Posted by: gschloesser | August 9, 2011

New England

Design by:  Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum
Published by:  Gold Sieber / UberPlay Games
3 – 4 Players, 1 ½ hours
Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #21 

Every so often a game is released that contains a mechanism that is so unique that it elicits a collective “Wow!” from most folks in the gaming community.  I’m always a bit skeptical to authoritatively declare such mechanisms as original creations since they might have been utilized in some obscure game released in the past of which I am completely unaware.  Be that as it may, I do feel that designers Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum have invented such an original and thoroughly brilliant mechanism in their new release, New England

The new invention that I am referring to is the bidding mechanism, wherein each player takes a token numbered from 1 – 10.  Not only does this token determine the order in which players will execute their action, with higher numbers going first, but it also determines how much money the player must pay to execute each of his two actions.  Thus, grabbing a higher number in order to go first comes with a cost in the form of being forced to pay a higher amount for each of your actions.  Deciding which number to take can be excruciating and is a central mechanism – and skill – to the game.  It is nothing short of brilliant. 

Fortunately, this stroke of game design genius is not all that the game has going for it.  Indeed, the entire game is a tightly woven tapestry of delight, filled with important choices, clever placement opportunities and tight money management.  Each and every one of my half-dozen playings has resulted in a closely fought contest and left me completely satisfied and pining for more.  Although completely different games, for me this is the best design from the Moon / Weissblum team since San Marco.

New England is set on the shores of the New World in 1621 with the arrival of the pilgrims to the north Atlantic coastline.  Four families (multi-cultural families judging from the politically correct photo that adorns the family cards!) seek to expand their land holdings and improve their financial coffers and their lot in life.   This process involves developing their land into precise geometric plots, attracting the most pilgrims, building the largest fleet and erecting the most barns.  Life as a pilgrim was obviously very demanding. 

The game is part of the Gold Sieber “big box” series and released in English by Uber Play Games.  Although much of the box is filled with air, it was probably needed in order to fit the sizeable board, which depicts a section of the New England coastline bordered on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean.  Superimposed on the board is a 9 x 11 grid, with one corner space omitted and replaced by the legendary Plymouth Rock.  The board also provides space for two tracks, one which houses the ten bidding tokens and the other for the nine tiles and cards that will be purchased by the players each turn.  In addition to the ten bidding tokens, the game is stocked with an assortment of wooden bits (pilgrims, ships and barns), land tiles, development cards and money chips.  There are also four black wood tokens that are included so players can mark their completed plots, but in reality these are totally unnecessary.  Several of us have already been scheming of potential variants wherein these tokens could be put to better use! 

The game begins with each player (a.k.a., family) possessing three plots of land on the board.  The tiles representing the plots are color-coded to represent farm land, pastures and settlements and the initial tiles for each family are large ones that cover two square on the board.  All other tiles cover only one board space.  These initial plots can either be set as per a suggested set-up chart, or each player can take turns placing their plots in a fashion similar to the now-familiar initial set-up procedure present in Settlers of Catan.  Each player is then given 12 shillings as their starting capital, which is likely more than what most pilgrims possessed when they first set foot in the New World! 

The actual mechanics of the game play are quite straight-forward and easy – it is the decisions that are tough!  The start player announces how many land tiles and development cards he will reveal to begin the round.  A total of nine tiles / cards must be revealed, with a minimum of three each.  The remaining three can be in any combination the start player desires.  There are some important considerations to be made here.  Revealing more tiles will allow players to expand their plots more rapidly, while revealing more cards may give the opportunity to acquire more pilgrims, barns and ships AND give the opportunity to secure development tiles in which to convert undeveloped land into developed parcels.  A player must not only consider how this potential mix will benefit him personally, but must also be wary to not provide too much of a benefit to his opponents.  

Beginning with the start player, which rotates each round, each player selects one of the ten bidding tokens.  As mentioned earlier, the value of the token selected will not only determine the player order for that round, but also is the amount that the player is required to pay for each of the two actions he has at his disposal.  By far, this is the most agonizingly rich aspect of the game.  If you see two tiles and/or cards you covet, choosing a high number will insure that you get to select them first.  Unfortunately, this also means that you will pay dearly for this privilege and will have significantly less financial resources available for you on the next turn.  Further, just how bold are you?  Players can execute zero, one or two actions per turn.  The temptation is to select a bidding token that, coupled with your financial coffers, will allow you to execute two actions.  However, an opponent may select a higher token and only execute one action.  Thus, he is able to spend more money on that one action than the player who is angling to take two actions and must split his money amongst those two actions.  Each player’s money is kept visible, so players can perform the mental financial calculations and gymnastics in attempting to determine their wisest bid.  Experience has proven that although this decision making process is often excruciatingly tough, it doesn’t take an inordinate amount of time.  

After all players have selected a bidding token, each player then purchases zero, one or two tiles and/or cards, executing them immediately.  

Tiles:  These are land tiles and must be placed adjacent (orthogonal, not diagonal) to that player’s existing plot of the same type.  Thus, pasture land tiles must be placed adjacent to the player’s existing pasture land; farmland adjacent to farmland, etc.  Plots are placed with their undeveloped side face-up and a tile may NOT be placed in a space if it would join the same type of plots of two different players.  This is an important rule as not only does it avoid confusion on the board, but it also makes jostling for key positions on the board very important.  Often, it is possible to block your opponents’ expansion path and thereby limit the size of their plots. 

Development Cards:  There are two main types of development cards: 

1)      Pilgrim, Barn and Ship.  These cards allow the player to take the appropriate token and place it onto one of their undeveloped tiles.  Each tile, however, may only contain one token. Each category conveys certain benefits to the player: 

a)      Pilgrim:  Each pilgrim a player possesses increases his income by one per turn. 

b)     Barn:  Each barn a player possesses allows the player to store a land development card and use it at a later point in the game.  

c)      Ship:  If the player possesses the most ships at the beginning of his turn (or is tied for the most ships), he may, at his discretion, reveal another tile or card before taking his turn.  Ships must be placed on undeveloped tiles adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. 

2)      Land Development.  These cards depict a specific type of land and a specific geometric pattern.  If the player has land tiles matching that type laid out in the pattern depicted on the card, he may purchase that card and develop those tiles, flipping them over to their developed side.  Any pilgrims located on those tiles must be re-located to other undeveloped tiles the player possesses.  The land development card is then maintained and will be worth the indicated number of victory points (3, 6 or 10) at the end of the game. 

Developing plots of land is a vital aspect of the game.  Since there are a limited number of each type of geometric pattern for each type of land, it is important that players know in advance which types of patterns, as well as their quantity, are available for each type of land.  For example, there are only three cards depicting the four-block pattern and these are only available for settlement tiles.  This knowledge is essential in order to properly plan one’s course of action. 

When developing plots of land, these plots must be free of any pilgrims, barns or ships.  Pilgrims and ships may be freely located to other undeveloped tiles the player owns (with the requirement that ships must remain adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean), but barns, once erected, can never be moved.  Thus, it is wise to place barns on tiles that you have no intention on developing. 

After a player has paid for and executed his actions, he returns his bidding token to the board and collects an income of four shillings, plus one additional shilling for each pilgrim he possesses.  The next player then executes his actions.  Once all players have performed their actions, the start player token moves to the left and the entire procedure is repeated. 

The game ends when the start player calls for a certain number of tiles or cards to be revealed and there are not enough to meet his request.  At that point, players earn victory points as follows: 

Land Development Cards:  3, 6 or 10 points, as indicated on the card. 

Pilgrim, Barn and Ship:  1 point for each card possessed. 

Most Pilgrims:  4 points

Most Barns:  3 points

Most Ships:  2 points. 

Any ties are broken in favor of the player with the most money. 

As indicated above, the game is rich with tough decisions and choices.  Proper money management is critical as is the selection of the bidding tokens.  Deciding on which tiles and/or cards to take is also vital and one must exercise careful planning on the placement of these tiles and tokens.  I’ve seen several players caught in the unenviable position of being unable to develop a parcel of land because they do not possess enough undeveloped tiles on which to re-locate their pilgrims and ships.  There’s a delicate balance here that must be maintained and constantly monitored. 

What makes the experience even richer is the fact that all of these tough choices, strategies and decisions are compacted into a tidy 60 – 90 minute time frame.  Most of my latter games have clocked in at the 60-minute level.  One would certainly be hard-pressed to name many games that pack this amount of depth and decision-making into such a compact time frame.  

Are there potential drawbacks to the game?  Yes, but not many.  There is no denying that the theme here is loose-fitting, which may be a bit of a turn-off to some.  Pity them, however.  The theme does work and I’d much prefer a game that has a loose-fitting theme and is excellent as opposed to a game that has a tightly-woven theme but is mediocre.  New England is certainly in falls into the former category.  It’s wealth of decisions, strategies and accommodating time frame translates into a game that should see frequent table-time and be a mainstay of my collection for years and years to come.

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Responses

  1. Quick game. I like bidding points for turn order. 7/10


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