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Vabanque / Manila

Designer: Bruno Faidutti/Leo Colovini
Publisher: Winning Moves
Players: 3-6
Time: 30 minutes
Reviewer: Dave Shapiro

Designer: Franz-Benno Delonge
Publisher: Rio Grande
Players: 3-5
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: Dave Shapiro

From Macao to Manila

Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling and farming. My family chose the slowest route.

Pope John XXIII

Gambling. The very mention of the word conjures up one of two images. The first is a luxury casino with tuxedo clad players sipping martinis (shaken, not stirred) smugly playing and always winning. Or one immediately visualizes a dimly lit, seedy room with a worn felt table attended by rough looking gents, chomping on cigar stubs. In either situation, the proper gamer remains aloof; a voyeur not a participant. A real gamer scoffs at the randomness, the lack of deep strategic possibilities and even the bits. These can only be considered games under the most liberal of definitions—right?

If this were an accurate description, then any real gamer could only puzzle at the popularity of gambling games. Why are Texas Hold'em tournaments televised while real games are completely ignored? Why are local casinos and off-shore web sites packed with players while real gamers often search in vain for a single opponent? Reality check: the fact is more people gamble than play all of the video and board games combined! So why are these games so popular? Why are some gamers compelled to include a gambling aspect to every game they play. (I play in one group that plays every game for money. This includes everything from Cribbage to Trans America and Corsari.) Why is this so popular? What is the draw?

Some have suggested that the simplicity of the games allows those less blessed to participate. Yet this has proved to be a myth as some of the most intelligent of our species were enamored with games of chance. Most people believe that it is the prospect of a monetary reward that is the driving force and though there is considerable merit to the suggestion, I believe it is more than that; a less obvious reason of which monetary gain is simply a portion.

Gambling crosses cultures, ages, educational backgrounds and economic classes—it is the great equalizer. It is universal to the human species. The earliest legitimate competition that most adolescents encounter is a gambling event (I bet I can run faster than you—loser eats a bug, etc.) As the children grow so to do the bets and the games. Early teen years often introduce the "dares" that can, at time, reach extremes. Money or prizes are not involved it is the Ego, the self image that is at stake. Eventually sex enters the equation with games of spin-the-bottle where the loser must kiss the player sitting opposite him/her. (Note: this is a game where careful seating arrangements are required.) With the arrival of the mid to late teen years the bottle is replaced with a deck of cards and "Strip Poker" becomes the game of choice. Again, there is no money involved, it is image. (Winners and losers are obvious; there is no hidden scoring to complain of.)

By any standard, Spin-the-Bottle is barely a game and yet, I believe, it provides the answer as to why gambling games remain so very popular. The essence of these games is that they are personal—it is you that wins or loses. (Similar to the concept suggested by Martin Buber: you versus thou.) It is total personal involvement. This is not some abstract loss in Europe Engulfed or Puerto Rico; this is real. It is your money, your clothing, your ego. Abstract losses are safe; gambling games are not.

It is this possibility for real losses or gains that intensifies even the most rudimentary game; craps, for example. It is one experience to play Puerto Rico for points; it is quite another experience to play for $1.00 per point. Or play Puerto Rico on a national broadcast where one's fragile ego is at stake versus playing in one's kitchen on a Thursday night. In a discussion with a professional Poker player he suggested that in order to comprehend the game, "you must bet 'till it hurts; bet your paycheck, the house or the biggest bet of all…your reputation." (Note: 1. I am not advocating this position; this is presented for discussion purposes only. 2. I am aware that many religions are opposed to gambling in any form. 3. I am aware that in many localities gambling is completely banned. In the city where I live, I can ride my motorcycle without a helmet and not even receive a warning. I can ride on the "wrong" side of the street and pay a fine but if I place a bet; I can go to prison... go figure.)

Gambling games are not for everyone. Very often players are uncomfortable with playing for any real stake, no matter how insignificant. However this can be a great and unique gaming experience and that is why almost every game publisher has tried to duplicate the experience without the potential for "real" loss. Unfortunately, they have failed miserably with the exception of two games.

Vabanque

Smith & Wesson or a Colt always beat four aces.

Saying of the Old American West

Vabanque is one of those games that upon first reading or hearing the rules you cannot help but wonder as to why you hadn't thought of this. Designed by Bruno Faidutti, it is the most unusual game in his design catalog. Vabanque first entered the world as Macao and originally included corrupt police, opium dealers, Chinese gangs, prostitutes and "vamps with long cigarette holders". The game underwent several revisions and at one time was under consideration by Alea (a missed opportunity). Eventually it rested in the lap of Leo Colovini and he, along with Faidutti, revised the game one final time. The game has been stripped of all of the extraneous baggage; the rules are so tight and simple that the game can be explained in a minute or two.

The "board" consists of several small gaming tables (the number depends on the number of players) and the game is played in four, quick rounds. Every turn players spread an ever increasing amount of money around the various tables (ante). There are no special rules governing this action so some tables will offer a treasure while others suffer a drought. Once the money has been allocated, players take turns placing their three cards (face down) and moving their one pawn to one of the tables. When this is done, the cards are revealed and the tables payout. That's it—it is that simple.

The genius of this design is in the three cards. One of the cards increases the value of the table and multiple "Raise" cards played to a table can raise the value to something Bill Gates might notice. Another card steals the value of the table if an opponent's pawn is placed there. The third card is a bluff card. It does nothing but as all cards are initially face down, opponents will never know which card is the raise, which is the steal card and which is the fake.

Vabanque successfully relates the feeling of a Poker match without the "real" losses. Bluffing, reading the other players, taking chances—it's all here and it works seamlessly. The tension builds each round as the money is allocated to the tables. The strategy for playing the game is identical to Poker without the problems associated with being dealt a bad hand. What a wonderful experience this creates. This is Faidutti's best game to date.

Manila

No woman can endure a gambling husband, unless he is a steady winner.

Thomas Dewar

The second game to successfully duplicate the experience of gambling, without actually gambling, is Manila. The game was designed by Franz-Benno Delonge, the author of Big City, Trans America, Hellas, Dos Rios and Goldbrau. With the exception of Trans America, every one of his games is a unique experience and Manila is no exception. As with all of his earlier designs, the game is very accessible to non-gamers or a mixed group and the rules are tight; the presentation is flawless.

The theme of the game suggests smugglers attempting to ship four different good to port with only three ships available. Players place bets on whether the ships will arrive successfully or fail to arrive and the number of ships to arrive or fail. In addition to these choices players may purchase a stake in a particular boat(s), act as pirates attempting to steal the value of the cargo, influence the movement of the ships or even act to insure the shipments.

Manila

Each player receives three pawns and prior to moving the ships, the players may place one pawn (bet). As the ships move three times in their attempt to reach port, there are three rounds of bets placed. (For purists, the boats are entirely superfluous. Bets are actually placed on whether "13" or better can be rolled in three rolls with some modification.) Knizia once suggested that what made Through the Dessert a great game were the numerous opportunities for play versus the limited number of opportunities to choose. This is valid of Manila also. Players will want to place several bets each round but are limited to a single placement.

The game provides the feel, the experience of a Craps or Roulette table. Unlike Vabanque where there is no exposure to the player for placing a card, betting in Manila has a cost. In Manila you are betting money and money translates to victory points. The larger the potential payout, the greater the cost of the wager. There is one additional element that increases the decisions to be considered. The first action of each new turn is to bid on the Harbor Master. Many a bidding battle has ensued over the position of Harbor Master. The Harbor Master provides three advantages:

  1. He selects the type of cargo for the boats and their starting positions.
  2. He is allowed to invest in a share in any one of the four types of cargo.
  3. He is allowed to place his bets first.

All of these different opportunities translate into a gambling game with multiple choices while remaining accessible to even the non-gamer. Delonge has a history of unique, exciting and downright fun games. Manila is no exception. It is terrific fun.

- Dave Shapiro

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