This article is the tenth in a twelve-part series that analyzes the entire original Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part Six; Notre Dame, In The Year of the Dragon, and Witch’s Brew in Part Seven; Macao, Alea Iacta Est, and Glen More in Part Eight; and Castles of Burgundy, Artus, and Las Vegas in Part Nine.
In many ways, I feel like Castles of Burgundy, Artus, and Las Vegas, in Part Nine, marked the end of Alea, or at least the end of its (second) height. Though original games continued for a few more years, they were lesser efforts, and that’s before Alea became a house of reprints and regurgitations (as we’ll see in Part Eleven). And, we’re also moving in on the end of this phase of Alea: Part Twelve will mark the end of their classic releases, before the imprint started reprinting products with better components — hopefully resolving a long-standing issue with Alea’s releases.
Medium Box #10: Saint Malo (C-)
Author: Inka Brand, Markus Brand
Publisher: Ravensburger (2012)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
My Plays: 3
Saint Malo is what’s nowadays called a “roll and write” game. Players roll the dice and then write the results. But they only keep one set of results among everything they roll, so they wants an excess of a specific die face.
Players are building a city with those results, filling it with buildings, goods, people, and the inevitable city walls — which altogether gives Saint Malo some nice variety over typical city building games where you’re only concerned about the structures.
The individual builds of Saint Malo also have some interesting variety, as each of the different write-types has different rules for what it generates. For example, with a high roll a player could generate lots of goods or city walls or a really good church or one of several different high-value people.
Strengths: Write and More
Saint Malo contains some interesting and innovative design elements, but unusually for an Alea game, they don’t feel like they were developed that well. It’s much more run of the mill in the world of roll-and-write games.
A Variety of Building. Classic city-building games focus on buildings, whether they be industrial, commercial, or residential. Saint Malo instead lets players build both structures and peoples. That’s a clever addition that could make a city building game even more evocative. Unfortunately it’s only partly successful in Saint Malo. That’s in large part because the game is very abstract. Meanwhile, the differences between people and buildings, which could have made them feel more evocative, instead tend to be confusing, such as the fact that people and buildings have different definitions of adjacent.
A Bit of Freehand. Saint Malo’s freehand drawing is similarly a great idea that’s not fully developed. Players draw not just buildings (and people), but also resources like wood and coins. Freehand drawings could create really interesting possibilities in a roll-and-write game, but they’re not used to particularly good effect here.
A Bit of Survival. In Saint Malo, players constantly have to increase their defenses against pirates by building walls and recruiting soldiers. This creates some good tension in what could otherwise be a pretty staid gameplay. (But once again, I have to question its success, since it drives players to constant tactical wall-building and soldier recruiting, without a lot of strategy required.)
Weaknesses: Write and Less
Unfortunately, Saint Malo doesn’t even hold up to the typical strengths of the roll-and-write genre, and then is further let down by very problematic components.
Forced Tactical Play. As a dice game, Saint Malo is somewhat unforgiving in how it forces players to go down certain paths. If you roll matched dice faces on the first (of three) rolls, then you’ll like keep those matched results and try to roll more of them. You could certainly make a strategic decision to reorient to something else that’s of critical importance (usually city walls), but it has to be quite important, because you’re creating a disadvantageous situation whenever you roll on with fewer matched results.
Monotonous Rolls. The fact that you always want to roll lots of one type of die is also quite monotonous. There’s just no variety like in other die-rolling games, where you might want fewer of a result or matched results or something else entirely.
Bad Components. Unfortunately, Saint Malo is entirely let down by its components. There’s some sort of bad interaction between the wet-erase markers and the linen-textured board, so that anything you write tends to bead up and slowly fades away during the course of the game. Given the run-of-the-mill design of the game itself, this is a pretty gamebreaking problem. Which is a darned shame, because Alea tried to produce components that were superior to the pencils and notepads found in most roll-and-write designs, but apparently they didn’t test out the final results.
The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), and Control. Just prior to the release of Saint Malo, Alea produced Stefan Feld’s Castles of Burgundy (#14). Bora Bora (#15) would soon follow. Both of those games centered on player-focused die rolls, which determined what the player could do on a turn, and they’re sufficiently superior to Saint Malo that it really fades beside them. A lot of that is about control. Certainly, there’s some opportunity to change the die results in all three games, though paying coins in Saint Malo is quite expensive compared to using workers in Castles of Burgundy. However, those other games also offer far more choices than in Saint Malo. For examples, in Castles of Burgundy, even if you’ve got a die roll that you don’t like you might have multiple placement options, multiple purchase options, and/or the possibility to sell goods. And you can just take more workers if you really don’t like the roll. Conversely, in Saint Malo you build what you’re told to by the dice, with a little choice among people if you choose a people roll, and not much choice beyond that. Certainly, this is a repercussion of Saint Malo being a smaller, shorter, and less involved game, but Saint Malo also has a lot less choices.
Roll and Write and Design. This would be Alea’s only roll-and-write design until Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game (VS#4). As such, you have to compare it more widely to the roll-and-write designs in the rest of the industry. Again, Saint Malo stands out for how constrained it is. Compare it to the groundbreaking Roll through the Ages, where you definitely want very high sets in some results (particularly goods), but you’re happy to have a mix, to build neat new stuff and feed your people alike. Or, compare it to Railroad Ink, which embeds its creativity in the unique track designs that each player creates. In comparison, Saint Malo feels very narrow.
Large Box #15: Bora Bora (B)
Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Ravensburger (2013)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 6
My Plays: 3
Six in a row for Feld, before Alea started heading off in other directions for the scant remnants of their large-box series.
Bora Bora is a game of … well, everything on a Pacific island. It uses a core mechanic of dice-enabled actions to allow players to expand across the island, collect tribe members, trade for resources, build temples, and create priests. Oh, and there are second level actions that allow players to tattoo men, collect shells, purchase jewelry, and complete tasks. Whew!
The most interesting thing about the dice actions is that they’re constrained by what other players do. Players can get blocked from their actions or forced to take them at a lower level if other players got there first.
Strengths: Another Intriguing Look at Dice
Back to Stefan Feld, and we’re getting much more clever and interesting use of dice play.
Clever Diceplay. The use of dice to control the actions is quite clever. The higher the value of a die that’s placed on an action, the better the action is. But, a die must be lower than every other die placed on the action to date! This creates a great balance, where neither high rolls nor low rolls are the best, which offers some great control of the game’s randomness. It also creates a mechanic that’s not quite role selection (which tends to entirely limit other use of a role), but instead is a much more nuanced variant.
Multiple Paths to Victory. A lot of Feld’s games offer a lot of different paths to victory. Here, you can build your temple, expand across the islands, build your tribe, complete tasks, and collect jewelry. However, unlike many other Feld games you really have to stick to your path to win Bora Bora, which means that players are less likely to play the field and more likely to have a very unique experience each time they play. This is in large part due to the end-game scoring bonuses that you only achieve by “maximizing” each of these paths: such as collecting as much jewelry as possible or getting to every space on the island. A player has to really focus to achieve each of these goals by the end of the game. If he’s too unfocused, he’ll just miss the victory bonuses, to his deficit.
Good Depth. Hand in hand with that, there’s some strong depth in Bora Bora. Not only are there several paths in the game, but each is full of different options, giving a player a lot of choices and also a lot of variability from game to game.
Weaknesses: The Definition of Spaghetti
With that said, Feld’s games have a tendency to be abstract and unfocused when it comes to victory conditions, and Bora Bora is no exception.
Complex & Fiddly. The vast number of systems in the game result in a game that’s very complex. The worse of it is that the various systems tend to work in different ways, creating confusion for new players. For example, the god cards refill as soon as you draw, but the tasks, men, and women only refill at the end of the round, and the jewelry is all laid out at the start. Or, the land bonuses are gained immediately when you expand and the god cards are usable as soon as you get them, but the mens’ tattoo and the womens’ shells only are received when they’re activated with a trade action. Certainly, this type of mechanical variety is found in games, but when it’s married to a game as complex as Bora Bora it becomes problematic.
Unfocused Scoring. And with all of that variety, there’s also a scoring system that’s the definition of spaghetti scoring. There’s some scoring within the game, when you score fish on the fly, build temples, or have extra trading actions, some at the end of each round, when you score status, priests, and tasks and when you activate certain men and women, and some at the end of the game when you score gods, fish, and jewelry, and when you earn bonuses for tasks, jewelry, temple building, island expansion, and tribe expansion. Certainly other Feld games grant points for a vast variety of things, but this one feels particularly unfocused.
Grossly Busy Graphics. Alea did a commendable job of trying to print all the information you need to play on the boards. The main board is somewhat ugly, but mostly successful. The player boards, on the other hand, went sufficiently overboard that they detract from the usability. This is in part because there’s unnecessary stuff here (like a list of all the men/women tiles) and in part because there’s stuff that would have worked better on a double-sided reference card (like the list of gods and the end-game score). By jamming everything into one blindingly garish graphic, Bora Bora ensures that players won’t be able to easily pick out the important stuff (like the trade actions and the fire bonus).
The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), and Dice-Based Play. I’ve always considered Bora Bora to be Castles of Burgundy’s less successful younger brother. (Why do I consider it less successful? Well, obviously it is, sales-and-popularity-wise. Just look at all the Castles variants, or if you prefer BGG’s ownership stats, which say that 5x as many people own Castles.) But in retrospect, I think that’s a somewhat simplistic frame. Yes, they’re both games where dice empowers actions, but Castles is all about hitting specific numbers while Bora Bora has a very different system of rolling high numbers to maximize choices while rolling low numbers to maximize ability to actually take those choices. Beyond that, I think that Bora Bora is both a much more complex game (though Alea rates them at the same difficulty level) and it’s a much less unified game when compared to the core mechanics of acquiring and placing tiles in Castles. In fact, it’s really a totally different game that just looks similar because of those dice actions.
Bruges & Directed Play. In some ways I find more similarities to the card-driven Bruges (2013), one of Feld’s most successful games not published by Alea. Certainly, Bruges feels very different from Bora Bora since it’s a quicker, medium-weight game. But they both seem to take the same approach to their multiple paths to victory. In both games it feels like you have a frightening amount of freedom at the start of the game, but the further you get into the game, the more directed your play is, because you’re largely forced to continue down the path you’ve taken if you want to achieve victory.
Trajan & Sub-games. The other Stefan Feld game that’s most often compared to Bora Bora is Trajan, which is his other most successful non-Alea game. The main similarity here is the vast number of mostly unconnected systems within the game. In fact, the various things you can do in Trajan are so unconnected that you could practically call them sub-games.
Medium Box #10: La Isla (C+)
Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Ravensburger (2014)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
My Plays: 2
Stefan Feld invades the medium box series! Not that La Isla is much like Feld’s other Alea games.
This is a game of animal capture, where players place explorers on a board around animals and capture them when they’re surrounded. Players score animals when they capture them, when they increase their values, and at the end of the game. So it’s really all about the animals.
The actual gameplay comes primarily through cards, which can be played to provide special powers, to grant resources (which are necessary to place the explorer), and to increase the values of animals. You draw three cards, and you play each in one of these three manners.
Strengths: Great Cards
So what makes La Isla an interesting game? It’s all about the tactical card play.
Clever Cardplay. The heart of La Isla is its card play. Each card can be played for one of three purposes: to grant special powers, to generate resources, and to score animals. Even better, the mechanics of the game require the players to draw three cards, then decide how to allocate them, with one card put into each sort of usage. This innovative style of play creates a lot of tension and hard decisions. Each turn, players have to prioritize placing their figures to capture animals (which requires resources), scoring for existing and future animals, and gaining special powers which might grant resources or victory points. Thus, La Isla is a constant juggling act.
Nice Card Variety. A game of placing figures around animals to capture them could be pretty simple (and more on that momentarily). La Isla maintains its variability through a variety of special powers. The special powers on different cards help to drive the game in different ways, making each one feel quite different.
Potential Engine Building. There’s just enough variety among the cards to allow some actual engine building, where a few different cards can complement each other, allowing for more efficient play. But, La Isla has a particularly nice twist on engine-building play: it requires players to usually replace one of their special-power cards when they play a new one. Much as with the game overall, this creates a balance between tactical efficiency (where you might grab resources or points of the moment) and strategic play (where you try to create an engine that will benefit you for many turns).
Weaknesses: Production Problems & Simplistic Play
Alea has always produced games with strong mechanics and weak production. In fact there were production issues with each of the other games in this article. And, it’s even more the case than usual for La Isla, where production issues drag down the gameplay.
Horrible Icon Reference. The downside of all of these special cards is figuring out how to use them. As with many Eurogames, La Isla depends on icons for this purpose. They’re OK, but they require reference to figure them out for the first game or two, and La Isla does an awful job of referencing these icons. There are just two references for four players, and one is in English and the other is in German(!) — so make that one reference. And it’s not organized in a way that makes it easy to look things up. I don’t usually complain about this type of production issue, but the icon reference issue of La Isla has a notable, detrimental effect on any first time player’s gameplay, which might assure there’s not a second play.
Poor Theming. The theming of La Isla is also really light. You expend cubes to place explorers around animals and when you surround them, you capture them. Cards give you powers that are represented iconically with no theming of their own. This type of abstraction was much more common in eurogames a decade ago, and it’s definitely gone out of style now. It makes it pretty obvious that you’re pushing cubes around in a pretty arbitrary way.
Meanwhile, the gameplay itself cleaves toward a simplicity that curtails the game’s replayability.
Core Simplicity. The core gameplay of La Isla is pretty simple. You manage your resources, you surround animals, and you do your best to win out in competition with other players. The cards provide enough variability to give the game some legs, but ultimately this doesn’t have the depth of much of the Alea catalogue.
Real Randomness. The core gameplay of La Isla is interested in part because it’s about controlling randomness. You get three cards and you decide, among them, which power you want, which resource you want, and which scoring you want. Some special powers can allow even more control, for example by allowing a player to draw more cards or to use one color of cube as a wild. With that said, there can still be large disparity among players, with some getting exactly what they want and others never getting either what they want or the luck-controlling special powers. This may be OK in a game of La Isla’s length, but it straddles the line.
Rum & Pirates (#10), Notre Dame (#11), In The Year of the Dragon (#12), Macao (#13), The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), La Isla (M#10) & Feldisms. As the seventh Stefan Feld game for the Alea line, La Isla marks the point where Stefan Feld had produced almost a quarter of the line(!). With that said, this is unlike any of Feld’s other entrants. It’s not just that it’s lighter than the rest of Feld’s games (though it is), but it’s also that it’s cleaner. It’s a pretty notable comparison even to Rum & Pirates, a similarly light game, but one that had lots of complex, interconnected (and random) systems. All of Feld’s Alea games tend to be dense and complex and full of intertwining systems, so La Isla is a real change, with a minimal set of actions that don’t allow strategies beyond how you undertake each action.
Bruges & Clever Cards. La Isla may be the most similar to (once more!) Bruges (2013), published by Hans im Glück just a year earlier. Both games depend heavily on multi-use cards. The difference with Bruges is that the cards have six(!) different uses (one special power use and five standard uses based on card color) and that players get to choose how to use each card individually, rather than being constrained to make three specific uses of cards each turn. A full game of Bruges is only a bit longer than a full game of La Isla, but the increase in play depth is notable.
Large Box #16: Puerto Rico (reprint)
Medium Box #11: San Juan (reprint)
And here we come to what I consider the real downfall of the first phase of Alea, in 2014 when they started retreading past glories instead of breaking new ground. This resulted in reprints of Puerto Rico (2014) and San Juan (2014) with better (color) graphics and expansions included. Certainly, they’re nicer editions, but they also took up development and production space that could have gone to something new.
However, I think that Alea really broke their sales model by putting new numbers on the reprinted boxes: large box #16 for the new Puerto Rico and medium box #11 for the new San Juan. Rio Grande had already shown a profound lack of understanding of Alea as a collector’s series by infamously leaving the #9 off of the Mammoth Hunters box, but perhaps they thought it didn’t matter because there were several early Alea games that never got an American printing. But now Ravensburger in Germany destroyed their own collector’s market by creating additional numbers for two of their games. So collectors either had to keep two different copies of two games (and doubtless some did) or else they had to have a gap in their collection. And I can tell you: having a gap in your collection makes it that much easier to not fill it with all the games. The various gaps in the American run made it possible for me to unload the games that I didn’t like, starting with Fifth Avenue (2004). In fact, Saint Malo and La Isla are going out of my collection as soon as I finish this article.
So, thanks Alea and Rio Grande?
Medium Box #8.5: Las Vegas Boulevard (expansion)
The other way that Alea reflected their past glory beginning in 2014 was with their first single-game expansion, Las Vegas Boulevard (2014) for Las Vegas. I wrote about it previously in the last article. This of course followed the multigame Treasure Chest (2009) expansion, which I wrote a little about in a few “Alea Treasures” articles.
And that was Alea in 2014, heading toward a rather disappointing end to their original line, as they spent a few years regurgitating old games, sometimes in interesting new forms, before they rebooted the line entirely … with better looking editions of their most successful classic games.
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples