Ben McJunkin: Review of Il Vecchio

Il Vecchio
Designer: Rüdiger Dorn
Publisher: H@ll Games / Pegasus
Players: 2-4 Ages: 10+ Time: 60-80 min

Ruddinger Dorn’s Il Vecchio tells the tale of feuding Florentine families competing for prestige and influence in the waning days of the de facto rule Cosimo de’ Medici (“Il Vecchio” or “the Elder”) over 15th century Tuscany (“Toscano”).  Players control the movement of their family members across the Tuscan countryside as they acquire followers, money, and other favors in an attempt to wrest control of the region back from the Medici empire in a moment of greatest uncertainty.

I.  Gameplay

The Il Vecchio board depicts a number of Tuscan towns, each associated with some particular benefit and connected by roads that divide the republic into ten distinct regions.  Players begin the game with 4 family members on towns in one or two of these regions.  On a turn, players take a single action, which typically involves moving a family member, paying associated movement costs, and gaining necessary resources to aid the family’s rise to power.

(The dual-sided board accommodates players’ differing aesthetic sensibilities.)

Most of the towns in the game are associated with a crest, which depicts the benefit conveyed by that location.  Players receive the benefit of these towns in one of two ways:

  • By expending a bishop token, players call in a favor from the church and receive the depicted benefit at no additional cost.
  • Alternatively, if the town from which a benefit is sought contains a middleman (a tall wooden figure), players may solicit help from the middleman rather than expending a bishop token.  The middleman then travels to the next corresponding town (forever ducking the wrath of the Medici they are working to subvert) and the player’s family member at that location must be laid down, rendering it inactive (I like to think of this as my family member going into hiding from Il Vecchio).

All inactive family members can be reactivated with a single subsequent action.  Additionally, players may spend an action adding a new family member to a randomly determined location on the board.

(Family members and middlemen in towns surrounding region 6.)

    A.  Followers & Regions

Twelve towns allow families to acquire one of three types of followers–knights, assassins, and abbots (pictured above).  These followers are needed to take control of neighboring provinces, extending Tuscany’s influence and thereby bringing power to the family.  As a single action, a player may send one of his family members, aided by the necessary followers and a sufficient purse, into one of three neighboring provinces depicted on the game board.  In addition to power, each family member sent to a province allows players to acquire a one-time benefit of their choice from those remaining in the province.

  • The Republic of Venice (“Repubblica Di Venezzia”) was a military power in the 15th Century, but one torn by constant strife with the Ottoman Empire (and occasionally the Duchy of Milan).  Players therefore attain power exclusively through the use of Assassins.  Due to the covert nature of the infiltration, the benefits are small, both in terms of family power and in terms of rewards to be reaped from the province.
  • The Duchy of Milan (“Ducato Di Milano”) was a center of Renaissance learning and culture, but was nevertheless capable of being influenced through the exertion of righteous force (represented in Il Vecchio by the combination of knights and abbots).
  • The Papal States (“Stato Della Chiesa”) are the single-most costly province to take over, requiring a significant cash expenditure and three followers per family member.  However, due to its diffuse power structure (though nominally under control of papacy, the 15th Century Papal States was in practice a territory ruled by a number of minor princes), the Papal States provide players with significant flexibility, both in the type of followers utilized and the nature of the rewards to be gained.  Additionally, the region’s prominence brought great power to controlling families.

In each of these provinces, the greatest rewards are available for those who act early.  Latecomers are faced with both increased costs and significantly diminished power opportunities.  However, family members committed to the regions will never return.

B.  The Squirearchy and Florentine Offices

The counterpoint to infiltrating neighboring provinces, players may also acquire power for their family by increasing their prominence within the city of Florence (“Florenza”).  Family members sent to Florence must commit to one of two paths.  The City Council (“Consiglio”) track offers immediate power gains, and the opportunity to acquire special abilities that will help players acquire more resources throughout the game.  The Nobility (“Nobilta”) track, by contrast, provides players with fewer (and lesser) immediate benefits, but an opportunity for greater power at game’s end by acquiring secret personal objectives.

In either case, entry into Florence requires two scrolls, which can only be attained in four towns (or possibly as a consequence of a prior conquest of a neighboring region), which are not surprisingly highly contests.  Early in the game, an office on the City Council track also costs an additional three florins (money); at approximately the game’s halfway point, that extra cost shifts to the Nobility track instead.  The family member committed to an office occupies the chosen track, and is therefore unavailable, for the rest of the game.

Beyond those discussed, a handful of other towns provide players with money, carriages (to reduce the costs of travel), and favors from local bishops (to reduce the dependence on middlemen).

(Middlemen and their associated benefits: abbots, knights,
assassins, florins, scrolls, carriages, and bishop tokens.)

C.  Il Vecchio Events

The pace of the game is marked by Il Vecchio events, which thematically represent the Medici family lashing out as their relative power in Tuscany wanes.  Generally only minor hindrances, these events will increasingly be triggered as players continue to acquire power on each of the region and Florence tracks (as compensation, the player who triggered each event gets a point at the end of the game).  Each game begins with a limited number of events in play and the depletion of these events triggers the end of the game and the total collapse of the Medici dynasty.

At the end of the game, players not only gain the points they may have accumulated throughout the game, but the player with the majority of family members on each track (region, City Council, and Nobility) scores bonus points, as does any player with at least one family member on each track.

II.  Thoughts

Among Eurogamers with a preference for complexity, conventional wisdom held that Rüdiger Dorn’s best days were behind him.  His only three games to rank as at least “middleweight” on the BGG scale—Goa, Traders of Genoa, and Louis XIV—are unquestionably his most highly regarded.  They are also each more than seven years old.  In fact, none of Dorn’s five highest-ranked games were released in the last half-decade.  He has seemingly been replaced by Stefan Feld as the standard-bearer of the German school of design.  Recently, Dorn himself admitted that he believes his contributions are no longer needed in the arena of gamers’ games.

I would like to be able to tell you that Il Vecchio bucks the conventional wisdom—that it represents a “return to glory” for one of the great game designers of the modern era.  Inspirational, heartwarming, and just a little bit cliché, that review could write itself.  The truth, as always, is a little less clear.  Il Vecchio is an exemplar of the consummate Eurogame: its simple, subtle ruleset disguises a depth of play; its theming restrained, yet evocative (neither distracting nor incongruous).  Yet we—as gamers; as audience—have been here before.

That said, I find myself drawn to Il Vecchio for the ways in which it stands out from other conventional Eurogames, not for its similarity to them.

First, there is a subset of games within the engine-building resource-efficiency genre that infuriate me.  For lack of a better nomenclature, I’ll call them “tipping point” games.  The defining feature of a tipping point game is that early investment in resource-generating infrastructure is inevitably better than early acquisition of victory points, and late acquisition of victory points is inevitably better than further investment in infrastructure.  The key to these games is to suss out the tipping point: the moment when one flips the switch from engine-building to engine-running, as it were.

Dorn could have easily and justifiably relied on this well-worn convention in designing Il Vecchio, which in many ways resembles a generic engine-building game.  Instead, he explicitly designed the game to counteract that very pattern.  In the case of region conquest, the best point-scoring opportunities are available to the first-movers (the costs for each subsequent family member go up while the benefits simultaneously diminish).  Within Florence, the City Council track is most costly when it is most useful (early in the game) while the nobility track is cheapest precisely when you are least inclined to spend your resources on end-game bonus points.  This counter-intuitive incentive structure keeps the game feeling fresh and interesting for me throughout.  It also greatly increases the sense of player interaction, as the first-mover incentives are relative to other players while the engine-building incentives are fixed.

Second, the game’s clever use of family member movement and spatial relationships creates the general sense of a multiple-paths-to-victory game without depending on the existence of rigid, pre-defined paths.  The key to success in the game is action efficiency.  Accumulating family members takes actions, but it decreases movement costs and increases the efficiency of the recovery action.  Recovering inactive family members takes actions, but using middlemen (which renders family members inactive) saves on bishop tokens, which take actions to accumulate.  Players can thus succeed with many workers, few workers, active workers, inactive workers, and perhaps all of the above at various points in the same game.  Layer that on top of the intricate timing decisions regarding which resources to acquire, when to acquire them, and how and when to convert them to points-scoring opportunities, and Il Vecchio presents an engaging whole that is far better than one might expect from its familiar-seeming exterior.

I can’t and won’t try to convince you that Dorn is somehow “back.”  I am happy to tell you, however, that Il Vecchio is a tight, clever middleweight design.  It is a throwback; reminiscent of games seemingly not made anymore, Il Vecchio is also the closest thing to the masterpieces of Dorn’s heyday that we’ve seen from him in a while.  While I suspect it does not have the weight or depth needed to justify a place on my shelf years from now, it is among this year’s better titles and I can easily imagine playing and enjoying more over the next year than most comparable, more-heralded games.

Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Tom Rosen:  I just have to start out by saying that the first paragraph of the review above concerning the “theme” was completely foreign to me despite having played the game.  The part about family members going into hiding from Il Vecchio was also a bit fanciful, as it’s simply more akin to the tapping of a resource (or the abstract use and recovery of workers as seen in Tournay and other games).  Il Vecchio is essentially a game with familiar pickup-and-deliver and area majority mechanisms.  You pick up abbots, assassins, knights, and scrolls in the various towns and deliver them to the center or corners of the board (by the way, the presence of assassins and knights makes this sound much more thrilling than it actually is).  You want to have an area majority (technically plurality) in as many of the center and corner regions at the end of the game as possible.  It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  Then again, I do agree with Ben that the counterintuitive incentives are a big plus for this game.  There are so many games, like Saint Petersburg, where you start off going for income generation and have to decide when to shift to victory point generation.  It rarely makes for an engaging and compelling experience that can stand up to more than a handful of plays.  In Il Vecchio, the cost of tiles and locations subtly shifts during the game so as to make them more costly when they’re more useful (for both income and VP generation in inverted ways), which may make for more interesting and challenging decisions.  Then again, it may just be a balancing mechanism that makes everything even out in the end and makes all paths viable.  I rated the game neutral for now because I need to play it another couple times to see how it stands up.  I’ll say that there are many new Essen games this year that I liked less than it, but on the other hand many that I liked more, so it’s a middleweight that’s also a middle rank for me.  I just have to end by mentioning that Ben leaves out Dorn’s fourth good middleweight game, Arkadia, which I’d put up there with Goa, Traders, and Louis in his stable of lasting design achievements.

Dale Yu: I have played the game four times now, and my rating has gone from “I love it” to “I like it” to its current place as “Neutral”.  After my first game, I enjoyed the discovery of the mechanics and the different powers (scoring criteria) of the bonus tiles.  The movement mechanic was also a challenge to figure out in the first game.  However, after repeated plays, the shine has come off the game somewhat.  First, though the game offers players multiple starting bonus tiles to choose from, an unbalanced start here can start the game off with some players having a decided advantage – the tiles that seem particularly strong are the tiles which give the bonus on getting pope hats and wheels. Being able to freely move around the board and take free actions has proven to be a very powerful strategy.  Especially in a 4p game where there is a lot of competition for the middlemen, being able to have a steady source of “free” actions which do not cause your meeple to get tired is a huge advantage IMHO. That being said, I do like the fact that there appear to be multiple paths to victory.  You can choose to concentrate in placing people in the external areas.  Not only do you score a good amount of VPs, but some of the special abilities on the region tiles are quite powerful as well.  You could also try to concentrate on the end-game bonus tiles and then craft your play to maximize those points.  In the end though, I’m not sure if that is true – as I’ve never solely concentrated on one strategy in a game.  Maybe it’s better just to say that there are many different ways to score points, so you continually are looking for ways to score points. In the end, Il Vecchio is a solid game.  Every mechanic in the game works, and it has been enjoyable to play – four times so far – which is more than many games get post-Essen.  But, at this time, I don’t know if there is more desire to play the game again, and that’s why I’m neutral on it.

Jennifer Geske: I have a similar experience to Dale’s. After the first play, I rated the game as ‘I like it’ and 2 more plays later I am now neutral about the game. I like being able to choose end-game bonus point tiles early so I can devise a strategy to maximize those points. As a result, players may go after different things instead of doing the same thing as it often is the case with new games that no one has played before. However, the points gained by going to provinces during the game are significant so players are then encouraged to try to have a balanced approach. I think the game wants you to think that there are multiple paths to victory, but in the end, you have to do a bit of everything (the Il Vecchio tiles being the one exception if you don’t have the end-game bonus tile for collecting those tiles). I do agree with Ben that the transition from engine-building (having all the workers out gathering resources) and engine-using (sending workers to provinces or Florence for VP but in essence removing them from your engine) is interesting, but those decisions seem more tactical than strategic. The game play works well (the only delay in our sessions are from players reading descriptions to all the tiles from the rulebook) but it feels somewhat mechanical. It’s a game that I am willing to play if requested but I probably won’t ask to play it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!
I like it.  Ben McJunkin, Doug Garrett
Neutral.  Tom Rosen, Dale Yu, Lucas Hedgren, Jennifer Geske
Not for me…

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