The most popular European game of the moment clearly seems to be Adel Verpflichtet (pronounced Noblesse Oblige or, optionally, Rogue's Gallery) which is slated as the potential Game of the Year by many and represents FX Schmid's best hope from their rejuvenated 1990 range. With the exception of yours truly, just about everyone who has played it has liked it intensely and the first print run, (and the second if rumours are to be believed), have sold out. However, supplies are now starting to appear in the UK and should be available real soon now.
Adel is a game about eccentric English lords showing off their collections of objets d'art with the aim of winning a rather unlikely bet. It is played in a sequence of short rounds which involve decisions based on a hand of cards. Your opponents hold similar hands and they are therefore making comparable choices. It is, essentially, a game of bluff and of out-thinking your opponent in which your success is measured by moving around a race track. The first one home wins and is deemed to have the best bluffing and guessing skills.
There are several sub-plots to the game that I will run through before getting back to the central decisions. Essentially, each player is trying to establish himself as the best collector of weird and wonderful items. These include Meerschaum pipes, old masks, porcelain, Charlie Chaplin's boots, Marilyn Monroe's lipstick and so on. They can be obtained from an auction house or can be stolen from other players. Once the collection has been assembled, the idea is to display it and earn 'kudos' by showing off the biggest and oldest range of items at their stately homes and castles.
The collectibles are given identifying letters and collections can be formed from sets of three or more, in runs, or in consecutive mixtures of the two. As the collections grow in size they can develop weak points in the middle which, through an opponent's judicious use of a thief, means they can easily be split into two halves. This makes purchases (or counter-thefts) to strengthen a collection highly desirable. Collections are compared by simply counting the continuous run and the oldest item breaks any ties.
To obtain these valuable collection cards, each player has a range of action cards at his disposal. Each player has a selection of cheques (totalling the same for each player but in different denominations), two thieves (similarly differentiated), a detective who is used to capture any opposing thieves and a card indicating that the player will 'exhibit' at his castle that turn.
These cards are used in two distinct phases. Firstly, players simultaneously reveal if they are going to the auction house or to the castle. Those that opt for the auction house then perform a second round of card play which can involve playing cheques or thieves. If they play a cheque, the highest is put in the till and the player may choose any item on sale. Losing cheques are returned to their owners. If a thief is played, he steals the cheque placed in the till. If two or more thieves are played, they cancel each other out, thus wasting a turn.
If a player chooses 'Schloss' in round one, he has more options in the second phase. He can display his collection thus risking a small loss but likely to gain spaces, he can play a detective to capture any roving thieves (after they have each stolen one item of anything displayed) or he can play a thief in a the hope that a gullible collector will exhibit and thus guarantee a successful steal. Thieves caught at any time in the game are put in jail and are returned to play as the jail fills out with more recent offenders.
That is essentially it. Two rounds of fast card play which are repeated many times, until a player gets round the track. The pawns move around the scoring track in various ways. Squares are advanced for successfully capturing a thief with a detective but the highest move is usually from displaying your collection at the castle. Only the best and second best collections shown get to move in accordance with variable numbers marked on the leader's square. This encourages showing off your collection when the leader is on a high rated square but of course everyone will know this and thieves and detectives will also appear. The big plus for game balance is that this device tends to give the trailing players a chance to catch up.
In practice, the game develops gradually along the above lines with players building a collection, occasionally sneaking in a hopefully unopposed exhibition, and trying the occasional theft or detective ploy for good measure. Players can get left behind at the start, but catching up is reasonably easy and it is possible to gang up on a clear leader, even if this is done subconsciously. Canny players will be trying to spot trends among the opponents' card play and this can result in such unlikely happenings as five thieves turning up at a castle with no exhibits to nick. This is quite good fun, but is really only reproducing the Hols der Geier motif of everyone thinking exactly alike in a given situation.
Undoubtedly best with five players (any fewer is progressively pointless), the main attraction of the game seems to be that the quick, repetitive and simple game system lets you get down to some hard bluffing and psyching-out of your opponents. This is true, but unlike a decent game of poker, there is precious little information and data to draw on. Much is made, by Adel's fans, of the fact that you can play the people and not the game, but then this is possible in rock, paper, scissors. The consensus seems to be that the game's unobtrusive system is rich in strategy and options and, again, I agree to a point. There is a good range of strategies arising from the limited actions and the real knack is to get to the auctioneer or the castle on your own. This gives one a free run and guarantees a cheap objet d'art or a solo exhibition at the castle, thus earning valuable movement around the board. But, at the end of the day, Adel is a game with a limited number of options which can be quickly analysed and acted upon. It is easy to get carried away with the appeal of the human factor, but in no way does this save it as a game.
Adel has all the tell-tale signs of a 'great' German game. It was heralded by much favourable comment, the production is impressive (though I don't care much for the style), the subject matter is unusual, the game system is simple to learn and it costs a mere DM 30.00 (though a lot more here at present). It certainly impresses the socks off the game designers in our midst, most of whom wish they had thought of it. For all that, I don't feel Adel is a great game. A very good game perhaps, but certainly not great - a strong 7 if I may lapse into GI mode for a moment.
My aim here is to blow the whistle on a lacklustre game before it is carried away on a wave of overstated enthusiasm. Adel lacks anything much beyond the occasionally intriguing bluffing game and even though it improves with extended play, I fail to see how this one rates as a classic. In the face of favourable public opinion, I have to say that this game did not impress me but seldom have I come across such an overwhelmingly positive reaction elsewhere. I suspect it is one of those very popular games, like Civilisation, that I am destined to dislike. I therefore admit that it could be another example of my being way out of step with the masses, but I also have a hunch that there is more than a hint of the Emperor's New Clothes here.
There is a growing trend each year to hype games into the top level where they simply don't belong. I feel this reaction, which is not unique to the English, will continue to prevail until some truly excellent games are again released in Europe. At that time, we can get back to deserving Games of the Year rather than for those chosen through excess hype or by virtue of having the 'right' publisher for that year. I don't for a moment presume that I can do anything to stop this one making it to the top (there may ultimately be no other worthy opposition), but I urge you to at least take it on its merits and not on the puff. Overall then, Adel Verpflichtet is an above average game with a clever system and an unusual, fitting theme but I don't think it is likely to turn the gaming world on its head. Perhaps there should be a 'No Award' option for Game of the Year?
Sumo - Mike Siggins