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[Review] Palatinus

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  • Tom Vasel
    Palatinus (daVinci and Mayfair Games, 2005 - Alessandro Zucchini) is a small area control game using the theme of the seven hills of Rome. It plays quickly and
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 27, 2005
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      Palatinus (daVinci and Mayfair Games, 2005 - Alessandro Zucchini) is
      a small area control game using the theme of the seven hills of Rome.
      It plays quickly and is one of only two games (Light Speed being the
      other one) in which scoring the game actually takes longer than
      playing the game (or sometimes, at least). The founding of Rome is an
      interesting theme to me, and I looked forward to playing this light,
      quick game.

      While Palatinus is certainly quick (compared to other area control
      games), it is by no means light. It's fairly confusing, until one
      plays through it once, and has some difficult choices. It's almost
      more of a puzzle than a game, and there is a certain amount of luck in
      it that can throw of the best laid plans of any player. I would play
      Palatinus again, but only with a small select group of people - those
      who enjoy puzzles with a twist. It's too dry and confusing for most

      Seven territories (seven hexes joined together) are placed in a
      hexagonal formation - with player's taking turn placing them on the
      board. Each territory has one "hill" as its middle hex. Players
      place a "6" counter on the center hill, and then randomly place either
      a "3", "4", or "5" counter on each other hill. Each player takes a
      screen and places behind it all the pieces of their color (the number
      of pieces differentiate depending on the number of players.) Players
      have merchants (with one dot on them), farmers (with two dots), and
      soldiers (with three dots). Many pieces are double-sided, but some
      farmers and merchants have a picture of a wolf on their other side.
      One player is chosen to go first, and then play proceeds in a
      clockwise order around the table.

      On a player's turn, they must place one of their pieces on any empty
      space on the board. If the piece has a wolf on it, they must place it
      with the wolf side up. There are no other restrictions upon
      placement, except that soldiers must not be placed during the last
      three turns. Once all the pieces are placed, the game ends, and
      scoring begins. (quick, huh?)

      Scoring takes place in two phases. First, each hill is checked for
      the effect of the soldiers. All the wolf pieces are flipped over; and
      starting with the first hill (they are marked from "A" to "G"), the
      players look at the adjacent pieces to each soldier (up to five
      maximum). If the soldier is adjacent to the same number of merchant
      pieces as farmer pieces, then the soldier is removed from the board.
      If the soldier is adjacent to a different number of merchants and
      farmers, then the player who is the owner of the soldier removes the
      larger group, placing the tiles in front of themselves. If more than
      one soldier has claim to the same piece and will remove it from the
      board, then one player takes the piece, and the other takes a one
      point token instead.

      Once all soldiers have been dealt with, each hill is checked to see
      who has the most influence there. Players use cubes on their player
      shields (which lays down to form a scoring path) to keep track of
      their influence per hill. Each merchant gives a player influence
      equal to the total number of dots on the pieces adjacent to them (i.e.
      adjacent soldiers give three influence points, etc.) Each farmer
      gives influence for each adjacent field and spring. For each
      unoccupied adjacent space, they give two points, and for each adjacent
      "spring" space (whether unoccupied or not), they give an additional
      two points. Soldiers give no influence points. The player with the
      greatest total influence takes the token on the hill and places it in
      front of them. If there is a tile, each player involved in the tie
      takes a "2" scoring chip instead.

      Players then total their scores. They add together all the scoring
      chips they have accumulated, plus one point for each person their
      soldier captured. The player with the highest score is the winner!

      Some comments on the gameā€¦

      1.) Components: The shields are small, thin, but are functional and
      work well enough for the game. I did like how they helped players
      keep track of how many influence points they got - usually an
      unnecessary step - but the double use was interesting. The territory
      tiles and counters are all of a good mix, and I especially enjoyed the
      counter colors, which are light colored, but yet not "girly" looking.
      One very clever touch - and I almost didn't notice - was how each
      color (red, purple, yellow, green, and blue) has a different border
      around the counter. The red has a black circle, the purple a white
      hexagon, the blue a black hexagon, the green a white circle, and the
      yellow a black octagon. This, and the fact that the pictures are
      different, helps differentiate between the colors. Everything fits
      easily into a small, sturdy white box that is perhaps twice the size

      2.) Rules: The rulebook is only four pages long and does a fairly
      good job, using some examples and color illustrations. I understood
      the basic gameplay in a vague sort of way. What I couldn't tell from
      the rulebook was how the game actually worked in action. Our first
      game was simply one in which we threw counters on the board as fast as
      we could, and then scored. After we had done final scoring, we
      suddenly realized how the game worked. I suspect that most people
      will have the same problem; they'll have to play a game pretty much in
      the dark and not understand what's going on until after it's over.
      If you are looking for a game to teach people easily, Palatinus is not
      the one for you.

      3.) Wolves: Several of the pieces have wolves on their backsides,
      used to disguise what the piece is underneath. But really, that adds
      a level of uncertainty to the game that I'm not sure works with the
      rest of it. Once players understand the game, they take great care to
      place their pieces in the spots that will give them the best
      advantage. But the wolf pieces just add a huge random element to
      that. Why spend a lot of time putting pieces down, when you have no
      idea what the other player puts there? Yes, it's a fifty-fifty
      chance, but it's a bit of a pain and messes up strategies. Every
      player that I've introduced the game to has disliked the randomness.
      We've played without it, and it seems to work okay.

      4.) Brain burner: The game really causes people to think about where
      they put their pieces. The game essentially becomes a mathematical
      equation, and players can spend quite a bit of time trying to figure
      out exactly where is the best position for each person. The soldiers
      and wolves add a lot of chaos to the situation, but the game still can
      become an excellent candidate for "analysis paralysis". Honestly, if
      you don't take a while to put your pieces, you WILL lose to someone
      who does. Putting down pieces randomly will only hurt a player.

      5.) Fun Factor: I know that the wolf pieces are supposed to balance
      the fact that the game automatically lends itself to mathematical
      analysis, but it just doesn't work. Well, the game works, actually,
      but it's just not a lot of fun for me. I don't want to spend a while
      thinking hard about where to place pieces, and then have it all messed
      up by some random placement. When I win the game, I get satisfaction
      out of having better placement than the other players; but if the game
      wasn't fun, I don't get much enjoyment.

      6.) Farmers, Merchants, and Soldiers: Farmers can be MUCH more
      powerful than merchants - especially as it's a good bet many of the
      soldiers (the merchant's best friend) are removed from the board. I
      suppose that the design is supposed to present a bit of a
      "rock-scissors-paper" element, but the different pieces just don't
      balance out. You place a soldier and hope that the pieces surrounding
      it will not be even; you place a merchant and hope that the
      surrounding people aren't killed by soldiers. But you can place a
      farmer (not by a soldier) and be confident that it will score you some
      points, especially if you place it in a spring-laden area.

      I'm certainly not a big fan of the game, although I can see that it
      will have attraction for those who want numerically puzzling games.
      There's a lot of intrigue in how the different pieces affect each
      other - to the point that the game stops becoming a social affair and
      rather one in which player's intently stare at the board. It's very
      difficult to ascertain who wins the game until the end, and the
      results can be quite unsatisfying if you thought you might have a
      lead. Palatinus has some interesting ideas in it, but the whole
      package falls just a tad short of "fun".

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games"
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