Published on May 3rd, 2013 | by Across the Board Games Staff0
Move Over Niccolò!
Summary: Theme-light, rules-medium, quick game with minimal player conflict.
I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your home
By Jake Waltier
In “Il Vecchio”, players represent power-hungry Italian merchant families wishing to bring down the old bastard Cosimo de’ Medici (i.e. Cosimo the Elder, or “il vecchio”) and rise in his place as de facto rulers of Florence. They do this by sending their family members to various backwater towns to gather agents, intelligence, and money, with which to take control of Florence and its neighbors piece by piece.
In Vecchio is a game by veteran designer Rudiger Dorn. You may recognize him as the man behind Goa and Genoa (among others), and if you do, you’re probably a eurogame fan. Surprise! This is another eurogame, and like Goa and Genoa, it’s pretty clever and fun. Let me tell you why.
The game is published in the US by TMG, makers of such games as Noblemen, Belfort, Homesteaders, and Ground Floor. Other than some notable production issues early in their history (and who didn’t make a few mistakes when they were young?) the production quality of their games is fantastic. Il Vecchio is no exception. The wooden pieces and artwork may not be as eye-catching as that in Noblemen or Belfort, but it is immediately clear they went all out and basically could not have done better in any reasonable way.
There are only two component issues that come to mind at all, and even they are not really problems. The first is that one of the middleman pieces (the one that provides money or scrolls) appears to be brown in the rulebook, and is placed on the brown space on the board, but is actually red. This isn’t an issue because there are no other red middlemen, so confusion should never arise, but it gave me pause at first. I assume this was because, as there were no other brown pieces in the game, introducing one piece of a unique color would add costs that were really not necessary. The second issue is while there are reference cards for player actions (which are excellent and invaluable) there is no reference card for bonus tiles you draw for placing family members in province tracks or the Florence tracks. These are chosen in secret and revealed on the player’s next turn, and they use iconography that is sometimes non-obvious. This is also not really an issue because the last 2 pages of the rulebook are dedicated to listing what each of these tiles does. Because this gets passed around between players every game, I will definitely need to find a player aid and print out 4 copies. Both of these issues are understandable and forgivable and I’m only mentioning them to prove I can always find something to complain about.
The rules of the game are clear and intuitive. Each turn a player chooses one of five actions from the player reference card and performs it. This includes using one of their family members to gain resources from their location on the board, spending resources to place a family member into a region track to obtain points and a one-time bonus, spending resources to place a family member into the city council or nobility of Florence to obtain a special ability or secret objective respectively, refreshing all spent family members, or adding a new family member to the board. There are other options and procedures that apply, such as moving a piece first, or choosing to spend a bishop token instead of relying on the right middleman. When you’re done with your one action, the next player takes one, and so on.
Each player also begins with a special ability that gives a bonus when performing a specific action, and can obtain more special abilities by placing family members in the Florence council track. Leveraging these small bonus gives you the edge you’ll need to take higher point-scoring spots before other players and secure majority bonuses. It’s a fairly short game and the difference between first and second place can be very small, so every advantage matters. Find your niche and exploit it.
As spots in the regions and Florence fill up, Medici tokens are removed from the board, which function as both a source of random events and a highly visible game timer which ticks down as players make a mad dash for the swank jobs before other players can. The final regular round is followed by a special double-action round, in which each player can either take two actions in a row or pass on them to take two points. At the end, points gained from placing family members in Florence and the provinces are added up, points are scored for being in every scoring track or having a majority in a track, and secret objectives are revealed and scored. The player with the most points loses. Just kidding! They win the game.
The rules are clear and intuitive, and designed to minimize downtime and promote quick decisions. Decision points are distilled clearly on the player aids and symbols on the board clearly indicate everything a player needs to know. Individual turns are very short – just one action, which may involve a few options – meaning downtime is brief even in 4-player games. One specific rule drives this home: when you get to secretly choose a new tile, you do so on the other players’ turns and don’t reveal until it is your turn again. This means the next person in line isn’t waiting for to say “Hmm, well… what does this one do again?” before taking her turn. This game is Ticket to Ride fast, without being Ticket to Ride boring.
You also can’t screw over other players, such as taking something before someone else and denying them a resources at the time they desperately need it, but it’s not exactly multiplayer solitaire either. Players’ actions definitely have effects on the board state that can impact the next player’s decisions. For this reason you can’t plan several moves ahead with certainty. You have to plan about one turn ahead, as you are either getting resources or using them to gain points and advantages, but never both, and this is a very comfortable level of planning for a light-ish, medium-ish strategy game. As you make one decision, you’ll naturally look to the next, and so on. At times, I wished I could send one of my assassins to off an opponent’s agent or bribe them to my side, but unfortunately it’s just not that kind of game.
While planning isn’t emphasized, timing and decisive action is. You want to take resources when middlemen are in town and travel costs are low (especially if it denies an opponent an opportunity). You want to install your family members if Florence and the provinces early, while cost of entry is low and rewards are high (especially if it denies an opponent points), but every family member enjoying a comfy political office means one fewer minion doing your dirty work of acquiring assassins and cash. This is further complicated by an extra-cost chip that moves from the city council stack (where you get abilities) to the nobility stack (where you get objectives), making the former cheaper and the latter more expensive about halfway through the game, precisely when you’d want to stop picking up advantages and start picking up those delicious secret objectives. It’s a small but brilliant addition to the game that emphasises what the game already excels at – providing tough, tense decisions every turn.
Most games finish in about 60-90 minutes, and has a fair and forgiving endgame where each player is given two moves and even use already-filled scoring tracks in Florence and the provinces. Because of the secret objectives, it’s almost impossible to know who will win, and because final scores are close, there is a nice competitive tension until the end.
While the rules facilitate exciting gameplay, the theme is not exciting. This is a eurogame after all, and it’s clear that theme was not prioritized above playability or interesting decisions. At least it’s a game of seizing political power through underhanded dealings, and not just another game about shipping goods in medieval Europe. I think Rudiger really pushed himself to not make a game about trading goods. I can almost see him standing in front of a mirror in his undershirt, fingers sore from handling wooden cubes, and repeating to himself “I’m not going to make game about trading. I’m not going to make a game about trading.” and after a montage of crumpling up sheets of paper and drinking coffee, he designs a game about people who are real rat bastards to one another, and just trade goods to keep the torches on.
Don’t get me wrong, shady and corrupt rulership can be an exciting topic, but don’t get your hopes up. History buffs hoping to delve into the thrilling realities of 15th century Italian politics should look elsewhere – the game is about as historically accurate as God of War. This is a euro through and through, where money doesn’t equal score an assassin is a resource you spend for points.
This is one of my favorite middleweight euros at the moment. It’s been a breeze to teach, a joy to play, and everyone I’ve roped into playing has had a good time. When teaching, I can play up the idea of hiring assassins and collecting blackmail and the old bastard Cosimo sending the middleman running after they slip you a scroll of dirty secrets, but afterward, we just start moving pieces, rolling dice, and getting into the fun of the game itself. Before anyone really wants it to be, it’s over, we’re counting up scores, and we’re talking about what a fun game that was. Not bad for another game about medieval merchants.