Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Venezia

Design by:  Ronald Hofstätter
Publisher:  Queen

3 – 5 Players, 90 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Editor’s Note:  This review also appears in Counter Magazine #15

This one is for the birds.  Normally, that’s an American expression meaning something isn’t very good.  However, that isn’t the sentiment I’m aiming at here.  Rather, in the game itself,  players represent our feathered friends (pigeons), attempting to gain majorities in the various districts of the beautiful city of Venice.  Yes, yet another game set on the stunning Italian island.

I had heard about the game via the usual sources, but it never generated much interest.  Often, if a humorous subject is chosen as the theme for a game, the game turns out to be good for a few laughs, but there isn’t much ‘game’ there.  Plus, the game was designed by Ronald Hofstätter, the same designer of Im Zeichen des Kreuzes.  I wasn’t overly impressed with that title, so I figured I’d try Venezia before I bought it blind.

Fortunately, that opportunity arose at Gulf Games 8 as Frank Branham had brought along a copy.  He had not yet played, but had read the rules.  We stumbled through a practice turn, then managed to complete two disjointed turns.  I was actually enjoying the game, but Frank and a fellow gamer were eager to throw in the towel.  Apparently they found it rather fiddily and weren’t enjoying the experience.  I reluctantly agreed to abort the game.  The bright spot was that I eagerly accepted Frank’s offer to purchase the game at a bargain basement price!

I’ve since had the opportunity to play several more times and am pleased to say that the game has been much better received than during that first aborted attempt.  No, it isn’t the mecca of gaming, nor is it without its flaws.  Still, it is fun to play and is quite challenging.

Although the theme is certainly different, the basic objective is still very familiar.  Players attempt to gain majorities in the various districts of Venice.  This is accomplished by maneuvering your pigeons into the regions, while using special event cards to aid in this goal and hinder the efforts of your opponents.  More than one person has mentioned that it has an ‘El Grande’ feel to it.  It does, but there are enough different and unique mechanics to give the game an entirely different atmosphere.

The game has nice production values, complete with an attractive board depicting nine different Venetian districts, as well as an enlarged area depicting the Piazza San Marco.  The score track, which rims the board, cleverly depicts Venetian style buildings.  Of course, since the theme involves pigeons, there are various humorous illustrations of playful pigeons.  The rest of the components are standard fare, including two mats for each player, a deck of cards and the ever-present wooden cubes, representing the pigeons.  In a rarity for games today, there are also two ‘spinners’ included, used to position the tourists and pigeon hunter in the Piazza.  The action cards and player aid cards are, of course, in Deutsch, but there are handy translations ready for paste-up readily available on the Boardgame Geek website.

Each player begins with 12 pigeons and a home base.  Players take turns placing their home base onto the board, each player beginning in a different district.  Each is also given a set of cards, which depict the various districts as well as a set of event cards.  Each player has an identical set of cards, so no one player has an undue advantage in regards to potential events.

The game phases are actually very straight-forward and easy to follow.

Phase 1:  Planning.  Each player places cards face-down onto their player mat ‘A’ (there are two different player mats). Players play one card for the Piazza San Marco (allowing them to place pigeons into the piazza), one event card (except during the first turn) and up to three district cards.  They then allocate as many pigeons from their reserve onto the piazza and/or district cards.  When these cards are revealed, the pigeons are placed into the appropriate district and/or piazza.

Phase 2:  Piazza San Marco.  Players reveal their piazza card.  This card can either indicate that the player is placing pigeons into the piazza, or that they have opted not to place pigeons there.

If placing pigeons, each player places his pigeons onto the piazza space on the board.  The piazza is an 8×10 grid.  Players place their pigeons wherever they desire on this grid, but no two pigeons may occupy the same space.  Once all pigeons allocated for the piazza are placed, the spinners are spun to determine the location of the two tourists and the one pigeon hunter.

If the pigeon hunter token is placed on or adjacent to (including diagonal) to one or more pigeons, those pigeons are caught and exiled to the island of San Michele.  During the course of the game, however, they tend to migrate back to the players’ reserves and once again become available to place onto the board.

At this point, each player, in turn order, moves each of pigeons one space, if he desires.  Players may also ‘jump’ other pigeons, similar to the move used in Chinese Checkers.  Multiple jumps are allowed, but only one pigeon may be hopped with each jump.  The object here is to get adjacent to, or better yet, on top of the tourists.  Why?  Tourists feed the pigeons, giving them the necessary strength to procreate (OK … I’ve added this rationale, but it works!).  At the end of a move, a player receives 2 new pigeons for each pigeon that is adjacent to a tourist, and 5 new pigeons for each pigeon resting atop a tourist.  These new baby pigeons are placed on the player’s mat ‘B’, in the ‘nest’ section.

There’s also another goal when moving pigeons.  If you manage to ‘sandwich’ an opponent’s pigeon between two of your own, that pigeon is chased away to the island of San Michele.  Nasty, nasty.

This aspect of the game is a VERY different mechanism, especially in regards to the acquisition of new pieces. It’s sort of a ‘game within a game’.  I actually find it quite enjoyable and challenging, but others have found it to be fiddily.  The grid isn’t that large and it is unlikely a player will have a huge quantity of pieces in the piazza, so the planning and execution of one’s moves shouldn’t be too time consuming.  I will readily admit that there is a large amount of luck involved in regards to the random placement of the tourists and pigeon hunter.  It is quite common for someone to get lucky and have a tourist appear immediately adjacent to his pigeons.  This can be mitigated somewhat by using all 3 tourists supplied, a variant which worked reasonably well when tried.

It is this very factor, however, which can cause the game to break down for a player.  If one player becomes particularly unlucky, he may well go several turns with few new pigeons.  This makes competing for control of the various regions very difficult and may effectively knock a player out of the game.  One of the flaws I mentioned.  Increasing the number of tourists helped mitigate this somewhat, but didn’t totally eliminate the possibility of this problem arising.  Still, in spite of this and the luck involved, I found this segment of the game quite interesting and different.

Once all players have moved their pigeons and collected their baby pigeons (pigeonettes?), play proceeds to the Districts.

Phase 3: The Districts.  First, players are polled to see if anyone has played the special ‘Family Meeting’ event card.  If so, that card is executed immediately.  Then, each player is given the opportunity to reinforce their home district by moving pigeons from their reserve to that district.

Once this is accomplished, each player reveals and executes their action card (if played).  If more than one player played the same action cards, only the player with the lowest cumulative score can execute the action. The other player(s) returns the card to his hand.  We missed this ‘tie-breaking’ formula in one of our games, denying the action to all players who played the same card.  Be warned!

The action cards do a variety of things, most in some fashion manipulating the amount of pigeons a player can bring into play or return from the board.  Some prevent the scoring of a region, others allow neutral pigeons to be brought into play, etc.  These add a nice twist of uncertainty to the game and the proper timing of the use of these cards can be critical.  Once played, an action card is discarded and can only be retrieved if a player has the majority of pigeons on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Finally, each player reveals the district cards he played and allocates the pigeons he placed upon those cards to their respective districts.

Phase 4:  Scoring.  At this point, each district is examined to see which player possesses the majority of pigeons.  San Giorgio Maggiore and San Michele are NOT scored, however.  For each district wherein a player has a majority, he receives 3 points.  If he has the majority in a district that is the home base of an opponent, he receives 6 points.  This makes the taking over of an opponent’s home district very important and they are often the site of intense struggles for control.

The player who possesses the majority on San Giorgio Maggiore gets to retrieve one of his previously played action cards, while the player who has the majority of pigeons on San Michelle gets to return two of those pigeons to his reserve.  Finally, the district which has the largest number of pigeons in it is cleared, with the pigeons being returned to the reserve of the respective players.  The turn ends with each player moving pigeons from their nests to their reserve.

The game continues in this fashion until the turn wherein a player reaches or exceeds 50 points.  The player with the most points is victorious.  All of the games I’ve played have clocked in at about 1 1/2 hours.

An important consideration in the game is that once pigeons are placed onto the board, they are stuck in place.  The only way to get them back is to have that district have the most pigeons in it at the end of a turn, at which point pigeons in that district are returned to their owners.  Thus, it is vitally important to have a constant influx of new pigeons, which means you must keep enough pigeons in Piazza San Marco to give you this opportunity.

However, each player has a maximum number of 40 pigeons and it is quite possible that a player will use all of these during the course of the game.  Smart players will attempt to over-populate a region in order to retrieve the pigeons they have located there.  This, along with newly born pigeons, will help keep an ample supply available throughout the game.

I find the game to be fun, tense and rather exciting.  In spite of bearing some similarities to El Grande, the game is certainly not in the same class.  Still, it was an enjoyable experience, one I look forward to having again very soon.   In spite of its few flaws, it’s a keeper.

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