MASTERS OF VENICE (RnR Games, 2-5 players, ages 15 and up, 30 minutes per player; $34.95)
As anyone who has access to a newspaper or television knows, we are living in tumultuous economic times. Stock prices and the prices of oil and other resources seem to change at a moment's notice. But this is nothing new. These conditions have been experienced before and, as seen by designer Frank DiLorenzo, particularly in Venice, the hub of European commerce during the 1400s. In Masters of Venice, players compete to master the challenging economic pressures of the time be the most successful merchant.
Masters of Venice comes boxed with a mounted game board, five shop boards and pegs to go with them, player dials, stock shares, church favors, rumor counters, money, Guild Order cards, character cards, lots of wooden cubes, a wooden "gondola" and other player aids.
The gameboard shows the various areas of Venice with its canal running in a semi-circle through the city. The church favors are shuffled and stacked in the church area with two of them placed face up. Rumor tiles are randomly placed on each canal space with the gondola placed on the first canal space.
Each player begins with 150 ducats (the game's currency), a player wheel and a share of stock (randomly distributed) in one of the the game's five shops (Blacksmith, Jeweler, Miller, Spice or Tailor). From that point (until someone else has more shares in that shop), that player is in charge of that shop board. All shops begin with equal values: all resources and stock values begin at 40, all orders (i.e. demand for the resource) begin at 3. Players also randomly receive a Guild Order as well as one resource cube. Now the board is seeded with cubes drawn from the supply bag: two are placed in each of the four dock areas and one each next to the North and South Shipping Offices. Each cube drawn and placed in the Docks or Shipping Offices reduces the value of those resources at a rate of 1 space per drawn cube.
There are two types of turns in Masters of Venice: Marketing and Commerce. The gondola starts on a bid space and every time it moves to a bid space, a Marketing turn begins.
In Marketing, players bid for turn order AND the role they will assume for the next four turns. Bids in ducats are secretly done by the players (any amount from none to all they have) and marked accordingly on their wheels. All bids are simultaneously revealed. High bidder will go first and puts his token on the first Turn Order space. The other players, in bid order, occupy the remaining Turn Order spaces. The player who bid the LOWEST gets the character role card of Gondolieri. The other players, starting with the first player, gets to choose one of the other available character roles. But it doesn't stop there. In turn order, EVERY player can make an impact on commodity demand. Each player MUST either increase orders at one shop by 1 for every 5 ducats bid OR decrease orders by 1 for each 10 ducats bid.
Character choosing is a game mechanism used to great effect in Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA REPORT). But here it comes with a twist. The LOW bidder actually can reap significant benefits as Gondolieri. Essentially, he is "piloting" the gondola that marks the progress of turns in the game and, as a result, is able to gather up those rumors placed in the canal spaces as he follows the serpentine path. Rumors can be used to affect the values of commodities. Another strong plus for that player is that he can warp turn order (albeit one time only) and "jump" ahead of other players, taking his turn out of order at the most opportune time. A potentially powerful role for sure but all roles have something of value to offer.
The Guild Master allows a player to draw TWO Guild Order cards (rather than one) and keep his choice of card. Better yet, he can return a held Guild Order card to the bottom of the deck WITHOUT penalty! The Harbor Master gets a free resource of his choice when visiting a Shipping Office. The Tax Collector collects an extra dividend whenever ANYBODY sells at a shop. The Thief may "steal" a resource cube when visiting the Dock (in essence, getting the resource for free). And the Trader may buy and sell TWO resources (rather than one) at the Mercado when visiting there. After Marketing is resolved, the Commerce phases occur.
A Commerce turn consists of three intertwined phases: movement, action and dividend payment. First, all players use their wheels again but this time to pick a location on the board to visit. Locations are revealed simultaneously and player pawns placed in their respective locations. More than one player may visit a location. Some locations are exclusive meaning that only players visiting there may perform the associated action but others are "shared" locations. Players visiting there go first (in turn order) but ALL players may perform the action the location allows.
Shared actions occur at the docks, shops, stock market and Guild Hall. There are four docks and by going there, a player may buy any or all of the resources at any ONE of them at the current market price. Each cube bought raises that resource's price by one space. Shops are grouped as one area to visit and, when at the shops, you may conduct business with any of the five shops. If you happen to have at least one more stock share of a shop, you can also manipulate the situation by either lowering the resource price by 2 spaces and increasing orders by 1 OR raise the price by 2 and decrease orders by 1. You may also sell resources there up to as many orders ass there are for that particular resource. Selling earns you DOUBLE the current price of the resource. It also INCREASES that resource price AND its stock value one space for each cube sold. (Orders are decreased 1 space for each cube sold.)
The Stock Market allows you to buy and/or sell 1, 2 or 3 shares of available stock. (The only restriction: you cannot buy and sell the SAME stock.) If buying, the share price goes up one space no matter how many shares are purchased; if selling, share prices fall TWO spaces for EACH share sold.
At the Guild Hall, players may take the top Guild Order card and/or deliver the goods on the Guild Hall card they have. Delivered cubes go back into the supply and orders for each good are also decreased, one space per cube delivered. Filled Guild Hall orders are unique in that players collect their reward in either Victory Points and/or cash, on a sliding scale. The first delivered Guild Hall order is worth 3VPs, the second 4, third 5 and the 4th or more worth 6 VPs each. But you can opt to take fewer VPs for ready cash. Each VP you decide to forego will give you 50 ducats instead.
The Church, Mercato and both Shipping Offices are places you must visit in order to take advantage of their actions. At the Church, you can buy one of the two face up favors there. Depending on their value, favors can increase the orders of any one resource from 1 to 4. Both the North and South Shipping Offices allow you to take the resource cube there and then restock both the office and the docks. One cube is drawn to replenish the cube taken from the office and then four more cubes are drawn and placed at the docks, one per dock section. Each cube drawn this way reduces that resources price by 1 space. Finally, at the Mercado, a player may buy 1 and/or sell 1 resource at its current market price with prices increasing whether buying or selling. As all this buying and selling is going on, players also reap dividends for the stocks they own. For resources sold at a shop, each stockholder receives 10% of the transaction (rounded to the nearest 100 ducats) per share from the bank. Shipping Office shares pay off 10 ducats per share.
Play continues until the gondola reaches the final turn space. All players complete the round and final scoring occurs.
Not only do resources accumulated throughout the game and left in your holdings have no value, they are taxed with players having to pay 50% of their final value! Undelivered Guild Orders cost you 2 Victory Points each. On the positive side, all shares owned are valued at their current stock prices and players receive 1 VP for each 100 ducats of value. Finally cash, rounded off to the nearest hundred, converts to VPs at the rate of 1 per 100 ducats. The player with the most VPs wins the game.
In several respects, Masters of Venice resembles games of the 18xx series with its emphasis on stocks and market manipulation. While there is nothing particularly difficult about the game mechanisms employed in the game, it does exhibit some counter-intuitiveness that makes the learning curve a bit steeper than expected. (Prices of goods go up when they are sold AND bought?!?!?) The game can take some time but players are involved in nearly every action, making the long playing time virtually evaporate. In our first play, we were dazzled by Guild Orders as they are the easiest way to get both VPs and a cash stream but focusing on Guild Orders has its drawbacks. Essentially, 100 ducats equates to 1 VP. When taking cash for Guild Orders, you only get 50 ducats for trading in a VP, an exchange that may sometimes be necessary but is not to your advantage. Selling at shops generates TWICE their market value in ducats and shrewd share purchases can reap you more and more cash as players sell resources in shops in which you have a vested interest. Guild Orders, like selling at shops, are dependent on orders for goods to be delivered. If there are not enough orders for the goods you wish to deliver, you cannot deliver them!
Graphically, the game has some good points: the different colors used for stocks are easily differentiated as are the shop boards. The board itself is a bit too dark and, as it fills up with cubes and player tokens, a bit too crowded. A larger, two-folded, board might have worked better. The method of charting stock values, resource values and orders is a two-edged sword. Because the player with the most shares in a shop is in charge of tracking its values, there is a vested interest in keeping values accurate. It also serves to remind players which player can flex his majority ownership "muscles" and tweak prices and orders on his turn. But this puts multiple players in charge of various shops. Stock and share prices (and orders too) can change on almost every move and often do. When you add more people, you increase the possibility of human error. Masters of Venice is a prime candidate for an online/computer version to handle the bookkeeping which would also cut playing time down considerably.
Masters of Venice appears chaotic with rapid shifts in value on virtually every move! The constant recording of these shifts can also be off-putting to some. But there is method in this madness. The game has an "internal logic" that makes sense within the confines of its game playing universe even if it sometimes flaunts traditional economics. Players need to be shrewd in their bidding and sharp in their buying and selling to come out on top. Masters of Venice is not a game for the casual gamer. What it is is a highly competitive and very demanding game challenging players to master the intricacies of a volatile marketplace. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy
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