Originally published by Derk Solo at www.BoardGameGeek.com
I find that when I explain this game, I spend the first half of the time explaining the rules in a succinct fashion, with considerable stress on the fact that cities are victory points-in-waiting, which should be tended to like a sickly relative. The second half of the explanation is usually spent going over the very interesting geographic foibles of the board itself and how the game in general will progress. As I mentioned, I've played this game a whole bunch of times, in fact, probably too many times.
The first thing to notice about the board is the canyon in the middle of the board, which runs from the NE to the SW. It makes the eight city and the four city just NE of it the main corridor for expansion. This division between the southern board and the northern board factors into nearly all of the strategies, which are commonly employed. There are approximately five different basic starting positions, which are often dictated by which large city you're dealt and which city is still available when selecting towns at the beginning of the game.
There's the eight, which isn't awful, but does have a tendency to get poached rather quickly because it's a good source of income and it's got great mid-game connections. Often times you'll see the eight-player start the game in the five city straight south of the eight, with the intent of getting into the eight when it's fiscally possible. The eight will rarely score the full eight points, but that area of the board is well stocked with good board-wide connections.
The seven just NW of the eight is perhaps my favorite starting position. You start off in the town which joins the four, seven and two, and immediately move into the four the first turn. Then at your convenience you can expand into the eight (when it's played), your income-laden seven and eventually the five cities in the NW corner of the board. This strategy has many advantages primary of which is extremely defensible position because it's expensive for someone to come into your area to mess with you ("Who's gonna take one for the team and beat Derk down?" "Not me..."). The problem with this approach is partly because historically it has done so well (ergo, eligible for smacking) and the fact that your best cities are all in a few countries, which can surprise you at the end of the game.
The other seven, in the NE part of the board, is the other main contender for the best position on the board. There's a town that connects that seven and the highway-bound four just south of it, and it's a great starting gambit. Expand into the four, which gives you access to the eight when it become available, then take the seven for income and nice victory points. The next couple moves are crucial, because this strategy is a little prone to 'bottling up' in the northeast part of the board. This is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the game: should I expand into new regions for the regional points, or should I get into a new city, which I might be able to get victory points for. This particular strategy should make the attempt to get into the piecemeal countries of the southeast part of the board, hopefully by traversing through the three's and two's south just south of the four/seven you started in.
Then there are the six cities just south and east of the NE seven. This is a tricky position to be in. The nearby seven players is on the ball, he'll scoop up the connector four in the middle of the NE region. If he doesn't (or you get to go first), then your life is a little easier. Anyway, you deal with the same general issues as the seven players to the north, but with a decidedly weaker starting position. Sometimes in a blue moon you can get some usable money out of the five to the south, but it's often times well traveled too, so it gets closed early.
The southern six positions is one of the most deceiving positions available. The first time I saw the southern six played, he built to the SE and blocked off all the other players from the corner by owning all the connections into the area, and I thought he'd simply rock. But then he came in dead last in the final tally. The simple fact is that the southern six location is doomed to have very little money (relative to others in the game) and also must fight an up hill battle for connections to the whole northern half of the board, as he's on the wrong side of the canyon that I spoke of earlier, and it'll take him a few builds just to get into range of the canyon. The other problem with the southern six is the fact that those regions tend to be dominated by even numbered cities. This is one of those aspects of the game that bothers me a little, from a design standpoint.
Basically speaking, an odd-numbered city is, in nearly every respect, much better than its even-numbered counter part. Given the choice between a two, a three, and a four, I'd chose the three. And between a five through an eight, it's definitely a tie between the seven's and five's. The odd-numbered tiles are easier to score full points on, which actually makes them easier to use for income. If I start a fresh "three" city, I can sit there on those two available slots for the rest of the game, and the only thing that can take those three points away from me is two successive ganks from two separate players in the same turn! Whereas a two city is never safe until you fill it completely, or a four is nearly every time going to be worth two points once someone poaches the city (unless you use the tactic that we've seen lately where the first turn in a four-city is used to add a branch, which effectively makes it a four-valued three-city, but isn't as useful for income).
But generally speaking the six-city holders are relegated to a position of weakness right at the beginning of the game. It's mostly a function of watching the game play out enough times to see that they will more than likely be dealt out of the game, if harsher on in the early goings. This is perhaps my favorite part of the game. The performance of a given starting position is only as powerful as your neighbors allow it to be. Not unlike El Grande, part of the key of the game lies in being able to do well, without obviously being in a commanding position.
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