Dale Yu: Review of Calimala

 

Calimala

  • Designer: Fabio Lopiano
  • Publisher: ADC Blackfire
  • Players: 3-5
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 75-90 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by ADC Blackfire

Blackfire has been one of those companies that has been on the periphery of my attention.  In most years at Essen, I’d walk by their huge green booth – usually in the fantasy/role playing hall – and at least note the logo.  Over the past few years, I had started to run by the booth if only because they gave some of their space to Spielworxx – a company that specializes in the more complex games in our hobby.  In the past two years now, Blackfire has taken on a few games that cater more to my side of the hobby, and Calimala has highly touted to me from inside sources as a game to check out while at the 2017 SPIEL fair.

I had a nice talk with Robert, head of Blackfire, who told me that the company was looking to devote more energy into the strategy game market.  Last year, they had produced the standalone dice followup to La Granga called La Granga: No Siesta.  The original version (and more complex version) of the game had been done by Spielworxx in the past, so the dividing line between the companies can look a bit blurry.

In any event, Calimala is sold as a consummate “Eurogame”.  Prior to ADC Blackfire’s production of it, the game had already won accolades as the Hippodice award winner for 2016 – a fairly wellknown design competition.  Though it is unclear to me whether the games went together or not, Blackfire also had published the previous (2015) winner, West of Africa.   Honestly, a number of winners from this competition have made it to the big show: https://boardgamegeek.com/wiki/page/Hippodice_Spieleautorenwettbewerb

In any event, I was excited to give the game a try.  In Calimala, players are members of the cloth making guild in Florence, trying to produce and trade cloth and then sell it off to foreign markets.  The board is split up into three main areas: an area for scoring tiles, an action selection area and a places in Florence and around the world to place worker cubes.  In addition, each player receives their own warehouse board where they store their materials as well as receive a nice small player aid to remind them of their options.

Courtesy of Henk Rolleman

To start the game, the 8 action tiles are shuffled and placed on the empty spaces in the action area – the centermost spot here is pre-printed on the board.  Additionally, the 15 scoring tiles are shuffled and placed face up in random fashion onto the scoring area.  Each player takes the pieces in his chosen color and the warehouse board that matches it.  Among these pieces are action discs, 10 of the player’s color in a 4p game as well as two neutral white discs.  There is a deck of endgame scoring cards, players are dealt some and must keep one of these – the others are discarded unseen into the game box. Finally, a set of action cards are dealt out and these are drafted in reverse player order so that each player has one Action card to start the game.

The game is played over a number of rounds – until either the fifteenth scoring tile has been dealt with OR when all players have played ALL their action markers to the board.   On a player’s turn, the player places an action piece from his supply onto one of the round spaces which lie between two action tiles.  If there are already other pieces there, the active piece is placed on top of the stack.  The player can use a disc of his color or can use a white disc if he still has one.

The active player now gets to do both of the actions which are adjacent to this space on the board.  He can do them in either order.  If the player played a white disc, he will get to take each action twice – and these can be done in any permutation.  If there is an action which the player cannot take at all, he skips that action and draws an Action card instead.  The Action cards have the icons for actions on them, and these cards can be played at any time later in the game in addition to the actions granted to you by playing your disc.  You must be able to take one of the two actions where you place your piece; you may not place your piece to draw two action cards.

Courtesy of Henk Rolleman

Once the active player is done, move down the stack of pieces on that space.  The players in the second from the top and the third from the top positions also get to take the same adjacent actions.  If they are unable to take an action, they draw an Action card for each action they cannot take.  If there happens to be a fourth disc in the stack, it is NOT activated.  Instead, it is taken from the board, and moved to the next unclaimed scoring tile in the scoring area – and that tile is then scored (more on this later…)

OK – so let me describe the nine possible actions

Wood: put a cube into your wood warehouse space in your player board.  There is a max of 4 which can be stored here.  If you already had a full wood warehouse, you would draw an Action card instead

Brick: put a cube into your brick warehouse space in your player board.  There is a max of 4 which can be stored here. If you already had a full brick warehouse, you would draw an Action card instead

Marble: put a cube into your marble warehouse space in your player board.  There is a max of 4 which can be stored here. If you already had a full marble warehouse, you would draw an Action card instead

Build: you can build one thing – a ship for 2 wood, a trade house for 2 brick, or a workshop for one wood and one brick.  Ships are placed onto your player mat.  Trade houses are placed on the spaces above on of the three trade cities on the board.  Workshops are places to store cloth; you start with one on your mat and can build up to two more.  If you do not have enough to build, draw a card.

Weave: put a cube into EACH your cloth workshops on your player board.  If you have the full complement of three workshops, you would get 3 cloth cubes.   If you had only full workshops and were not able to take a single cube, you would draw an Action card instead

Artwork:  move a cube from your marble warehouse onto an artwork space under one of the four buildings in Florence.  If you do not have a marble cube, draw a card.

Ship: a player transports a cloth cube with EACH of his ships to a port city, so long as that port city still has an empty slot.  Only if all port cities are full – OR the player has no cloth cubes or no ships does the player draw a card.

Transport: the player transports one cloth cube to each of the cities in which he has a trade house – no more than one cube per city.  Only if all the trade cities where he has a house are filled OR if he has no trade houses OR if he has no cloth cubes will the player draw a card instead.

Contribute: the player takes a cube of his choice (wood, brick, or marble) and moves it into the corresponding row into one of the four Florentine buildings.  Only if all matching slots are filled corresponding to his cubes will the player take an Action card.

Courtesy of Henk Rolleman

OK, those are the actions – now back to the scoring… Each time that a stack gets 4 action discs on it, there will be a scoring after the first 3 players in the stack have taken their two actions.  Remember, the bottom-most marker does not activate for the actions, instead it is moved into the scoring area where it is placed on the next empty scoring tile.  If this disc was white, the active player takes this white disc and places it in his supply and replaces it what a disc of his own color which is then placed on a scoring tile.

Courtesy of the game designer, Fabio Lopiano

There are fifteen different tiles, but they can be split into 5 broad categories.  You simply look at the icon on the tile, score the pictured criteria by counting player cubes that relate to that icon.  The player with the most cubes will get 3 VP, second place gets 2VP, and third place gets 1V.  In case of a tie, the player with the most discs in the scoring area as well artwork contributed to the Palazzo Vecchio will break the tie.

Cities (6) – count up player cubes in the pictured city

Goods (4) – in the four Florentine buildings, count up player cubes in the pictured building material

Buildings (3) – three of the Florentine buildings are depicted, count up all player cubes in that particular building

Port cities (1) – count up all cubes in the three port cities of Barcelona, Lisbon and London combined

Trade Cities (1) – count up all cloth cubes in the three trade cities of Bruges, Hamburg and Troyes combined

Courtesy of Henk Rolleman

Once the scoring is complete, the active player’s turn is over and the next player takes his turn by placing an action marker on the board.

The game continues until one of two endgame criteria are met.  If the fifteenth scoring tile has been resolved, play continues until the end of the round so that all players have played the same number of discs and the game ends.  The game can also end if the players have played all colored and white action discs to the board.

There is a bit of end-game scoring.  If the game ended by placing all the tiles, the remaining unscored tiles of the fifteen are all scored.  Then, the scoring cards which were chosen at the start of the game are now revealed – each shows one of the six cities or one of the four Florentine buildings.  Cubes are counted for each thing revealed, and 5/3/1 points are scored for 1st/2nd/3rd in each criteria.  The player with the most points wins.  Ties are broken in favor of the player with the most discs in the scoring area.

Courtesy of the game designer, Fabio Lopiano

My thoughts on the game

Calimala was a fairly anticipated game for me this year, and it did not disappoint.  The action selection mechanic (as well as the use of action cards) is something which I had not really seen prior to this game.  I find that the random organization of the tiles will help keep the game fresh between plays as players cannot always know the optimal spaces to place their action discs.

Though the action selection feels fresh, what I like most about the game is that it really feels “old school” – as in, I could picture myself having played this back in 1998 rather than 2018.  The possible actions are not many (only 9 different choices), but how you combine those actions and the order that you take them in is important.  Heck, even figuring out when you can’t take an action can be important… Though the draw of action cards is random, they are a nice way of storing up actions to use on a later turn, especially when you don’t want to be limited to just two actions on a particular go.

Timing can be everything as far as scoring goes.  I have found that I really need to keep an eye on the status of the stacks in the action area and really try to plan for the next two to three scoring tiles as I take my turn.  With fifteen different criteria, you’re not going to be able to score in all of them, but if you can choose your spots, you can hopefully get a number of first place rewards.  This is even more important at the beginning of the game when sometimes one or two cubes may be enough to get the 3VP score for first place.  Depending on the board situation, you might even choose an action location because it will trigger a scoring (or perhaps put a scoring off for a turn so that you can improve your position in that race).

The unknown scoring cards compel you to continue playing in areas even after the scoring tile for that thing has come and gone.  You can often deduce what other scoring cards are in play based on where your opponents place their cubes, and the higher payoffs of the hidden endgame scoring cards is often enough to swing the balance in the final reckoning.  This helps to keep the game interesting in the waning moments, and it also helps keep the value up of all the different action choices in the latter portion of the game.

I think there is a bit of a question about balance due to turn order.  I don’t think that it’s a huge issue, but there does seem to be a calculable and definite advantage to going earlier in turn order.  To start, players need resource cubes to do anything at the start of the game, and the first player is likely going to choose to gain resources.  So will later players, and this means that the starting player will likely have a small but measureable resource advantage early in the game as the player who played first will likely get to repeat his actions sooner.  There is obviously a much better chance that an earlier played disc will get all three of its actions as well as promotion to the scoring area to be used in tiebreakers.

Second, the tie breakers are in favor of the player whose discs were placed in the scoring area of the board first, and again, the starting player has the upper hand here.  I will say that in my three games, the starting player has not seemed to have an oppressive advantage, but it did seem like that player was always a little ahead.  

I know that three games is not enough to make any real conclusions, but in those games, the winner has been the start player twice and the second player once.  Again, too early to say that it is truly unbalanced, and I have faith in the two developers as they have both done great work in the past, but I think it should be mentioned as this issue has come up in discussion after each of my games. [NB: I have in fact spoken with one of the two listed developers, and they agree that they the considered the same issues which I brought up above, but they felt that the game balanced these things out.  First, the choice of action card to start the game in reverse order somewhat mitigates the need to go to the same spot that the first player might choose, and the fact that the order of scoring opportunites are known in advance may make people go in different directions from the start…  At this time, I certainly don’t think that this is a game-breaking difference… and this comes from a developer who completed work on a game (Dominion) that most definitely has a slight but measurable first player advantage, so I know that games do not live or die by this!]

As with most Lieske games, the artwork is clean and easy on the eyes.  The icons are easy to identify and understand, even from across the board, and this helps keep the game moving along.  I like the addition of the player aid on the left of the player mat as this helps everyone understand their options at all times.

Thus far, I have liked my three games.  I think that the shuffling of the action tiles helps make each game feel a little different, and the varied arrangement of the scoring tiles makes it difficult to have a fixed strategy that will work for every game.  I will see if the first player advantage continues to be seen in my future playings of the game, but again, for now, I am putting my trust in the designer and developers that this isn’t really an issue.  For now, this has a spot on my game shelves as I still would like to explore it more.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Luke H: I liked the action selection system. Interesting, interactive, and variable. I wish it could have been applied to something other than a majorities game on the back end.

 

Jonathan F: I agree with Luke that the nine-action system (12 action spaces) has lots of promise with other game systems and that while area majority is easy and makes sense, The game might be fun with something else.  My persona gripe is that taking an action because you want more cards feels a bit ‘cheap’, even if you have to take at least one action from the two available and you are getting mystery actions.  I would prefer it if there were a disincentive to the active player choosing the spot primarily to take cards.  In some cases, the card chains right before scoring a port city seemed quite strong relative the action board.  Not sure if forbidding playing cards you receive that turn would address this.  I would happily play it again, but am not sure I can see owning it, as most plays have been quite a bit longer than that listed on the box.

 

Alan H: prior to Essen this was on my get at all costs list, but as a friend was getting a copy I resisted. Having played the game now it is somewhere between like and neutral and heading downwards. The game is fine, everything works and the stacking idea is novel but I’m not sure if it’s enough fun. I found more frustrations from the timing than enjoyment; I concerned myself more with how others might benefit and so my thoughts were curbed by this rather than how I might do. So for me I’m pleased to have played and not seeking my own copy.

 

James Nathan (3 plays): My feelings were well expressed by Luke and Alan above.

 

Larry (1 play):  At its heart, Calimala is a pretty simple game.  The two main innovations are the action selection system and all its ramifications (including triggering other players’ actions, generating scoring, and moving discs into the city council), and the fact that the order of the scorings is known from the beginning of the game.  Everything else is very straightforward.  Normally, this would disappoint me, but I think it was a good choice to insert these into a simple, old fashioned majorities game, as it allows the players to focus on the very interesting implications of the two mechanisms cited above.

The action selection system is very good and leads to plenty of tough decisions.  Weighing the actions you select against possibly assisting opponents or triggering scorings a bit prematurely is fun.  There’s a lot of different paths to take and they seem to be very well balanced.  I love that this plays 5, since so few games can handle that number these days.  Everyone enjoyed our one game and the scores were very close.

However, I have some nagging doubts about the design that is keeping me from giving Calimala a higher rating.  With only one game under my belt, these concerns may all be overblown, but here are the things that trouble me a bit:

*   As Dale mentions, it sure seems like there’s an early player order advantage.  Earlier discs mean more chances to get free actions and representation in the city council.  Maybe this is counterbalanced by the later players getting the last shot at things at the end of the game, but I have my doubts.

*    In our game, players drew a lot of cards.  Having good luck with these seems pretty important, as you have no way of using useless or mediocre draws.  Maybe the players should be able to turn in 2 or 3 cards to take the action of their choice, possibly at a cost—something to let them use those crappy cards and keep up with their more fortunate opponents.

*   Hidden scoring objectives can be problematic and that’s the case here again.  Calimala avoids the worst problems with this (when players are randomly assigned the same objective), as all the cards are different.  But there’s still a reasonable possibility that someone will invest heavily on the goal of your card, just by chance, forcing you to fight for your VPs, while others have no such competition.  The points are sufficient high that it’s pretty important to hold service on the card you choose, so this is not a small issue.

*    I think there’s a lot of possibility for kingmaking here.  In most cases, it’s your opponents who determine when scorings occur and the actions they take on those turns will often favor one player or another; since they may not be directly involved, this could easily come down to a mental coin flip.  In our game, a player with no chance of winning was able to decide whether the game lasted one more turn or not and that had a strong effect on the outcome.  This can lead to bruised feelings and a general aura of dissatisfaction with the outcome.

*    Finally, even though I felt my choices were interesting throughout the game, I wasn’t sure if I had as much control as I wanted.  So much is determined by others and you just can’t anticipate what everyone else will do.  It probably didn’t help that we played with 5; even though it was enjoyable with that number, the game might be better and more predictable with 4.  But you may always feel you’re riding a bucking bronco with any number of players.

Don’t get me wrong—I honestly enjoyed my game and look forward to playing it some more.  But those are a lot of concerns to have.  Hopefully, the central mechanisms will prove to be strong enough to overcome those doubts and allow Calimala to become a regular part of our rotation.  But because of them, I’m not sure it’s a game I’ll ever love.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Larry
  • Neutral. Luke H, Jonathan F, Alan H, James Nathan
  • Not for me…

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2017, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Calimala

  1. I’m surprised folks didn’t like this more. It was a pretty big hit with the couple groups I played with. Oh well. Anyway, it’s mostly moot for the NA audience, as it’s not available domestically anyway.

  2. gamekahuna says:

    Curt, With more plays, I both liked it more and found that sometimes you got messed over by groupthink. If you try to be the bottom of stacks you think will be used often and that does not end up being the case, it can really hurt you. If I were rating it now, I’d say Like It, but have had games that left a bad taste in my mouth as others go speeding past me on the score track.

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