Board Game Gumbo: Spice It Up with Concordia
Quiz time: Raise your hands if your love affair with Euro games began with one of the trinity of Ticket To Ride, Carcassone, or Catan.
You are not alone. Like many of you, I’ve been playing games my whole entire life, starting with family game nights of Monopoly and Uno and Pit, and moving on to Dungeon! and Dungeons & Dragons as a teen and then Magic: The Gathering as a young adult.
In time, I discovered Cosmic Encounter and The Great Dalmuti and wondered if there were other games like them out there. Back in 2008, I discovered Board Game Geek and The Dice Tower, and dove right in. The games I found at the top of the rankings and the ones on every Top Ten video practically jumped into my collection at that point.
One of the guys in the Krewe de Gumbo is a fellow Euro game fan. He also plays in a couples game night once a month, and one of the games they frequently break out is Catan. We debated what would be a good board game to introduce to a group that regularly plays Catan but not much else, but when the group is starting to wonder -- just like we did at one point -- what else is out there.
Is your game group ready for the next level of Catan? Are they ready for a little bit more complexity in their Euro experience, but where they will still experience the thrill of route building and resource gathering but without the madness of the dice and robber?
Then, spice it up! with Concordia.
Concordia is a 2013 masterpiece designed by esteemed designer, Mac Gerdts. Concordia has the pedigree after being named as a finalist for the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres. (Istanbul won.) In Concordia, players compete to build competing Roman empires across the ancient lands of the Mediterranean Sea. Curry favor from the Roman gods by drafting action cards to increase the power of your player deck, and you just might be declared the winner at the end of the game.
Before we look at the bits and game board that come in the box, let's check out that weirdly shaped box. That box is one of my few complaints about Concorida. It's a weirdly flat and elongated pizza box that will not play well with your game closet’s deep shelves, and it certainly will not look uniform next to the Alea boxes you collect. The cover art is okay, I guess, but does not really give a sense of what the game is about. About the only thing that the cover has going for it is that it is not yet another dour medieval European warlord staring glumly at you.
The components are very straight forward. The board is large (likely the reason for the weird box shape) and is double sided with a map of all of ancient Europe perfect for playing up to 5 players, and a map of the Italian peninsula more geared for 2-3 players. (The designer has produced a number of other maps including Brittania and Germania for more exploration.) The bits are standard wooden pieces that ably represent the different resources -- but check out the upgraded Concordia components that Top Shelf Gamer sells!
All in all, I am satisfied with the quality of the board, pieces, and cards, but my only complaints are that I wish a more uniformly standard box size could have been used, and the artwork on the board, cards and box are worthy of passing grade only.
Players that first see the board, with the map of the ancient Roman world, might expect a game of conquest through military might. That is not what Concordia is all about. Instead, players will send colonists in the form of merchants and ships across the lands and by the waters of the sea. You will establish trading routes with each of the 11 or 12 provinces that come with the double sided base map board in one of five types of goods (bricks, food, tools, wine and cloth). Catan fans will instantly feel comfortable with the look-at-the-board-and-spot-the-good-resources strategies that are offered in what is essentially your prototypical trading in the Mediterranean game.
But Catan fans may be curious when they realize that there are no dice. The only random elements come from the random layout of the resources and from the cards that will enter the market on the top of the board. Players must strategize their way across the Mediterranean to capitalize on their player deck. Efficiently building colonies, trading for resources, and purchasing new cards for the deck is the key to winning.
Yes, Concordia has a deck building element, but with a twist. Players will use the resources they gather in production and trade to purchase the available cards in the open market, and those cards will go directly to their standing hand. Cards are only discarded from your hand when the action depicted on the card is played. Your friends will likely find the lack of luck in rolling dice to be a welcome upgrade to Catan’s admittedly swingy resource generation mechanic.
Plus, there is never any reshuffling. When it is strategically advantageous to do so, one of the cards (called the "Tribune" card) allows you to pick up all of the cards in your discard pile back into your hand and refresh your actions. Deciding just the right time to play the Tribune card may be one of the most delicious decisions you make. You have the opportunity not only to refresh your hand, but also to put out more colonists and increase your storehouse’s capacity to store the goods that you produce.
At first glance, this game seems like just a typical “trading in the Mediterranean” game. But, that line of thinking would be a mistake. The strategy and advanced planning and efficiency that is the hallmark of typical trading/farming games will only get you so far. The heart of the game is in the point scoring mechanic. The only way to score points is to purchase the action cards in the open market.
Each of the cards in the open market not only has an action for you to use, but also bestows victory points to the holder at the end of the game. for you to use, but also bestows victory points to the holder at the end of the game. Each card is tied to the favor of a god (Jupiter, Saturnus, Minerva, etc.) and each of the gods pays out victory points in a different fashion. One gives points for all of the provinces that contain your colonies. One gives points for the number of colonists out on the board at the end of the game. But the points can really ratchet up if multiple cards of the same type can be purchased in the open market.
Players collecting the same gods and working on some of the same victory point goals can really get into a tussle on the board. And since everyone starts with the exact same deck, it is interesting to watch how each player adds to that deck from the available cards that come out. As if that was not enough, some of the action cards unique from the base deck or contain upgraded actions, which adds to the decision making tree.
That’s where the player interaction comes in. No, this is not a war game, but it has that same passive aggressive nature built into the game that many Euro games have, so your friends that enjoy that part of Catan will instantly warm up to this once they figure it out. Keeping an eye out for what each other player is collecting, or strategically blocking out sea or land lanes of travel to prevent your neighbor from getting that last wine colony that they needed is nothing short of a mental high five.
One last bit about the game play. When your Catan group sees the board and the bits, and hears the explanation of how the game works, I can imagine in my mind the consternation and confusion that will likely set in. Fret not. The game mechanics are surprisingly simple -- play a card out of your hand, and take the action(s) which are spelled out directly on the card.
In fact, the hard part of the game is not the individual actions, it is learning to combine the engine that you design with the empire that you build in conjunction with the cards that you buy.
I have found literally thousands of words already written out on the internet about how this game plays, or what are the best opening moves. What more could I add from that perspective? Not much, but what I can say is that this was a grail game for me ever since it came out second in the awards. I have heard so many podcasters sing its praises, that I just had to try it for myself. That has not been easy up until now, because it is notoriously not long to stay in print as fans and eager players gobble up each print run very quickly.
I finally got to try it out this summer at Dice Tower Con 2017 when Max from the Dukes of Dice and a friend from the internet named Jonathan graciously taught it to me and my son, Jack.
I loved that first play, although in all honesty, I was mighty confused about the end game strategies. Max as kind enough to explain that during the first game, especially against seasoned players, is just to explore the inner workings of the game. And that is what I did. I found that I really could not focus at all on purchasing any real combination of a set of cards to match my game engine or the design of my colonies. I was having too much fun discovering the elegant mechanics. But that was okay, I was smitten by this game on first play.
Since then, I have played it three more times after I finally got the reprint in October. I’ve played it at all play counts from 3-5, and I have played the game on both maps. It should not come as a shock that this game is quickly rocketing up into my top ten games of all time. Concordia is a game I will not turn down on game night even when enticed by the latest "hotness", and will stay in my collection.
If you like engine building, resource gathering, exploration and efficiency games, with an old world theme, I cannot recommend Concordia more highly. If you have friends new to the hobby, who enjoy playing Catan but are ready for the next step, then take the time to introduce them to Concordia.
Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!