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Europa Tour

Designer: Alan Moon & Aaron Weissblum
Publisher: Schmidt Spiele
Players: 2-4
Time: 20 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

It's a modern day Rack-O!

For those not familiar with the classic game, in Rack-O each player has a hand of 10 cards which are numbered from 1 to 60. These cards are placed in a rack and you may not switch them around. Rather you replace any card in your rack with one from the draw pile. The object is to have the cards in your rack arranged in strictly ascending order. (So, you would win a round if your rack contained 2,9,10,15,18,22,23,24,38,52 in that order.)

Whereas Rack-O dealt with numbers, Europa Tour is concerned with geography and adds a number of twists. The tiles now show 40 European countries and you win a round if you can create a complete journey using the countries in your rack. A journey is complete if you are able to move from each country in your rack to the next one. For the most part you move from country to country by land and for this they must be adjacent to each other. The added twist is that you can also travel by boat or plane. There are 10 boat tiles in the deck as well as 10 airplanes (in 5 colours). The map shows a number of sea routes and by placing a boat between two connected countries you are able to move between them. For example, "France, boat, Great Britain" would be part of a completed journey.) Planes work in a similar fashion but you can only move between like coloured countries and must use an airplane of the matching colour.

There are five face up stacks of tiles as well as a face down draw pile. On your turn you may take the top tile from any of these and place it anywhere in your rack. You return the displaced tile to any of the face up stacks. This continues until one player announces that they have a completed route, shows it and wins the game.

Quite simple really but it is strangely compelling. I've played Rack-O a few times and found it rather dry and uninteresting. For the most part it's very easy to see what you need to do to complete your rack and the odds that you will be able to do so. (e.g. If you have ...,12,53,19,... in your rack, you know that there are six cards that you can use to replace the 53.) In Europa Tour it's much harder to see how you can get from one place to the other and this is part of the fun. The abstract nature of arranging numbers in a row fails to capture your imagination but creating a journey on an actual map does. There's a certain satisfaction in creating a connected voyage and I think this is the main reason why people often want to play the game many times in a row.

The production is very nice, the tiles are thick and easy to handle and the plastic trays make it very easy to keep them organized and visible. The board is a basic rendition of Europe and fairly easy to use although I think it may have been better to have replaced it with four smaller, non-mounted copies so that each player could have their own. As it is some people may have difficulties if the board is "upside down" on the table. (Nothing is ever placed on the board though so you can rotate it around if desired.) The tiles are multi-lingual, listing both the German name and the country in its native tongue, a nice touch. (Additionally, the board is double sided, one side listing the German, the other the native version.) It may take some getting used to for people not familiar with these names but I think this is a feature, not a bug. Along the same lines, I think Europa Tour is excellent for teaching simple geography, I've certainly got a better understanding of where countries are after playing the game. There is one problem with the production though and that's that the orange and yellow countries are very similar in colour. This isn't too big a problem with the tiles or map but it's a serious one with the airplane tiles. These are difficult to distinguish from each other even in good light and so during the game (when you are unlikely to have them side by side) it's much too easy to confuse one colour for the other.

The rules are multi-lingual (English included) and pretty clear although they do mention the possibility of a tie which could only happen during the (somewhat) random start phase of the game. In all the games I've played no one has ever lucked into a complete route during the initial draw so it seems exceedingly unlikely that two people would ever manage it.

In play, Europa Tour tends to be a rather quiet affair and I find this to be its greatest failing. There's nothing for you to do during another players' turn beyond pondering the board and so the pace at which they play will go a long way to determining how much you enjoy the game. When it's fast and your turn comes around often, it will be a quite enjoyable experience but if even one player spends too long making a decision, it can be excruciating. This also affects how well the game plays with different numbers of players. Europa Tour can handle up to four but I think it's better with two or three as this limits the potential downtime.

I don't think there's a whole lot of strategy to the game and there's most definitely an element of luck in the draw of the cards but there are some tricks that you can work to your advantage. Working from the center of your rack outward gives you a greater number of options than if you work from one side to the other. You'll also want to make sure not to leave yourself with a dead end - some countries, such as Albania, have only three ways in or out and you don't want to be in a situation where you're waiting for one specific tile in order to make any progress. It's also quite likely that you'll have a tile you want already in your rack, but in the wrong place. Very frustrating but you can always discard it and hope that it is not covered by the time your turn comes around again so that you can pick it up and place it where you really want it. (This tactic works better in games with fewer players.) While there is little in the way of direct interaction you do want to be careful about what your opponents are doing. If you see your right hand opponent picking up the Balkan countries you may not want to head in that direction (since he'll choose any such discarded countries before you get a chance at them). On the other hand if your left hand opponent is in that region, you probably won't want to discard such tiles. (Although ultimately, you can't concern yourself too much about messing up an opponent. If that France tile in your rack isn't helping you, you'll have to get rid of it sooner or later even if you know someone else will quickly scoop it up.)

Other than the potential for downtime there was only one problem I ran into while playing Europa Tour and that was with the boats. When discarding, people would often cover up country tiles with boats (which makes sense as it presents fewer options to your opponents). Eventually, most of the face up stacks had boats on top and this really limited your choices. I didn't like this and so we played with the variant that if you discarded a boat and there was already another one on top of a stack, you had to place it on that stack. This kept more options available and led to a more enjoyable game. If you find that you're having the same problem (and most people I talked to did mention this), then I highly recommend this variant.

In summary I found Europa Tour to be a very enjoyable pastime. There's much luck in the final outcome but the experience of playing was pleasant (as long as the pace was kept brisk) and very often we would play several games in a row. Obviously this says much about my opinion of the game.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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