DEsigner: Mac Gerdts
Artist: Marina Fahrenbach, Dominik Mayer
Publisher: PD Verlag
Some games are hyped prior to publication and then fade away quickly when they are arrive. There are plenty of examples in the crowdfunding era. There is nothing wrong with hype per se and player-generated excitement can be a positive experience for players while generating a healthy revenue for the publishers. I am certainly not immune to hype and most of us can certainly use the distraction these days. Now, whether a game withstands the passing of time depends entirely on the quality of a game design. Only those that are well-designed will hang around for decades with multiple reprints. They are rare though. I personally do not recall Concordia getting serious press time when it first hit the stands, but 10 years after its initial release, the game still gets plenty of positive coverage and is on multiple top 10 lists. Yeah, I agree, the game is good and I think this is Mac Gerdt’s jewel in his ludography.
After several plays, I am still new to Concordia and this write up remains an impression mainly in two player mode. But there is no doubt in my mind that what makes Concordia tick is a very simple action selection mechanism that drives both game play and scoring. Concordia uses a highly variable setup along with at least a dozen maps to produce a game with incredible depth and replayability. I own Concordia Venus and having never owned Concordia, I do not remember the differences, but as I recall, they are minor.
At the core of Concordia Venus is a card-driven action selection mechanism. The mechanism starts with a deck of 10 cards that is similar for all players. Each turn, players select and play one card from their hand, perform the action and discard the action card in their personal discard pile. As cards in their hands are depleted, players will have to play the Tribune action card which allows them to pick up all the cards from the discard pile to refresh their hand. Thus, one of the main decisions in the game is when to play the Tribune card and how to sequence the action cards played to maximize efficiency while maintaining flexibility. As play progresses, players will also get to purchase more action cards, thus expanding their hand size and choices. This action selection mechanism goes way back to Stefan Dorra’s Kreta. There, players play their character cards to select actions for area majority control and the Castellan allowed all the discarded cards to be picked up and refreshed. Similarly, in Mission Red Planet by Bruno Faidutti, playing the #1 Recruiter card will refresh all the character selections that were previously played to send astronauts to Mars. More recently, Flotilla also used a variant of this character selection mechanism, but the game play in Flotilla is much more complex. In that sense, Concordia borrowed heavily on a mechanism from the past and tweaked it successfully.
In Concordia, players move colonists around the Mediterranean on land or via sea to establish trading posts (which the game calls them “houses”). That Concordia uses this over-represented and oft-maligned theme to critical success is perhaps a testament to the strength of the design. On the map, different cities are grouped into color-coded region and there are probably a dozen or so regions depending on the map used, with 2-4 cities per region. Using the action selection deck, players will carry out pretty basic actions to harvest, convert and use resources to build trading posts. Some of the actions in the initial starter deck of 10 cards include moving settlers by road or sea followed by building trading posts (Architect), collect income and trade two types of goods (Merchant), purchase cards (Senator), harvest resources (Perfect), duplicate action of previously played card (Magister), duplicate action of opponents previously played card (Diplomat). Finally of course, there is the Tribune. Playing Tribune not only refreshes the hand, but also allows players to place new colonists.
As players play cards to move colonists around Mediterranean cities, they will pay money and resources to build trading posts. Each city in the board is linked with a unique resource that is randomly distributed at the start of the game. There are 5 main resources in the game starting from the least (2 coins) to the most (6 coins) valuable: Brick, Food, Tools, Wine and Cloth. To establish a trading post, players will first have to play the Architect and move their settlers to the road adjacent to their city and pay money as well as the appropriate type of resource. For example, if Sparta is a tool city, then you need to pay 4 coins and give up a tool to place a trading post. There is a race to build trading posts as the early bird will pay only the base cost while subsequent trading posts will become more expensive to build. So, if Sparta already has two other trading posts, then it would cost 1 tool and 12 coins to establish the third post (adding the base amount for each extra building). The costs can become prohibitive late in the game when money is tight and especially for the more expensive resources like wine or cloth.
There are different ways to get resources. The most straight forward is to play a Prefect action and trigger resource collection in a specific region. All players with trading posts within the region will get the resources assigned to each city. Additionally, the player that plays the Prefect will get an additional bonus resource of the most valuable resource type in the region. That bonuses are indicated on a scale down map of the regions on one corner of the map and is shaped like a rondel. Mac Gerdts is well-known for the Rondel mechanism, but Concordia really isn’t a Rondel game. I thought that was clever. This scaled down map not only tracks the bonus resources for each region, but also which regions have been activated. As regions are activated and bonus tokens are flipped over. The flip side of each token show either 1-2 coins. As some point, a player who plays the Prefect will decide to take all the coins instead of the bonus resource and all the regions will be refreshed and their tiles return to the resource-side up. This is a clever way to limit hording of resources and to provide an additional way to earn coins.
Another way hording is avoided is by imposing a hard cap on resources. Each player has a small board with`12 slots available. In the beginning, only 8 slots are available to stash any of the 5 types of resources. The other 4 slots are occupied by 2 land and 2 sea colonists. As the colonists are moved onto the board, more slots will open up to store resources. In practice, players rarely horde resources because they are frequently consumed to purchase cards or to build trading posts. Of course, sometimes, a glut can occur and players may need to decide which resources to keep, but once resources are placed on their slots, they cannot be removed, just consumed or sold. The Merchant action provides some additional flexibility to either buy or sell goods from individual boards to alleviate storage crunch or to find that rare item. In our games, resources are constantly being used and the inward and outward flow is dynamic. It is rare that you get stuck with a resource you cannot use or that you can’t find.
Perhaps the biggest tweak to the action selection mechanism is that it is tied to scoring. The cards that you start with and that you purchase will eventually be used for all the scoring in the game. There is really no other types of scoring expect scoring from these action cards. Each card type will score a specific category. For example, Mars will score 2 VPs per settler you have on the board. If you have 5 settlers in the game, you will get 10 VPs’ per Mars card. It’s immediately clear that the cards provide a unique scoring mechanism that encourages specialization. This is an important hallmark for a game with high replayability. Theoretically, I suppose, you can bank on getting a handful of scoring cards of the same category and go all out to win points from that card type. In practice, this is likely to be much harder and some combination of specialization and diversification is required to win. By tying scoring to the action cards, Mr. Gerdts hit upon a winning combination. It definitely streamlines end game scoring while making card purchases a little more strategic. Instead of focusing on just getting more powerful actions, card selection must be balanced with scoring opportunities. The person with the most number of cards doesn’t always win because specialization means you want to capture maximum scoring per card while owning more cards of the same type.
I am a late bloomer when it comes to embracing games by Mac Gerdts. As mentioned, he is most famous for rondel games, yet Concordia being his most famous design does not have a functional rondel. His versatility is on display in Concordia and I feel he has hit all the right notes to make this a perennial winner. When I play Concordia, I am constantly amazed by how simple and intuitive the game feels, yet it does not skim on depth. The game does not rely on card text to generate a lot of variability, yet you have a lot of decisions and choices to make with the sequence of action cards. Importantly, the decisions never feel overwhelming. Whenever you perform Tribune, you get all your cards back and you hatch a plan in your head that requires a series of actions to be played in sequence. Carrying out that plan to fruition is satisfying. Yet, each hand is not rigid because opportunistic plays can come along especially with playing the Diplomat to copy rival actions. Even if you don’t purchase a particular card, you can always use the Diplomat’s power to duplicate a rival action. When that happens for a powerful card such as Consul, it is always thrilling. Concordia is also not a solitaire game because you cannot constantly peer at your own board or cards and there is a fair amount of interaction both from resource management standpoint but also for the race to build outposts. Yet, there is a solitaire component to the game in sequencing the action cards. You have a plan, and no one can stop you from executing it, it just might be a little bit more costly. I also love Concordia’s scoring. It is simple to explain and yet doesn’t fall into the point salad trap. In a way, the diversity of scoring is locked into these cards and you have a choice on the type of scoring to pursue. Finally, the game is relatively short and it does not drag. The game ends when either all cards are purchased or when one player builds all their trading posts. Even with 4 players, the game moves at a decent clip and there is very little downtime. In short, Concordia is just a fine example when all parts of the engine are humming perfectly in sync and the word “elegance” truly earns its keep.
As I mentioned earlier, I have Concordia Venus, the latest iteration of the game that comes with a different combination of maps and minor rule tweaks. Perhaps even a slightly different starter deck? I don’t know nor care which Concordia is better. Just go out, grab whatever version you can find and start playing. If you are a fan of Euros, you won’t regret it.