Via Appia

Michael Feldkotter

Publisher: Queen Games

The theme for this game is fantastic and the mechanism is unique. If only….. (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Via Appia has been on my radar forever. It is one of those games that you want to try because it features a unique, never before seen mechanism. Overtime though, Via Appia dropped down on my wish list but I was still keen to try it, just never got around to it. Recently, having managed to obtain a copy in the secondary market, I was eager to revisit the game I had only known by reading the rules. I realized I have never owned or played a single game from Feldkotter. Via Appia is his only creation I know of. A cursory glance at BGG shows that he has designer credits for at least 24 games with his other big release being Iquazu by HABA.

In Via Appia, players are jostling to complete the road, Via Appia or Appian Way from Rome to Brundisium. The road itself is paved in stone and connects Rome to the coastal city of Brundisium. Apparently, the road is largely used by the military back then and sections of the road still exists today between the two cities. I have to say that the theme of the game is not only unique, but really suits the game. I was interested enough to read up on the Appian Way because of the theme. I think it is wonderful (and a service to players) that designers and publishers take the time to develop a theme that integrates well with the mechanism and Via Appia gets thumbs up from me. Done properly, thematic board games are potent tools to encourage interest for further reading in a particular topic. In particular growing up, games especially computer games such as Pirates! or Railroad Tycoon have broaden my knowledge and interests on those subject matters greatly. Books on robber barons or treasure fleets still grab my attention today. Also, this is the second game I have reviewed back-to-back with a fantastic theme with Rudiger Dorn’s Il Vecchio being the other.

But I digress. In Via Appia, players perform one of several available actions in turn order and the game continues until the end game is triggered when a Roman meeple reaches Brindisium, which is the final city on the game board. There are 4 actions a player can choose from:

I) Collecting income or quarry discs – A player can collect income and/or quarry discs from 7 different income cards on display. Each card is split into two parts showing income (1-3 coin) or quarry discs of different sizes (small, medium or large). When you choose a card, you can take either coin or discs but not both. That is unless there are fewer than 3 action cards left on display. In which case, you can take both money and discs. These final 3 cards are generally the weakest with 1 coin and a few grey (smallest) discs up for grabs. To further incentivize players, a “+1 push” token is also awarded to the person who picks the final action card. Once all cards are taken, a new set of seven action cards are revealed while the previously displayed cards are shuffled for future use.

II) Visiting the quarry – Players who pick up the quarry discs in the first action can now use these discs to push the stones off the quarry. This is the most novel mechanism in the game. A cardboard structure allows you to place your discs on one end, and then using a wooden bar, gently push the disc into the quarry filled with other discs. If enough movement and force is generated, different types of discs will fall off from the other side of the quarry. This quarry device is similar to what you see in arcades where you slot a coin into a contraption that pushes your coin into a heap of other coins hoping to cause a chain reaction and causing coins to fall off the opposing end into the chute. You can use two quarry discs for each action and the “+1 push” token allows an additional disc. Discs that fall off one end can then be exchanged with stones of the appropriate size (small, medium and large). Importantly, the stones that you pick up are placed in slots on your cart and you can only hold a limited selection of each type of stone.

III) Laying stones in Via Appia. With the stones you receive from the quarry, you can now place the stones in designated spots in Via Appia. There are three segments of the road in the game. Each segment is flanked by Roman cities starting with Rome and ending with Brindisium. Stones are to be placed in designated spots starting from Segment A to Segment C. Two stones can be placed in each segment only if the previous segment is completed. So, one can only build one stone in segment B if segment A has not been filled up. Critically, your Roman meeple must also situated in the city that straddles the two road segments in order to build add a stone to the newer road segment (see below). For each stone you place, you instantly score VPs’ based on size of the stone and also earn a segment token that counts toward area majority in end game scoring.

IV) Moving the meeple. To end the game, players must move their meeples along the road from Segments A-C, all the while stopping at the 2 cities in between Rome and Brindisium. Meeples can only move on completed paths by moving from stone to stone on the roads. Each small and medium stone can only support one meeple while the large stone allows two meeples to share the same spot. Each road segment has multiple interconnected stones that form different paths between the two cities. Since one can only move on completed paths, players will jostle for positioning on the stones even if the road segment is not yet completed. Moving meeples on the stone path is extremely costly, with each 1/2/3 stones traversed costing 1/3/6 coins. To even out the movement between players, the first player to arrive in the city paves the way for cheaper movement costs for other players by one coin. If two players arrive at the next city, it costs 2 coins less and so forth. If you are the last player in a 4 player game, your 1/2/3 movement would cost 0/1/3 coins. I think this is intended as a catch up mechanism. To spur meeple movement and reward early arrivals to cities, 6/3/1 VPs’ are awarded for the first few meeples to arrive at a city.

That’s pretty much the highlight of the game. Players perform one of these four actions until the game ends. The quarry is definitely the highlight of the game and thematically, the game is fantastic. I think the quarry mechanism is novel and unique and is a cool way to generate random results because the distribution of the stones and the way the come out from the chute is relatively hard to predict…. which is really both a strength and weakness. Via Appia really depends on the timing and availability of the stones both when you push quarry discs as well as when you lay down the stones on the path. Because the quarry is loaded with stones randomly and people push discs into the quarry not necessarily targeting specific needs, it is really tough to obtain what you need when you need it. This issue is magnified late in the game when most of the stones, especially the medium and large stones have been picked clean. You can potentially get stuck on a stone path, unable to move forward, or backwards without a particular stone. In essence, you are at the mercy of others who may or may not build the path for you to progress. You also cannot pick up that stone because it is either unavailable (already in an opponents cart) or the stone is not in a proper location on the quarry (located up front in the loading area).

I think for this reason, Via Appia gets bumped down a notch. I think the mechanism is great and totally unique, but I don’t know if it is utilized properly in this game nor can I think of a game that could successfully utilize this mechanism. Because there is a long lag between when you load the disc and when that disc comes out on the other end of the chute, you cannot exactly plan to load specific discs in the beginning and anticipate getting back the exact discs down the road. Neither can you target specific stones that come out the chute. Depending on how well the discs are packed together or how people use the wooden bar to push, you won’t always get what you want. You can certainly try, but more often, you do the quarry action when there are some stones precariously hanging by the edge and you KNOW there is a chance for you to pick up something after your push. This totally reminds me of the cube tower in Shogun, Wallenstein or Amerigo. There, the cube tower acts like a randomizer, except that you can roughly gauge the possibility of a cube exiting the tower by putting more cubes of the color you want and remembering which cubes have come out prior. Bottom line, the quarry mechanism is too slow and too random in giving you the outcome you want, and that hurts the game. I certainly don’t mind some randomness but getting stuck late in the game can be frustrating.

As it stands, Via Appia’s quarry mechanism ends up more like a gimmick, which is really too bad. I do enjoy the game, but it doesn’t work as well as I want. The theme is fantastic and I love the background history for Via Appia. The scoring itself is very Euro, and works decently well for the most part even though it drags a little on the last third of the game. I really wanted to like and keep this game, but in a crowded field, Via Appia will just get stonewalled by a pile of games eagerly awaiting the next play.

Initial impressions: Average

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