There are two schools of thought on the subject of board games. One, primarily American, favors strong themes and simulation, often of war, without much concern for playability. The other, dominated by the Germans, favors instead elegant and sophisticated systems of rules at the expense of the theme, which is often quite arbitrary, if not an outright afterthought.
From time to time, a game comes along that tries to combine the best of both worlds, successfully integrating a strong theme with simple rules. Targui, Zargos, Armada, The Valley of Mammoths, and Serenissima have all attempted this synthesis, each in its own way. Now it's time to add Vinci to the list.
Both Vinci's theme—the progression of civilizations in Europe—and the back-of-the-box blurb immediately call to mind Civilization, History of the World, and Britannia. But a game of Vinci takes just two hours, and the rules, while involving plenty of strategy, are hardly more complex than those of Risk.
In Vinci, the action progresses like that of a drop of water: the drop falls, spreads... then shrinks and finally evaporates.
Each player controls a civilization represented by a dozen men that start the game at the edge of the map. In order to occupy a space on the board, a player must defeat its former occupants. The principle is simple: conquest of a territory requires two men, plus one more if it's a forest or mountains, plus another man for defense, less one if the aggressor is coming from the mountains. There's no tossing of dice: if the attacker has the necessary strength, his attack is successful; the defender loses one man and moves the rest of the men that were on that square to other territories in his empire.
At the end of his turn, the attacker scores victory points for each territory he's occupied and then redistributes his men as he wishes, in whatever way he thinks will enable him to best defend himself until his next turn. At the beginning of his next turn, he leaves one man on each of his territories and uses the others, if possible, to extend his empire and score more victory points, which at the same time leaves him more vulnerable to the other players' attacks.
The Decline of Civilizations
If you've been paying close attention, you've guessed the first cleverly conceived aspect of this game: there are no reinforcements, and a civilization is thus condemned to becoming weaker, since lost men are never replaced. The drop of water spreads, and then either infiltrates or disappears.
At the beginning of his turn, a player may decide—in the classic choice between love and duty—to declare his empire in decline, in order to choose characteristics for a new civilization; on his next turn, he uses these to begin building a new empire. The empire in decline, left to its sorry fate, continues nevertheless to score victory points as long as its provinces haven't been conquered by up-and-coming civilizations.
The second interesting aspect of this game concerns the actual civilizations. Each empire is different, thanks to the two civilization cards that give it its own distinctive advantages. If you have agriculture, your plains provinces will bring you supplementary points; if you have weapons or a strong general, you'll be more powerful when you attack. But you can also benefit from medicine, astronomy, diplomacy, etc. As for barbarians, their strength is in their numbers.
Two clever techniques allow for some evening out of the civilizations. The number of men a budding civilization starts out with depends on its characteristics. The more desirable the characteristics, the fewer the men. Since civilization cards are drawn and chosen in pairs, certain combinations (Spy and Revolution, Barbarians and Currency, for instance) seem formidable. But the way the cards are chosen tends in itself to make game play fairer. Basically, you have to give up victory points if you want a particularly desirable civilization, whereas you receive points if you choose a pair of characteristics that's already been refused by a number of players.
As for the rules, they're simple and clear, with a lightness that's missing from most games with this theme (Civilization, History of the World). The infinite number of possible combinations of civilization cards, plus the ability to vary the length of the game by changing the number of points necessary to win, plus the importance of strategy, combine to make Vinci an excellent game for armchair strategists and casual players alike.
If there are any shortcomings, they're the ugliness of the box, the total lack of humor and historical accuracy, and some vagueness in the English rules. In addition, it's somewhat puzzling that a game about European civilizations totally ignores everything south of the Mediterranean—in Vinci, both progress and civilization generally come from the east.
One final word. Vinci is the first effort by a young Belgian named Philippe Keyaerts. I've had the opportunity to play-test his new creation, a game about mutant dinosaurs, and I can assure you that we haven't heard the last of this game creator.
- Bruno Faidutti
(Translated from the French by Sandy Fein.)