Publisher: Hall Games/Tasty Minstrel
Some would argue that the best days of Rudiger Dorn are in the past. In terms of hits, I guess you could make a case since Mr. Dorn’s masterpiece, Goa was published in 2004. Still, he has consistently churn out solid Euro after solid Euro and for me, his name still draws my attention. Jambo, Louis XIV, Las Vegas, Istanbul, Karuba are a handful of staple Euros with Dorn’s name on it. Personally, Steam Time and Arkadia are hits that are on par with Goa. His track records commands respect and honestly, I am more often excited to see his designs even though some of the games such as Las Vegas are targeted toward a more casual crowd.
Il Vecchio is another solid Euro from Mr. Dorn. The game is a throwback to an era where medium-light weight designs commonly referred to as “old school Euro” dominate the market. This is not a slight to Mr. Dorn or to the genre. Rather, it reflects the origins of the designer who is more a peer of Knizia and Kramer than of Feld or Pfister. In Il Vecchio, players are members of a powerful family during the renaissance period trying to overthrow the Medici family in Tuscany, Italy. The main city in this region is Florence which is the seat of power for the Medici family. During the course of the game, players send family members throughout the cities in the region recruiting followers and collecting resources to usurp power from the Medici. With enough support and resources, family members then occupy the city council or influence the nobility in Florence. Alternatively, contingents can be sent to external cities or provinces to establish trade routes or diplomatic ties to weaken the Medici family. As you can see, this abstract classic Euro is shockingly thematic. The narrative makes sense and the play actually aligns with the theme extremely well. I think the publishers have done a fantastic job to find a theme that melds with game play. You can complain that the renaissance theme has been done to death, but the I appreciate the extra effort to describe the inter-family feud. As usual, whether you feel a theme is strong largely depends on your willingness to participate in the narrative by stretching your imagination to link actions on the board with the story arc. Some publishers and designers pay lip service to the theme when it reaches a certain level of abstractness (case in point, see my review of Bridges of Shangri-La). The disconnect is less obvious in Il Vecchio as I think players can easily see how the actions on the board translate to the struggle between families to corral supporters and to grab power — at least I could.
Il Vecchio employes several old school mechanisms of collecting tokens from different districts and cashing them in to score points. Each round, players can perform one of several actions which revolves around moving family members on the board to visit cities to perform different actions. Unique to the game though, is how a middleman is required to trigger the action. For each type of city, there is only one middleman which allows you to perform the corresponding action. If you visit a city with a middleman, you trigger the action and your family member becomes “exhausted”, flipping the meeple on its side. The middleman will then move to the next city of the same type in a different district in clockwise order. Each type of city will have its own middleman and as they circle around the board, you are hoping to catch them in different districts that hosts that particular action. The most common city types are ones where you can attract followers. There are three different followers: Assassins, Knights and Abbots with each follower having one middleman moving around four cities. Visiting any one of these 4 cities when the middleman is present allows you to recruit that particular follower. These cities are scattered evenly across the board so that you don’t have to go very far to pick up the follower you want. Another type of city allows you to pick scrolls as a resource or 5 florins. Finally, the purple cities allows you to pick up either bishops or carriages. The Bishop helps trigger a city action without a middleman and also does not “exhaust” your family member. Carriages allow you travel between cities for free. Yes, moving between cities require money and it costs 1 florin to move from one city to the next. There are also smaller villages intersperse between the bigger cities that you can visit to pick up money (3 florins per visit). These smaller villages do not require any middleman.
Once you have collected enough loyal followers and accumulated enough cash, you can visit the 4 cities that scores victory points. Three of these border cities are connected to external provinces or cities (Milan, Venice or Papal states, I believe). Landing on these border cities allows a player to send a contingent of followers along with enough cash to the external locations. You will also have to sacrifice a family member to lead the contingent. In exchange for the sacrifice, you will get a set number of victory points and also a special single-use rule-breaking power tile. Importantly, visiting these places early on earns you more victory points as subsequent visits to the same city score fewer points. Each city also has limited slots for visits. When all slots are filled with family members, you can no longer score any points. The final scoring city is Florence which is situated right in the middle of Tuscany. You can send family members to Florence to sit on the City Council track or Nobility track by paying two scrolls. Family members sitting on either track will earn you a few victory points at the end of the game. In addition, you will also get an end-game scoring tile for influencing nobility or a permanent action power tile for sitting in the City Council. As with the border cities, there are limited slots in Florence as well.
To round up the remaining actions available besides visiting cities, one can spend an action to reactivate all family members by standing them back up or add more family members on the board by placing them in specific districts based on a die roll. In between performing player actions, the Medici family will occasionally show up to try and thwart your ambitions. Each of the VP tracks in the 4 cities have predetermined slots with the Medici crest. As the track gets filled up and slots are filled up with family members, the Medici crests will be activated. You will be forced to draw a token mostly triggering negative events such as relocating all the middleman, forcing you to pay a levy, etc. The negative events affects every player and but aren’t exactly punitive. Moreover, each crest token is worth 1VP at the end. So there is some incentive to pick up the token. As crests are flipped over, the Medici power wanes until the final crest is turned over symbolizing the demise of the Medici family and also the end of the game. Scores are then tallied from the external cities, Florence and also end game tiles. The majority holder for each VP city track also gets VPs’.
Il Vecchio is classic in a sense that it isn’t groundbreaking mechanistically, but rather rely on a combination of standard resource collection, allocation and prioritization in a race to see who can get to where they want first. There is plenty of interaction both direct and indirect. You can directly scoop a player by activating a city action and forcing the middleman to move on even though another player’s family member is in the city. It is also an indirect race for points because each city only has only so many slots which you can allocate resources to. If you get there first, you will get to reap the extra rewards. So, maximizing movement and actions is critical. The city council power tiles are amazingly powerful but only if you choose to invest in them early on. Similarly, the end game scoring tiles are also important but how early do you wish to get them? The opportunity costs in the game are clearly laid out and the trade offs are painful. Each action feels vital and the game feels efficient and ruthless in forcing you to make hard decisions after hard decisions. This to me, is classic Euro at its best.
Not all of Mr. Dorn’s designs fall neatly into this classic category. In fact, I would say that Il Vecchio is unique in that it is simpler than Goa but more complex than Las Vegas. It is probably on par with Istanbul, another of Mr. Dorn’s popular design. But the game I think of most when playing Il Vecchio is Thurn and Taxis by Andreas Seyfarth. Both games are simple Euros that involves a race for points using a fairly simple resource collection mechanism. Unfortunately, this genre of game design is pretty vulnerable in today’s market and liable to fall between the cracks because it is often labeled as “too simple”, “too old school” or “been there done that”. This is doubly true if the designer in question has already published a masterpiece and inadvertently set the bar really high. Mr. Seyfarth for instance, was ravaged for Thurn and Taxis coming off the heels of Puerto Rico even though the game won the coveted Spiel Des Jahres. Il Vecchio has been sidelined with a similar logic which is too bad because I happen to think these “old school” gems are timeless.
Initial impressions: Great!