Dan Blum: Review of Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal

(aka The Taverns of Tiefenthal)

Designer: Wolfgang Warsch

Publisher: Schmidt Spiele (English version coming from North Star later this year)

Players: 2-4

Age: 12+

Time: 60-90 minutes

Times played: 8

Although Wolfgang Warsch had a few earlier publications he really arrived on most gamers’ radar last year with games such as The Mind, That’s Pretty Clever, and The Quacks of Quedlinburg. Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal is his second big-box game since becoming the German gaming golden boy.

Like Quacks (Warsch’s first big-box game) Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal (TTT henceforth) is a pool-building game. Quacks was a bag-builder but TTT is a deck-builder. It has some interesting twists on the genre. One is that there are no hands; instead each round players draw cards from their decks and place them in their tableau until they are forced to stop. The other mitigates some of the randomness of this procedure: cards that players acquire go on top of their decks where they will be immediately drawn next round, rather than into their discard piles as is more typical.

Since the players are operating competing taverns the cards all represent either beer-drinking tavern guests or tavern improvements of various kinds: staff, suppliers, and one fixture in the form of an extra table. (How and why extra tables appear and disappear from round to round is unclear.) Any number of improvements can be drawn and used in a round, but guests sit at tables and as soon as all of your tables are occupied you must stop drawing, which is why the extra tables are good.

After players have all drawn their cards dice are rolled; each player rolls four public dice and may have extra private dice from improvements. The public dice are drafted one at a time – really one at a time since unlike in most such games players don’t draft simultaneously.

The dice are used to activate action spaces; some are printed on player’s tableaus and each guest has one as well. Guests all want a specific die face and provide money; other spaces may want specific faces or not and provide money, beer, and favor with the local monastery. Fortunately dice are not allocated until after you’re done drafting so you know what you have to work with. Improvements may let you manipulate the dice a bit.

Beer is used to acquire more guests, which you will urgently want to do since your starting guests pay very little and can only use two die faces. There is a stack of identical weak guests and a random set of stronger guests available (most with one-time bonuses); each player can only get one per round. However, you can also use beer to acquire nobles, who are also guests but are special: they don’t pay very much but they are worth a lot of points and also all sit together at the same table, which in general allows you to draw more cards.

Money has two uses. You can buy more tavern improvement cards – as many kinds as you want but no more than one of a kind. You can also upgrade sections of your tavern permanently with money; your player tableau is a main board with pieces attached and each piece can be flipped over for a fee. Doing so gives you an ongoing benefit which in some cases can be used immediately, e.g. upgrading beer production if you haven’t already used your beer this round. Upgrading a tavern section also adds a noble to your deck.

Favor with the monastery will get you various bonuses if you get enough – there is a monastery track in the center of the table and when your marker gets to certain spaces you get the printed bonuses.

That’s pretty much all the basic game. Players get fixed bonuses at the start of each round but the only ones of major interest are “counter guests” which unlike other guests are cardboard pieces. They can be used to mulligan your card draw and start over.

This may all sound fairly elaborate and interesting, but in fact it’s not worth more than one play, if that. There is less going on than meets the eye for several reasons. One big one is that there are no money or beer pieces in the game; there are markers which allow you to store up to two units of each for later but the rest is all virtual and must be used immediately or lost. This makes it hard to get big guests or improvements given that non-noble guests can cost up to 8 beers and tavern improvements up to 18 money. You can get discounts on the more expensive improvements by removing matching cards from your deck, but you still often have very few choices in the early rounds.

The other big problem is that there’s no real variance from game to game – there’s the randomness of the guest deck and of course the randomness of the players’ decks and dice rolls, but that’s it. The combination of the two problems means that there are few chances to make interesting decisions.

Fortunately the publisher includes four more “modules” in the box and it is suggested that you incorporate some as soon as everyone is comfortable with the game. I say “modules” because they are not really modular given that according to the rules each one requires the previous one to be used. (But see below.)

Module 2 adds schnapps and entertainers to drink it. Schnapps is represented by tiny tokens and entertainers by larger ones. You get an entertainer at the start of each of three rounds and have to decide which side to use; each side allows you to trade schnapps for some benefit. You can get schnapps as a start-of-round bonus or as a one-time bonus from some guests.

Module 3 adds reputation: you flip over an as yet unused section of your tableau to find a circular reputation track. Now after allocating dice to actions you see which you get less of – money or beer – and get that much reputation. Going around the track gets you bonuses including schnapps and nobles, plus points at the end of the game for your location.

Module 4 adds variable setup. In the base game everyone adds the same three cards to their starting guests but now three setup cards are drawn and everyone chooses one to use; these may provide cards, permanent upgrades, or the right to remove some starting guests from your deck. (Some in-game bonuses can also let you remove guests from your deck – this sounds good but general consensus has been that it’s fairly weak.)

Finally, module 5 adds the guest book. Whenever you acquire a commoner guest you place a signature token in the appropriate column of your guest book. Some spaces have bonuses and filling a column (requiring guests of the same or similar values) always gives you a noble, as does filling a row (requiring guests of different values). You can get a few extra signatures from the reputation track.

This may all sound like a lot! The good news is that it isn’t actually that much in practice. Each module really adds just one or two new rules, except module 4 which only affects setup. Also good is that the additional module do add some interest and variety to the game.

However, I don’t think they add enough; the game with modules added was interesting for a few plays, but after each module was tried it began seeming repetitious very quickly. There is still not a lot of variance from game to game, as other than module 4’s setup cards all the variance other than your own decisions comes from pure randomness and from other players’ actions. In many games the latter are very important, but here they are not; other players mostly affect you in the dice-drafting phase and it is generally not that hard to predict which dice players will draft. Aside from that the only possible effects are when another player takes a guest you wanted or takes the last improvement card of a type.

Of course, I sort of dismissed your own decisions, which certainly alter your circumstances. Two of the modules help with this: module 4 gives you a choice of setups and module 2 gives you three additional major decision points (which side of each entertainer to use) plus minor points whenever you have enough schnapps. However, there still aren’t a lot of interesting decisions for a game of this length; it’s not very long in absolute terms but each round has a lot of steps which in aggregate seem to drag on for a while. It doesn’t help that in a typical game you will have several rounds in which you have very few options; even ignoring the first round or two (where you have few resources) it can happen any time if you have a bad draw or the dice don’t cooperate.

Furthermore, I think the other two modules actually hurt. Module 5 I think is the worst offender since it strongly prioritizes getting a regular guest every round. Without it we saw at least one effective strategy which doesn’t do this, and which isn’t nearly as effective with module 5 added. Module 3 is not as bad but does encourage balanced money and beer production, which tends to channel both overall strategies and the dice selection and placement each round.

In the end, despite how different this game is from The Quacks of Quedlinburg, at a high level it feels the same to me – there are too few interesting decisions and too much randomness packed into too long a game. I don’t feel the need to play either game more. If you want to play TTT I would advise trying all the different modules starting with Module 2 rather than jumping to Module 5, and I would also advise not sticking with Module 5 once you’ve played it; varying what you play will keep the game more interesting longer. (I would also suggest trying Module 4 without 3, even though you are not officially supposed to do so.)

THOUGHTS OF OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS

Joe Huber (4 plays): This is a fine game, and one I’ve enjoyed playing, but at the same time, there’s something missing.  Well, not so much missing, as buried. There’s a large number of rules, for what is at heart a fairly simple game, and I’m not convinced that everything included is well balanced.  Rather than all of the variations, I wish a simpler, well optimized game had been focused upon; that might have given the game the extra oomph it needed with me. Instead, I only played a third time because the table wanted to, and a fourth because teaching was requested.  To the game’s credit, others I’ve played with have enjoyed it more than I have.

Lorna: I enjoy the game. I wish they had made the modules individual rather than dependent on each other. Some of the modules are more interesting than others.

Tery (2 plays): I knew nothing about this game the first time I sat down to play it, but I immediately wanted to play it again when I was done. I do enjoy a good deck builder, and this one had some interesting twists. I played both the base game and a game with all of the modules in it; I did prefer the modules as there were more ways to manipulate the cards, but some of the elements of the modules were better than others, as already mentioned. The base game is probably best if all players are new, since there were a fair number of rules; they made sense once we were playing, but learning from the rules was a bit of a slog. You do have to ramp up to get better guests and better beer, but it’s relatively easy to do, especially by upgrading your beer and money storage, which also gives you victory points. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!  

I like it. John P, Doug G., Lorna, James Nathan, Tery

Neutral. Dan Blum, Joe H.

Not for me… 

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1 Response to Dan Blum: Review of Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal

  1. Pingback: Dan Blum: Review of Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal – Herman Watts

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