Mixing it with the Medicis

Review of board game Die Fürsten von Florenz by Pevans

Number 4 from alea, this game has a good heft to it when you first pick up the box. It also has some expectations since the design team is Richard Ulrich and Wolfgang Kramer, the men who gave us El Grande. The game does not disappoint, but you will have to bear with me as it's a complicated beast that needs some explanation.

First, the components. Each player (up to five) gets a board to go in front of her, outlined and named in her colour. The main section of this represents the player's palazzo and estate - buildings and landscapes are played onto this. On the left is a full list of the Personalities, identifying the Building, Landscape and Freedom that go with each. This is a very useful aid during the game - not least because it identifies each building by name and shape, which makes it easier to find the right piece. On the right of the board are a summary of the sequence of play and a list of the ways to score Prestige points. There are also spaces for architects and Freedoms.

Another board is the score track. Thick cardboard pieces are the jesters and architects the players may employ, the different Landscapes and Buildings, the three Freedoms and money. There are four decks of cards. The 21 Personalities, Bonus cards that can add to the value of a work, Prestige cards that give players extra points at the end of the game and Companions, which can take the place of a Personality. Each player has two wooden pawns in their colour and another two are used to mark the current turn and the first player.

Getting Started

Each player starts with a small selection of Personalities and some cash. The game takes seven turns and the object is to have the most Prestige points at the end. Most of these points will have been accumulated by putting on a 'Work'. That is, playing a Personality card from your hand. The value of the Work will depend on what else the player has in his estate. Each Personality needs a particular Building, Landscape and Freedom, all of which add to the value of the Work. Other Personalities and jesters always add to the value and a Bonus card may be used to increase it further. The final value can be scored as Prestige points (e.g. 12 points) or taken as cash (e.g. 2400 ducats) in any combination (e.g. 8 points and 800 ducats). Cash is more valuable at the beginning of the game - depending on how much people are spending on purchases. At the end, points will almost always be taken as Prestige.

Each turn consists of two sections. The first is an auction, in which players bid for Landscapes, architects, jesters and Companion and Prestige cards. There are two important restrictions to the auction phase. Each player only gets to buy one thing and each item can only be bought once in a turn. As each item is potentially valuable, what you bid for will depend on what you need and what you are planning. However, what you are prepared to pay for it will depend on how badly you need it and whether you need it this turn. As money has no value at the end of the game, bidding can reach very high levels. At the other end of the spectrum, you can just see what you can pick up cheaply and tailor your strategy to fit this.

Remember that there are only seven turns, so you will only get to buy seven things during the game. This adds to the importance of each auction. It also means that you need to think about what you need when. For example, buying a jester early allows you to get the maximum benefit from adding its value to your Works. Buying an architect allows you to put up buildings more cheaply, so these are also more valuable earlier on. As you can see there are definite tactical and strategic considerations. If somebody else has opted for the same strategy, you either have to outbid them or alter your plans. One of the clever things about the game is that you can do this because everything is valuable and will build up your position. However, you cannot afford just to play the game tactically as you will only win by planning ahead.

Once the auctions are complete, each player in turn gets to make two actions. There are five actions: some simple, some complex. The simplest is buying a Freedom, which can only be done once per turn. Next is buying a new Personality, which can only be done once a turn too. However, to do this, you take the top five cards from the deck and choose one to keep. This is a clever mechanic that is used with most of the card-buying options. Such as buying a Bonus card, which can be done twice in a turn. The bonus cards add to the value of a Work, according to the conditions on the card (e.g. 1 point for every building).

Buildings are just bought, but have to be placed onto your estate and cannot then be moved. You are allowed to rotate or flip the Building before positioning it, but you cannot place it adjacent to another building. Another element of planning enters the game here: you need to think about what Buildings (and Landscapes) you want to have on your estate and how they will fit together. This is also an example of how the rules of the game can be changed, in this case through the effects of architects. Have one and buildings are cheaper; have two and you are allowed to place buildings adjacent to each other. Clever stuff.

Impress your friends

The final action is putting on a Work - which you can do twice in a turn. This is done simply by playing the card from your hand. You then tot up its value according to which of the various items you have, as already explained. This value is marked on the score track, since there is also a bonus of Prestige points for the most valuable work each turn. Then you decide whether to take this value as Prestige, money or some mixture of both. The value of Works obviously increases as the game goes on since each player will have more of everything. There is thus an argument for not playing Works in the early turns of the game. However, an early Work is a good way of acquiring extra cash for making sure you can get what you want in the auctions. A clever point of detail is that you can always generate extra cash by trading off Prestige points, but at only half the rate you get for taking cash instead of points when you score a Work.

The game ends after the seventh turn. Prestige cards are revealed, with players scoring any Prestige points they are entitled to. The player with the most Prestige points wins. The scoring track goes to 50 points and the final scores will depend on the style of the game being played. I have seen a fiercely competitive game where nobody reached 50, but I've seen more high-scoring games with most of the players going round the board twice.

All of this adds up to a clever game of strategy, limited resources and keeping up with the Joneses (or Borgias, in this case). You have seven purchases in auctions and fourteen actions over the course of the game with which to garner more Prestige than your opponents. You have money, your estate and other resources to manage. Where do you start?

Prestige, Status, Reputation…

Well, there are some key elements. The bulk of your Prestige points will come from putting on Works, so you have to work (sorry) towards this. I reckon you should be planning to put on at least five Works. Since you start with three Personalities, this means acquiring more. Buying more is the obvious option, but there are also the Companion cards. By playing a Companion, you take a Personality card that has already been played from another player and add it to your hand. You can then play this Personality yourself later as a Work. Good to know when you see somebody play just the Personality you wish you had. Another point of detail here: Companions count as Personalities when scoring up Works (or Bonus or Prestige cards), so taking Personalities from other players does not damage their position (it's a very polite game!). In fact, it is perfectly possible for the same Personality to swap back and forth and score several times.

This brings out the point that there is very little interaction between players in this game. If you want a highly interactive game, this is not it. Turns are pretty fast, so the good news is that there is little downtime waiting for your next turn. The auction is the one area where players are directly competing and can damage each other. As with all auction games, there are tactics that can be used here. Bidding for something just to increase the price to another player. Buying something that someone else really wants. Auctioning something you are not interested in to throw others off the scent or see who does want it. Auctioning things other players want so that you can make sure of getting what you want cheap. And so on. There is one other way of interfering with other players. The counters are limited, so buying the last of something stops anyone else getting it. Key things to watch out for are the Freedoms (4 of each) and the buildings (3 of each).

Another key element is having complementary Personalities. That is, Personalities whose main points scoring requirements fit together. There are only three different Freedoms and three different Landscapes, so the combinations that add to the values of Works are limited. There are more Buildings, but the medium and large-sized buildings count for two and three (respectively) different Works/Personalities. So, for example, having a Workshop, University, Lake, Park and the Freedoms of Travel and Knowledge gives you the three things that add most value for the Theologian, Clockmaker and Goldsmith. What's more, you just need to add Freedom of Religion for the Theologian or a Hospital for the Apothecary. While the luck of the cards may be against you, so far I have always found it possible to construct complementary sets of Personalities.

A Bonus card or two is useful towards the end of the game. Not only do they add to the value of a Work, thus scoring you more Prestige, but they may help you get the bonus for the most valuable Work. The bonus is not a huge number of points, but every little helps. The nature of the Bonus cards (e.g. 1 point for each different Building) means that it makes sense to buy them earlier on so that you can work towards maximising their value. Buying them late means that you are trusting to luck to find one that scores well for you - though the mechanism of taking five and choosing one gives you a good chance of doing this. The same is true of Prestige cards. Again, I think it's worth having at least one of these at the end of the game. It lets you score a few more points that your opponents may not be expecting.

Another way of taking your opponents by surprise is putting on two Works in a turn. Especially in the last turn. I have seen this done to great effect as a player who appeared to be well behind scored a huge number of points in one go and zoomed past to win the game. Let that be a warning to you: somebody with two Personalities (or a Personality and Companion) in their hand on the last turn could be very dangerous! It is also a good example to follow. Use the previous turns to build up your estate. Maximise the score from both Works and Bob's Your Uncle. Impressed

To sum up, I am very impressed with this game. It repays, nay, requires careful planning and strategic play. It gives you plenty of control over what you're doing. The chaotic element of the auction damages this, but it is offset by the ability to trim your strategy to what's available or to a different sequence. The auction also adds an element of player interaction to what would otherwise be a very dry game. For me, this is the best game of 2000. So far, anyway. I have two caveats about the game. The first I've already mentioned: there is not a huge amount of interaction between players. If this is your prime requirement from a game, this one is not for you. The second is the amount of German text on the boards and cards. Not a problem for any hobby gamer, but definitely off-putting. As well as rules in English, the Gaming Dumpster website (http://www.neonate.org/) has a very useful crib sheet that gives the English equivalents of the main terms in the game and translations of all the Bonus and Prestige cards.

Die Fürsten von Florenz was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich and published (in Germany) by alea (it has subsequently been published in the USA by Rio Grande Games as Princes of Florence). It is for 3-5 players and takes 75-100 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 144, June 2000.

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