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Hotel Samoa

Of the few new games I have played in April Hotel Samoa is the one that has excited me the most, it's not the best game I have played this month (that's Fresco – but it’s a close call). The dynamics in the game are unusual and the auction at the heart of the game is a stroke of genius.
The premise of the game is that players are hotel owners on the paradise isle of Samoa (an island I’m particularly fond of - not because of I have ever visited but because of their bone crunching and free running Rugby Union team. One of their players carries my favourite nickname in rugby – ‘The Chiropractor’). Over a holiday season the hoteliers aim to make as much money as possible from tourists who flock to the island. Establishing the victor at the end of the game is simple, it's the player with the most money.

Each player starts the game with an eight room hotel, 25 Gold and 11 auction cards. The game is played over 12 rounds, or weeks, in which groups of tourists (Norwegians, Brits, Germans and Japanese) will arrive on the island (and depart) and on arrival will search for the cheapest hotel room. These tourists are represented by cards, with one card from each nation being randomly placed in the first four weeks, then in the second and the third. In each week players bid for tourists and hotel developments. Each player has an identical group of eleven cards from to choose to play each round. Each card has two values, one is used to bid on improvements for your hotel, the other is the price you are willing to offer rooms in your hotel to the tourists. The highest bids of improvements wins, but the lowest bid for tourists wins. The same card can ‘win’ in both auctions – if it’s used in to take a tile or tourists it’s discarded. This is rather important, but more on this later.
At the beginning of the round any tourists from a nationality that has arrivals leaves the hotel and catches the plane home. As tourists pay up front for the room, you want them to have as short a stay as possible. The plane that brings in a nationality of tourists will also take home any tourists of that nationality on the island. The only other way to hasten their departure is to play the ‘hotel closed’ auction card which is both a null bid and sends two tourists home from your hotel, or to purchase a tile that allows you (as a one off) to send two tourists home. A card from a tourist deck is drawn for each arrival and it will specify how many tourists arrive this week. The tourists are randomly pulled from their nations pile. On weeks six and twelve the number of tourists arriving is doubled

The build part of the auction is auctioned first and the winner can pay for a tile if he chooses, if he does not it passes to the next highest. The tiles either improve you hotel (an extra room, a luxury suite, a Swimming pool or give a one of action ; retrieve two discarded cards, send some tourists home...). Any tiles not purchased carry over till purchased
The winner of the tourist auction can take up to as many tourists as he can fill rooms, some tourists are rich; they pay double the room rate, some are celebrities – any tourists put in a room next to them pays double, some are lovers and will fit in a room with another lover and some will pay extra if the hotel has a swimming pool. If there are any tourists left after the winner has taken his pick, the next lowest card played entitles its owner to pick from the remaining tourists. If you win the auction but don’t like the look of the improvement tile or tourists you don’t have to take them – which means you can take the auction card back to your hand to use again in another round.

Each round a tie breaking card is moved clockwise and sits between the players. Players anti-clockwise of the card win tourist auctions and clockwise build tiles. Timing your card plays around the movement of the tie-break card is rather important.

Despite the fact the auction is a blind bid and if you can card count you are at a significant advantage I like this game a lot. Over the twelve rounds you are only going to win a few auctions, planning which ones is important However this needs to be balanced with not overpaying for tiles or under bidding for tourists, and most importantly taking advantage of your opponent’s mistakes. The game repays good timing, clever bluffing and being able to value the tourists and tiles correctly – there is no automatic catch up / ‘keep the scores close ‘mechanism and the final victory point tally can vary widely. Another thing I like about the game is that getting the timing right means you can reverse a large lead in the last couple of rounds.

The game’s sweet spot is at four players, it provides just the right amount of tension in the auctions, and with more a good memory helps. The game plays in an hour and I think it offers a lot for both geeks and family gamers

The Waste Land

In gaming terms, April 2010 has been the crullest month since i started logging my plays on Boardgamegeek. We are 22 days into the month and i, to my horror, have only played eighteen games so far. In a normal month i would usually log between 40 and 50 games played, this month i don't think i'll reach twenty five. Whilst i'm feeling sorry for my (gaming) self i should also mention that i have not mamaged to write any game reviews for two months. i have about five reviews 'on the go' - on the go being two lines ending with 'great', 'good' or 'average'.

Of the new games i have played this month Fresco is (borderline)great. It was Greg Schlosser (i think) who described Fresco as a 'Eurogame 101', and that's an almost perfect summary. There's nothing original in the game, it's got worker placement, turn order manipulation, a market, conversion of one good into another.....however, the game is more than the sum of it's parts. One of the first things that came into my mind when i played Fresco was that it's the game Colonia 1322 should have been, Colonia also described by Greg Schlosser (again i think) as a 'parody of a Eurogame'. However, in terms of game weight and complexity Fresco is closer to Stone Age than Queen's bloated Essen 2009 offering.

One of the things i like about Fresco is that the theme is original and integrates with the mechanics seemlessly. Your workers are artists, helping to paint a fresko onto a cathedral ceiling, turn order choice effects the mood of your workers and going early (getting out of bed early in game terms) too often means one of them might just stop working. Their mood can be improved by a trip to the theatre or having a lie in, and if their mood improves sufficently then you might recruit another worker to your happy band. getting up early means you are first at the paint market, you will have have first choice but will have to pay a premium for the goods on offer. Strolling down to the market late morning will get you some bargains but all the paint you need might have been sold to the early birds.

One thing i particulalry like about the game is the goods conversion ; instead of the ubiquitous wood + stone = ...yawn you mix paints to make secondary colour paints (in one of the expansions you can futher mix to tertiary colours - though i think this might be straying into Colonia territory)

This conversion is easy to explain to non gamers. And what you do with the paints is simple to explain as well - you are painting a Fresko. The Fresko is dvided into a five by five aquare grid and tiles, with the required paints and the victory points awarded for completing a section printed on tiles that are randomly laid over the grid. Every worker you allocate to the Cathedral paints a section of the fresco, and if the bishop (a wooden figure you can pay to move around the grid) sees you paint the ceiling or is directly underneath the section being painted you score bonus points. The bishop is pleased that you have completed a piece of the artwork and grants you an income every turn for each piece completed.

and thats the joy of this game, you can explain the mechanics by telling the story of the game - there is no part where the mechanics disconnect with the theme. The other actions include painting portraits to help raise some cash and visiting the theatre to improve the mood of your workers.

The game comes boxed with three expansions, which is very generous of the publisher. I suspect that the original design of the game included the expansions as standard, they don't feel like a bolt on and whilst the bascic game is fine for family gamers and geeks alike, the expansions just pushes the comlexity up a notch.

Fresco has received some deserved Spiel des jahres speculation and i think it is worthy of the shortlist, though i doubt it will pip Tobago for the big one.