  Jonathan Franklin

Village is The Game of Life you grew up with as a kid.  OK, it is a super-Euroized multi-generational medieval Game of Life.  Each player has multiple generations of a family to control and lets them lead their lives and bring great glory to the family name.  The family with the most glory at the end of the game wins.

Village is an excellent 60-90 minute Euro with a few caveats that might or might not be important to you.  I want to get the caveats out of the way first, just so you know what is what.

1. The end game trigger is filling the town’s Book of Honor or the pauper’s graveyard.  How do you do those?  By having your family members die.  If you are uncomfortable with the fact that the game encourages you to work your family members to the bone quickly and have them pass on to bring glory to the family name, this game is probably not for you (or it will last hours longer than intended).  My first few games I was trying to keep my family members alive and the game did not really grab me.  Once I internalized that I should be killing the first generation off while having them do things that would benefit their descendants, the game clicked.  In all honesty, the illustrations could probably have been done by Edward Gorey or Tim Burton, rather than Dennis Lohausen.  Dennis did a beautiful job with the board, but it does not communicate the darkness of the game’s theme.

2. Village is quite a tactical game.  The turns are quick and the results may be affected by small tweaks in how tiles come out.  If this bothers you, Village might not be the game for you.  On the other hand, the designers have done a very good job of letting you know what is coming up, so there is definitely plenty of plan ahead potential.

3. It pays to specialize.  The scoring systems the Brands have employed means that it is better to travel to all six cities in the travel zone than to dabble in all areas of the village without maxing out any of them.  I like this feature, but it does lead to a game where it is often best to go where others are not.

Caveats over.

Photo posted by Wolf Wittenstein

Each player’s turn consists of taking a cube and then taking the action of the area they just took the cube from.  The board has multiple zones, a market (yellow spot), a travel zone (green spot), a crafting zone (yellow spot), a church (brown spot), and a council house (reddish orange spot).  Many of these offer multiple options, so even if you take a cube from the crafting area, you can get an ox, a horse, a cart, a plow, a scroll, or convert wheat to gold.  Since each zone is seeded with cubes of four colors plus black cubes (curses), there are lots of turns per round.  The round ends when there are no cubes at any location.

The board is seeded with cubes based on the number of players:

Photo posted by Der Einsielder

There are some excellent rules videos, so rather than regurgitate the rules here, you can get the details elsewhere.  Some areas offer short-term scoring, some offer long-term scoring, and others offer end-game scoring.  For example, if you go to the market, you sell things to get points.  If you do not start the market phase by taking the cube, you need to pay green cubes to use that action.  If you travel, you gain points based on how many cities you visit over the game, but you have to spend cubes and wagons to travel, but you gain points and money if you do so.  If you go to the church, your family members will be scored based on where they are at game end.  This means that some locations are better earlier in the game and others are better later.   Many locations need specific colored cubes, so you are often taking cubes for the action you want to take later in the round.  At the same time, other than the market, all actions are optional, so other players can take the last cube in a location to prevent you from going there.  But they cannot thwart you if you have three cubes of the same color, as that permits you to go to the well and give up those three cubes to use a space whether it has cubes or not.

To get more family members, you need to marry (lower purple spot).  If you need wheat, you take a cube from the harvest wagon (upper purple spot).  If there are no more cubes at a location you want to use, you need to cash in three cubes of the same color at the well, which is quite a steep price (below the council house which has the reddish orange spot).  Interestingly. each round ends with a mass.  Throughout the round, one of the locations, the church (brown spot), permits you to put family members into a black bag that is always seeded with four neutral monks.  The mass has four stages.  There will always be four fameeples/monkeeples drawn from the bag.  You may pay to take one or more of your family members out of the bag before the remaining ones are drawn randomly.  After four are drawn, monks are thrown back in the bag.  Of the non-monks drawn and others already in the church, you may then donate wheat to move up the hierarchy, scoring immediate points for the majority and possible end-game bonuses.

Photo posted by Wolf Wittenstein

You start the game with four family members of the first generation.  You have a player mat in front of you and have spaces around the mat.  At the top of the mat is a bridge.  Each time your marker crosses the bridge, someone in your family dies.  It has to be from the oldest generation, so all first generation family members must go before the first second generation family member can die. But wait, there’s more.  You don’t want to let your family members die indiscriminately.  The Book of Honor (lower-right of the game board) has limited spaces for each vocation where the dead person came from.  If the craft slots are full, you cannot send your craftsman to the Book of Honor.  Instead, he must go to the pauper’s graveyard.  This means that you are choosing a family member’s vocation, not only for how that vocation will benefit the family while they are alive, but also whether that vocation still has vacant spots in the Book of Honor.

For each hourglass that an action has, you move the marker on your mat clockwise one space.  If you take a cube from the place where you get oxen, you can either spend two cubes or move the marker on your mat six spaces (three to place the guy and three to create the ox (don’t ask)).  You might think that you would always spend the cubes because moving six hourglasses moves your family member closer to death.  In fact, since a majority of dead family members in the town’s Book of Honor is a good thing, you want early family members to perish if there is a spot for them in the Book.  Of course, later on, once you have family members in good scoring positions and the game is going to end soon, you want to keep your people alive and scoring – however, remember that the game end is triggered by death, so cubes become very valuable as you either maneuver the final death to your advantage or avoid death to score more points than your opponents might gain with that final death.

Overall, I really liked Village.  It has internal self-balancing between the tracks, multiple paths to victory, play-to-play variability, and definite timing challenges.  There is a small expansion available in Plato magazine.  I am not sure if that will be available otherwise.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Yu (1 play):  Unlike Jonathan’s first game(s), the players in my game had no problem offing the first generation of villagers.  In fact, we were filling up the Book of Honor in no time flat as we gladly sacrificed the family elders in order to more hastily obtain a plow or to put Junior into the monastery/church…  The biggest thing that surprised me was that I had missed the rule that the earliest generation has to die first.  I had some great plans about keeping my grandpa in the village making cows for me, but I ended up having to send him to the great factory in the sky instead of the priest-in-training that really wanted to meet his maker.

Village is a nice take on the worker placement/resource management mechanics, and one that I’d like to get back to the table at some point.  I’d like to be able to focus a bit more on selling stuff in the market next time, as I think I left a lot of VPs on the table by not being able to sell stuff (due to a lack of green cubes).  FWIW, our game went quickly, finishing in about 50 minutes for a three player game.

Greg Schloesser (1 play so far):  I really enjoyed my one play of Village.  I found the game tense and filled with tough decisions.  I didn’t experience the “death angst” that Jonathan seemed to have in his early games.  As Jonathan suggests, it seems better to concentrate on a few areas as opposed to spreading your workers to numerous locations.  The plague markers had less impact that feared, which was a bit disappointing.  Otherwise, this is an excellent design, one that I look forward to exploring more. [JF: Plague cubes are great for speeding up the death of the first generation, as they move you forward two hourglasses on your mat before you even take an action.]

Mary Prasad (1 play):  Mostly I liked the game, but our game went on too long (I believe it was over two hours). This was mainly because none of us wanted to kill off our villagers, but rather use them in moving up in other locations for maximum points (time was avoided by using cubes, for example, to pay for things). Other friends who played Village said that in their games there was a race to fill up the Book of Honor and thus end the game quickly so that they could maximize those points before others could move up in other locations. I’m not sure how much I like this idea – that the game length can be so dependent on this action (or lack thereof), but I’ll likely give the game another try. I really liked the aging mechanism – clever!

Larry Levy (1 play):  Village is a solid game that adds something new to worker placement designs.  Both the “take an action by grabbing a cube” and “worker death (which can actually benefit you)” aspects are unusual and are very likely unique.  The game has a nice pace and presents you with interesting decisions.  I doubt that it’ll be a top 10 game from last year for me, but it’s one I want to play some more to explore the different victory paths.

I understand the complaints that players deliberately plotting the deaths of family members runs contrary to the game’s theme.  I actually find that part of the game ghoulishly attractive (and it inspires lots of nice morbid jokes while playing), but I do wish the designers and eggertspiele had made the design more thematic in other areas.  Village could have been a delightful paean to small town life from days gone by and had the same appeal as Agricola does with its farming theme, but it just doesn’t try hard enough.  The abilities represented by the different colored cubes are so nebulous that it’s almost impossible not to refer to spending “a pink cube” rather than “being knowledgeable”.  The traveling portion of the game is needlessly abstract–a few city names, even bogus ones, would have done wonders here.  The Church and the Council Chamber are so similar that it’s easy to confuse them.  It’s definitely more thematic than the average Euro, but the theme could have been so much better developed with just a little effort.  It feels like a missed opportunity.  Mechanically, the game is fine, but I feel I would have enjoyed Village considerably more if the theming had been handled with just a bit more finesse.

Brian Leet (1 play): My first play was neither hampered by too many avoiding death, nor as exciting as it sounds like some others may have experienced. While we all raced to fill the book of death, the winner simply did a good job selling things at market. I understand that experienced players have tested multiple winning strategies and declared them all feasible, which is a great sign for a game like this and bodes very well for replayability. I enjoy the contrast between the traditional Euro pleasant village life presentation and the somewhat ghoulish occasional goal to let grandma expire before that last spot in the Book of Deeds can be hers. In fact, I sent the last of my first generation off the farm to another village simply for the goal of expiring there. Still, at the end of the game I wasn’t as excited to play again as I would hope. Even though we are supposed to be opinionated gamers, I’m reserving mine from being a rating until I try this one at least one or two more times.

Ted C:  I  have only played it once.  I traveled everywhere and avoided the market the whole game.  I did well in the monastery and the other building.  I lost.  I think you really have to go to the market some.  I did get the max points in the book of honor as well.  So, I did well everywhere but the market.  It is a nice medium weight game.

W. Eric Martin (five plays, all with three or four players, on a review copy provided by Tasty Minstrel Games): Village is both exceedingly clever and something of a mish-mash. You’ve got your manage-the-flow-of-workers-so-that-you-can-always-take-actions challenge, your specialize-in-certain-actions-to-maximize-your-score angle, your exchange-cubes-for-other-things-that-you-then-exchange-for-points touchstone – nearly everything will be familiar for those who have played a certain number of modern European-style game designs, and while some will focus on the kudos for killing your own kind as the neat-o selling point of the game, others will view it as, at best, a flashy distraction from the routine nature of the rest of the game.

That’s their loss. A familiar game isn’t necessarily a bad one if all the parts mesh well, and taken as a whole, Village is a solid design with lots of tense game play. Over my handful of plays, I’ve stopped seeing the game as a collection of mechanisms that I’ve seen elsewhere and now see it in its own terms. I bounce around the village with my guys, taking this action and that, then eventually *pop* one of them dies – but I know who’s approaching the end of his lifespan and where he should die in order to do our family proud. The actions seem balanced, with a heavy market approach sometimes edging out the market abstainer (typically me) and sometimes losing to said abstainer. Everything meshes well and is relatively easy to explain, other than the mass action at the end of each round, which takes more time than it should and which continually frustrates people due to their monks-in-training going AWOL within the bag. (Do they make an effort to gain coins in order to tithe their monks into the church? No, they typically do not. Fist-shaking at heaven is apparently the preferred course of action.)

As Jonathan notes above, Village is quite tactical, while still allowing for players to develop in particular ways over the course of the game. (Wolf Wittenstein, who does work for eggertspiele, has previously noted to me that the publisher’s releases are always “strictly tactical and have a very limited amount of luck involved”.) Someone lays out the cubes for the round, and you start assessing what’s possible: “I want to continue travelling outside the village, so I need two orange chutzpah cubes, which I can get at these four locations, and if I get a cube at the craft shop, I’ll want to train someone, so I should take the family growth action first, which would give me a green cube of browbeating which would allow me to sell my grain when someone chooses the market action or possibly the brown ennui cube that I could pair with these two others to avoid a plague cube later or call a second market action after I’ve moved up in the city council and taken an ox as the reward…” And so on.

You’re constantly fighting for the stuff you want, while also settling for the second- or third-best options, then making do with those choices to try to find glory for your family in other ways. In this way, as well as how the round’s cube distribution mostly determines how many times an action can be taken, Village reminds me of Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Tribune. In both games you have general goals – maxing out points in the village chronicle or keeping a steady flow of grain in the former, and making Tribune or winning favor of the gods in the latter – and you scrounge around with what’s available each round to see what you can do. This comparison has me thinking that I’ll actually enjoy Village most with only two players, but alas, I haven’t had that chance yet. Other people keep showing up to join the game, and I’m not going to be a grouch and tell them to drop dead. Instead, I’ll sit them down, then force them to make their own people drop dead. That’s satisfying in its own way…

(I love it!): W. Eric Martin
(I like it):  Jonathan Franklin, Dale Yu, Greg Schloesser, Mary Prasad, Larry Levy, Tom Rosen, Ted C.
(Neutral):  Luke Hedgren
(Not for me):

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