First Impressions of Coimbra

  •    Designers:  Flaminia Brasini, Virginio Gigli
  •    Publisher:  eggertspiele
  •    Players:  2-4
  •    Ages:  14+
  •    Time:  60-120 minutes

Here at the good old OG, we’ve been reviewing and previewing lots of different kinds of games recently.  Some of our writers love Asian games, including titles from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Others like the more thematic games coming from the U.S.  We’ve also seen reviews of a lot of trick-taking titles, minimalistic games, and social deduction designs. It’s all a product of the incredible variety and sheer number of games released these days.

Well, I like a lot of these designs, but the type of game that really gets my heart beating faster hasn’t changed much over the last 20 years.  It’s the 2-hour, big box Eurogame. Nothing as heavy as an 18xx or Splotter title, mind you, but still something that gets you engaged and gives your brain a good workout.  Over the past few years, I’ve been particularly fond of games created by Italian designers. The Voyages of Marco Polo, Tzolk’in, and Grand Austria Hotel have been among my favorite titles over that period of time and all have come from La Italia.  So anything that has that as a lineage is sure to get my attention.

All this is an explanation of why one of my most anticipated designs of the year is Coimbra (which, I believe, is pronounced koe-EE-brra, with the “m” being silent—if there are any Portuguese speakers out there who know this is wrong, please set me straight).  There are actually three things about the game that have put it on my radar. First, are the designers, who are not only part of the new wave of Italian game designers, but actually had a major role in starting it. Brasini and Gigli began as half of the design team of Acchittocca, which back in the day gave us such major titles as Leonardo da Vinci (2006) and Egizia (2009), which were among the first of the meatier games to come out of Italy.  Egizia was the design quartet’s last design, but Brasini and Gigli have re-emerged lately, with Gigli being the co-designer of the excellent Grand Austria Hotel (2015) and both Gigli and Brasini serving as co-designers of Lorenzo il Magnifico, which was my favorite game from 2016. So a new gamer’s game from these two was certainly worth checking out.

The second factor is the publisher.  eggertspiele has been on a terrific run lately, particularly with games edited by their brilliant lead developer, Viktor Kobilke .  So that was also a big attraction. Finally, among the new games I’ve been looking at, Coimbra is one of the few to feature an interesting, innovative, and elegant central mechanism.  Now, it’s perfectly possible to create a great game that is based on existing mechanics, so this is by no means a requirement.  But with such an enormous number of titles to choose from, it sure helps to have something like this to set yourself apart.

Coimbra has actually been out for a month or so, but Real Life kept me from trying it out until recently.  I got to play a 4-player game of it last week, so I thought I’d give you my first impressions of it. The design finished in the top 5 of both the Fairplay and GeekBuzz lists at Essen, so there’s obviously still a great deal of interest in it.

The game is set in Portugal during the early sixteenth century, at a time when that nation was one of the most powerful in Europe.  The players represent factions in the prosperous city of Coimbra, who are using their wealth and access to security forces to gain the influence of the leading citizens of the city.  The objective: Victory Points! Yeah, it’s about as dispensable as most Euro themes, but at least it doesn’t get in the way of the action.

The game revolves around a deck of character cards and four influence tracks shown on the board.  The tracks are color-coded to the four types of income available in the game: guards, coins, pilgrim movement (more about that later), and VPs.  The character cards each have a color which matches one of the influence tracks and each one permits the purchasing player to advance in the track of its color, while also providing some other advantages.  The players will strive to acquire these cards using a unique dice-based mechanism.

There are four rounds in the game, each consisting of six phases.  First, dice are rolled to form a dice pool. There are 13 dice (which are normal D6’s):  three each in the colors of the four influence tracks, plus one white die. When playing with 2 or 3 players, fewer dice are used.  Next, the players draft and place dice. On a player’s turn, they select one unchosen die, place it in a holder to identify it as theirs, and then add it to one of four city locations on the board.  The purpose of this is to establish an order, and a price, for acquiring an item from these areas. One of the locations, the Castle, always has the same four favor tiles available to be selected.  The other three locations each contain four character cards, which were dealt there at the beginning of the round.  When the player places their chosen die there, they insert it to the line of any other dice that are there in the proper order.  In the Castle, dice are ordered from small to large numbers, so if you add a die with a “2” on it to the Castle, it will go after all other dice with 2’s on them, but in front of any dice with 3’s or higher on them.  In the other three city locations, the dice are placed in the same way, but are ordered from large to small numbers. Each player, in turn order, does this one at a time three times, so that they each have three dice placed at city locations at the end of the phase.

Then, they use those dice to select tiles and cards at the locations at which they placed them.  In each location, the player with the first die in the line selects one of the items there, followed by the player with the second die, and so on.  In the Castle, the items are the favor tiles. These cost nothing and each yields a benefit. Most of them also have a number of crowns on them, which will be used to determine player order later in the turn.  In the non-Castle locations, the dice are used to buy the character cards which were dealt there. Each card indicates whether it costs guards or coins to acquire it. The number of guards or coins it costs is the value of the die used to select it.  So high valued dice give players an early pick of the cards, but they also mean they have to pay extra for the privilege. When a card is acquired, the player advances on its influence track by the amount shown on the card. They also gain its other abilities (which are immediate bonuses, in-game advantages, or a way to score end-game points).  Alternatively, the player with the next die in line can choose not to select a tile or card and instead add 2 guards and 2 coins to their holdings. Note that the color of the dice has no effect during this phase, only their values.

Once all the dice have been activated, the player order for the next turn is determined.  This is done in order of the number of crowns each player has. Crowns come from favor tiles, a few character cards, and the previous player order (players who went later in the turn are given more crowns).  Next, the players receive income from the influence tracks. Here is where the color of the dice chosen earlier in the turn comes into play. For each selected die, its color indicates which influence track is used to determine income.  For example, a gray die triggers the gray influence track, which is for guards. Each level of each of the influence tracks has an associated income. So, to continue our example, if the player who chose a gray die had a level of 4 on the gray influence track, that level is associated with 5 guards, so the player would add 5 guards to their total.  Each turn, each player gets income from three influence tracks and the ones that are triggered are the ones that match the color of their three chosen dice. The white die is wild with respect to color and can be used to get income from any of the four tracks.

Three of the influence tracks give the players extra guards, coins, or VPs.  The fourth one allows the players to move their pilgrims, so let’s talk about that a bit.  There’s a map of the city on the board with spaces for 14 monastery tiles (randomly laid out each game) and a bunch of intervening spaces connecting them.  When a player gets a pilgrim movement result (from a card, tile, or the pilgrim influence track), it shows the maximum number of spaces they can move their pilgrim.  When a pilgrim moves onto or through a monastery, it unlocks its ability for the player. Some of these abilities are instant effects, while others yield lasting abilities.  A few of the hard-to-reach monasteries can yield impressive amounts of VPs if they’re set up properly. Pilgrims give the players an additional way of enhancing their position in the game.

Finally, the players are each given a chance to invest in one voyage card.  Six of these are dealt out at the beginning of the game and for a reasonably hefty investment in guards or coins, they give the purchasing player a way of earning some end-game VPs.  A maximum of one per round can be purchased during this phase.

After four rounds, the game is over.  There are a lot of end-game points to be had.  In addition to the ones already cited, points are awarded for finishing first, second, or third in each of the influence tracks.  These points can be quite significant. Once all the points are awarded, the player with the highest VP total wins and they can celebrate by smugly telling their opponents just how to pronounce “Coimbra”.

So that’s how the game plays, or most of it; there are a few details I left out.  After such anticipation, I was happy to finally play one game of it last week. Did it live up to my hopes for it?

It’s always hard to say after a single play, but for now, the answer is yes.  In particular, that wonderfully elegant dice mechanism met all expectations. It gives you such difficult choices.  Maybe you really need to buy a particular card, so you want a high die value to ensure picking early at that location.  But you also want a certain kind of income and, sadly, all the dice of that color have low numbers. Then there’s the reality that high numbers lead to high costs; maybe a lower value will accomplish the same thing at a discount price.  Plus, you have to judge what cards your opponents are seeking, figure out when to go for favor tiles over character cards, get the timing right for your guard and coin purchases, all sorts of things. For a system that’s so easily explained and feels relatively straightforward, it gives you an awful lot to think about.

That’s a bit of a drawback at first.  We were all somewhat overwhelmed at the outset, trying to figure out which of all the myriad choices we were going to pursue.  Midway through the game, though, things had clarified in our minds and we had all determined our separate strategic paths. So figure a learning curve of about half a game to get comfortable with accomplishing your goals, although I’m sure our play will improve as we gain more experience.

I really liked my first play.  It’s thinkier than I thought it would be and definitely gave us all a good mental workout.  It’s a little more combative than your average Euro—there are a few “take that!” cards (although none of them focus on a single individual, so they hurt all your opponents equally)—but not enough to bruise feelings.  Otherwise, player interaction is indirect, but pretty good; you’re fighting over specific cards, turn order, and influence track majorities. There seems to be plenty of strategies to pursue. The game has something of the feel of the designers’ earlier Lorenzo il Magnifico, which also has the players using a dice-generated mechanism to let them purchase cards.  But while Lorenzo throws all sorts of roadblocks at the players, so that the skill comes in maneuvering around those barriers, Coimbra is more open, so that the difficulty comes from choosing the best of many possibilities. It’s a little bit like the comparison between those two early Rosenberg farming titles, Agricola and Caverna. I love Lorenzo, but Coimbra may have a more positive feel, although the sheer number of choices means that it’s just as much of a challenge.  And, like Lorenzo, you’re encouraged to focus on a few areas, but you’ll probably find it’s necessary to give a little attention to everything, so that’s another interesting conflict to deal with.

Replayability shouldn’t be a problem.  Only 14 of the 24 monasteries and 6 of the 15 voyage cards are used each game and their positions on the board will affect things.  The VP awards for majority positions in the four influence tracks vary each game. All of the character cards are used every game, but the order in which they come out will change things a lot.  And, of course, the dice have a big effect on how the game plays out. I suspect the game will have a different feel each time it’s played, but, naturally, I won’t know for sure until I get some more plays in.

Downtime was a bit of a negative.  Our 4-player game took us 2.5 hours.  The duration should reduce with more experience, but that’s still longer than I’d like and there’s definitely the potential for AP, due to all the choices the players must weigh.  We all got the feeling that 3 players might be the sweet spot, since it would probably knock the play time down to a much more appropriate hour and 45 minutes or so and also reduce the downtime between turns.  Turns out that the Geek agrees with this. With experience, 4-player games would probably work fine, but it’s not obvious that the fourth player adds that much to things and it looks as if the designers did a good job of tailoring things to let it work well with 3.  The game will probably also play well with 2, but for now, I’ll try to limit this to 3 players and see how that works out.

The components are fine.  When I first saw the board, I thought it was pretty garish, with the boldly contrasting colors of the influence tracks dominating things, but it didn’t bother me during the game at all.  And having those different colors be so easy to distinguish is a definite plus. The information on the character cards is laid out well, making it easy to pick things out. It might have been nice if the city map was a bit bigger; the serpentine paths connecting the monasteries can be a little hard to make out and there were several times I had to move a monastery tile to verify the exit routes from the spaces.  But overall, I give the game high marks for functionality. The artist did a particularly good job with the iconography; it is used consistently throughout, including on the player boards to nicely summarize the phases and end-game scoring. Visually, the artwork neither grabbed me, nor offended me. But since I always put functionality ahead of appearance in a game, this was no problem for me. As always with matters of taste, your mileage may vary, but I’d be surprised if there were many people who downgraded the game based on how it looked.

So my first impression of Coimbra is a favorable one.  I continue to be amazed at how the designers from Italy are consistently able to come up with innovative ways of using dice in strategy games.  The mechanism here is straightforward, but still gives you plenty of choices and lots to think about. The game surrounding this central mechanic is solid as well.  There is the possibility of AP, but it’s not overwhelming and really shouldn’t be an issue if the number of players is limited to 3. I’m very much looking forward to future visits to 16th century Portugal, as we learn the nuances of this new title.

Comments by Other Opinionated Gamers:

Jonathan F.: If you like all the titles Larry mentioned (Grand Austria Hotel, Marco Polo, etc.) you will like Coimbra.  All its predecessors left me a bit cold and so did Coimbra. Definitely worth playing but not more enticing than others of its ilk.

Lorna: I like it. Solid Euro which has grown on me. I was impressed at how the “dummy” dice in games with less than 4 players can impact the game.

Mitchell: I love it. My wife and I have played Coimbra a dozen times and we are still finding it highly engaging. The dice placement/cost dynamic is fascinating, and it encourages brinkmanship and some bluffing. Like Larry, I love the suite of games from the Italian designers, and Coimbra is every bit their equal. It resembles Lorenzo only in that the same cards come out every game, although in a different order. So once you’ve played a half dozen games you can plan for what has not yet appeared. The opening round is strategic as you assess the variable point opportunities on the four progress tracks, the available contract cards, and the point opportunities on the monastery map, and you can plan accordingly. With two players the game takes an hour. There’s a measure of excitement in the final tally as cascading point opportunities emerge in the final round. There seem to be multiple pathways for victory, in part determined by the opening set-up. I think Coimbra is sufficiently different from Lorenzo that it is a worthwhile investment if you like this genre of games. Bottom line is that we find it an absolutely absorbing experience and hence I highly recommend it for two players. But make no mistake, this is more than a point salad, but rather a point orgy,  and if that’s not your preference, Coimbra may not suit you.

Joe Huber (1 play): Just to provide a counterpoint to Jonathan’s comment – I really enjoy Marco Polo and Grand Austria Hotel, and Coimbra fell flat for me.  Not negative – just meh.

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2 Responses to First Impressions of Coimbra

  1. Teodor says:

    Actually you speak like this: CO-IN-BRA =] (do not speak coin together, because IN will make the M portuguese sound)

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