The latest game in the Alea small box series is Reiner Knizia's Palazzo. In Palazzo, 2-4 players compete against each other in an attempt to construct the most lavish (you guessed it) palazzos. Playing time is a very reasonable 45 minutes.
This is a small-box Alea game (distributed in America by Rio Grande Games) and, as you might expect, the components are very nice. Inside the box you'll find a deck of mini-sized cards which act as currency, about 50 sturdy tiles depicting palazzo floors, one larger (about 4" x 4") central board and four smaller (3" x 4") satellite boards that make up the playing surface, and a wooden pawn that represents the master builder. All of the bits fit in a sturdy plastic box insert with compartments designed just for this game. Also included is a very nice full-color rule booklet with the careful, clear and concise rules that we've come to expect from a Knizia game.
Basically, there's nothing to complain about here. The artwork is very attractive and appropriate to the theme. The pieces are all very sturdy and of the highest quality. The only nit I could pick here is that I would have preferred full-size cards but the mini cards work just fine and they're of good quality.
At the start of the game, the cards are shuffled and each player receives a starting hand of four money cards.
The cards are divided up into three different currency types (red, brown and silver) in denominations ranging from 3 to 7. Whenever you pay for something you must pay using denominations from only one type. Currencies are not allowed to be mixed. There are also a number of 2s in the deck which are currency neutral (or wild) and can be used with any of the other currency types.
The construction tiles are sorted into three stacks by the numbers on their backs (I, II, and III) and shuffled. The five playing boards are placed in the middle of the board with the largest in the middle and the four others evenly arranged around it. Then the master builder token is placed on one of the satellite boards and one tile from the first stack is placed face up on each of the five playing boards.
Each tile depicts a floor from a palazzo. Each tile has a floor number (1 - 5), a material type (sandstone, brick, or marble), and a number of windows and/or doors (1 - 3). Palazzos can have from one to five floors. Each floor's number must be higher than the floor below it (no duplicates allowed). For instance, you could build a four on top of a two but not the other way around. There is no restriction on how many palazzos you can construct. At the end of the game you will earn points based on how many windows are in your palazzos and how many floors they have. Palazzos with only one floor are worth minus points, palazzos with two floors are worth nothing, and palazzos with four or five floors earn bonus points. You also earn bonus points for building palazzos where all floors are made of the same material.
On your turn you have three choices: you can take money, you can reconstruct your palazzos or you can build.
If you choose to take money, then one card for each player in the game, plus one, is taken from the top of the deck and placed face up. You take two of the cards into your hand and each other player takes one.
If you choose to rearrange your palazzos then you get to either insert one floor that's by itself into another palazzo or split one floor out of a palazzo so it's by itself. (Moving a floor from one palazzo to another requires two turns.)
If you choose to build then you take one tile from the lowest stack and put it on the center board, then you take the next tile and put it on one of the satellite boards. Which board it's placed on depends on how many windows it has. If it has one window it goes on the board just in front of the master builder. If it has two floors it goes on the second board and if it has three it goes on the board that's farthest from the master builder. Then you get the option of either buying one or two tiles from the center board, or moving the master builder to the next set of tiles on a satellite board and auctioning those tiles off to the highest bidder. If you choose to auction the tiles then you get to add 3 to whatever you bid, giving you a bidding advantage. The tiles are auctioned and whoever bids the most pays the bank (the discard pile) and takes the tiles. The winner must then either build or discard each of the tiles; he can't save them for later. If you choose to buy tiles from the center then you pay a fixed price (which gets cheaper as more tiles become available) and you don't have to deal with the uncertainty of an auction, but you may only buy up to two tiles at a time.
When players bid, they must place the cards they're bidding with face up on the table in front of them. Once you've placed a bid you are not allowed to take cards back into your hand unless you pass. In other words, there's no making change or changing the color of your bid. (This will be familiar to anyone who has played High Society.)
As the game progresses, players work their way through the three stacks of building tiles. Mixed in with the tiles in the third stack are five "rider tiles" which together form a picture of a horse and rider. When a rider tile comes out it is placed aside. When the fifth rider tile is revealed the game ends immediately and scores are tallied.
When I first played Palazzo I enjoyed it but I was not overly impressed. It struck me as an interesting game but so many of the mechanics seemed similar to mechanics from other games (Alhambara's currencies and tiles and High Society's bidding style immediately come to mind). Now that I've played it a bit more I'm more impressed. Sure, we've seen many of these things before but they're combined to good effect here. There is depth and balance to Palazzo that wasn't originally apparent to me.
For example, one of the more obvious strategies is to take as much money as you can early in the game. Every time you take money you're getting twice as much money as your opponents so this seems like an obvious ploy. But while this certainly isn't a bad idea, it's not as powerful as you might expect. For one thing, whenever you take money, your opponents are getting money too, and while they aren't getting as much as you, they aren't having to give up a turn to do it either. You don't have to do that very many times before they're going to have enough money to buy tiles from the center and that means that they'll get exactly the tiles they want without having to resort to an auction (which they would almost certainly lose since you've got so much more money). Also, this game is shorter than you might think and if you spend too many rounds taking money you may find yourself falling behind. I've been involved in more than one game where the game was won by carefully judging when the game might end and using that to advantage.
The more I play Palazzo, the more I'm impressed with it. It's a solid, well constructed game that strikes a good balance between luck and skill. There are subtleties to the game that aren't immediately apparent. The game plays in a very reasonable amount of time and most importantly: it's a lot of fun. Thumbs up.