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Ivanhoe

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 2-5
Time: 45 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

Ivanhoe is another in the growing list of older Knizia games being re-released, with changes, by GMT games. This time it's a reworking of Attacke, a game I have not played. As the name suggests it concerns itself with chivalry, honour and knightly contests. (Ok, there's not much here concerning chivalry or honour but there is plenty of bashing about.)

Each round is a tournament and will be fought with a specific weapon; lances, swords or even hand to hand. Each particular weapon is represented by cards of a color (purple = lances, red = swords, blue = axes and so on). The type of tournament is determined by the previous tournament winner and only cards of that color may be used. Play is around the table and consists of drawing a card and then either withdrawing from the tournament or playing one or more cards. The rule when playing cards is that the sum of all your played cards must be the highest on display. (The rules aren't 100% clear whether you are allowed to tie for the highest but I believe that this is allowed.) Sometimes it may be that you need to play more than one card to meet this requirement and this is important as it effectively shrinks your hand size. Play continues around the table until all but one player have withdrawn and this sole survivor has won the tournament. The winner of the game is the first player to have won one of each type of tournament.

A couple of wrinkles: Supporters are wild cards that can be played in any tournament. The "Maiden" supporters are very powerful being worth 6 points but you may only ever play one in a tournament and should you ultimately lose then you must return one of your previously won chips. Ouch! There are also plenty of action cards that affect the tournament. For example a "Dodge" card allows you to remove one card from any other player's displayed cards.

So the rules themselves are fairly simple but, with many games, this does not translate into a simple game during play. To be honest I can't say definitively whether this is the case with Ivanhoe. The primary decision one must make is whether to stay in a tournament or withdraw. Usually such decisions are difficult as it's often the case that if you don't win a hotly contested tournament you'll have depleted your resources. (The agonizing dilemma presented to players in Taj Mahal or Condottiere.) Not so here. Since you draw a card and then play a card(s), your hand remains the same unless you decide to play more than one card on your turn. (Since a reduced handsize is a rather serious disadvantage it rarely seems a good idea to play more than one card except at the very end of the game.) Therefore, what often ends up happening is that most players will play the single card that lets them continue the tournament until either they've won or they've exhausted their hand of suitable cards and fail to draw one at the start of their turn.

At first glance the decision to drop out might seem like a clever move, you conserve your cards for a time when your opponents are weak in that color and then quickly pick up a tournament win. This is possible but the tactic is not as effective or easy to employ as it would first appear. First off, you'll have to hope that someone else calls a tournament of that color. As mentioned, the winner of a tournament calls the next color and you can rest assured that if Bob has just won a red tournament he won't be calling red anytime soon. (The only way around this is via the three special cards that allow you to change the color of a tournament in progress. They are, arguably, the most powerful cards in the game.) Also, due to the nature of the card drawing, its entirely possible that by the time a red tournament is called your opponent's hands are once again flush with red.

Now you might also think that there would be less opposition if you carefully choose to fight tournaments in which several of your opponents have already won that particular color. This is partly true as winning will do nothing for them (you can't have more than one chip in any color). This doesn't mean that they won't fight you for it though. If they've already won a tournament in a specific color then any cards of that color are worthless to them. By staying and fighting they can "swap" those cards for ones from the deck in colors they do need. To the games credit this last tactic does work to a degree. Your opponents in such situations will be unlikely to play the "wild" spectator cards (better to save them for a tournament they want to win) and this is often enough to tip the scales in your favor. What ends up happening then is that the game tends to self balance. Often one player, through a lucky draw, may end up winning several tournaments and seem to be on the verge of a quick victory but, slowly and surely, the other players caught up.

Which brings up the the part of the game that I do find rather challenging; that being the final few tournaments when several players are going for the ultimate victory. The problem is that you need to win a tournament to call the next color. If everyone sees that you need only a yellow to win the game they'll be much less likely to call a yellow tournament. Sometimes it'll happen by luck (a player calls a tournament in the one color you need and your hand is strong in that color) but often you need to carefully consider how you'll manage to pull it off. I'm not convinced that there's a lot of scope for especially clever play but the game does take on a certain heaviness that is decidedly absent up to this point. This heaviness may be illusory but that's not necessarily a negative. If one enjoys the process then that would seem to be the most important thing. So how did I enjoy it? Well, I think the game is one that I would happily play if suggested but not one that I'd be asking for too often.The game belongs to that class of "draw a card, play a card" games and while it is perhaps a superior entry in that field this is a case of the bar being set rather low.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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