Board Game Gumbo: Long Live the Queen(s) - Pt. 1 - Fresco - by Jason Dinger
Contributor, Jason Dinger, is back with another entry in his popular series of articles. Jason is the designer of the upcoming release, Captains of the Gulf. You can reach him on Twitter: @jasondingr.
Queen Games is by no means an unknown publisher, but it seems like some of their best gems often don’t get the love I think they deserve. This short series will look at three of my favorites from Queen’s long line of published titles.
The first up is Fresco, which is also the newest Queen game to my collection. Fresco holds the distinction of being a fair bit more complex than the other 2 games that I’m going to feature in this series. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Fresco is hardly a heavy game – quite the opposite, in fact. Fresco is a solid lighter-medium weight game. There’s enough there to give the player a decent challenge, but no worry about brain burn or heavier complexities found in the games I typically play…and that’s a big part of why I enjoy it.
Fresco is what I consider a perfect “school night game”. It sets up quickly, plays smoothly, doesn’t overstay its welcome on the table, and gives the players a wonderful, fulfilling experience. Most weeknights are rather hectic for my wife & I due to commitments we have teaching / working with with kids and teens in our community.
On the rare weeknight when we do have time for a game, it’s usually not a lot of time and our brains aren’t up to delving into a heavyweight like Arkwright or Roads & Boats. That’s when a game like Fresco shines for us. It allows us to get into a game with some fun, challenging decisions without taxing our brains or staying up late on a work night.
So, what is it about Fresco that makes it so great? For starters, the interwoven blend of simple mechanics is a fresh take on some tried & true aspects of game play. There is a tiered player order that has some neat thematic drive to them.
The Game Play
The first phase of each round, players select their “Wake Up” time in turn order. The turn order for this selection phase is based on each player’s current victory point total: more VP = later in choosing Wake Up time, less VP = earlier in Wake Up time.
This Wake Up time is essentially a re-establishing of turn order for the main actions that will follow in the round, but more importantly, affects 2 other key elements of game play: a player’s level on the “Happiness Track” and the cost per tile for paints they buy at the market. The earlier you get up, the lower you are on the Happiness Track & the more each market tile costs. However, getting up earlier means that you will be earlier in in turn order for the remainder of the round.
In secret, players then place their apprentices (smaller meeples) on the appropriate spaces on their player boards to show which actions they’re selecting and how many times they’re want to take each action in this round (up to a max of 3 per action). Players start the game with 5 apprentices. However, moving up higher on the Happiness Track can grant you up to +2 apprentices and moving down too low on the track can make you lose up to 2 of your 5 starting apprentices. Both this potential gain & loss is temporary and changes when you move to the appropriate space on the track.
Once everyone has placed their apprentices, all players reveal their selection and the main action phase of the round begins. The 5 main actions in each round are: Market, Cathedral, Studio, Workshop, and Theater. I’m not going to go too deep into the intricacies of each as the game comes with 3 expansions that expand on the base functions and there are 7 other expansions available that add even more to the 5 base actions.
During the Market phase, players choose to either buy tiles from or close down a single market area. Depending on player count, there are 3 – 4 market areas. Going first here has tremendous benefits as each market space has between 2 – 4 tiles with each tile having between 1 – 3 different paint cubes on it. The trick here is that you are paying your personal set cost (established when choosing your Wake Up Time) PER TILE – not per paint cube on the tile. Going earlier here not only gives you more tiles to choose from, but also the opportunity to grab the more valuable tiles that give more cubes on them. Of course, this comes at a higher per tile cost – a nice, simple balancing mechanic built into the system.
After all players have bought the tiles they want / can afford, players now get a chance to paint a single fresco tile during the Cathedral phase. Simply discard the appropriate quantity and colors of cubes to score the points listed on the fresco tile you are completing. Each completed fresco tile is then removed from the board. Bonus points can be awarded depending on the location of the Bishop pawn is in relation to the tile you are completing. Players can pay to move the Bishop pawn a single space on their turn to take advantage of this. Alternatively, players can choose to restore the altar once during this phase. This doesn’t pay out as well as painting a fresco tile, but it does give players a way to score later in the game when there are fewer fresco tiles to choose from and you want to make the best out of what cubes you have available.
The Studio phase is a simplified way of obtaining money in the base game. You get $3 for each apprentice assigned to a paint Studio portrait. The Portraits expansion that comes with the game features a deck of cards that players can choose 1 of 3 face-up portraits from. Each of these cards grants unique bonuses to the players – some 1-time and other continuous for the remainder of the game.
The Workshop phase is where players can blend basic primary paint colors (red, blue, & yellow) to gain advanced secondary colors (purple, green, & orange). For each apprentice assigned to the Workshop, you can perform 2 mixing actions, giving up 4 basic cubes total to gain 2 advanced cubes total. The interplay between which market tiles you’ve acquired and your choices during the Workshop phase are a fundamental element of the game, as proper planning is required to gain and mix the colors you’ll want to complete more lucrative fresco tiles as the rounds proceed.
The final phase of each round is the Theater. For each apprentice assigned to the Theater, you advance your large master painter meeples two space on the Happiness Track. This is another element where interplay between different phases of a round work together. You may have moved down on the Happiness Track earlier in the round so that you could go earlier in turn order, but at the cost of potentially losing an apprentice. Advancing back up to safer areas of the Happiness Track can offset that cost to prepare you for the next round.
At the end of each round, players collect any income due to them from completed fresco tiles. Then, the board is reset with new market tiles & the all player’s master painter meeples on the Wake Up Time track are moved back to the top so they can select their wake up times for the next round.
Play continues until the beginning of a round where there are 6 of fewer fresco tiles left on the board. When this happens, players flip their action boards over the the side marked “2” and play 1 final round. The “2” side of the player boards has 2 Cathedral phases with a 2nd one added immediately following the Workshop phase. The income phase is skipped at the end of this last round and players cash out any remaining money for victory points at a 2-to-1 ratio. Add this to the scores to get their final total and determine the winner.
Pros & Cons
There is so much to love about a lighter-but-challenging game like Fresco. It plays relatively fast, offers players a depth of choices & opportunities for planning, has elements of strategic & tactical play, and does all of this without any real mental strain.
With all that said, there is a single detractor that some fans have mentioned: a key to the game play is mixing paints and players who aren’t knowledgeable of the color wheel may feel challenged here. Thankfully, each player’s screen has an easy to understand chart that shows how to create the 3 secondary colors:
Red + Blue = Purple
Blue + Yellow = Green
Yellow + Red = Orange
Donna & I have been painting and drawing since before we were 4 years old. So, we know the color wheel and color theory by heart. That said, I do not believe that not knowing what colors mix to create which others is a significant detriment. The chart makes remembering simple and I think this game can also serve as a fun, simple way to teach you which colors mix to create others. After all, the base game only includes the 3 primary and 3 secondary colors mentioned above – without going into the wider range of colors like tertiaries.
Fresco is easy to learn, doesn’t overstay its welcome in play time, provides a nice depth of play, causes no brain burn, and offers a beautiful display of color on the table. The base game with the first 3 expansion included in the box is available on Amazon for less than $30, a few copies can be found on the BGG Marketplace for around $20, and there are copies available for trade on BGG as well. If this game sounds at all like something you’d be interested in, I highly recommend it. It is a game I believe is a steal at the $30 we paid for it and is one that we will treasure in our collection for many years to come.
— Jason Dinger, @jasondingr