Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Review: Anno 1503

Anno 1503 is the new release from Klaus Teuber, the genius who begat Settlers of Catan. It's based upon a German computer game that is supposedly very popular in Germany. I have never played the computer game and in fact, I had never heard of it before Anno 1503 was announced so I can't say anything about how well the computer game was translated into a board game. But what I can do is tell you what I think of Anno 1503, the board game.

Anno 1503 is an exploration and expansion game. Players build ships and send them off in search of treasure and trade routes. They also collect resources and use them to build new settlements and upgrade existing ones.

The rules are relatively simple and well written. They consist of four full color pages that are packed with illustrations and examples. The game is easy to learn and there are few (if any) areas that could be considered confusing or difficult.

The components are top notch. The board is beautifully illustrated. The ships are attractive wooden ship-shaped markers. The tiles are on sturdy cardstock. Colors are well chosen, bright and easily distinguished from one another. Cards are sturdy, colorful and coated. There is only one thing that I can criticize about the production: the icons used throughout the game are very small and that sometimes makes it a bit difficult to tell what is what. This is particularly annoying on some of the buildings where the only clear way to tell which building does what is from the tiny icons printed beside them. Each building has a different illustration but in keeping with the theme, all of the buildings are made of bamboo and that means that at a casual glance they all look alike.

So how does it play? Well… it plays like a Klaus Teuber game. The first thing you do on your turn is roll a die for resource production, a-la Settlers of Cantan the Card Game. Everyone has their own unique resource production table which ensures that nobody is getting the same resources. Unlike other Klaus Teuber games, there is no trading between players. This is unfortunate because it eliminates most of the player interaction. In fact, there is almost no player interaction at all in this game. It feels very much like you are all playing solitaire and just racing to see who can complete the victory conditions first. For people that don't like cutthroat, competitive gaming, that could be seen as a plus but for me, it was a minus. I definitely prefer games where one player's actions have a direct effect on the other players. I will say that my kids will probably appreciate this more than I because they have a very difficult time with games that allow one player to sabotage another. There's definitely no way to do that here.

With your resources, you can either build or sell. Early in the game you will be building because the gold reward for selling is so small that it makes it very unattractive. But later in the game, selling becomes more attractive as you can get a better return. Getting a hoard of gold is one of the game's victory conditions. Gold can be used to buy resources and it also serves as an insurance against some of the disasters that randomly arise during the game (specifically fire and pirate attacks). Early in the game, buying resource cards is prohibitively expensive but later on, after you've explored a bit, it can become more effective.

To win the game you have to achieve three of the game's five victory conditions. One requires getting 30 gold, one requires building as many buildings as you can, one requires upgrading your buildings as much as you can, and two require exploring as many islands as you can. Each path has its pros and cons. Some are easier to achieve than others but one good thing about the game is that you should be able to do fine no matter which of the victory paths you choose to pursue. The game feels relatively balanced and there is enough happening to keep things interesting.

In summary, Anno 1503 is a fine game that is well produced and has an interesting theme. In many ways it feels like a simplified combination of elements from other Klaus Teuber games, which isn't a bad thing. It plays in a relatively short amount of time and it's good fun. It does tend to feel a bit too much like solitaire, there is so little player interaction. Some might consider that a good thing (particularly families with kids); personally, I would have preferred there to be more player interaction. I would be happy to play this game again if asked but I wouldn't consider this to be among heir Teuber's best games. I'll rate it a 7 out of 10.


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