Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Martin Hoffman and Claus Stephan
I wanted to combined the reviews for this Keltis expansion with the core game, but decided against it because it would not do justice to the expansion. This expansion elevates Keltis to another level, a level that is more suited for gamers who wants more depth than the base game. I consider this expansion part of a trio of Keltis big box games that employ the core card play mechanism in Lost Cities. So, in a way, you have 3 games: Keltis: Der Weg der Steine (Path of the Stone); Keltis: das Orakel (The Oracle) and Keltis: Neue Wege Neue Ziele (New Path, New Goals) . I used to rank das Orakel all alone at the top for this family of games. Now, having played Der Wege der Ziele, I think it occupies the same spot, perhaps even slightly higher than as das Orakel. It is really that good and scales very well for 2 players.
In NWNZ, you use the cards from the Keltis base game. This means that the deck of 110 cards appears in 5 suits, with card values ranging from 0-10, and each card appearing twice. In general, the mechanism of card play remains the same from the base game. Players can play cards directly to a personal tableau in ascending or ascending/descending order in each suit depending on preference. This option of playing cards in two ways exists because of different rules adoption in Keltis and from Lost Cities: The Board Game. There is no right or wrong, just a choice. If you want to know more, you can read about Keltis and Lost Cities: The board Game in posts here and here. (Edit: Conversation with Knizia superfan Laszlo Molnar indicate that I could be wrong and the game should be played with ascending/descending rules only. I have subsequently played it this way and found the game pretty much identical in many ways. The rule changes did not really make the game any harder or easier).
Now, what’s different in NWNZ? Plenty. While the structure of the game remains the same, pawn movement is now very different. Instead of traditional paths in the base game where each track is a single color, the tracks in NWNZ are branched out and pawns no longer move on a monochromatic path. Instead, paths on the board now look more like a sprawling network of colored segments. Your pawn movement is no longer tied to playing cards of a single color. Instead, pawn advancement is spread out across different colored segments en route to the top of the board. Moreover, the interconnected paths means that pawn movement is not restricted to the initial track selection. When a pawn reaches a fork, players can choose to take differnet paths. For example, you may start one pawn on the red track by playing the red cards. However, when the pawn reaches a junction, playing a green card might take the pawn onto the green path while playing a blue card may push the pawn left and onto the blue segment. So planning movement is now totally a new ball game. You cannot just hoard similar colored cards hoping to move a pawn from beginning to end on a single track. Instead, a pawn may need 3 blue cards, followed by a series of pink cards followed by another set of green cards to reach the top. That makes planning a challenge that sometimes requires a leap of faith that the cards you need will eventually surface from the draw deck. With these multi-colored paths, the game is wide open and the decision-tree is more complex.
To make path selection even more agonizing, random bonus tiles are scattered on the tracks at specific spots. This is not unlike the base Keltis game. As before, you have tiles that allow an extra pawn movement and scoring extra victory points. In addition, you have a tile that allows removal of a card from your hand or the top card from any of your previously played suits. This allows you to walk back a card that was previously played and then picking that same card up from the discard pile. Landing on these bonus tiles is highly recommended and can really can make or break a game. Sometimes you just need one card to advance a pawn by one spot, but lack the right card to do so. By landing on the bonus tile and removing a previously played card of a color, one can play the card again to make the desired move. The bonus tiles are not trivial. There are many times during each game where my pawns sits at a fork and I have a terrible time deciding to go left, right or straight, because of these bonus tiles and collecting Wishing stones.
So, the Wishing stones also appear in the Keltis base game. However they are different. Instead of just your standard Wishing stones, players now collect stones of 5 different colors. These stones are situated on specific board locations in stacks of 5. So there are 5 stacks in total, plus one extra stone randomly distributed along with the other bonus tiles. A pawn visiting a location with a stack of stones can pick up one stone. If multiple pawns visit that location, the stones will be depleted and thus there is a race to pick up stones. For every set of 5 different colored stones, players earn 10 points. Less than a set of 5 means you score fewer points. On top of that, every set of 3 similarly colored stones also score 10 points. This means that a player can send all three pawns down the same route to pick up three stones of a similar color and deprive other players of that particular stone. This is made more interesting as the stack of stones are mostly situated quite close to the bottom of the board, thus making it tempting to move certain pawns up a route just to grab those stones. The multi-colored Wishing stones makes the game more interesting and provides yet another avenue to score points. Players now have additional strategies for pawn movement. Some pawns ca be used to collect gems and stop once they have achieved their goal. There is no need to push all your pawns to the top half of the board.
Unlike the base game where you score more points with each step your pawn makes, in NWNZ, there is not always a net gain of points as you move up the board. There are regions in the board where you will get fewer points for taking the next step. However, if you advance far enough, the points will certainly increase more substantially. In essence, you must decide if you want to play it safe and stay put, or if you commit to move, you want to move up to the next region on the board where the point increase is more substantial. If you linger in no-mans-land, you will end up with fewer points. It’s terrific that the game is baiting and taunting your pawns to move. This is made doubly hard if the next steps have bonus tiles or wishing stones that you covet. Do you swallow the loss of points and take the next steps or just stay put and score maximum points? If you move, do you want to move the pawn all the way to the next third of the board? The decisions are agonizing.
I don’t think it is wrong to say that Neue Wege, Neue Ziele is a different game from the base Keltis just as das Orakel is different from either of these two games. As I said, I view the Keltis big box games as separate entities, each with its own unique flavor. Keltis der Weg der Steine is the easiest of them all and represents the gateway game. das Orakel has a unique spiral-shaped track that allows players to bounce around a shared path. It is not really more complex, but the ability to combo your movements on das Orakel is fun and chaining together moves by bouncing around your pawns forwards and backwards on the track is unique among all three of the games. However, I don’t find the decision space nearly as agonizing because you are always able to move a pawn forward. There will always be a next spot on the track for you to move, so long as you can play a legal card on your tableau. Among the three games, I find Neue Wege, Neue Ziele to be the most brain-burning. The decision to select a path is just agonizing. Not only do you have to consider card color requirements, you also need to look at the bonus tiles up ahead, set collection of wishing stones and changes in regional scoring. It’s incredible how hard it is to take a step. To be clear, this is NOT complexity in the same way you find in a heavy Euro. There are no intertwining mechanisms or layered variables, or subtle interactions. Not really. Each decisions itself is not complex and the outcomes are loud and clear, as are the moaning and groaning during play.
All three Keltis games are fantastic and deserve to be in packaged together and sold as a unit. Boards can be printed double-sided and perhaps a new board can be added to the Keltis collection. I genuinely think this card play mechanism is underutilized and there is room for some creative “improvements”. Come on Mr. Knizia, revisit Keltis like you did with Yellow and Yangtze and design something new and substantial for the fans. Pretty please?