Sunday, March 23, 2014

Medici, by Reiner Knizia

I was told by my friend Marcelo to buy Medici, sight-unseen, immediately after meeting him at Texicon in Fort Worth, Texas. I’d only just met Marcelo, but we bonded quickly over our mutual love of Smash Up and Lords of Waterdeep, so I took his advice and picked up this wonderful game about shipping goods in Renaissance-era Florence.

I’ve gotten this game to the table again and again, and it’s one of my 2-3 “go-to” games for a group of 5-6 players who don’t have the time to learn a long game, but want something deeper than a “party” game like Wits & Wagers or Cards Against Humanity.

If you’ve got a love for bidding games, being a trading lord, and a little math, read on!

In Medici, florins are both the currency players spent at auction and victory points at the end of the game. The player who best manages the pressure between paying for valuable cargo and working on a tight budget will be the richest and most powerful noble in Florence!

Each round, players take turns unloading “lots” of cargo from trade ships and putting them up for auction.  Each player is attempting to fill a ship of five cargo holds with cargo as valuable as possible, but must pay for those lots with his or her victory points in the auction. Players are awarded points for their ships’ total value, with the most valuable ship worth 30 florins. Each successive ship worth less, and the amounts and total points are based on the number of players. Additionally, players are rewarded for specialization among the five types of cargo available for trade, and receive points for being the leaders of trade in each of these cargo types after each round – 10 points to the leader, 5 points to second place.

Players begin with 40 florins each (counted on the scoring track along the outside edge of the board), an empty ship placard with five empty cargo spaces, and a marker at the bottom of each of the five cargo tracks. Before each round six cargo tiles are randomly removed from the bag for each player less than six in the game, and those tiles are set aside for the entire round.

Cargo tokens represent five types of goods, and each has 7 tiles in the game. Tiles are numbered 0-5, with an additional “5” tile for each cargo type, for a total of 35 tiles. The numbers represent the values of those tiles when shipped off at the end of the round for florins.  A single “gold” tile is worth 10 points, but is not associated with any of the five types of cargo. Each player’s goal is to have as valuable a ship as possible (in terms of points) and also to specialize in a few types of cargo, but without spending a boatload to win the auctions!

At the start of the round, the player with the least florins on the scoring track (or randomly selected, at the beginning of the game) takes the bag of cargo tokens and randomly selects a single token and reveals it to all players. The player may draw up to two additional tiles, one at a time, up to a maximum of three tiles, or equal to the number of spaces on the emptiest ship, whichever is less. The “lot” is put up for auction, and the bidding begins with the player to the active player’s left.

Each player receives one bid, in turn order, for the entire lot of cargo tokens. A player may not bid if he or she does not enough space on his or her ship (there are five cargo holds on each ship, enough space for five cargo tokens). The active player, who drew the cargo tokens and created the lot, is the last to bid. The player who bid the most florins receives the lot and places the cargo tokens on his or her ship, then pays florins by moving his or her “florin bag” on the scoring track backwards by the appropriate amount. If no player big on the lot, the cargo is thrown into the sea, and the tiles are placed face-down in the middle of the board.

After the lot has been auctioned and florins have been paid, the felt bag is passed to the next player in clockwise order, and the process is repeated. The round ends when all ships except one are full, at which point the player whose ship remains light draws tiles from the bag to fill all available cargo holds, and does not pay any florins. The round also ends if the last cargo tile is drawn and auctioned. In both of these cases it’s possible a ship may sail light, as there is only one “extra” cargo token in the bag per player.

After the round ends, players add up the values of the cargo tokens and award points to the player with the highest value and each successive player, then move their scoring markers up the track accordingly. Then, each player moves his or her florin bags up the cargo tracks, once per track of each of that track’s cargo token on the player’s ship. These tokens remain in place at the end of each round, so specialization is rewarded over the course of the game. If a player reaches 6, 7, or 8 on the track (number of that cargo type shipped), bonus points are awarded on top of the normal points for being a leader in the cargo type (5, 10, or 20, increasing as the player ships more goods).

Whew! That’s one of the longest rules overviews I’ve ever written, and I appreciate your reading this far into my review. The good news is, you’re now completely capable of playing Medici straight out of the box – you’ll only need to review the rules for the exact point allotted based on ships at the end of the round. This game is a moderately-heavy game with simple rules, though you can make it as light or as heavy as you want in your playgroup  through your style of play.

In my local play group, we’re not at all afraid to sit and “math out” the best bid for a lot of cargo, like a 5-5-4, that is really high-value and will determine who wins the shipping points for the round. If you like this kind of game play and you’re a fan of doing a little math, then this can quickly become a fun way to do some cost-benefit analysis in your spare time.

If you’re not “that guy” though, don’t despair – you can enjoy this game quite a bit without working out the expected value of every single bid. The game is finished in 30-40 minutes, even in a six-player game, and there’s no rule that says you have to think critically about your bid. Many times I’ve seen a player win rounds and games off the luck of the draw at the end of the round, or by strategically letting other players pay to fill their ships more than half full – then drawing three tiles that nobody else can bid on, thus claiming a nice haul for only a single florin.

As with many games, the theme of Medici is nice, but lends itself only in the sense that the art and tokens make it obvious that you’re bidding on goods. Beyond that, it’s a mathy game of bidding for points with your friends, and I would never insist that the theme sells the game. I enjoy it, because I’m kind of a Renaissance buff and a history nerd in general, but this could just as easily be about furs traders in the American colonies, or Eastern traders exchanging goods along the Silk Road.

From a gameplay standpoint, I think Medici is one of the best available games that uses light mechanics to encourage thoughtful decision-making. If you’re got kids who are fans of problem-solving, I think this could be a great game to introduce the concepts of value and allocating resources, and with your regular gaming group I think you’ll find it’s a medium-length, easy-to-learn game that gets your friends thinking and engaging in the game.
Cards in hand? One. It's probably
a counterspell though. 

If you’ve got an iOS device there’s an app for Medici, but it doesn’t have multiplayer capability and it doesn’t have a great tutorial. Still, it’s worth giving a try if you want to check out the game and it’s not at your local game store.

Medici is small and simple to set up, as the box contains only a 10” x 10” board, a felt bag full of 36 square cargo tokens, 6 “florin bags” for each player, which serve as a score marker and track markers for each of the 5 types of cargo and 1 ship placard for each player. The box is the same size as a Carcassonne box, and fits nicely on any bookshelf, and more importantly, in any backpack being prepared for game night!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.