James Nathan: Strasbourg

Strasbourg

Designer: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Pegasus Spiele
Players: 3-5
Ages: 12+
Time: 60 minutes
Times Played: 9 times with purchased copies

In college, I had a math professor who liked to visit the college’s rare book room once a semester to pull out some significant texts, and the occasional novelty. One of the folios was a table of prime numbers from the late 1700s. More specifically, volume 2. As the story goes, volume 1 was such a best seller, they put together a sequel, and after it went to print, many errors were discovered in the original, so the second run was sold to the Turkish army for cannon target practice. This was the second volume.

Or at least that’s how I’ve been telling the story for years. I reached out to Prof. Reznick in an act of self-ombudsmanship for this review and he corrected my memory on some of that under a warranty his class came with 16 years ago. (Get you a professor that gives out class warranties; you never know when it’ll come in handy.). The story came from p. 349 of a 1919 book on the history of number theory. As it turned out, there was no second edition (and likely never a “bestselling” table of prime numbers anywhere ever), there were in fact “no purchasers of the part printed”, and all but a “few copies” were “used for cartridges in the Turkish war.”

Anyway, the point (and now the meta-point) is, getting the facts straight is important.

This wasn’t how I intended to start this review, but I’m going to save that anecdote for another occasion. We got here because I was trying to read up on the history of journalism corrections. I didn’t find much until I switched to reading about the history of typos, and things became much more interesting -including a conference you can attend to listen to scholarly lectures on such topics, but then I smelled a Turkish madeleine and here we are.

Anyway, the point is I just noticed that years ago in a ranking of Feld games, we listed Strasbourg below It Happens! and I wanted to issue a personal correction.

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Strasbourg is a game that for many years fit the following niche for me: I never would recommend playing it, and am usually hesitant if someone else does, but once we’re playing, I remember that I actually love this game. In recent years, I’ve come to that feeling outside of when I’m actively playing it.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-4,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

Strasbourg is played over 5 rounds, and, in general, you’re looking to play your meeples on certain squares in the city, and earn the most (…GASP!) points. The specifics of the 5 rounds are randomized each game, but the rounds will always consist of 7 auctions. Three auctions each round are for the colored areas on the board: shields, feet, barrels, hams, and pretzels. The winner of the auction becomes “King of Hams”, etc., and will place a meeple on the ham within the top central crest, earn a ham token, and be able to pay to place a meeple in a red space, paying the number shown. A second place winner will earn a ham token and be able to place a meeple second, while the third place winner puts an “or” between those two options. (Auction losers get a consolation prize which I’ll get back to.)

Each round will also have three auctions that are “market” actions where you can sell your tokens, each earning money equal to the printed value (which will be the higher of the two values visible on the board); the winner of the last auction becomes the “King of Sacks”.

Each of the six auctions discussed so far are resolved immediately. The seventh auction occurs first, but is resolved last. The winner of the seventh auction becomes “King” and second place becomes “Pope”. Each have a spot in the central crest, and each allows you to place a neutral piece which will cause adjacent meeples to score points. The “Pope” goes first building a white tower of sorts on an intersection of squares. The “King” goes second and places a building on one of the empty squares; each building will cause the orthogonally adjacent meeples to score 2-6 points, depending on the building, and the white tower causes adjacent meeples to score 1 point.

The winner of the last action becomes the start player for the next round; player(s) earn a point for each meeple in the central crest; and the player(s) with the most meeples in the central crest earn a bonus token.

Points are also earned through certain task cards dealt to you at the beginning of the game, with an option to veto some, and these will earn you points if you are able to complete, and lose a few points if you are not. Examples include: have 3 meeples in hams; be the start player at the end of the game; have 3 meeples next to the same building; have 6 meeples on the outside edge.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-4,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

Sounds pretty dull to me. What it does that just tickles me is the auction mechanics of how your bids are formed.

Each player starts the game with a deck of 24 cards – 4 each of 1 through 6. At the start of each round, you’ll draw cards from the top of the deck until you choose to stop. The cards you’ve drawn will be used to form your bid(s) – these can be a single card, or multiple cards. You aren’t obligated to program which auction you’ll use them for, but you’ll likely have a mental plan. You can dance with that other horse midstream.

But you can only go through the deck once. Those 24 cards will need to last for each of the 35 possible auctions (*minor exception below).

The auction is once-a-round, and this adds a palpable pressure to each turn as you evaluate which of your bids fits the scenario best: do I need to be King of Feet, or will third be sufficient? What do I think will be a bid sufficient to get second? The bonus for most meeples in the crest can be used as a “skip” during the auction, and you’ll get the hammer (or 1 point if unused during the game.) If you have bid in an auction and earned nothing, you can recycle one of the cards bid by placing it on the bottom of your deck.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-4,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

How many auctions do you need to win this round? Which auctions do you think the other players will be bidding on this round? How many cards do you need to save for the remaining rounds?

The decisions are tough.

Each of the boroughs is on three of the round tiles, so if you’re destiny is to shoot for three barrel meeples, be prepared to win, place, or show in each of the three barrel rounds. Oh, and maybe win a market action soon before that because you’ll need the cash to place it.

I don’t especially enjoy auction games, but what appeals to me here is the limited bids – I may only have 3 or 4 values to bid each round, and I can only use them each once (and if I don’t use them, I’ve wasted them full stop – sometimes it’s nice to be the auction loser). For me it’s more of a programming game, and those I like quite a bit.

Anyway, the point is, Strasbourg is outstanding, and I thought you should know.

Also, what is right-side up on a pretzel? This seems upside-down to me.
Also, what were the orange and green players doing with their score markers at the end of our last game? I’m onto your shenanigans.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-4,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: As the rules began I was thinking I’m about to enter auction hell, but good old Feldy saved the day. Draw your bidding power from an Ave Caesar deck that has to last you 5 rounds and, knowing what auctions are coming up each turn, separate your bid cards into bid lots which can’t be changed once the round has started. Each auction is then a once-round affair, with people giving up one of their lots as a bid, or not. It’s very much like Ra (great pedigree) but using hidden bid tiles. It misses the fun of the tile-pulls with Ra though because the auctions are set each round – winners get to place meeples on the board, or bonus pieces, or gain money for previously placed meeples so you can place yet more meeples later. There’s a point for winning an auction (mostly), plus motza’s for placing meeples next to bonus pieces, plus more for fulfilling bonus cards at the start of game, usually requiring placing meeples in various areas or patterns. Anyway, add it all up after an hour and see how it turns out. The game can be surprisingly and accidentally cruel if you lose an auction you really needed to win by only having a bid available that’s a dollar short – as there’s nothing you can do about it. So it’s a game mostly about planning ahead a bit and then sucking it up if you didn’t create big enough bids, or getting/feeling lucky if things turn out ok. Which means it wouldn’t enter regular rotation, but I’d be fine playing it if suggested as it plays surprisingly quickly once you get going.

Dan Blum (4 plays): I like this fairly well – better than most Feld designs – but I don’t play it very often because it doesn’t get a lot of love overall. And as I somewhat vaguely recall (having last played the game in 2014) there can be issues with the balance of the goal cards and the swinginess of the auctions which Patrick alludes to. However, I’d happily play it occasionally.

Alan How: I’ve not played this one in so many years and my recollection is of a game that had a clever element but was dull otherwise. The volume of games together with those that are underplayed but deserve more means that this one will probably never surface again, even if I could find it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! James Nathan
I like it. Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, Dan Blum
Neutral. Alan How
Not for me…

 

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