Tower-building games typically have great appeal, since almost everyone enjoys building and shaping vertical structures. Two types of games dominate the genre. In games of dexterity and balance (Bausack, Jenga), you gain or lose points based on the stability and balance of your structure. There are two types of strategic games: those in which you stack pieces to gain territorial or movement advantages (Focus, Laska), and those in which you build towers and move your pieces into strategic positions on the towers as you construct them. Focus and Laska are elaborate checkers variants (I will discuss them in a future review). The simultaneous act of building towers and achieving territorial advantage, as in Torres, has much to offer both esthetically and strategically and has been relatively unexplored as an abstract game motif.
Torres (Towers), a Kramer and Kiesling design, has swept through the gaming community, landing Game of the Year honors from Games magazine, receiving an outstanding review from Greg Schloesser in Counter magazine, and sitting securely in the top five sales list of Funagain games for several months. Are its accolades and popularity warranted? Torres succeeds not only as an interesting tower-building game, but is also one of the few interesting multi-player abstracts.
The action develops on an eight-by-eight board spotted with special squares for the initial placement of castle building blocks. On your turn you have five action points which are valued and then delegated accordingly—you can add a knight to the board (2 points), move a knight (1), place a tower block (1), acquire action cards (1), play an action card (0), or advance on the scoring track (1). Of course, you are always agonizing over the best way to allocate your action points, as there are many things you would like to do. Actions can be done in any order, limited only by the resources available. For example, you can't play more building blocks than you have in your supply. Specific rules govern where new knights can enter the board and how they move. Action cards add movement powers.
There are three phases, each consisting of three or four rounds, with scoring after each phase. You score points by assessing the position of your knights on the castles, multiplying a knight's vertical position by the spatial dimensions of the structure. A knight on the third floor of a castle that takes up seven spaces on the grid earns 21 points (3x7). A knight in the same castle as the king scores a substantial bonus. What's particularly interesting about Torres is that all the players construct all the castles—no one owns them. This means that opposing knights can share castles while they tactically maneuver to find the best possible positions. This adds a neat cooperative dynamic to what is otherwise an extremely competitive game.
The most compelling and, I think, brilliantly achieved quality of Torres is the dynamic balance that emerges with every move and decision.
Every action point has multiple uses. This leads to a range of strategic choices. Is it better to build one or two large structures and position yourself at the highest level while aiming to exclude your opponents? Or should you try to have many knights on the board, scoring fewer points on more castles? How important is it to secure a place in the king's castle and gain the bonus points? Should you build up a stock of action cards early to get more movement flexibility in later rounds? Or go all out to establish a strategic position at the earliest stages? These strategic dilemmas are supported with some subtle and clever tactical dynamics. The forms of movement are sufficiently diverse that with clever planning, building, and use of action cards, you can zip around the board and leap to surprising heights. You always feel as if you have a chance to win.
It's a pleasure to observe the various castles rise during the course of the game. Sometimes several players will build a castle, each hoping to score for its grandeur, only to realize midway through the game that they gain very little advantage by sharing. Yet they may be unwilling to abandon what they feel is rightfully theirs. Hence the castle stagnates in its growth. At other times, a castle bursts into full glory relatively late in the game as a player realizes its untapped potential. The game board is always growing vertically. Its amazing how much action there is on an 8x8 board when you explore the third dimension and experience the mobility of moving from bottom to top. This contributes to compelling and diverse game play. The blend of strategic interest and aesthetic appeal insures a high-quality gaming experience.
There are several advanced versions. Action cards represent four suits of 10 different types of movement allowances. In the basic game they are mixed together in one deck. In the advanced game each player has an identical hand of 10 cards. Now, instead of paying for the use of action cards, you determine which to use at different points. This adds complexity and a strategic dimension, and makes the game more interesting, more difficult, and longer. I prefer the basic version because I feel that a hand of cards provides too many variables to consider. Yet this advanced version is very well thought out, and adds to the robustness and versatility of the gaming system.
A second advanced version adds "master scoring cards," one of which is drawn at the start of play. These cards offer all players additional scoring objectives. For example, you score copious points if at the end of the game all your knights are aligned contiguously. This is an excellent idea, but, with all due respects to the fine designers, I think it is misapplied here. It adds too much to an already rich game, and makes it somewhat "noisy." Perhaps these scoring possibilities are the seeds of another game to be built on the success of this one. Indeed, Torres is a sequel to Terra Turrium, a much earlier Kramer design that also explores the tower-building genre. Although I think Torres is Terra Turrium perfected, I wouldn't rule out yet another iteration based on these advanced scoring cards.
Despite my enthusiasm for this excellent game, I find the two-player version somewhat dull. I am not sure why, but it may be because it's too easy to score and because there isn't enough contact between players. But as a multi-player abstract this really shines. A good thing, too, because there are very few viable multi-player abstract games. Reiner Knizia's Tigris and Euphrates, Samurai, and Durch die Wüste, the "tile-laying trilogy," are all excellent multi-player abstracts with thinly veneered themes. Torres joins this esteemed crew.
A potential problem with any multi-player abstract game is that players take too long to deliberate. In a good two-player game this is less of an issue because you can ponder your opponent's choices and prepare to respond accordingly. But with multi-player abstracts, by the time your turn comes around the game has changed so much that preparation is virtually useless, so there's not much to do while you wait for the other players to move. This is especially true in Torres, where there is a lot to think about each move, but where the board can change dramatically between the first and fourth players in a round.
I strongly recommend that players of multi-player abstracts rely as much on intuition as analysis and that players take their turns relatively quickly. Torres places a high premium on decision-making and analysis, but your strategy must evolve as circumstances change. Each gaming group will form its own protocol. I recommend that Torres, like the fine Knizia games cited above, should be played in the spirit of detecting changing patterns with relative dispatch. Indeed, that is the very beauty of Torres. The structural pattern moves delicately but profoundly throughout a turn, always challenging your game-playing instincts. With four players the full richness and complexity of the game is most evident.
Torres truly deserves the accolades it has received. I add my voice to the choir. It demonstrates the wonderful potential of the tower-building genre, and does so with remarkable balance, aesthetic appeal, and variety.
- Mitchell Thomashow