Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Thoughts on Princes of Florence

I was recently lucky enough to get in my first game of the popular The Princes of Florence boardgame. It has a lot going for it and, like all really good games, consumed all my waking thoughts for several hours after it finished.

For those unfamiliar with the game, there are seven turns during the game, with each turn having an auction phase and then an action phase where each player gets to perform two actions. This is very similar to another game I enjoy, Goa. The object of the game is to play profession cards (like “Bell Maker” or “Alchemist”) which then produce a Work which gives a player a combination of money and victory points. When a Work is played (as one of a player’s two actions), that work provides an amount of money and/or points depending on what that player has built up in and around their villa. The theme here is that the players are trying to attract the best talent by building and acquiring buildings, landscape, and “Freedoms” (freedom of opinion, religion, and travel, all of which supposedly inspire various artisans to more impressive works.) So, if I play the Bell Maker, I would earn a better work if I had the Workshop, a local forest, and if I had freedom of religion. Having only some of those items makes the value of the card less. There are also some wildcard items that help improve every work. Jesters provide two work points to any played Work, and the number of played AND unplayed profession cards held by a player also add one work point each. I guess the thinking here is that artisans like to work together, and they’re easily amused by jesters…

Buildings and freedoms can be purchased using cash during one of a player’s two actions per turn, but landscape tiles (3 different types) and jesters can only be bought at auction. (Remember there are only 7 turns in the entire game, so there are only so many jesters and landscape tiles to go around.) Auctions are even more tight because there are three more things that can be bought: builders (which reduce building costs), recruitment cards (which you exchange with any played profession card so you can get the same “work” made – and also count as profession cards in your hand to give +1 to your work score), and Prestige cards. Prestige cards are like special little mission cards that give you bonus points at the end of the game if you fulfill the mission (like most landscape, most jesters, one of each freedom, etc…)

Along with the seven auctions, players have 2 actions per turn and must use those 14 total actions wisely. Building a building, buying a freedom, and playing a profession to create a work all take an action. Players can also buy a bonus card, these cards are similar to theme to the prestige cards, but are played with a profession card to increase the value of a work. Typical bonus cards might give a +1 bonus for each building, +2 for each large building, +1 for each profession card in your hand, etc…) A final action is the purchase of more profession cards. Most players will want to play a work nearly every round, so that limits your available actions to something more like 8. If you are thinking to yourself that this is a very “tight” game if you only get 7 auctions and about 8 non-work-creating actions, you are only hitting the tip of the iceburg.

Everything about this game screams limited resources. Players start with a good wad of cash (enough to last three turns even if you bid large sums during the auction), but soon they will find that they are running low. Since a played work card provides either cash or victory points (usually a combination of the two – player’s choice) using less cash means scoring more points. Secondly, there is the aforementioned very limited number of actions a player can perform during the game. With only 7 auctions and 8 to 10 “free” actions to play with, players have got to make every decision count. To make matters worse, there is not enough of everything to go around. There are only 6 of each of most of the auction items. So, only 6 jesters, 6 builders, 6 forests, etc… to go around. In a five player game, that means competition for each of those items will be pretty tight. Note that two strategies include multiple jesters or multiple builders so they can be particularly highly coveted. There are 3 types of freedoms and always one less of each freedom than there are players, so some of those are purchased rather fast. While less of an issue for 3 or 4 players, in a five player game, even the profession cards (and thus the recruitment cards as well) tend to run out after a round or two. This is very significant, since playing profession cards is the primary way to score points and the only way to earn more cash.

As if all this competition for resources isn’t enough, every player has to manage one more resource, space. Each player has a playing mat with space on it for placing their purchased buildings and landmarks. They come in Tetris-type pieces of varying sizes and shapes. Nothing can ever be destroyed or moved on your mat, so placing your purchases wisely is very important. Buildings, in particular, are tricky as they tend to be rather large, and no two buildings can touch, except at the corners. However, buying a second builder allows a player to place buildings touching each other. (As buildings give 3 victory points per built building, one strategy is to get three builders which gives a player the ability to place adjacent buildings and makes their cost for free.)

While I’ve only played the game once, it has already gripped my imagination. The many, many constraints in the game make playing it a very tense proposition for me. Also, since there is a large auction portion to the game, it is best when players have experienced it once or twice before to be sure the prices are held up to a reasonable level and no one is getting a total “steal” for a given item. I can’t help but compare it to the boardgame Goa, which also has auctions and then somewhat interaction-less player actions. I find the theme and mechanisms of Princes of Florence to be drier and more abstract, with a slightly less “rich” tree of options to specialize in or explore, but I think Princes of Florence will play in a slightly shorter amount of time. Clearly there is a build-up of power throughout the game, and there are several distinct strategies to exploit in the race to win – both are qualities that I seek in a more meaty game. I highly recommend fans of Goa to seek this one out and give it a try.

For those curious few, yes I did win my first game and that may have clouded my current perceptions, but there are a lot of things here that hit home as elements I like in my games. My winning strategy for the evening was really a diverse one, where I simply tried to buy whatever I could during the auction at bargain-basement prices. Thus, I spent a lot less effort on replenishing my cash on hand and was able to instead constantly cash in my works for victory points. Surprisingly, the game was close at the very end, with one player (using the jester strategy) starting very, very far behind but closing quite fast at the end. The prestige cards help to make the final scoring interesting as no one knows the real final scores until they’re revealed.


Gerald McD said...

Like you, I have enjoyed PoF from the first time I played it. Unlike you, I have never won the game, playing with four other family members. Unfortunately, I'm not sure when I will have the opportunity to play it again, since we only play games with 6, 7, or 8 players these days, and this is one game I cannot envision extending beyond the 5-player design. Glad you enjoyed it, as I believe it is a most fascinating game.

Melissa said...

Princes of Florence is my new favouritest game, and one of the main reasons has to be the scarcity of actions that you reference. By turn 4, the squeeze has already started.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - more on the interesting aspects of the game and why it was enjoyable rather than a rehash of the rules or comments on the bits. It's also a new one for me and a game that I like a lot - what a great mix of strategy, dynamically adjusting tactics depending on what others do, resource (action) management, and even some bluffing.