Friday, September 21, 2007

A Short Rules Review of El Capitan

I don’t know what to think after reading the rules for El Capitan, the upcoming game from Wolfgang Kramer and Horst-Rainer Rosner and Z-Man games. Actually, it is a re-themed version of an older game called Tycoon, but I don’t know of anyone who has played the older game. Of course, maybe it’s just West Virginia that is out of the German gaming loop.

Anyway, back to first impressions. The rules seem simple and elegant, and experienced gamers could probably read the rules and start playing within ten to twenty minutes of opening the game. But it is also an area majority game, and on alternate Fridays I sometimes wonder if we haven’t had enough of these kind of games. Then again, I thought the same thing when reading the Midgard rules, and I ended up loving Midgard.

To the rules. In the game players are Renaissance-era merchants trying to dominate the trade in the Mediterranean. Players get cash for having the most (or second-most) warehouses in the various ports, for having fortresses in ports, and for having warehouses in a large number of different ports. There is a bonus for the first player to have warehouses in all nine ports.

The main decisions players make are based on assigning resources to one of three things:

Sailing cards (which move each players’ ships from port to port)

Warehouses (the main token of control that gets placed in each port city)

Fortresses (expensive tokens that guarantee a payoff of some kind)

I probably don’t even have to describe the game turn in any detail. You can imagine players using cards to sail to various destinations, and then spending cash to place warehouses and fortresses in destination ports. The overall description of the game reminded me a little bit of Winds of Plunder, but with more emphasis on placing tokens in ports and with less of the pillage-other-players aspect.

One of the little curve balls that the designers place on the area-majority mechanism is that new warehouses will eventually drive out old ones. After so many warehouses are placed in each city, the earliest warehouses are taken out of the city. This can create the need for players to return to cities visited earlier in the game to refresh their holdings.

Another odd twist is that players who can’t afford to do anything on their turn are forced to take a loan. Repayment of these loans can become expensive.

The rules also feature three optional-rules ports that players can add to the game. Each of these special cities is unusual in some way or has a unique power. One port adds a pirate ship to the game that players can use to collect cash from other players (and make the game a little more like Winds of Plunder). These optional ports certainly look like they can be added to the basic game without increasing complexity very much.

The Mike Doyle artwork will certainly make El Capitan a great-looking game. And I suspect that it will play smoothly. When the game appears in the near future, I will be very interested to see if the mechanics are original enough to impress the Appalachian Gamers.


dgilligan said...


Actually you do know somebody who has played Tycoon, Ted. We were talking about El Capitan one evening and if I recall correctly he said he actually owned Tycoon. Not once, but twice (traded it away and reaquired it and then traded it away again.)

This is a game I'm interested in picking up because of the designer as well as the great artwork and presentation that you mention in your article.

Speaking of Midgard, we played that the other evening. I really like that game. At a recent board game event I tried to get it to the table but no luck. One of the players stated that the box art just didn't grab her.

I didn't bother going into the fact that the viking theme, while present, is not represented by what's on the box. If you think its all blood and guts based on the cover (which is a tough looking viking warrior in the midst of battle with flames and arrows all over the place) you will be sorely dissapointed!

If you are looking for a solid, quick playing area majority game that has some real on-board conflict then Midgard is a good choice.

Fraser said...

I played Tycoon for the first time about two weeks ago. I would like to try it again, since I believe we didn't get the rules quite right.

Not sure it really needs the retheming and although it is not a trading game I am not sure if Tom Vasel will be thrilled to see more Mediterranean ports ;-)

huzonfirst said...

Tycoon was one of those games that kind of got lost in the crush of a lot of other great games. It didn't help that it was released by Jumbo and not one of the big German publishers, nor that the box art made it look like a refugee from the sixties.

But it's a great business game, one of Kramer's best. Lots of tough decisions and the different ways of scoring are all well balanced. It's a game that plays very well the first time, but as you play more, you see lots of different strategies and subtleties. It still comes out from time to time and is always enjoyed.

My feelings are mixed about the change of theme. The original modern theme (where the players were, uh, tycoons building hotels and factories in 9 of the worlds greatest cities) seemed to fit the gameplay better, with the players jetting from city to city and older hotels becoming obsolete as the cities grow. And Lord knows, the Renaissance theme has been done to death. However, there was one aspect of the original game which was completely contrary to the theme. You see, in order to make the mechanics work, the airplane tickets that allow you to move from city to city are about the same price as the hotels! In other words, *millions* of dollars for a plane ticket! No WONDER Ben Baldanza loves this game! This is a little easier to swallow in a Renaissance-era game, where I could see that an extended voyage could well be as expensive as building a warehouse. Of course, the time factor is now a little off, as a player takes the same amount of time to stay in a city and build as an opponent takes to sail to several different cities around the Mediterranean and then build. As usual, I don't think it will matter too much to me one way or the other.

Tycoon's art wasn't great, but the game board was highly functional, so I had no problem with it. My concern with El Capitan is that while Doyle's work is usually very attractive, he sometimes sacrifices ease of play for appearance. Fortunately, based on the early looks at the artwork, it seems as if he's used the basic structure of the Jumbo game and not gotten too artsy, so that shouldn't be a problem.

I hope your group enjoys the game, Kris. It really is an excellent design and one that deserves a larger exposure than the original received.