VSK, about £20
Designed by Ralf zur Linde
3-6 Players, one hour
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
This is a game that, for some reason, we all knew was going to be good as soon as we read the rules. I think the systems are so clear and clever that we could visualise what was going to happen it sometimes works like that, as you know. The last one I pre-experienced so vividly was Airlines, which might say something about the quality of Zankapfel. The air of expectation was incredible even for a German game, and we weren't disappointed. Production is good, with a pleasant board and box and wooden pieces. Cost is about DM50 in Germany; I don't know if there is an importer over here yet, though Eamon Bloomfield has a few copies he brought back from Essen.
The game is about picking apples in an orchard and while the theme is ultimately unconvincing, this hardly matters as the system stands up well enough on its own. Scoring is on an Adel style track round the board, and the first player back to the start, or furthest round when all the apples are picked, wins. This will take about an hour, probably less. The orchard is represented as a 5x5 matrix, numbered 2,3,4,5,7 in four colours, one coloured series on each side. These numbers give the value of apples picked in any square within the orchard. Standing in the orchard is the applepicker who will be moved by each player in turn, until the matrix is emptied of apple markers his position defines the four current scores, so a typical corner square might be worth Red 7, Blue 2, Green 7 and Yellow 2.
Players are dealt, and try to maintain, a stock of cards depicting the four coloured apples. There are also harlequin apples which act as jokers. Each turn, a player may either buy another apple card from the stack (top card face up, priced at half the current column value he moves his counter backwards round the track in payment) or play a face down apple card, indicating which colour of apple he is trying to pick. All having taken their actions, the turn leader moves the picker to an adjacent square and the players that picked reveal their cards. The movement of the picker gives the turn leader a big advantage as he knows what the points will be ahead of time, but every player gets the chance to benefit. Then the cards are resolved.
If you have a unique colour, you score the points and move your man round the track by the value of the apple picked. If two or more players have the same colour, combat takes place with only one winner up to three dice can be 'bought' to add to attack cards by giving up points on the track. A player with a harlequin card can choose which colour apple he is picking after seeing all the others this in turn may mean combat but normally it lets you secure some unopposed points, though not always the maximum 7.
Play continues in this vein all game, with your points fluctuating on a Two Steps Forward, One Step Back basis. Despite the repetitive nature of the system, there are plenty of tactical considerations and it just works in the same way Adel does. There is a fine balance between buying cards and picking, and it regularly gets to the point where you pick so often that you are compelled to buy. The timing of these 'down' turns is vital and I am sure these also need to be minimised if you are to win. At the same time, combat is to be avoided whenever possible, and the benefits of winning weighed up against the costs of buying dice or failure. Fighting for seven points will usually be worth it long and short term, but scrapping for three points and spending two of them on dice is highly debatable. The clever aspect is that you really have to watch the position of the picker and try to work out which area he will head for next. The later it gets in the game, it becomes evident which apple cards you should be holding and the players that have already bought these will be in a strong position.
I have a nagging doubt that there may be a game end flaw similar to that in Flusspiraten, but in the game we played it didn't materialise and I mention it only because it will affect end game play one way or the other. The situation is simply that with a lot of action in the last few turns, it often costs a lot of money to buy vital cards or combat dice. The result can be that players keep pushing round towards an apparent winning position, and then slip back revealing a completely different ranking. I slipped from a virtual win to third because I was forced to buy a card and then decided to contest a battle, which I lost. This needs some careful attention to work out who is likely to do what, but hopefully no more than that.
Zankapfel is a typically German game, from a relatively unknown company, and is a real find. VSK have a number of other games, including the highly regarded Chameleon, and it will be interesting to see what they are like. Zankapfel is tight, clever and features plenty of interaction, decisions and strategy. As such it was one of the highlights of Essen, though at the time I didn't know it. The systems are not going to tax you too much, but the game is quick, all action and tough to win. Although the theme could have been a bit less nebulous, this is one of the better games of 1993.
On to the review of Magic or back to the review of Freight Train.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information