Karen and Andreas Seyfarth
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
There are some games that you play, and you know it’s not for you. There are games you play and you know it will be in your collection until the day you bequeath to your kin. Then there are some games like Thurn and Taxis that will grow on you with each play, and in the end, you are glad that you did not get rid of it after the initial play. For me, Thurn and Taxis is the definition of underrated. Not that the game is an unknown, after all Thurn and Taxis did win the coveted Red Poppel. Rather, Thurn and Taxis is not embraced by regular gamers and barely and I mean barely gets any mention. That is true back when it was published and certainly true now. Well now, its virtually an unknown. Compared to the more illustrious sibling by Seyfarth, Puerto Rico, I think a new generation of gamers have never even heard of Thurn and Taxis. The game is long out of print and I don’t think there is a clamor for a reprint. What a crying shame indeed.
There is no doubt Thurn and Taxis is far less complex than Puerto Rico with fewer moving pieces. The board in Thurn and Taxis features cities within Germany and a few more in surrounding countries such as Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic and Austria. Player’s job is to emulate the family of Thurn und Taxis in establishing the postal service in Germany by building a chain of post offices in these cities. In general, the more cities you build in, the more point you can reap. Targeted selection of cities to build in also matters greatly since it allows you to earn bonuses. Taking a step back, each round, players will draw city cards from the main board and proceed to play a card to their tableau. City cards played must be added to the front or back of the line of city cards previously played to form chain of cities that are connected by roads on the board. If the chain is interrupted because a proper card cannot be placed, the whole tableau is discarded and you essentially lose several turns worth of connections. This there is some tension here in selecting cards. Thankfully though, once a 3 card minimum chain is formed, players can close the route and start a new one. Closing a route allows players to place post offices in the cities depicted on your closed route. Players choose to put either one post office in each of the regions or all the cities in one region on the completed route. A closed route triggers plenty of scoring opportunities : you score points for potentially being first to achieve a certain length of connections. A seven card route can score a health number of bonus points. One can also score bonus points for having a post office in all the cities in one region or at least one post office in each region on the map. There are also bonus points for building post offices in pairs of regions. Finally there is also a matter of carriages. As one build longer and longer routes, one needs to pick up carriage cards of the correspond length of the connection. These carriage cards scores points in the end and also acts as an in game timer. Once someone collects the highest carriage card, the game ends immediately. The game also ends if all the post offices from and individual player supply is depleted.
Throughout the game, players get to engage different postmasters for help. These postmasters can help in many different stages of the turn, but you can only enlist the help of one postmaster per turn. The help includes clearing the board of cards and drawing a fresh set to pick from; picking up two city cards instead of one; playing two cards to your tableau instead of one and finally picking up carriage cards that are two ranks higher than the number of cards played in your tableau. These special actions may seem powerful and ubiquitous but each turn, you often wish you could select more than one postmaster for aid.
The game is a simple and elegant design that showcases the best qualities of a German board game. It features many agonizing decisions in a very short time space. Each turn and each decision is a struggle. Here are some of my thought mid-game: “What city cards should I be picking from the display? Should I play it safe and pick up the next card in my connection or should I pick up that rare Linz city card that completes my tail end connection? If I do that, can I complete the route next turn? Perhaps I can use a postmaster this round to pick up two cards, but I would really like to use it to play two cards instead…….” “Uh oh, he is going to wrap up the route soon. Perhaps I need to close my route now to grab that bonus token instead of lengthening my route. However, if I lengthen my route, I could actually be eligible to pick up the 7-card route bonus tile instead……..”; “The game is ending soon, but I really need that extra carriage to score more points. I could use the postmaster to pick up the last carriage card but that would mean I cannot pick up the two cards this round to extend my route. Perhaps I can stretch this out one more round……..or not.” On and on and on. The beauty of Thurn and Taxis is that the turns proceed quickly and these decisions will not linger. You do what is best and move on to the next set of agonizing decisions because your turn will most certainly arrive soon enough. This, and this alone is why I play these medium-weight Euros that are always filled with hard decisions. The cumulative decisions you make will guide the trajectory of the game and your final scores but each decision itself while hard, happens quickly and is replaced with the next set of decision. Unlike playing a heavy Euro where you strategize and plan many steps ahead to focus on scoring, developing an engine or picking a viable path to victory, these medium weight Euros such as Thurn and Taxis will throw decisions after decisions in your face, forcing you to develop your strategy almost on the fly. More often, these decisions are tactical in the face of new information as the board positions shift constantly. There is something to be said about tactical versus strategic decision making. They are very different and it is the tactical decisions that are always delightful in an agonizing sort of way. In a twisted sort of way, you get your dose of agony in the most time-efficient manner when you play mid-light Euros.
I cannot recommend Thurn and Taxis enough. I have played the game many times now and each time it is played, I have gained an appreciation for it. I am not sure any other game in my collection deserves this label. There are of course, expansions for Thurn and Taxis and also a Big Box. I own none. I don’t think the game needs anything more beyond the basic game, except maybe a new board in Power and Glory. I am intrigued by the new board but not the rule changes (horses over carriages). However, I certainly wouldn’t mind trying if I can find a copy.
I remain a bit sad almost, seeing the negative coverage of the game by fans that loved Puerto Rico and wanted or expected more from Mr. Seyfarth. It is clearly not as beloved as its illustrious brethren even after winning the SdJ. It may not be hated, but it is certainly not mentioned in the same breath. I wonder if the game would have done better if it was published before Puerto Rico and with a more attractive theme. I for one found the theme fascinating and read up more extensively behind the postal service in Germany. Did you know for example that the family of Thurn und Taxis still exists today and they are filthy rich? Do you know there is a beer from the family label? I for one love the background research done for games and often argue that designers and publishers should include some of that “educational” information for each game. Educate us!
In the mean time, we will continue to deliver mail through the rain and snow…… and all the way to Linz.
Final impressions: Great!