The first thing that most people notice about a game is its theme and this often determines our initial interest. Whether it's exploring space or recreating a tug o' war or building ancient temples, an enticing theme can greatly add to one's enjoyment. Of course, there's an incentive to come up with something unique, after all, does anyone get excited by yet another art auction? In this regard, New England fails miserably. Peacefully subdividing farmland? Raising barns and hiring pilgrims? Hardly stuff that gets one's heart racing. Fortunately, the game itself is much better so even if the theme holds no interest, I encourage you to read on...
I found New England to be somewhat confusing at first; there seems to be a lot going on but it's much simpler than it appears. Each player owns three plots of land (one each of three colours) and starts the game with a special double-sized tile in each. Throughout the game, players will add tiles to these plots and then use them in one of two ways—they can either be developed in order to gain victory points or they can be used to hold a special figure. (There are three varieties; pilgrims, ships and barns and each has a special function.)
That's the core of the game and so it's pretty straightforward, the complexity increases due to how you accomplish these tasks. Obviously you need tiles to expand your plots but you also require specific cards in order to develop tiles or to place figures. These items are acquired using a somewhat unique method of bidding. On each round there will be nine items available in some combination of tiles and cards. (The exact composition is determined by the current "start player".) Then, each player, in turn order, will select one of the available bidding chips which are numbered from 1 to 10. This bidding chip determines both the order that players buy items (higher numbers choosing first) and how much each item will cost. So, if you want to go first you may decide to select the 7 chip but this means you'll be paying a high price for each item—can you afford to pay that much? Each player is allowed to purchase 0,1 or 2 items and so there is much deliberation about your choice of bidding chip. Should you choose high and go first or choose low and get a bargain? Maybe nobody wants the same items you do and so you can safely choose the 1 chip. On the other hand, you may be left with nothing useful to buy. Plenty of agony in this phase to be sure.
Once you've made your purchases, they must be utilized immediately—for tiles this means placing them on the board. Each player has only one plot in each of three varieties and so you must add purchased tiles to the appropriate plot. There is competition for space on the board but it's not especially cutthroat. There are placements you can make to hinder your opponents but it's usually just an annoyance. One of the reasons you want specific spaces is that the "development cards" show a certain number of tiles in a specific pattern. When purchasing these cards, you must have undeveloped tiles matching that pattern. If you do, you flip the tiles to their developed side and place the card in front of you to record those victory points. The bulk of your score will come from these cards and so it's critical that you place your tiles so that they can be developed on a subsequent turn.
Figures must also be placed on the board as soon as they're purchased and for the most part they can be placed on any unoccupied, undeveloped tile. (Ships must be placed on a tile that's adjacent to the ocean.) You're free to move pilgrims around as you see fit so there's little concern when placing them but the barn must stay put once placed. This can be very important as it means there's no way for you to subsequently develop that tile. So what do these figures do? Well, each one awards you with a single victory point but they also have other, much more useful abilities. Each pilgrim adds to your income. Normally you receive four gold at the end of your turn but this is increased by one for each pilgrim you own. Ships only help the player(s) who have the most during their turn—prior to purchasing they may add either a card or a tile to the items available. This does not sound all that powerful but it can be extremely useful, particularly when purchasing last. The barns are a little more subtle. Normally you must use a development card as soon as you purchase it (and if you cannot do so you are prohibited from buying it). If you have a barn, you may buy such a card and then temporarily store it in order to use it later. This can come in very handy as you can develop more long-term plans. For example, if you have the "red 3-tile" card (see picture above) in your barn, you can bide your time until you acquire the necessary tiles to develop it and gain those 6 VPs. Without a barn, you need to purchase the tiles first and then hope the development card becomes available. Since there's often an ebb and flow to your supply of cash, there's no guarantee that such a card will appear when you're in a position to purchase it. All in all, I'm pleased with how these figures work, each has a unique advantage that works well with the rest of the game. Finally, there are bonus points available at the end of the game for the player who has the most of each type.
There does seem to be something of a learning curve to the game and it's not so easy to pick up the strategies right away. Normally, there's a set-up phase in which players take turns placing their initial double-sized tiles but I highly recommend you play with the stock setup given in the rulebook the first few times—it will be almost impossible to tell a good placement from a poor one without experience. I suspect that your first several games will feature a "seat of the pants" playing style. Good strategy is not obvious but things start to gel after a few playings. It helps to know that a winning score is usually around 32-34 points as you can more easily approximate how many tiles you'll need to develop and how many figures you'll need to place.
For me, the most interesting aspect of New England is the bidding system. There really is much to think about when deciding which bidding chip to choose. This is exacerbated by the turn order—the first player obviously has full freedom of choice but she must also try to determine what the other players are likely to choose. It's heartbreaking to choose the 8 and then watch your opponents pick the 1, 2 and 3. On the other hand, it can be devastating to choose the 4 but still end up purchasing last. I've found that it really pays to prepare for when you're the start player, being able to determine the mix of cards can go a long way to knowing what bidding chip to choose. Money is pretty tight (even for those with multiple pilgrims) so you'll likely have to choose a low bidding chip a few times meaning that you'll get the final choice of items. If you can ensure that you still get something useful, then you're that much better off.
Another feature that I really like about New England is that it forces you work on several levels simultaneously—you need to add tiles at about the same rate that you use them and this can be quite tricky. I believe the game would be quite dull if the auction of tiles and cards had been separate actions—combining them greatly increases the tension and interest. The fact that the start player determines the mix of cards and tiles can really cause headaches. For example, if all your tiles are currently used or developed then you're forced to purchase more, but if the start player only adds three to the bidding (the minimum allowed) then they're likely to command a high price. Further, there are times when certain tiles or cards will be in greater demand than others and if you can manipulate things so that you need the less popular items, you'll be well on your way to victory.
The production is top-notch with high quality components. (Uberplay is a new company but this is a co-production with Goldsieber and is identical to the German version.) I was a little disappointed with the artwork on the tiles and cards though, it has a rather "clipart-ish" look to it. Everything is clear and readable but I've come to expect masterpieces from artist Franz Vohwinkel rather than mere functionality.
My appreciation for New England increased with each playing—having a greater understanding of how everything interlocked really helped. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's brilliant, but it is a very solid game with much to recommend. I'm generally dissatisfied with games that are "merely good" but New England has a couple of unique systems that make it a worthy addition to any gamer's collection.
- Greg Aleknevicus