Crystal Palace – Review by Alan How

Crystal Palace

  • Designer: Carsten Lauber
  • Publisher: Feuerland Spiele
  • Players: 2-5
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 90-150min on box

The Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 attracted the great and the good to display their culture, inventions and industry. It was the first of its kind in the world – clearly a forerunner of The Spiel and Essen each year. Crystal Palace the game comes from Feuerland who have produced games at the heavier end of the games market, which appeals to my tastes so I was looking forward to seeing how this game would work out.

The weight of the game is due to there being plenty of tricky decisions relating to the outcome of how worker actions are resolved and its core system uses dice, but rather than roll them as you might expect, you have freedom to choose how to set your dice. 

Each player’s actions are planned using dice. These are regular six-sided dice and at the beginning of each of the five rounds players secretly select how many pips on each of the four dice to use, paying £1 per pip. Initially this sounds easy as they also begin with £40 money, but money can become really tight during the game. In player order players allocate their dice one at a time to the eight locations. This will determine the sequence that players move their dice to the action area associated with the location. Some confer an immediate benefit; some have a prerequisite number of pips to be allowed while others have no requirements.

In strict order of the locations (1-8) the dice are resolved moving from their current space to the action space whether they are resolved from highest to lowest dice. And this is where the game gets tricky. There may be more dice allocated than action spaces available. And realising this, players may defer putting their highest dice out until as late as possible in order to get the jump on someone else. But if they are too slow in allocating dice then the space they have mentally reserved may be taken by someone else. So you are constantly studying what dice other players have played and remain to be played and what they might want to do. This thinking time causes the game to be slower at times as players make these decisions, though after a few games you do speed up as you can evaluate the options more quickly. 

Each player receives a personal board on which you can monitor your collection of research tokens (which are one of the things to collect), your newspapers which you can trade in freely for a variety of resources and your personal goals which will provide a handful of points if you achieve them by the end of the game. The mix of resources to gather includes gears and energy both of which help to make inventions, while cash which is needed for dice pips, 

The outcome of these choices will provide more cash, more dice, resources to acquire prototype inventions and cards representing the famous and influential people themselves. The locations are all areas of London associated with the resources you might acquire. So the Patent office allows you to pick up patents which you can later create prototypes when you have the right resources; the British museum provides research bonuses; the Bank of England provides shares which increase your income; Westminster increases your influence and reduces the ongoing salary costs of characters that you acquire at the Reform club. Visiting the London Times provides bonuses on the buzz track while the Port of London and Waterloo station provide an assortment of energy resources and potentially more dice.

Besides a regular victory point track there’s a separate track to monitor your progress in advertising your skills. This one grants buzz on how well your advertising and promotion is working and how much the public are talking about you. Moving up this track provides some helpful bonuses and one interesting decision is when you decide to place your buzz tokens. You only have two and each gives you a recurring bonus. The trick is that playing one early gives you a smaller bonus, but later ones give you a higher bonus but for fewer turns. 

Probably the most interesting features in the game are that you can get a variable number of victory points when you create your prototypes and when you acquire your characters. Sometimes the victory points decline across time so you are encouraged to build your prototypes early and sometimes they increase so it’s best to hang onto them until later in the game. The other aspect that I particularly like is the black market which is where your assistants are placed and a novel mechanism is used to evaluate what bonus you might get, though the danger is that if the black market is filled all but one of the assistants will be returned to the players.

The game features the usual dilemma in euros of this type – timing issues so do you go early or late; investment issues do you focus on one area or several areas and a blend of resource acquisition that means that some resources are harder to obtain and others and you need to have the resources available to optimise your turn.

The game plays well with 3 or 4 which is how I have played so far and the board elements are swapped out with different numbers of players to keep the options tight for the number of players. My main dislike, which is easy to resolve, is the turn order. The highest player going first is logical, but going clockwise means that the next highest player possibly going last, but missing out going first by small margins. I have played that the pip sequence is the turn order from my third game onwards and prefer this to the clockwise order in the rules.

The first game for four players will probably take 3 or more hours to play depending on how your group plays. Partly this is learning a game of course, but more so because each player takes time to puzzle out where to place your dice. Suppose you have a 2, 3, 4 and 6, so you spent 15 money and are probably going first. You can claim any spot with a 6, but only some spots will be able to take a 2 and as you have no 5, some spots require a 5 or 6 so should have added a 5 and reduced a 2 to a 1? This analysis is uncertain as everyone goes through the same process, probably limited by their cash. In the early games you have no idea of the value of anything. Is 20 points good for a prototype or not (it is) and is it worth going up the buzz track or getting more research (who knows?). The game has a built in cash reduction process so your income automatically falls so you need to find some way to offset this, and there are several, but it tightens the game to a point where hardly any decision feels easy. Whether this works for you or not depends on your tastes,

The game is most likely to appeal to people who love a mix of bluffing, poker face framing, push your luck elements in games and don’t mind these aspects in a heavier game. For me, the level of planning that blends in with these aspects works and so I’ve enjoyed all my games and certainly want to play more. The production values are good as we have come to know from Feuerland and I’m now looking forward to their next heavy game in 2020.

Comments from the Opinionated Gamers:

Nathan Beeler: Crystal Palace does a lot of things right. The bidding with dice for actions is just wonderful, since the bids have to factor in so many elements: the cost to do the action (important in such a tight economy); the effect on total turn order; the turn order within an action (often vital, but just as often not important, which is good to know); and occasionally the power of the action itself. Once you’re locked in with the bids, even selecting which action to take and which ones to wait on can be a fun bit of gamesmanship. 

I did have a few quibbles. Our group independently came up with the same solution to the turn order “bug” as Alan, because it’s obvious that clockwise from the winning bidder is deeply unfair and not fun. Though I have to wonder, why didn’t the developers catch that and scream about it? Why did the designer think it was ok? Maybe there’s a good reason, but it can’t have been the added complexity, because the game is already deep and long enough to want to get this element right. I’d love to hear the story behind that if anyone knows.

For me, I don’t like direct player aggression in a game. It’s always too political, leads to a lot of not fun “why me and not the real leader?” conversations, and when there’s a pile-on early it can put one person out of the running at the beginning of a long game. Just not a mechanism for me. There is a bit of direct aggression here, but the aggression seems to be usually either light or otherwise nerfed by some positive that comes along with it. The few times punches were dished out in our game the puncher was often unsure if they wanted to hit themselves instead, and the recipient was usually more than happy to get the benefit. Still, I’d rather the game didn’t have it at all. I almost didn’t stay in the game when I heard that rule.

My only other nit to pick is that characters and prototypes claim to have affinities for each other, which seems like an opportunity to have some cool synergies. Instead, as I recall, getting a matched pair only gets you a few extra points, with a few more if you get them in the right order, both of which took a bit of luck because there’s no telling when a card’s partner would come out, if ever. Even just to see those affinities was not easy, and required a lot of scanning your holdings and all the new cards each round (small print and sometimes upside down). Not a big deal, but I do wish they’d either done without that or made it more interesting. 

On the whole, I really enjoyed the game and am looking forward to another play someday.

Patrick Brennan: It’s like its set out to make the ramifications for the tiniest mistake as horrible as possible. There’s a slew of complicated action possibilities (that take forever to teach btw), but it boils down to resource acquisition in order to buy cards for effects and VPs. The difference of note is that each player secretly sets the value of their dice (workers), paying for each pip. In each action field, there are spaces for multiple dice but only a subset will actually get to do the action – those dice/workers with the highest pips. Money is incredibly tight so you can’t afford to overpay, but if you don’t guess correctly which actions the others badly want and will pay big for, you can pay big and get nothing. You can also be screwed on turn order, paying big, but seeing the spots you wanted taken before you even have a turn purely because your LHP paid the teensiest bit more for their collective dice, making you last in turn order. Then, make it worse – some action fields have action spots that provide different resources. All dice are played first, then all are resolved. During your placement, you have no idea if the player with a higher die will be taking the only spot you want (leaving you nothing) or something else. Then, make the game 3 hours long. It’s an interesting challenge to play well, learning how to balance the need for continual income boosting (the game auto-smacks you each turn) vs VP hunting, but its unrelentingly unforgiving nature and the continual pain of near misses wore me down by the end.

Lorna: (3 plays) I like games with lots of decisions and this one felt like it would fit. I mistakenly played with the variant turn order by amount bid and the correct way and agree the variant is probably better. There are plenty of good moves so if someone has gotten to your predetermined spot just move on to choice number two. It only gets dicey (see what I did there) when you are down to a die with one pip and you are trying to avoid paying to place your die. Our 5 (gasp) player game took about 3 hours with explanation. For those not that don’t like fighting the game (any game where your income automatically decreases by 3 each round you know is going to be a bear) this is probably not for you. For those that like the struggle to defeat not only your opponents but the game CP will provide a nice challenge.

Dan Blum (1 play): The dice-purchasing mechanism is fine (assuming one uses the obvious turn order variant) but other than that the game is just a mix of standard elements. That can be fine if the elements form a coherent whole, but it didn’t feel like that to me at all – instead it’s a bunch of stuff you have to juggle with no particular rhyme or reason. The screwage elements mentioned by Patrick don’t help, and as Nate notes the thematic aspects are pretty weak. That all being said it’s not actively bad, just… unnecessary.

Larry (1 play):  After one play with 5 (which is probably too many), I know this is a game I like, but I’m not sure how much of a favorite it’ll wind up being.  There’s a ton of actions to choose from and lots of levers for the players to pull and, as Alan predicted, it’s awfully hard to figure out which ones to focus on at this stage.  I’m not sure I have a better idea of what to do in future games, but it was fun (and only a little overwhelming) working through the possibilities. Dealing with the iconography slowed us down; hopefully, that will improve in future games.  I didn’t see the bluffing element Alan spoke about, which is good, as I’m not a fan of it. I also agree with Lorna that it felt like there were plenty of good options available, so your game wasn’t destroyed if someone grabbed your first choice.  I’ll have to play some more to see what strategies will be effective (or even what the basic strategies are!). It’s a good game, and the kind that I like, but the jury is still out for whether it will turn out to be one that I love.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it! Alan H.
  • I like it. Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Larry
  • Neutral. Patrick Brennan, Craig M., Dan Blum
  • Not for me…

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.
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