Friday, November 25, 2005

The View from the Fifth Floor

I've found myself drawn to Knizia's Palazzo lately, and have been studying the rules, playing solo games, and trying to figure out what makes the game tick. Naturally there's something to see on a superficial level, namely the little puzzle of how best to go about constructing buildings given a specific situation and the trade-off between shooting for many easy buildings or fewer hard building with more bonus VPs, but is that what the game is really about? Certainly that alone is nothing to catapult a jaded gamer out of his armchair and into his FLGS. I've found, however, that there is a slightly deeper, more subtle level to the game, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to express what that is here.

What is interesting about Palazzo from a design standpoint is that it turns most of the familiar qualities of the auction mechanism on their head. The current trend in auction games is that of tighter and tighter finances, even to the extreme case of a game like Industria where shortness of funds essentially prevents players from being able to execute any long-term strategy. In most of these games the trick is to correctly evaluate the worth of an item or items up for sale, gauge the interest of the other players, and try to either secure the item at or below fair market value or make another player pay more for the item than it is worth. Palazzo, on the other hand, gives us the opposite situation: money is quite easy to come by; in fact it falls right into your lap when another player chooses to take cash, and in certain funny circumstances your finances might improve more than the active player if he leaves you a card that allows you to meld into a fifteen-point group.

One might imagine, then, that the pressure is instead to have sufficient money to acquire particularly valuable lots as they come up for auction, and certainly this is the case to some degree; a fifth matching floor for a palazzo made up of one material is no small amount of points. However, it is the players themselves who choose when the auctions happen; as some have correctly pointed out, all the players in the game could decide to do nothing but take money until the pile was gone, and the tiles currently up for grabs would patiently sit and wait for them. Moreover, the three-gold certificate is not such an overwhelming advantage to the auctioneer that there is a significant trade-off between calling the auction yourself and letting others do it for you.

In order to understand what's really going on in Palazzo, one has to make note of three things: first, there's only so many tiles that a player can buy in one turn (three is the maximum, in fact); second, it is important to acquire both the early tiles and the late ones; and third, it is possible for players to sidestep the auctions entirley. What this means is that a certain nebulous opportunity cost must be factored into every purchase, and also that the game is not about precise evaluation but rather staying ahead of the pace of acquisitions in the game.

Up to this point I've been talking about Palazzo in terms of an auction game, as this is how it is usually described by the drive-by reviewers (as they seem to take a certain pleasure in writing "do we really need another auction game from Herr Knizia?"), but actually it's not quite so, for players can simply buy tiles from the building supply instead. Certainly one is also populating the quarries for the hoarders in doing so, but only up to a point. What is important here is one particular rule, presented in the rulebook as if it were a bit of fiddliness to take care of aberrant situations, and one which I confess didn't fully sink in until the third read-through. Here it is: "Exception: if there are four or more building tiles on the quarry with the master builder, these are not auctioned. Instead, the players do the following: the player whose turn it is takes one of the tiles and builds it. Then the others follow in clockwise order, each taking one of these tiles and building with it. After each player has taken one building tile, the players place any remaining tiles on that quarry face down in the box." What this means is that if the players are being threatened by one or more opponents collecting money and waiting for the auctioning to start, they can dodge the auctions, and the quarries will eventually fill up to the point where all the tiles will just be handed out evenly when an auction finally is called.

Tiles being handed out to opponents or being chucked back into the box is particularly devastating to hoarders because one cannot make up for buying nothing in the early game by buying double one's share in the late game. The building tiles are distributed among the three stacks in such a way that lower floors come first and higher floors come later, and this is done not just to make it easier for players to build valid structures but to ensure that players pace themselves, because in order to get the juicy bonuses a player's palazzo needs both a penthouse and a lobby.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that what Palazzo is really about is not so much commodity evaluation as outpacing your opponents in acquisition, which means always knowing where you are in relation to your opponents in terms of money and points. Finding opportunities to get ahead, noticing when your competition is unusually rich or unusually poor and then acting accordingly, keeping the pressure on in terms of pace, holding a cash reserve so that no one else can get too good of a deal in the auctions, and even being aware of what tiles are likely to come down the pike next are the subtleties of game play that elevate Palazzo above the luckfest that some have taken it for.

I'll also mention that the comments that the game's mechanisms are unoriginal are off the mark. I've never heard of another game which has a rondelle mechanism for populating and auctioning lots in the way that Palazzo does, though of course I haven't played everything. The three suits plus limited melding also creates an interesting effect where one's finances have a fun and unpredictable fluctuation about them.

The only problem with all this is that Palazzo is a game that is so subtle—in some way the anti-gamer's gamer's game in that it is not quite a luckfest yet it is unsolvable to the degree that it may require more intuition than analysis—that it has a complex, epicurean feel to it which is not what necessarily leaps to mind when someone thinks about what it means to play a game. If High Society is a buffalo wing and Taj Mahal a filet mignon, Palazzo is a really kick-ass risotto.

Still, I'm not quite sure what to make of it overall. I'd need more actual playings to really come to a decision on where it stands within the Knizia canon. However, while I might understand why someone may feel that it doesn't grab one by the collar and give one a good shaking, I still think that those who are dismissing the outing with a wave of their hand are letting their haste get the better of them.


ekted said...

While reading the rules to Palazzo, I could not get over the feeling that Knizia was trying to "make his own version of Alhambra". It seemed similar in many ways, and dissimilar almost in a forced way. Knizia says he doesn't play other people's games, but has "an idea" how they work. Well, it's clear to me that he knows Alhambra inside-out. I find [the rules to] Palazzo quirkier than Alhambra, even if there is more interaction, and am unable to get myself to buy it.

Chris Farrell said...

I've heard the Palazzo/Alhambra comparison (including from the Rio Grande demo guy at Origins) and find it mystifying. There is a certain look the two games share, but other than that they have virtually no similarities. Alhambra is all about paying with exact change so you can get the bonus turn. Palazzo is all about evaluations and timing - neither of which are of much relevance in Alhambra.

Great analysis, Joe. I also find the pacing mechanics are what sets it apart. The combination of the cost-limiting factor of the central buildings and the stacking of the deck mean that you really need to keep a sense of the pace of the game. I still think it's mainly an auction game, but one with a very subtle built-in natural rhythm that is unique.

huzonfirst said...

To me, Palazzo is a game I enjoy in spite of its surface attributes. There *is* a good deal of luck and the design is far from elegant, but the game also moves quickly, has plenty of decisions, and is fun to play. It has already seen more play than some other longer, but better designed games that I own.

Your points are good ones, Joe, and I feel there's another defining characteristic of the game. Much of what you need to do is defensive, to keep other players from gaining easy opportunities. For example, if there are three tiles in the central building supply, you probably need to exercise the Auction option and buy a couple of these tiles, even if they don't suit you terribly well. This is even more important if one or two of these tiles work well for your left hand opponent; allowing him to buy these cheaply can be very damaging. Similarly, if the next quarry has three tiles, you may want to declare an auction there, particularly if one of the tiles is a valuable one. If you don't, another player might take the Auction option, get a one-window tile on his second draw, and move the master builder to that quarry. This enables him to gain the juicy tile for free when these tiles are drafted. None of these subtleties are terribly difficult to see, but they do mean you have to look a little beneath the game's surface in order to play well. The necessity to look ahead when making these kinds of decisions is one of the reasons why Palazzo seems to play better than its rules indicate it might.

huzonfirst said...

Oh yes, almost forgot. I agree with Chris about the Palazzo/Alhambra connection: there isn't one! The two games both have buildings and multiple currencies, but outside of that (and that really isn't much), they have absolutely nothing in common. If you're still not convinced, consider that Alhambra is derived from an earlier Henn design called Stimmt So, which shares most of Alhambra's mechanics, but has a very different theme (it's a majorities game about buying stock shares). How many people think that Palazzo is Knizia's version of Stimmt So?

Rick said...

Dammit Joe did you have to get me interested in Palazzo again? Back on the wishlist it goes. There's nothing that gets me interested in a game more than unique timing and rhythm elements.

ekted said...

"Alhambra is all about paying with exact change so you can get the bonus turn."

I'm not trying to defend Alhambra, but I think you have a misconception here. I don't find the "exact change" aspect of the game much of a factor at all.

Chris Farrell said...

I'm not trying to defend Alhambra, but I think you have a misconception here. I don't find the "exact change" aspect of the game much of a factor at all.

Well, I'm not trying to attack Alhambra, but in that you are wrong. We can reasonably differ about whether it is a substantial factor, a major factor, or the only factor, but paying with exact change is certainly a key element of Alhambra.

I mean, the original was "Stimmt So!" which, I am told, would in this context roughly translate as "keep the change" (I don't personally know this, but it would make sense).

Anonymous said...

Alhambra and Palazzo share multiple currencies, and the money is spent purchasing buildings (or parts of buildings). Aside from that, the games feel very different. Alhambra has the majority and second majority scoring that is absent from Palazzo, and Palazzo has players focus on multiple discrete structures rather than one sprawling complex.

I enjoy them both, but find little similarity between them.

ekted said...

"...but paying with exact change is certainly a key element of Alhambra."

In a 3p game, I may end up with 15-18 tiles, 2-3 of which I purchased with exact change. Maybe for my second action I purchase another tile. So I am now down the cost of 2 tiles, and sometimes it's because I drew money for so many turns. Being able to buy more than 1 tile on a turn simply makes up for not doing so earlier. I wouldn't qualify exact change as a key aspect. To each his own. :)

Sorry to derail the main topic. Maybe I should read the Palazzo rules again. :)