Posted by: gschloesser | August 6, 2011

Meridian

Designed by:  Leo Colovini
Published by:  Piatnik / Rio Grande Games
 2 – 4 Players, 1 hour
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review also appeared in Moves Magazine #108 

Leo Colovini made a big splash on the gaming scene with his release of Carolus Magnus back in 1999.  The game was eventually one of the three finalists for the prestigious German Game of the Year (known as the Spiel des Jahre).  Colovini became a ‘name to watch’ within gaming circles. 

Another of his designs, Meridian, seems to have as much, if not more strategic elements than Carolus Magnus, but surprisingly, there hasn’t been much press about this one and I’m not quite sure why.  My best guess is that it is fairly abstract and, indeed, some would consider it ‘dry’.  This same charge has been leveled against many other games, such as the Spiel des Jahre winner Torres.  I, however, find Meridian (and Torres) to be an extremely challenging and tense game, one which I thoroughly enjoy playing. I think most folks are overlooking this one, and that’s a shame. 

The game involves the struggle for control over a series of islands. The idea is to attempt to gain control of the majority of cities on an island, thereby dominating the island and scoring victory points.  This, of course, is nothing new.  However, the placement restrictions are innovative and quite challenging.  It is these restrictions, coupled with the limited amount of towers available to each player, that fills the game with tough choices and decisions.

The functional, yet rather bland board depicts 11 islands, each possessing from 3 – 5 cities, represented by nothing more than uninspired dots. One of the cities on each of the larger islands (the islands with 4 and 5 cities) is a capital and is depicted by a larger circle with a city illustration.  This capitol location is worth 2 points in determining control of that island, and as such, it is the scene for frequent conflicts amongst the players.  The board itself is divided into 10 meridians (c’mon … think back to your days of geography!) with each island being bisected by two or more of these meridians. 

Each player receives a set of 20 towers, which appear very similar to those little caps used in the old American games Trouble and Headache.  The colors are a bit different than the usual fare:  black, gray, orange and maroon.  Finally, each player is given a set of 13 cards, ten of which are numbered 1 – 10. The other three are ‘multiple’ cards, with values of 1-2-3, 4-5-6-7 and 8-9-10 respectively.  Each player shuffles his deck of cards and randomly places two cards face-up before him on the table.  It is these number cards which determine the meridians in which a player may place a tower on any given turn.  The valuable ‘multiple’ cards give the players several different placement options. 

A player’s turn is quite simple:  choose one of the two face-up cards and place a tower onto one of the islands in the corresponding meridian.  They may, if they so desire, discard a card and not place a tower.  It is the placement restrictions and rules, however, which make the game quite tricky and challenging.  The rules are: 

1) The first tower placed into a meridian must have a height of at least two towers. 

2) A player may not have more than one tower in a meridian. 

3) When placing a tower, it cannot be the same height as any other tower in that meridian. 

4) A strict hierarchy of ‘height’ must be maintained. In other words, a shorter tower may NOT be placed on a meridian above a taller tower and, conversely, a taller tower may NOT be placed on a city space below a shorter tower. 

As simple as these rules sound, they make for some incredibly challenging decisions, clever strategies and, often, some devastating blunders. There are some additional moves allowed for which really add spice and great depth to the game. 

An interesting design feature is that it is possible to displace an opponent’s tower from a city. You can place one of your towers onto that city, thereby dislodging the current tower, effectively moving it to a city above or below its present location.  However, the ‘hierarchy of height’ described above must be maintained.  It is possible to cause a chain-reaction wherein several towers are dislodged, being shoved up or down. This can be quite nasty and drastically alter the current control status of one or more islands.  Of course, towers which are on islands located at the top of bottom of a meridian cannot be pushed up or down, respectively, so these towers are ‘safe’ from this nasty dislodgement tactic. 

Since each player has three ‘multiple’ cards, this means that there will be three opportunities during the course of the game to place twice into a meridian. Although this seemingly violates the rule wherein no player can have more than one tower per meridian, the rules allow for a player to remove a previously placed tower from a meridian matching the card played. This removed tower can either be returned to the player’s general stockpile or re-placed back into the same meridian on the same of a different island, either adding or subtracting towers as desired. This maneuver can suddenly change the status quo of several islands and can have quite a dramatic impact. 

Returning towers to one’s supply can be essential, as it is quite common for players to deplete their stockpile of towers before the game concludes. One can easily go from a position of strength to one of despair due to the lack of available towers.  Thus, one must resist the temptation to play tall towers as this can quickly deplete your stockpile. Judicious use and placement of these tower pieces are vital skills to be learned. 

Once all players have played their 13 cards, the game reaches its conclusion.  Each island is then examined to determine which player has control.  The height of towers located on an island no longer matters; the determining factor is simply who controls the most cities on an island.  Remember, capitols are worth 2 points when determining control.  

Whoever controls an island receives 1 victory point for each city or capitol on that island.  If more than one player ties for control of an island, then no one controls that island and no victory points are awarded for that island.   All eleven islands are examined in this fashion and the player with the most cumulative points is victorious. 

I’ve seen … and tried … numerous strategies and tactics during my many games.  The most obvious strategy is to attempt to control the higher value islands and the capitol locations.  However, this is also the most common strategy, so there are usually several players attempting to accomplish the same goals.  This results in constant conflicts over these islands and locations, with a maddening series of displacements and dislodgements.  Often, these islands ultimately are split between several players, so no one player emerges with an appreciable lead. 

A favorite strategy of mine is to seize control of the lower valued ‘3 point’ islands.  These are often overlooked by players, so there is little conflict to control them.  Further, these islands are located at the very top and bottom of the meridians.  Placement of a single tower on the lower islands means that this tower cannot be dislodged.  It cannot be shoved down since it is located on the edge of the board, and it cannot be shoved upwards since an opponent cannot place a tower of a lower or equal height on that space.  The drawback, of course, is that you are abandoning the opportunity to compete for the larger islands in that meridian.  

In order for this strategy to work, however, you must gain control of 3 or 4 of the smaller islands and at least one larger island.  This is no small task, but if your pursuit of the smaller islands is left relatively unchallenged, it becomes a realistic possibility.  

Being the first to place into a meridian is often not an advantage.  If you make a grab for a capitol, it is highly likely that you will quickly be dislodged by subsequent placements by your opponents.  Further, since a meridian must be ‘opened’ with a tower of at least a height of two, you cannot safely place on the bottom islands as you could easily be dislodged.  I much prefer allowing my opponents to be the first to ‘open’ a meridian, as this gives me more options in that particular meridian. 

However, waiting too long can eventually leave a player with few, if any options.  As the game approaches its latter stages and board becomes more cluttered, a player can often find himself unable to make a placement which would benefit him.  I’ve seen players have several turns at the end of a game wherein they simply were forced to discard a card without placing towers as they would gain no advantage from their placement.  Sometimes this in inevitable, but careful placements and tower management during the game usually reduces this possibility and affords the player more options as the game progresses. 

As mentioned, managing your tower supply is a vital, yet tough task.  With only 20 towers in your arsenal, it is highly likely that you will be forced to skip a turn or two or remove a previously placed tower from the board in order to replenish your supply.  However, you must keep a careful eye on the cards you have played and the cards which remain so that you can know what your options will be when it comes time to remove a tower. 

One thing that bears mentioning is that when players place towers, the cards used are kept face-up, visible to all players.  Thus, the game does not have a ‘memory’ element wherein players must attempt to remember which cards have been played by themselves and their opponents.  Initially I thought that this might cause the game to bog down as players studied everyone’s cards before each and every play.  In reality, this is a quick process and there is little downtime suffered.  

The game affords little room for sloppy play or missed opportunities. Just about every decision and every placement will greatly affect the board situation, the decisions of your opponents and, ultimately, the outcome of the game.  Proper management of one’s tower pieces, timing and placement decisions are all skills which one must blend together in order to be successful. To me, it is a tough challenge, but one which I find myself enjoying considerably.  I only hope that the game will gain a wider audience and come to be more appreciated.

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Responses

  1. This is an unusual game. Area majority on islands (east/west) but you can only play in each Meridian once. Very neat. 7/10


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