Designed by Jean du Poel
Published by Kosmos
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
It has been a long time coming but I think, finally, we have a game from Jean du Poel that deserves the title. Apart from Carabande and Mare Mediterraneum, a non-game and a good-but-flawed epic respectively, I have endured a string of dysfunctional games that, somehow, have always drawn me back for more punishment! Perhaps it is the historical themes, the lovely wooden pieces are certainly a factor, but I think, deep down, these are games I should like. Everything looks the part, and I detect a similar mind to my own, it is just that Herr du Poel doesn't always have things quite straight in his head, and when he does, he doesn't always let us know what he intends through his notorious rule sets. But thankfully, perhaps assisted by the small but hard working Kosmos team, Wettstreit der Baumeister (The Architect's Competition) has few signs of this problem. It is not perfect, and showcases some du Poel idiosyncrasies, but it has proved one of the better games of the 1998 Nuremburg crop.
What a great theme. A group of architects decide on a competition to establish who can build the most attractive city. Not, sadly, a top down metropolis a la Sim City, but a side view - the image dominated centrally by the city walls - to include towers, gates, churches, a town hall and, finally, two corner towers. The city exhibiting the best symmetry and design quality will win the coveted title. So good is this idea that, carried away, I was half way through my second game before I realised that yet again it was, in execution, a theme as daft as any other German game you care to nominate. Architects were bidding for large chunks of city wall and buildings to be slotted in or held back on a whim. A stand-alone gate magically provided trade routes. A tower offered defence qualities, even though an invading army could just walk around it. Oh well. But with suspension of disbelief suitably re-installed I have pressed on and played this one half a dozen times, have enjoyed each one and, importantly, had a lot of fun.
Wettstreit (originally published as Teutopolis) bears a slight similarity to Ogallala, the canoe building game, which was subsequently published as Blackfeet, Starships (sixties science fiction canoes) and, infamously, as Games Workshop's Chaos Marauders. The most recent incarnation, a re-issue of the original title two or three years back, again on the canoe theme, seemed to sink without trace. Er, sorry. I also seem to recall an obscure little Perlhuhn limited edition called Muros that used a similar topic, this time applied to city walls, so that may be an even closer ancestor. In that respect Wettstreit is a timely 90's filler for the 45 minute, middle weight slot. The designer has also drawn on some of his own mechanisms, with a nod to Modern Art for the bidding, and the net result is a tactically interesting auction and tile laying game which I think will appeal to most.
The core of the game is, fundamentally, the player turn. To start, you roll a dice to determine your income. Added to the dice is any bonus income you have generated from your city's trade routes - symbolised by built city gates. This will bring you an income of between two and, oh, twelve or more. Next, you put a building up for auction. This can be selected from one of two piles - one face up, one face down. If you auction the face up one it is just open rotating auction, half of the price paid going to the seller (or all to the bank if the seller, er, buys). If you choose a face down tile it is kept hidden for the first round of bidding, then you announce what type of card it is (but not the value). The drawback here is that you have to make a bid, meaning you can often buy pieces you don't want - and your co-players will know this. Also, the blind option means you have to stay in the round in case it is a good card, but it may be something you clearly don't want and, again, it is surprising how quickly you can be sold a pup. As the auctioneer, if you blindly draw something good, you should get it cheaper than usual. The game ends when one of the two draw piles is exhausted. So, an interesting central mechanism, but not quite there. Finally, you choose to build or add to your city - up to three pieces can be laid from your hand, with the only restriction (apart from long term victory considerations) is that no two similar tiles (eg two towers or two gates) can be built adjacent.
Adding spice to the game is the mad bomber. Whenever you roll a one (a black blob) at the start of your turn, you recruit, for free (balancing this, you get no die income), a bomber. He can be used to attack any player holding more than five cards in his hand (a neat idea - it dissuades you from hoarding) or rival cities - each successful attack (not all function as you might wish...) takes out a built section. Which brings us to an interesting point. I wouldn't wish to delve into Herr du Poel's subconscious, but there must be something in there that makes him want to penalise those trailing in the game. He did it is Mare Mediterraneum, and in Kolonial Afrika, and for all I know in some of his other games. Now he's at it again. For some reason, the player with the least defensive shields is the main target for the bomber. I'll grant you that this is logical, but in game terms it means the leader (ie the player with the most developed city) usually remains untouched while the poor sap chasing attracts all the setbacks. It also stops you getting at the leader... The effect is that you need to keep a careful eye on shield totals around the table and, if someone is closing, you'll need to add another tower to your city. This can make for interesting prices in the bidding round, and also the need to consider holding onto cheap 'substitute' pieces to replace any bombed out - the downside is that, unused, these will count against your score at game end.
Scoring has a slightly unusual approach, being tiered into two levels. The basic equation is the aggregate total of each city piece built less those unplayed tiles in your hand. If, and only if, you have completed your city with two corner towers and you have no bomber induced gaps, you are eligible for bonus points. These are awarded if your town hall is exactly central (raising the interesting question of whether to build from one end or out from the middle), if there are an equal number of churches on either side of the town hall, and finally if your two corner towers are matching in value. Money has no value at game end, which may be sensible but means that the last bidding round sees the prize going to whoever has most cash on hand. I have toyed with saying that every five, or every ten, thalers (the denomination of choice) is worth a victory point to cover this. I have already seen one 'perfect' city, that is one that managed to secure all the possible bonuses. As it wasn't particularly big ("small and perfectly formed" as the smug owner said...) it is by no means represented the highest score possible, and one always has the 'in hand' deductions to take into account, but it was impressive and it did win. The neat balance is that because every tile has a value, and buying and laying lots will give you the impression of the win, but because the bonuses can, and often do, provide the decisive factor there is a good element of gambling on the odds.
As with any auction game, the key tactical element is getting the price right, and buying the right pieces at the right time. Sometimes timing is completely out of your control, but a turn or two will see a piece that you are interested in become available. The spread of tiles and values is known to all participants, handily laid out on your player screen, so you'll know if the 8 value church that has just come up for auction is worth the high price being asked. From then on it is a matter of collecting the pieces you need, and planning your strategy, until you have five tiles in hand. At that point you can choose to go nap, or hold back (especially if there are no bombers around yet) You will need to conserve money as well - it is always kept hidden, it is very tight in the early part of the game and you will often find that you have no, or too little, money to bid for a must have tile. Later in the game, with trade gates bringing in bonus income, money tends to be more plentiful.
The balance of the game is slightly skewed by the draw and availability of cards. On the face up pile you can see what is on offer, and players are free to ignore it (for an undesirable card) or snap it up (if it is clearly a good one). Even if you don't buy the latter, someone will pay you (as auctioneer) to get it. Something like a high value church is nearly always tempting, a good trade gate or defensive tower also, and then the gamut down to the small, low value towers that are hard to justify. Often they are just a pain to place or hold. The other hitch is that you only need one town hall, one right corner tower and one left corner tower - the latter preferably matching. If you have built them already, or players remember you buying certain number values, they will do all they can to sell you another - which is going to be very hard (short of a bombing) to use - so reckon it as minus points. Similarly, a player sitting with a perfectly symmetrical city, with two churches, may find himself on the receiving end of another 'useful' church. The converse position is that you can, rarely, progress through the game drawing and buying exactly what you want, or cleverly accommodating unexpected buys in your plans. A variant suggested by Andy Daglish has four piles of cards, the game ending when any three of them are exhausted. This might help with choice and the undeniable luck element. It also may make the game too easy - see Elfenland for an interesting variant parallel. We shall see.
Production is excellent, and represents remarkably good value. I must admit I can't recall if this game came out from Historien Spieleverlag with wooden components, but either way Kosmos have gone for quality thick card with very attractive graphics and a big custom wooden die. The rule set is pretty good, considering the source. The only real query, returning to the least shields issue, is the definition of the player who has the lowest shield count. We play it that it is the player with the fewest shields (or joint fewest) of those that have started a city. By definition, anyone who has not started their city has least (ie zero), but then they have nothing to attack, so it seems this is the right interpretation. Please let me know if it isn't. However, when there is just one player with a city, and he has one shield, can he be attacked? We say yes. And if he has no shields? We say yes again because we are cruel and unusual. Views please!
While, like many, I initially warmed to the theme (I have more than a passing interest in architecture) the aesthetics are not all they might be. The individual tiles are nicely rendered, care has been taken so that they form a continuous image in any combination (is geomorphic still a word?) but whatever way you cut it there is no way to build a truly pleasing and uniform skyline. Towers vary in size and shape, churches (rightly) add a random factor and gates are stylistically unique. Okay, so they are all similar in form and colour, adding tonality if nothing else, but for some reason (I can't imagine what) they decided that architectural variety was the way to go - even the so-called 'matching' end towers are different. Usually I would encourage as much graphical variety as possible, when appropriate, but here I just wonder if a standardised approach may have carried the day, even allowing for the overall theme. Perhaps not. Whatever, the game looks very nice as the cities slowly develop and the work of the bomber is all too plain when large gaps appear!
I liked this game. It may not be 100% there, but the mechanics are interesting, the flow and play time are just right and the execution good while the aesthetic and thematic appeal is undeniable. It is medium weight, not the greatest game ever designed and will not challenge you too much, but the entire package is fun. However, given the vagaries of the bomber, gut feeling and the luck of the draw, I am pretty sure it is a game that has a little too much luck for hardnosed gamers. But if, like us, you play games as entertainment and not just for the win, you will enjoy this one - it is on the right side of random. As with all too few games, you play Wettstreit and just know it is going to work, and that it is a good feeling. Drawing tangentially as it does on Ogallala and a handful of other games, it is evolutionary not revolutionary, but again, it has impressed me and I am still keen to play again - a first for a du Poel game. Long may the trend continue. There is a theory that if anyone stands in the batter's box long enough, and swings the bat a lot, he will eventually hit a home run. Jean du Poel still has to hit that mark, but Wettstreit der Baumeister is a stand-up triple.
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell