Posted by: gschloesser | August 14, 2013

Spectaculum

Design by:  Reiner Knizia
Published by:  R&R Games
2 – 4 Players, 30 – 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Spectaculum - cover

I regularly harangue designers and publishers for using tired and over-done themes.  Dragons, orcs, medieval villages, constructing towers, castles and/ or cities … they have all been used over-and-over again.  While the underlying games may well be quite good, the worn-out themes present an initial obstacle to my enthusiasm and enjoyment.  I understand certain themes are very popular, but I just wish an effort would be made to utilize original or seldom used topics.

How about this for a theme:  traveling circuses crisscross the countryside enchanting villages with fantastic feats, amazing stories and boisterous songs.  Financial backers stand to reap huge profits, but a missed date or botched performance can send their bottom line spiraling downward.  Backing the best shows and dumping those that seem destined for failure requires keen discernment and flawless timing.  Now that is an original theme!

Welcome to Spectaculum, one of the recent designs from Reiner Knizia and published by R&R Games.  An attempt is made to bring the world of traveling circuses to life via cards depicting a variety of whimsical characters, including the beardless dwarf, fearful flea-tamer, shy jester, conjuring serpent and far-sighted fortune teller.  Unfortunately, these delightful characters have absolutely nothing to do with the game.  Rather, the theme is about as thinly pasted as possible, which is a major disappointment.  There is no disguising that Spectaculum is unmistakably an abstract design.

The board depicts nearly fifty villages clustered across the countryside.  Upon each village is placed a face-up tile.  Most of these tiles are numerical valuators ranging from -3 to +3, while others (which have red borders) financially reward or penalize players possessing characters of a matching color.  Four value tracks – one for each of the four traveling troupes – are located on the corners of the board.  Each of the four troupes has its own deck of cards, but disappointingly the actual characters in each deck are identical.  Additional atmosphere could have been infused if the characters in each troupe were different.

Players begin the game with twenty ducats and one character from each troupe, which are placed face-up in front of them.  Thus, the characters in the employment of each player are public knowledge.  Ninety-six travel markers – twenty-four of each of the four colors matching the traveling troupes – are mixed in the supplied cloth bag.  Each player draws three tokens from the bag, concealing them in their hands.  The game begins.

SpectaculumThe game, which is clearly more suited as a family affair, is understandably quite simple.  A player’s turn follows a few simple steps:  the player must play the three tokens to the board and may perform two entertainer actions. An entertainer action is the purchase or sale of an entertainer.  The three tokens must be placed at the same time, but this can be done before, during or between the entertainer actions.  The order in which this is done can be quite important.

A character of any troupe may be purchased or sold for an amount equal to the current value of that troupe.  Since a player has two entertainer actions per turn, he may sell two characters, purchase two characters, or purchase one and sell one.  Alternatively, he may take only one action or none at all.  The familiar stock market tip applies here:  buy low, sell high.

When placing tokens, each color must be placed on a space containing no other token that is adjacent to that that troupe’s headquarters or another token of that troupe.  If placed on a tile depicting a number, the value of that troupe is increased or decreased by a corresponding amount.  For example, if a player places a blue token on a “-2” tile, the value of the blue troupe decreases by two.  The tile depicting two coins gives players two coins for each character of that troupe in their employment, while the token depicting what I think is a medicine bottle and spoon (the artwork is diminutive) costs players two coins for each character of that troupe that they employ.

The idea is to place tokens that increase the value of the troupes in which you employ numerous characters, while driving down the value of the troupes in which your opponents employ multiple characters.  Proper timing is important, as ideally you would like to drive the price of a troupe lower before purchasing characters in that troupe.  Conversely, you would like the price to be high before selling.  This requires placing tokens so that the proper tiles are reached.  The problem, of course, is that a player does not have complete control, as the tokens are drawn randomly from the bag.

The board layout is a major factor in determining which characters to purchase and sell.  Troupe headquarters are located on the corners of the board, so each troupe will likely reach nearby tiles during the course of the game.  Thus, if a particular troupe is surrounded by a plethora of positive-valued tiles, it is highly likely it will increase in value relatively quickly.  It would be a wise strategy to purchase characters in that troupe early, and perhaps sell them once their value rises.  Astute players should examine the board layout carefully and make their decisions accordingly.

The game ends once two conditions are met:

  • Only one (or fewer) red-bordered tile remains, and
  • The royal court (located at the center of the board) is occupied by a marker.

Players receive the value of each entertainer in their employ and the player with the greatest wealth is victorious.  It generally takes 30 – 45 minutes to complete a game.

Spectaculum is reminiscent of Palmyra, an earlier Knizia design.  It is a stock market game, with proper timing regarding buying and selling necessary in order to be successful.  The ability to manipulate the market is dependent upon the initial distribution of the tiles and the random draw of three tokens each turn.  Sometimes you are powerless to influence the value of a particular troupe as you simply cannot draw its tiles from the bag.  That can be frustrating.

The most frustrating part for me, however, is solely subjective.  I was happy to see a fresh, lively theme of traveling circuses, something which I’ve not seen in any other game.  The artwork on both the box and cards heightened my expectation of a game that would even in some small manner capture the excitement of a bygone era.  Sadly, the game evokes absolutely none of the atmosphere of a traveling circus.  The characters depicted on the cards have absolutely nothing to do with the game.  There is nothing that distinguishes one character from another, as they grant no special powers or abilities.  They are completely generic and the game is entirely abstract.  I realize this complaint has been leveled against many European games, including those from this designer.  However, with such a fresh and promising theme, it is particularly disappointing here.

My disappointment with the lack of connection to the theme aside, Spectaculum is a simplistic stock market game that isn’t bad, but not particularly memorable either.  There is not much here to excite or intrigue gamers, but the whimsical theme and rather basic mechanisms would suggest that the game is aimed more at casual gamers and families.  I am not sure, however, if a game that essentially utilizes a stock market engine is one that will appeal to that market.  If not, that leaves Spectaculum in a sort of “no man’s land,” which likely means it is doomed to be quickly forgotten.

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