Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Before the Wind

Design by:  Thorsten Landsvogt
Published by:  Phalanx / Mayfair
2 – 4 Players, 1 ¼ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter magazine. 

In the age of sail, the wind was paramount.  Expert sailors became adept at reading the weather and learning when the winds would be favorable for sailing.  Merchants servicing these ships also had to learn such skills, and it was always wise to load ships with the required goods and commodities before the wind would arrive, necessitating their sailing.  Such is the theme of Phalanx’s new game, Before the Wind

Designed by newcomer Thorsten Landsvogt, Before the Wind is a card game that challenges players to obtain commodities, load them into their warehouses, and fulfill the demands of the ships in harbor before they set sail.  It is at once challenging and intriguing, offering players numerous important decisions and paths to pursue.  Indeed, it is one of the best Phalanx games I have played to date. 

The game is comprised of nearly three hundred cards, split into numerous decks.  There are different decks for commodities (apples, cheese, spice and cloth), purchase, storage, shipment, ships and guilders.  Each of these decks are separated, which can be a bit difficult as the artwork on the reverse of each card is very similar and bears the same, dark gray tones.  While the artwork is brooding and atmospheric, it does make distinguishing between the various decks difficult.  Fortunately, this problematic situation does diminish with repeated play.

 

Four large and three small ship cards are revealed, each listing the commodities required to fill that ship.  Large ships require the depicted four goods, while small ships will require one or two specific goods.  Of course, fulfilling the requirements of larger ships earn more victory points, which can range from 12 – 20 points.  Smaller ships earn far less, but they are easier to fill. Each player receives two commodities of their choice, twenty-two guilders, and a warehouse plaque that has space for eight commodities.  

Each turn, the active player — which rotates each turn — selects four cards to reveal from the purchase, storage and shipment decks.  The player is free to choose which decks from which to reveal the cards, but may only select a maximum of two cards from any one deck.  This presents the player with some extremely interesting choices, and offers him the opportunity to be quite wicked.  I will explain this in a bit. 

Purchase cards generally allow the player to take the depicted commodities.  Storage cards allow the player to place the indicated number of cards into his warehouse for the price listed.  This price can range from a low of four guilders for two commodities, to a high of eighteen guilders for four cards.  Finally, shipping cards allow the player to either fulfill the requirements of a ship by discarding the corresponding commodities from his warehouse and taking the ship for victory points, or simply taking the indicated amount of guilders from the bank.  This latter option is quite useful when a player is low on funds. 

In turn order, each player may then claim one of the revealed cards, or make an offer for a card previously taken that round.  For example, if Rhonda takes a purchase card, the next player has the choice of either taking one of the remaining cards, or making an offer in guilders to Rhonda for her card.  If the player opts to make an offer for her card, then each remaining player who has not already taken a card may also make an offer.  Rhonda either must accept one of the offers and surrender the card to that player, or keep the card and pay any one of the players who made an offer.  She is not required to pay the player who made the highest offer, which really opens some interesting options and tactics during the course of the game.  For instance, in one of my games, I was ready to load my goods onto a ship, but desperately needed the one shipping card that was revealed that round.  An opponent grabbed the card first, but I was flush with cash, so made an offer of eighteen guilders for the card, which I knew the player could not match.  Another player knew that if I obtained the card, I would be able to complete two shipping contracts, so he offered just a few guilders.  The astute player accepted this offer, thereby denying me the card.  Nasty! 

Once an offer is made and resolved, the two players involved are then safe, and the claimed card cannot be challenged again.  When all players have either taken a card or accepted cash for one, players resolve the cards in turn order.  Turn order is particularly important when it comes to shipping, as once a ship’s commodity requirements are met, it is removed from the display.  This could leave a player coming later in turn order “high and dry” if the ship he was hoping to load has already been filled.  

A round ends when only two or fewer ships remain in the display.  The wind has arrived, and the remaining fleet departs.  This is where things get even nastier.  All commodity cards still in the players’ hands spoil and are discarded.  Some commodities in the players’ warehouses will also spoil:  all apples are discarded, and half of all cheese and spice.  Only cloth remains untarnished.  The advice here is to use the commodities if you can, especially apples, but at the very least try to get them into your warehouse before the ships set sail.  New ship cards are revealed, and a new round is conducted in the same fashion.

Adding spice — and sometimes frustration — to the proceedings are action cards, which are mixed into the three main decks.  These actions can be used immediately upon acquisition, or saved for future rounds.  They provide a wide range of special abilities.  Some allow players to preserve the specified number of commodities from round-to-round.  Others allow players to acquire commodities and load them directly into their warehouse, albeit at a hefty price.  There are some which allow players to swap resources with another player’s warehouse, while some allow the player to sell commodities for three guilders apiece.  This latter card is particularly powerful when the end of a round is approaching and a player has a handful of commodities.  Only one action card can be played per player turn, and the proper timing of their use can be critical. 

The game ends at the end of a round when one player has acquired 50-points or more worth of ships.  This generally takes three rounds, which takes about 1 ¼ – 1 ½ hour to play to completion.  Some have complained that this is a tad bit long, and I reluctantly agree.  The game lasts just a smidgen longer than I feel it should, but this could easily be corrected by reducing the number of victory points required to end the game. 

I must admit that I have been disappointed with numerous Phalanx titles.  Many of them seem lacking in excitement or challenge.  Fortunately, Before the Wind does not suffer from this condition.  I find the game to be filled with important decisions, many of which require proper timing and clever manipulation.  The method of challenging the selection of cards is quite clever, and rife with opportunity for clever play.  For example, if an opponent has his warehouse loaded and appears ready to fulfill a ship’s requirements, the player can opt to not reveal any shipping cards, thus denying that opponent the chance to ship.  On the other hand, revealing a shipping card may well be enough enticement to prevent him from attempting to steal the card you desire.  Further, the astute player will keep abreast of the financial situation of his opponents, and use this knowledge to his advantage when making offers or when attempting to prevent an opponent from securing a particular card.  Careful observation, proper timing, and clever play are all required to achieve success and victory.  Sure, luck plays a role, but it is a small one.  Victory will generally go to the player who best executes his plan and takes advantage of the opportunities that arise. 

Before the Wind is a fine design, filled with tension, time pressure and important decisions.  It is one of the better releases from Phalanx games, and an impressive debut from Thorsten Landsvogt.  If Before the Wind is any indication, he has a bright future as a game designer.

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Responses

  1. Ok early in the game but seems like work toward the end. (5/10)


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