Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

Siena

Design by:  Mario Papini
Publisher:  Zu Games
3 – 5 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

At Spiel 2005 in Essen, Germany, the promotional banner touting Mario Papini’s Siena enticed passer-bys with the slogan, “Play on a Medieval Tapestry”.  Spread out on several tables were over-sized displays of the game, with the boards depicting one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th century frescos.  In a panoramic fashion, the fresco displays life in middle-ages Siena, with the bustling city on the left, and the more pastoral farm life illustrated on the right.  In an effort to capture the image of the original tapestry, the design of the board is faded and difficult to see clearly.  This scores big points for visual appeal, but receives low marks for functionality.  But I am getting ahead of myself. 

It is not difficult to imagine the designer staring at the tapestry and thinking, “This would make a beautiful game board.”  From there, the wheels in his brain began turning, and a new game was born.  That new game is Siena, wherein players attempt to progress from the status of peasant to merchant to wealthy and influential banker.  Crops are harvested and sold, with profits being used to progress through these stages.  Eventually, players will use this wealth to hire artists and help construct a massive tower, all with the aim of becoming the most influential family in Siena. 

While it takes some time to digest the somewhat confusing and poorly organized rule book, the game itself is not very difficult to play.  The sequence of play is relatively straight-forward, and on most turns, a player’s options are fairly limited.  The main problem, however, is that the game is card driven, and in an effort to maintain the beauty of the tapestry, the cards themselves are snapshots of sections of the tapestry.  They contain no helpful text or icons to help a player identify how they may be used.  As a result, players must constantly refer to the rules, which do NOT contain a helpful chart depicting the cards and describing their use.  Fortunately, some thoughtful person has uploaded such a chart to the web.  The game would be virtually unplayable without one.

But again, I get ahead of myself.

The game begins with a series of auctions wherein players bid to acquire one or more potentially valuable cards.  Each turn will begin with players acquiring two more cards, either by a simple draft mechanism, or via auction.  Cards cost florins, with wealthier players paying a bit more for most cards they acquire.  Poorer players not only get a price-break, but they select their cards first.  So, while florins are ultimately required to progress through the various stages of the game, there is an incentive to lag a bit behind. 

There is a 7-card hand limit imposed upon the players.  While this may seem generous, in reality it is quite constrictive.  Many of the cards are useful only in the Banker stage, which usually encompasses the final one-half or one-third of the game.  Yet, they will be valuable, so it seems wise to acquire them when available.  However, since they have no use when one is a peasant or merchant, they effectively clog one’s hand and limit one’s options.  A larger hand limit would be of great benefit. 

After acquiring new cards, in turn order, players play as many cards as they desire.  While a farmer or merchant, the main cards that will be played will cause laborers or wayfarers (wooden cubes) to be placed on one or more of the five goods tracks.  When a track becomes filled with goods, one cube is removed and placed onto the corresponding area of the board.  Since the board graphics are purposely faded, with no foreign lines or marks so as to keep the overall tapestry unpolluted, it is difficult to ascertain exactly where these cubes should be placed.  We found it easier to simply place them near the corresponding track.  

A further problem is the actual location of the tracks.  Peasants can sell corn, wine and oil, while merchants can sell cloth and spices.  Unfortunately, the corn, wine and cloth charts are along the bottom of the board, while the oil and spice charts are along the top.  This is very confusing.  Undoubtedly they were placed at these locations so that they would align with the appropriate tapestry sections, but in practice, it is quite confusing.  Again, functionality has suffered for aesthetics.  

In many cases, the player causing this production gets to “harvest” the cube, selling it for the price indicated on the track.  As mentioned, if the player is currently a peasant, he can harvest wine, corn and/or oil, while a merchant can harvest cloth and/or spices.  Since the cards will require the player to place several different goods, sometimes goods are produced which the player cannot harvest.  The next player to place laborers or wayfarers on that particular track will then harvest that good.  So, one must be mindful of the possible benefits he will bestow upon other players when playing cards that allow the placement of laborers or wayfarers. 

The harvesting of goods increases a player’s wealth.  At any point after a player reaches or exceeds 30 florins, he may opt to change his status to that of merchant.  Doing so will allow the player to harvest cloth and spices, as well as undertake journeys to Florence or Arezzo if the proper card is played.  These journeys can lead to greater profits, but at the cost of foregoing any further placement of wayfarers until the journey is complete.  Further, once a merchant, the player may no longer harvest corn, wine or oil.  Thus, any cards he plays which causes him to place cubes onto those charts will ultimately benefit any opponents who are still peasants.  This makes the choice of stepping-up to the merchant class a tough one, and sometimes it may be more profitable to delay this decision and remain a peasant in order to continue to reap the rewards of that class. 

While a merchant, a player can forego income in favor of selecting a “Senesi” card.  Renouncing 10 florins allows the player to select one card, while foregoing 15 florins allows the player to select two and keep one of his choice.  These cards grant from 1 – 4 “consent” points, which ultimately are tallied with other consent sources to determine the victor.  While this is supposed to cause the player some angst in deciding whether to choose income or cards, there really isn’t any dilemma:  take the cards whenever you can. 

Eventually players will want to progress to the status of banker; you cannot win the game unless you are banker.  A player must have a treasury of at least 80 florins to make this decision.  Once a banker, a player will no longer place laborers / wayfarers or harvest goods, but he will receive a stipend each time his opponents harvest goods.  Rather, his token will move clockwise around the town, stopping at various locations, exercising the powers they grant (provided one possesses the proper cards) or encountering various characters. 

There are 11 locations in the town, most of them represented by corresponding cards.  Fortunately, the cards do have the name of the location on them, making them a tad bit easier to identify.  However, their specific effects must still be gleaned from the rules or downloaded player chart.  Many locations allow the player to gain florins, some of which are automatic, while others require the play of the corresponding cards.  These are the cards that players gather throughout the game in preparation for their use when the player becomes a banker.  

A banker automatically moves one space per turn, but may play cards to increase this movement.  The idea is to land on spaces which are beneficial, and avoid the spaces which are generally not beneficial.  Opponents, however, won’t be content to just let you continuously circle the town.  Cards can be played to place courtesans in the inn, or move the aggravating beggar.  Courtesans flaunt their feminine charms, forcing bankers to enter the inn and pay for their services.  The more courtesans present, the greater the cost.  The only way to avoid their irresistible lures is to distract them by playing “girlfriend” cards.  I am not kidding.  The beggar, of course, pesters you for coins, and ignoring him will bring shame – and negative consent points –due to one’s stinginess.  The timely play of a guard card will allow you to avoid the beggar, unless, of course, you are by the church, which frowns upon such treatment of those less fortunate. 

There are three main objectives while being a banker about town: 

1)      Hiring artists.  This appears to be vital.  Aside from partaking of the joys of the courtesans, players entering the inn can attempt to hire an artist.  Artists are auctioned, but only the player who enters the inn can see the value of the artist, which ranges from 1 – 8 in consent points.  Other players can also take a peek if they are present in the inn or play the correct card.  Hiring one or two artists seems to be essential for victory. 

2)      Donating to the church.  Once per game, a player can donate to the church.  The amount donated is dependent upon the wealth of the player.  The more money one possesses, the more he is expected to give.  The generous banker draws four Senesi cards and keeps two of his choice. 

3)      Building the Tower.  Construction of the tower is progressively more expensive with each story added, but the rewards in consent points also increase.  Players may add to the tower each time they end their turn on the appropriate location – the Torre del Mangia.  This also serves as a possible end-game trigger, which will occur upon completion of the 7th story of the tower. 

The game will conclude upon completion of the tower’s 7th story, or after the 20th round.  Players tally their consent points, which include accumulated Senesi cards and artists.  Points are also derived from the tower, and are based on the level of the floors constructed, as well as for the player who constructed the most stories.  The player who gathered the most consent wins and is nominated as a Member of the Consiglio dei Nove, the town’s ruling body. 

As mentioned, the game seems to present the players with a myriad of options and tough decisions.  To be sure, there are numerous choices to be made, and sometimes the choices do cause some angst.  However, in most cases, players do not have many options.  On most turns, a player has one or two cards he can play … the others just are not beneficial or would assist one’s opponent’s more.  Further, the 7-card hand limit is very restrictive.  Many valuable cards surface each turn, but most of them really cannot be used until one reaches the status of banker.  However, it seems foolish to let them slip by without taking them.  Thus, the effect is that these cards clog a player’s hand, leaving the player only a few cards which could possibly be played each turn. 

The peasant and merchant classes seem somewhat bland.  The vast majority of cards that can be played during these phases of the game simply allow the placement of cubes and their harvesting.  The only exciting aspect of this phase is the chance one can take on the “Via Francigena”, which allows the player to risk increase profits by the revealing of cards.  This does require a special card, however, and it just does not surface often enough. 

Most turns are simply un-exciting.  Things do get more interesting and varied once one becomes a banker.  This, however, is, at best, one-half of a 2 – 3 hour game.  

To be sure, there are numerous unique features, and the progression system is intriguing.  However, I am not sure just how much flexibility the system allows.  I really want to enjoy the game more, but there just is not that much excitement generated in the 2 – 3 hours of playing time.  The combination of poor graphic design choices with the appearance of some system drawbacks has left me disappointed.

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