SdJ Re-Reviews #24: Villa Paletti

  • Designer:  Bill Payne
  • Publisher:  Zoch Verlag, Multiple Others
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  6 and Up
  • Time:  30 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 10

VP Cover

Villa Paletti: A dexterity game beats Puerto Rico and Transamerica…

Bill Payne was babysitting his nephew, Joey, who was playing with wooden blocks that came in a tray.  Payne suddenly got the inspiration for a new game, so he grabbed some kitchen pans, a few Jenga pieces (which Payne jokingly calls his “kryptonite”), and started making a game that would eventually be Villa Paletti.  After many variations and after a couple of years, the prototype was complete.  

Payne showed the game to a company in Canada near where he lives.  They suggested that he get in touch with a broker out of Israel named Abe Mor.  Abe put Payne in touch with his daughter, Inbar Lushi with BarDavid Toys and Games, as well as about twenty other companies.  One of them was Zoch Verlag, who picked up the game and released it in Fall 2001.  Payne credits Zoch for putting an excellent finish on the game: “They took the risk and they are the real reason that Villa Paletti is what it is.  I’m grateful to them and love the games they put out.”

The game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2002, going up against Puerto Rico and TransAmerica.  Puerto Rico is the highest BGG-ranked game to have ever been nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, and TransAmerica has itself proven quite popular over the years, so to say it was a tough year is an understatement.  Payne said he was thrilled just to be nominated; his agent thought it wouldn’t go past that.  Everybody anticipated the winner would be Puerto Rico, and given the complexity of SdJ winners from 1995-2000, such a belief was not unwarranted.  Payne says he remembers reading internet comments saying that Villa Paletti had no chance.

Much to everybody’s surprise — including Payne’s — Villa Paletti won.  The jury cited the exciting and “daredevil” gameplay.  Payne was thrilled, and he says he celebrated for the rest of the night.  In retrospect, it was not all that surprising of a pick: the jury was seemingly looking for family-style games after Torres didn’t break the 300,000 unit sales mark.  Villa Paletti marked a second datapoint in a nearly decade-long streak of the jury picking lighter games.  More importantly, the jury seems to have always prized having a variety of games win the SdJ, such that German families purchasing all of them have a nice game collection.  Villa Paletti was the first dexterity game to win the award, and it marked the first win for Zoch Verlag (a company known for dexterity games), putting that company on the map.  Villa Paletti ranked fourth in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year.  

Bill Payne has designed several other games over the years, and he continues to design them today.  He told me he has several designs ready for the right publishing company.  He designs games to bring people together.  As he told me, “I simply wanted to make games that brought people together for interaction.  I didn’t like the way video games seemed to isolate people and in a way wanted to fight against that.  I wasn’t trying to make games of the sophistication of many great games out there, I was just trying to bring people together for fun.”

Bill Payne runs a soup kitchen in Canada which serves about 400 meals a day.  He has occasionally joked that he got the idea for Villa Paletti when he was carrying a stash of dishes around.  He told me he used to have a Villa Paletti hat he would wear around which got quite a bit of attention.

Villa Paletti has gone on to sell about 600,000 units and is printed in nearly a dozen languages.  It is still in print today.  The game has one spinoff — Palazzo Paletti — that is basically a gigantic version.  

[A big thanks to Bill Payne for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Villa Paletti.  Without his participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]

The Gameplay

The below review focuses on the four-player game.  I’m using the rules from the University Games edition, although photos are from the Zoch edition.  

There are twenty columns in the game, five in each of four colours: three thin round columns, one thicker round column, and one thicker hexagonal column.  The columns are all placed onto the base plate at the start of the game (inside the green border), and the first floor (the blue one) is put on the columns so that it doesn’t extend beyond the borders of the base plate.

Villa Paletti

The youngest player takes the master builder seal (a four-sided dice) and rolls to determine his or her color for the game.  All of the players in turn then roll to choose a color, re-rolling as necessary.  The starting player is the last player, who does not need to roll for color.

On a player’s turn, he removes one of his columns of his choice and places it on the uppermost floor.  Once the column is placed, his turn is over.  Once a player has touched a column he may not pick another, but he may abandon his attempt to move that column and end his turn.

If a player think they cannot move a new column without causing collapse, he or she may suggest adding a new floor.  Other players may object, and if an objection is raised, the objector must remove a column of his/her choice from below the uppermost floor.  If that player succeeds, he or she takes any column and removes it from the game.  But if he or she fails, the Builder who suggested adding a new floor takes any column of the Objector’s color and removes it from the game.  If there are no objections, the new builder places the next platform in line and puts a column on it.

Each column size has a point value (see point value below).  Points are calculated on the uppermost floor only.

  • Small Round Columns = 1 Point
  • Large Hexagon Columns = 2 Points
  • Large Round Columns = 3 Points

Once the green platform has been placed, the players begin competing for the master seal.  The first builder to place a column on the green platform takes the Master Seal.  It changes hands whenever a player gets a better score, at which time the new seal holder puts the color of the previous seal holder face up.  When a new level (platform) is added, each player’s points return to zero, and the first to place a column gets the seal.

The game ends when the structure collapses, or when no player can build any more.  The winner is the player who owns the Master Builder’s Seal when either occurs, unless that player causes the building to collapse – in which case the winner is the last person to have owned the Seal before the Builder who destroyed Paletti’s Villa, indicated by the color facing up on the seal.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I remember being confused the first time I played Villa Paletti, so much so that I logged onto BGG to verify that I had indeed purchased the correct game.  By that point I had acquired and played quite a few SdJ titles, and this was far outside of the norm.  This wasn’t a Eurogame: it was a dexterity game!  The gameplay was laugh-out-loud fun for my group, but in my comments on BGG, I said it was an unusual pick for the SdJ and wrote it off as not being for me.  Thinking I wouldn’t play it again, I gave my copy to a friend.  

Months later a series of factors caused me to reconsider my position.  I had acquired almost all of the other SdJ titles, and the completionist in me required that I have Villa Paletti.  I also realized about that time that my game collection was lacking a dexterity game, despite the fact that I had tried several.  I started thinking about dexterity games I actually enjoyed (I hate most of them), and Villa Paletti was, in my mind, one of the better ones.  So I threw a Zoch copy on one of my orders from Germany, and Villa Paletti sits on my shelf today.  

(One other factor that contributed to my initial dislike of the game: I played where you could move anybody’s column.  There is a mistranslation of the rules on BGG that provides for this, so I suspect the error has affected a few game groups.  The game is much better with the correct rules.)

Opinionated Gamer Jeff Myers (in a well-written and highly comical review) once said that Villa Paletti fits into a category of games best described as  “things are going to fall down games.”  It is a narrow subset of dexterity games, but one that most people have experience with from childhood.  I consider Villa Paletti to be the finest of the “things are going to fall down” games, one that is strategic enough for gamers but approachable enough for non-gamers.  There is actually quite a bit of strategy here, particularly in which column you move and where on a new platform you place your column.  It requires planning plus some basic insights into the laws of gravity (insights that my brain, unfortunately, lacks).

The joy in this game is building the tower knowing that at some point it is going to come crashing down.  It is fun, and my plays rarely last more than twenty minutes, an appropriate timeframe for such games.  The gameplay is always tense, and I’ve enjoyed my plays.

I have two criticisms of Villa Paletti.  First, it isn’t clear to me how to resolve a situation where more than one player quibbles with adding a new floor.  We always play where you ask in turn order.  Secondly, the fight for the master builder seal can be less than intuitive.  As Jeff Myers points out,  “things are going to fall down games” have a natural loser, and it sometimes feels like the game is awkwardly trying to force there to be a winner.  

So what’s my verdict on Villa Paletti?  I have to go with “neutral.”  I’ve always found it to be an objectively fine game, and indeed it is one of the best dexterity games out there.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t a genre that appeals to me, in part because I’m terrible at them.  But nonetheless, the game is worth checking out, and I think it is a solid addition to any well-rounded game collection.  And I’ve had quite a few people I’ve played it with enjoy it: it is one of the few games my non-gamer brother seems to enjoy.  

Would Villa Paletti win the SdJ today?  Possibly, perhaps even probably.  As I said above, I think the jury aims to have a variety of games win the award (although they publicly deny doing this).  If the jury hadn’t picked Villa Paletti in 2002, there would not be a dexterity game winner, and I think this would be a genre they would actively seek to reward.  Villa Paletti hits all of the right notes: it is easy-to-understand, family-friendly, well presented, and fun.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (1 play): I’m not generally a big fan of dexterity games; there are a very few which have stood out sufficiently for me to join my collection.  But most are one-play-and-done.  And Villa Paletti was clearly in that bucket.  It’s an OK game – but with some rules quibbles as Chris notes.  If pushed, I might play again – but I’d rather try a dexterity game I haven’t played before.

Patrick Brennan: The family has had good fun with this over the years, but it’s only ever been a now and then type of game . As more columns come out, you eventually get to the point where the floor is left standing on just 3 or even 2 columns. At the point where everyone agrees that no column could possibly come out without everything toppling, add on the next floor and proceed ever higher. Up to about 6 floors high, each floor smaller in size … after which you place columns end to end on top of columns!

The columns are subtly different lengths, so by placing columns on the edges of the floors above, you may shift the floor to be leaning more on different columns underneath, freeing up a previously load-bearing column. That’s as far as strategy goes. To win, when it tumbles, you need to have had the most points in columns (there are three different thicknesses worth 1 to 3) on the previous floor and not actually cause the Villa to crash down yourself.

The game seems to draw you in, more like a cooperative venture than anything, to see how wild a villa you can build, pushing the edges of balance. Gathering your own coloured columns seems de rigeur in an attempt to be the Master Builder, but the point of the game isn’t really about winning or losing … it’s all about the fun of the build.

Larry:  I’m a fairly clumsy fellow, so I rarely get much enjoyment out of dexterity games.  But even ignoring that, the selection of Villa Paletti for SdJ is a real headscratcher.  There just isn’t much there.  If the jury had to select such a game for the big prize, why not a truly clever one, like Hamsterrolle?  And it’s not sour grapes over the games left behind.  I adore Puerto Rico, but I knew it had no chance for the award.  And I’ve never been a fan of TransAmerica.  Still, the latter game would have been a far better choice for the SdJ.  Oh well, the jury always manages to surprise us and in 2002, the surprise was a doozy!

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  
  • I like it.  Patrick B.
  • Neutral.  Chris W.
  • Not for me… Joe H., Larry

[Series Note: The SdJ series is taking a brief break for our coverage up to Essen.  We’ll be back in October.]

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2 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #24: Villa Paletti

  1. Mikko Saari says:

    I still play the game. That’s something.

  2. I never thought of Villa Paletti as a special game. Its a solid dexterity game, nothing more. So I was quite surprised by the award.
    Shortly afterwards the jury split, apparently over the course the award was suppose to be taken. Some wanted to award more heavier games (like Torres etc) and the others wanted to take a lighter, more family accesible path. Rumors have it, that the former all rooted for Puerto Rico and the latter all for Transamerica and Villa palletti won, because it was everyones second choice. I dont know if thats true, but one of the jury members that left (and was advocating a heavier prize) did wrote some reviews for the Spielbox back then and sometime spit a bit vitriol towards the jury in them.

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