Every so often a game is released that is simply something special. These are games that linger long after the scoring has been completed; after the box has been shelved. When such a game is encountered it inevitably begins to consume those few moments in your day when the world melts away and you can relax again; it demands attention. As you review past plays or contemplate and construct new strategies the insatiable urge to play again grows, gaining a significant foothold; no other game is an acceptable substitution, it must be this game. You know that your next gaming session and possibly every one for the rest of your life will require at least one play at this game. Eventually the addiction will subside and you will wander through a variety of other games until one day it begins again. As Michael Corleone once said: "Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in". This is a common occurrence in any art form. It may appear more pronounced with games as, to be appreciated, one must participate in the art. Is this very different from a particular piece of music that moves you, rattles around inside for a period and then fades and is lost among so many others that were once very special? With this in mind I am obliged to introduce you to a new game from Leo Colovini: The Bridges of Shangri-La.
The Mysterious Mr. Colovini
Assuming that anyone reading this has a more than passing interest in games, it is inevitable that you have acquired some knowledge of various game designers, their works, previous professions, pet peeves, non-gaming interests and with the web, shoe size, credit card number and so on. Occasionally, convention conversations revolve around discovering something new about a particular designer. Yet when Leo Colovini is mentioned, next to nothing is known about him. Surprisingly, among the designers listed in the BoardGameGeek Wiki there is no mention of Colovini. (Of course this will be rectified immediately and I will receive email every three days linking me to the addition as if it had been there from the inception of the Geek.) The dearth of information is unusual considering his design output; 20 games are listed on the BoardGameGeek. Two of his games, Carolus Magnus and Clans, were potential Spiel des Jahres winners. My contribution to any information on the designer is limited to three items: he is one of the founders of Venice Connection, one of his partners is Alex Randolph of Twixt and Ricochet Robot fame and he is eleven years my younger.
Each prolific designer develops his own style that permeates most of his published games and it is through their designs that we get to know them. Generally Faidutti offerings tend to be light and chaotic, Knizia's are more mechanical, Kramer's are deep and ponderous, Schacht's are short with minimal components, Teuber's are comfortable with a certain warmth, Moon's games are probably the most difficult to recognize as they span the spectrum from wargames to dexterity games; but what of Colovini? Colovini games tend toward the classic abstracts.
I once had a Jesuit English professor who emphasized that a paragraph should never begin with a negative idea; sorry padre. Themes in Colovini games are genuinely superfluous; they are about as strong as the plastic wrapper on the game box and last about the same length of time. Carolus Magnus, for example, is supposed to deal with the redistribution of land in the post Charlemagne era. When explaining the rules and concepts to a new player, it is significantly easier to refer to the island territories as business firms, the wooden blocks as shares of stock and the player boards as their stock holdings. Merging territories then becomes firm acquisitions with the occasional hostile take over. Carolus Magnus has been favorably compared to El Grande and is considered by many to be Colovini's strongest game. (Personal note: Carolus Magnus and Moon/Weissblum's San Marco are the best three player games available.)
Meridian is an often-overlooked gem with a barely coherent theme. Queen Wu Wei is allowing trading posts to be established in her collection of islands according to certain strange parameters involving the height of their outposts. (I did not make that up.) Again it is easier to explain that units are placed vertically but score horizontally.
His latest effort, The Bridges of Shangri-La (from Uberplay) continues the tradition. The storyline suggests masters training students who then move on to other villages. As they pass over the bridges connecting the villages, the bridges are destroyed. Though not as appealing, it is simpler to explain this as a virus multiplying, spreading and infesting a new organ while severing the connection between organs by their very movement.
Themes aside, Colovini's games involve minimal, if any randomness and are extremely well balanced. In a typical game each turn tends to be tense and competitive with slim room for error. Units in his games are usually generic, differentiated only by color. Clans, though simple, is a typical Colovini design. Puzzles within puzzles, the solution of which becomes an element, a piece in the next larger puzzle. Though they are marketed as Eurogames, they seem to have more in common with typical abstract games. There are many people that cringe at the thought of playing an abstract game, even boasting that they never play abstract games as if the abstracts were diseased or unworthy in some way. If this applies to you, get over it; abstracts are simply another style of game in the same vein that abstract art is simply another form of art. Mexica is abstract, Clans is abstract; Kingdoms, Torres and Twixt are abstract; there is a plethora of abstract games. The first abstract I encountered (other than Chess and Checkers) was a game called Phalanx by Whitman Publishing. I was young and ever-so-impressed with the thought of moving Greek legions about the board when in fact it was simply moving geometric shapes. The game could be re-issued today without problems. That is one benefit to abstracts; they are timeless.
Bridges of Shangri-La is not a typical abstract game. Too often abstracts are burdened with a tic-tac-toe type fault where the game can either be won or locked up. Too often abstracts can be reduced to a few key moves. Bridges of Shangri-La is better than the average abstract; it is one of the best. The silly theme aside, the game is deep. Deep as in Taj Mahal or Euphrat and Tigris deep. Deep as in Puerto Rico deep. This game would fare well in a comparison with any of the Alea "gamer's games". It is a serious game; a quiet, dry game with a subtle, confrontational feel and it oozes tension. It is a masterpiece.
To explain the mechanics in detail would be as beneficial as explaining Chess in one paragraph. This is a pure strategy game with minimal rules intrusion. The game is similar in many aspects to Go. Piece placement within the given parameters can be anywhere on the board. There is blocking, potential threats, sacrifice moves and a definite requirement that you plan turns in advance. Though not possessing the depth of Chess or Go it rests high in that family of games. As with any game of this type it is necessary to play with opponents of equivalent abilities and familiarity with the game; experience is an asset.
If it is decisions you relish then Shangri-La provides a cornucopia; do you place a piece, double two pieces, move pieces and burst the bridge? (It is fortunate that Uberplay and not Hasbro publishes this game—is there any doubt that with a Hasbro logo the bridges would have been spring loaded and popped off of the board?) All of the decisions about placement and movement are compounded by the size of the playing field (91 spaces comprising 13 areas). Imagine El Grande with 13 areas and seven territories in each area; achieving dominance would be quite difficult. Two factors that increase the complexity of the strategy requirements are:
Each player's units are segregated into seven distinct groups and the spaces on the board are specifically labeled (unlike Go). Note: the symbol for the priest appears to be a fishing reel—I don't know if I misunderstand the symbol or if this is a commentary on the weekday workload of the clergy.
- A player is able to move the doubled units to an adjacent area. When this is done all of the doubled units in the first area move to the second area including those of all opponents. Only the top half (the student) of each doubled piece is moved. This is the only method for moving units in the game; every other piece must be placed as in Go.
Several people have commented that Through the Desert is similar to Go. Though there is a familiarity it is too constrained, too limited to be much like Go. Bridges of Shangri-La combines elements of Go with the unit generation found in Avalon Hill‘s Titan resulting in a near perfect gaming experience. The more one plays, the more you realize how deep the game is (and in my particular case, how inept I can be at a game). After several plays certain patterns develop just as in Go. Repeated plays increase a player's proficiency at the game. This is a game you win the hard way: you earn it. I could foresee a ranking system similar to Chess or Go for the people that become passionate about the game.
I have probably frightened away a few potential players with the discussion on the depth of the game and I recognize that the mere mention of Chess or Go can cause eyes to glaze over. If so, it is unfortunate as Bridges of Shangri-La is a tremendous game that should be experienced by as many players as possible. It is certainly more accessible than Go, Chess or even many of the Euros and anyone with even a passing interest in Go should try it. It approaches the feel of Go more than any other Euro I have ever played. Others who have played it have compared it to Avalon Hill's Titan in some respects or a simple wargame where the "masters" are generals and the "students" are armies; move the armies and they become the new generals. Something nice about abstracts is that everyone can interpret the game in their own way. Players of equivalent abilities will offer a good match. It is a game of pure competition and it is Colovini's finest.
The box for Bridges of Shangri-La states that the game is for 3 or 4 players. Following a recent gaming session, there were only two of us remaining and we decided to attempt Shangri-La with only two. Very simply, one player controlled the blue and red tiles with the other player controlling the yellow and purple. Turns alternated: blue, yellow, red, and purple with all other rules remaining intact. Total score wins. (Obviously this is not brain surgery.) We both agreed that this was one of the best gaming experiences we had all year.
Serious Scrabble players will only play one-on-one as they contend that any other combination diminishes the game. With Shangri-La the three or four player game is very good but the two-player game is excellent.
The game is marketed by Uberplay (New England, High Society) and the production values are favorably comparable to Kosmos and Rio Grande. The cardboard is sturdy, the bridges are wooden bits and there are glass marking stones. One extra stone is included in case of loss; a nice touch. The map/board is very well done. The 13 villages sit atop various hills and each village is of a different design though the playing areas are identical. The area between villages is presented in dark colors which contrast perfectly with the light colored pathways and the actual playing area within each village. Only one question remains, will there be a Franklin Mint edition?
- Dave Shapiro