Posted by: gschloesser | July 30, 2011

Crystal Faire

Design by:  Alan D. Ernstein
Published by:  Hangman Games
3 – 5 Players, 1 hour
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Designer Alan Ernstein caught my attention with his outstanding Tahuantinsuyu, a fabulous entry into the crayon rail game genre.  It was one of the best games of 2004, and is still my crayon game of choice.  His follow-up was Ars Mysteriorum was yet another fine game.  Instead of route-building, Ars was more of a resource collection and set-building game.  I also discovered one of his earlier releases — Junkyard – which provided an interesting twist on the trick-building concept.  I was eager to see what would be at the heart of Alan’s 2006 release, Crystal Faire

This time around, the central mechanisms are trading and, to a lesser extent, bluffing.  Players conduct a series of trades wherein they attempt to gather majorities in various types of gems, and manipulate the prices of those gems in order to reap the greatest rewards.   Victory goes to the player amassing the greatest wealth after three rounds of trading, price manipulation and gem shows.

Players each begin the game with three offer mats and nine gems, which are hidden behind a privacy screen.  The value of these gems is tracked on a central price chart, and will fluctuate as players adjust the prices to suit their needs … and attempt to thwart the plans of their opponents.  This manipulation begins immediately, as after receiving their initial selection of gems, each player may increase or decrease the value of a gem by one step. 

Each round consists of four main phases: 

1)      Trade.  The start player must make two trade offers.  Prior to doing so, however, he draws five new gems from the cloth bag.  These offers will consist of either 4, 5 or 6 gems, with the number of revealed gems ranging from 1 – 3, depending upon the total being offered.  The more gems offered, the fewer the gems that must be revealed.  The remaining are an unknown commodity.  For example, one of Jim’s offers may be four gems, of which he reveals three.  His other offer is six gems, but he only must reveal the identity of one of them.  

Every other player then puts forward one offer in the same fashion, revealing only the required number of gems.  The value of this offer will be one of perception.  If a player really desires one of the offers being made by the active player, he should offer gems that he feels the active player desires.  This requires the players to mentally track the gems being collected by their opponents.  While this cannot be done with complete accuracy, it can be tracked fairly closely. 

The active player then selects one of the offers, and that player gets to select one of the two offers proposed by the active player.  The gems are exchanged, with those not visible being done secretly.  

This process continues until every player has the opportunity to be the active player. 

2)      Adjustment.  The active player removes three gems from the bag.  He may select zero, one or two of these gems.  For each gem not selected, he may adjust the value of any gem up or down one level.  Each player has the opportunity to do the same thing, replenishing the number of gems to three prior to making their adjustments. 

The dilemma here is whether to take gems you covet or wish to use as trading fodder, or use the opportunity to adjust the values of gems you are trying to collect.  Of course, this also provides the opportunity to decrease the value of gems your opponents are collecting. 

3)      Payoffs.  Each gem is then examined. Players then compete in a type of gem show, bidding gems in an effort to earn payoffs.  An auction is conducted for each gem, with players putting-forth gems in an effort to display the most gems of a particular type.  The player displaying the most crystals receives a payoff  in “florims” as indicated on the payoff chart.  The payoff is not per gem, but for the collection.  The player must then surrender an amount of gems as indicated on the chart – the greater the value of the gems, the more that must be surrendered.  Players who offer the same amount of a particular gem all receive the payout. 

4)      Reset.  After all seven gems have been dealt with in this fashion, the player who was forced to return the greatest number of gems receives the start player marker.  In addition, each player is allowed to retain one of their “lost” gems. 

A number of gems equal to one less than the number of players are then drawn from the bag.  Beginning with the new start player, each player may either select one of the gems, or choose the start player marker, which he can keep or give to the player of his choice.  After this step, a new round is conducted. 

When playing with five players, the game concludes after three rounds.  More rounds are played when playing with fewer players.  Each player receives an additional florim for every two gems in their possession.  The player with the greatest wealth is victorious.  The game can also end prematurely if during the Trade or Adjustment phases all gems are depleted.  This occurred in one of my games and it was a quite unsatisfactory conclusion.  

My first playing of Crystal Faire left me slightly intrigued.  I seemed to be on the cusp of understanding how one could properly manipulate the trading and value adjustments to control their fate.  I convinced myself that there was a level of strategy remaining unrevealed just below the surface, and that further playings would bring this to the surface and give me a better understanding and appreciation of the game.  

Sadly, I must say that this has not occurred.  The game feels way too forced and random. 

While the offering mechanism is interesting, the fact that the rules force players to make offers usually means that they are constantly forced to trade gems they had hoped to maintain.  This can be extremely frustrating, and caused numerous players with whom I played to grow quite agitated.  That usually is not a good thing to have occur in a game.  My enjoyment of the game was not that terrific after my first play, and it plummeted from there.  

The designer insists that bluffing is truly at the game’s center, but I just don’t see it.  Its only true presence appears in the Payoff round, wherein players can attempt to hold back a bit, conserving some of their gems for future rounds.  This may lead opponents to believe that the player may not have as many gems of a particular type as they may have thought.  The danger here is that the value of a gem may fall in future rounds, and more disastrously, the game may end prematurely if the gem supply depletes completely.  I just don’t see how bluffing is the game’s major mechanism.  Rather, it seems obvious that the trading element reigns supreme. 

It is with great sadness that I must give Crystal Faire a thumbs-down.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the designer’s previous two releases, and had high hopes for this title.  Making this assessment even more difficult is that Alan is a wonderfully nice guy whose company I enjoy.  Be that as it may, however, the game just is not for me.  It has not received a good reception with the folks with whom I have played, and I don’t see any prospects for that changing.  If there is a hidden level of strategy or understanding just below the surface, I simply have not grasped it.



  1. I am a big fan of Alan Ernstein’s games. He says this is a buffing game and not a stock market game. He should know, but it is hard to see it when you first play it. It is a little too long. Rating could go up with more plays. (5/10)

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