Posted by: gschloesser | August 10, 2011

Princes of the Renaissance

Designed by:  Martin Wallace
Released by:  Warfrog
Players:  3 – 6, 2 hours
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in the Gamer’s Allliance Report 

Martin Wallace is gradually becoming one of my favorite designers — but this took a bit of time.  I was not overly enthused by his earlier creations, but his previous two designs released under the Warfrog label – Liberte and Age of Steam – are outstanding games and among my personal favorites.  Indeed, both garnered nominations for the International Gamers Awards, with Age of Steam capturing top honors in 2003.  So, I anxiously awaited the release of Princes of the Renaissance.  The only question for me was would it live up to my expectations.  

I should not have worried.  Princes of the Renaissance is a deep, challenging and tense game with a rich mixture of mechanisms and numerous strategies for the players to pursue.  Indeed, there is so much happening, that it will take most players a game or two just to begin getting a handle on the numerous strategies they can employ … and how to counteract strategies being pursued by their opponents.  This kind of depth bodes well for the game and should insure that it will be one that will continue to be played well into the future. 

Players represent heads of powerful families in renaissance-era Italy.  The families attempt to expand their power by gaining influence in the courts of the major city-states within the region.  Influence is not only determined by bribery, but also by instigating and participating in various wars between the powers.  Bribery, treachery and outright theft will often spell the difference between victory and defeat.  As a measure of the family’s power and prestige, famous artists can be employed to glorify their achievements.

The components are akin to those found in traditional American war games as opposed to the forest of wood usually found in German style games.  This translates to a warehouse of cardboard.  Having grown-up in the hobby playing war games and Avalon Hill games, I have no problems with the choice of components.  Those who demand pounds of wood, however, may be less than pleased.  

The graphics and artwork are a mixed lot.  The art on the tiles is often quite good, with the rules summaries thereon concise.  An added bonus is that the tiles are printed with English text on one side and Deutsch on the other.  This means no cumbersome translation pages or messy paste-ups are required.  The board depicts the central region of Italy, with the five major cities and six family houses indicated by appropriate drawings.  The overall effect is certainly functional, but rather bland and unexciting.  The small counters used for coins and influence are relatively unadorned, but serve their purpose well. 

The jovial crew at Warfrog is also getting better at writing rules.  There are a few ambiguities, but mostly missing are the glaring omissions that were present in some of their past releases.  A lengthy example of play is also provided, which does help clarify some points. 

Each of the five cities has six related tiles.  Many and often most of these tiles will be auctioned during the course of the game.  Players acquire these family tiles, then attempt to manipulate the status of the cities so that the ones in which they hold influence (tiles) increase in status, while the cities in which their opponents hold tiles drop.  Players ultimately earn victory points for the tiles they possess based on the status level of their respective cities.  

Status is manipulated mainly through military conflicts between the cities.  Players bid for the right to represent the attacker and defender in a conflict, earning money and laurels in the process.  Cities that win conflicts see their status increase, while the defeated metropolis suffers lost prestige.  

Victory points are earned in numerous fashions.  In addition to the value of city tiles, players earn points from various event tiles, laurels won in battle, gold, influence markers and by controlling the Pope.  More on this later. 

Players begin the game by selecting one of the six family tiles.  These tiles grant special powers and/or privileges to the holder, such as the ability to hold extra treachery tiles, discounts when bidding, additional artillery strength, etc.  

The actual mechanics of the game are quite simple.  On a turn, a player has the following options, of which he can only perform one per turn: 

1)      Buy a tile.  A player may purchase a troop or treachery tile.  

a)      Troop Tiles.  In order to participate as a condottierre for the attacker or defender in a battle, a player must be in possession of troops.  Various types of military units are available, from cavalry to artillery.  These troops have different attack and defense values, and their cost will vary accordingly.  Building a large military force will enable the player to be a formidable foe in battle, leading to the collection of numerous laurels.  Beware the player who is allowed to pursue this path unimpeded.  Wise players will either compete by participating in the quest for a strong military, or by conspiring to prevent this player from participating in battles. 

b)      Treachery Tiles.  These tiles can be used to alter the rules or the normal flow of the game.  Troops can be bribed to refuse participation in a battle.  Players can be frozen out of an auction.  Gold or influence can be stolen from opponents.  Wars can be started or vetoed.  The use of these tiles can drastically alter the game at critical junctures.  Usually, players can only possess two treachery tiles, but certain city tiles allow the player to expand this limit to three. 

2)      Auction a tile.  A player may place one of the 30 city tiles, one of the four available event tiles, or the Pope tile up for auction.  Coins are used for bidding on city tiles, while some event tiles require the use of influence markers.  The presence of these two different types of currencies – and their proper management – is quite clever and constantly present the player with tough dilemmas.  Auctions are conducted in the traditional fashion, with the high bidder surrendering the amount bid and acquiring the tile.  

When placing a city tile up for auction, the player must begin the auction by bidding at least twice the current status level of the corresponding city.  This can be quite steep.  Money is tight in the game – especially in the early stages – so placing a city tile up for bid will often severely limit the other possible actions a player can perform later in the turn. 

Many of the city tiles grant the holder special powers or privileges.  Amongst these are increased income between turns, the right to exchange coins for influence (or vice versa), stealing influence or money from an opponent, vetoing a war, holding an additional treachery tile, adding to your troop strength, etc.  These powers must be considered when deciding upon which city tile to place up for auction.  

An important consideration is the restriction that a player may only possess a maximum of six city tiles, and have holdings in no more than three different cities.  Since the game lasts three turns, choosing which tiles to purchase and at what time are critical decisions.  If a player commits too early to the three cities in which he wishes to hold influence, then it is very possible for his opponents to drive the status level of those cities down, thereby severely reducing the value of the player’s holdings.  If he waits too late, however, tiles in the most prestigious cities may already be gone or be prohibitively expensive.  Proper timing is essential. 

There are four event tiles available for auction each turn.  These tiles generally grant victory points to the holder, but can also be used to increase or lower the status of cities.  Once all four of these tiles have been auctioned, a turn ends.  

The final tile that can be auctioned once per turn is the Pope tile.  The possessor of the Pope tile can throw his personal troop strength into a battle once per turn (known as a “decade”), which can often spell the difference between victory and defeat in a battle.  The Pope tile is only held until the end of a decade, however.  The player who possesses the Pope at the end of the third and final turn earns 3 victory points. 

3)      Start a War.  Each turn, up to five wars may be declared.  The active player declares the attacker and defender in the conflict.  Players then bid, using influence markers, for the right to represent the attacker and defender.  In order to participate in the auction process, a player must possess at least one troop counter.  

Representing a city in a conflict has financial rewards, as the city will pay the player an amount of gold equal to its current status level.  This money is not received until the end of the turn, however.  

Battles are resolved by the attacker and defender totaling the strength of their troops and adding this to a die roll.  If the attacker is victorious, he earns a laurel (represented by a counter).  If the defender is victorious, he counter-attacks, which, if successful, earns the original defender a laurel.  Laurels earn victory points on an ever-increasing scale and can be a significant portion of a player’s total victory points at the end of the game.  Players with a strong military will likely seek to participate in as many battles as possible in order to acquire these valuable laurels. 

Unless a battle is a stalemate, the cities involved will see their status increase or decrease.  The victorious city will have its status increased by either one or two spaces, depending upon the margin of victory.  The defeated city will have its status decreased the same amount.  

Even if a player does not have a strong military, there are numerous reasons to begin and possibly participate in a war.  First, there is the financial incentive:  participating in a war will earn money, win or lose.  Second, there is the potential of earning a laurel, which will translate directly into victory points.  Third, the conflict can result in the increase or decrease of the status level of a city.  This will directly affect the players who possess city tiles in those cities.  The player starting a war can decide the participants, so have a direct impact on those players possessing tiles in the belligerents.  Fourth, beginning a war can cause a bidding war to ensue as players vie to serve as condottierre for the attacker or defender.  This can cost players precious amounts of influence markers. 

An incredibly clever aspect of the game is that players can bid for the right to represent the attacker or the defender, even if their intent is to lose the ensuing conflict.  Losing a war will only cost the player the influence markers he bid to secure the right to represent the city in battle.  This may be an acceptable cost in order to see the status level of a city drop, and/or that of the attacking city rise.   Sneaky – and often very effective. 

A puzzling aspect of the game is that participating in a battle does not cost the participants any loss of troops.  This means that a player with a strong military will remain strong.  Thus, that player will seek to participate in as many battles as possible and seek to secure victory by earning a multitude of laurels.  This strategy can be very effective if not checked by a collective effort of his opponents.  The game rules allow for players to make deals and freely give money and/or influence to each other.  So, it is vital that players combine their efforts to insure that the player(s) with powerful militaries do not constantly participate in battles.  Further, treachery tiles that affect the outcome of battles should be used judiciously, targeting the military powers whenever advantageous. 

A turn continues with players each performing one action on their turn until all four event tiles have been auctioned.  At this point, the current turn concludes and all players receive income.  A base amount of income is earned in both money and influence, and can be supplemented depending upon a player’s city tile holdings and monies earned due to participation in a conflict.  Four new event tiles are then revealed, the Pope tile is returned, and a new turn is conducted.  This entire process continues until three turns have been completed, at which points players tally their victory points to determine the victor. 

Victory points are earned as follows: 

1)      Each city tile is worth an amount of victory points based on the status level it has achieved.  These points range from a high of ten per tile for the highest level to a low of a miserly 2 points per tile.  In most games, the majority of a player’s victory points will be earned based on these city tiles, so the major thrust of the game is the acquiring of these tiles and the manipulating of the status levels of the cities.

 2)      Certain event tiles award the holder with victory points, ranging from 1 – 3 points.  

3)      The holder of the Pope tile earns 3 victory points. 

4)      The player possessing the most gold earns 6 victory points, while the player with the second-most gold earns 3 victory points.  Thus, as the game enters the second decade, players must make important decisions when deciding on how to spend their gold.  Six victory points are significant and being shutout of these points can ultimately snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

5)      The player with the most influence points earns 4 victory points.  The same decisions must be made when bidding your influence markers as are required when spending your gold. 

6)      Laurels earn victory points on a factorial basis.  For instance, 1 laurel earns the player 1 victory point, while 4 laurels earn a player 10 victory points (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10).  I repeat my previous warning:  beware the player with a strong military. 

Princes of the Renaissance is a rich game filled with a mind-boggling array of tough decisions and a myriad of strategies to pursue.  There seems to be a number of valid paths to victory, but each also has its antidote.  Although the military strategy can be formidable if left un-checked, a powerful coalition can thwart it and result in its failure.  The pursuit of a “merchant” strategy, wherein the acquisition of multiple merchants earns increased income and victory points, can also be blocked by the prevention of the acquisition of numerous merchants.  It appears that a well-balanced strategy is the one least likely to result in an opposition coalition and have the best chance at competing for victory.  How best to achieve this balance is left for each player to decide. 

A typical game of Princes of the Renaissance lasts from 2 – 2 ½ hours, a very short period of time when considering the considerable depth, challenge and excitement generated.  Some folks may well take exception to the multitude of auctions that will be conducted throughout the game.  However, each auction feels different, as the object of the auction conveys different powers or abilities and will have vastly different values to different players.  I tend not to enjoy games which rely to heavily on auctions, but never once felt that the mechanism outlasted its welcome here.  

I have always been a huge fan of such rich and meaty games as Avalon Hill’s Age of Renaissance and Advanced Civilization.  However, the 6 – 12 hours it took to play these games prevents them from seeing much table time.  I have now found another game wherein I can experience an equivalent level of depth, challenge and tenseness in a fraction of the time.  This will insure that Princes of the Renaissance will be a regular visitor to my table.

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