Review: Thurn and Taxis
Each year a committee of journalists in Germany selects one game and bestows upon it the lofty title of Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year). This year that honor went to Thurn and Taxis, a game by Andreas and Karen Seyfarth. Andreas Seyfarth is perhaps better known as the man who gave us Puerto Rico, the number one game on Board Game Geek, so clearly we have a designer who knows his craft. Thurn and Taxis is indeed a well crafted game but it is also a very different game. It was designed for a much different audience (families and casual gamers) and consequently it's much simpler and quite a bit shorter. Thurn and Taxis is for two to four players and plays in about an hour.
The first thing that caught my attention when I heard of this game was the name. I must admit that I had never heard of the Thurn and Taxis family so hopefully I can be excused for doing a little bit of head scratching. If I were German I'm sure I'd have immediately recognized the name as belonging to an illustrious family of noblemen known primarily for advancing the European postal service in the 16th century. Luckily for those of us who weren't in the know, Hans im Glük and Rio Grande Games have thought to include a very nice full size, full color information sheet to quickly bring us up to speed on the topic.
In Thurn and Taxis, players race to build postal networks throughout Germany and its neighboring provinces. Whoever builds the largest and fastest network will win the game.
This is certainly not the most riveting theme ever to grace a game board but it isn't truly awful either. While I must admit that I'm not overly excited to play postman I did at least find the theme of passing interest and were it not for this game I might have never known about the Thurn and Taxis family (vital knowledge to be sure).
I've already mentioned the full color information sheet. In addition to that you'll also find a very nice full color rulebook which does a very good job of explaining the simple rules. The box also contains an extremely attractive game board, eighty wooden houses (twenty in each of four player colors), a deck of over sixty half size cards, several sturdy cardboard counters, and four very nice rules summary cards.
The components are very attractive, sturdy, and everything we have come to expect from a Hans im Glük game. If there is any fault to be found here it's that they used half size cards instead of full size cards. A minor fault indeed.
At last we come to the important part. Thurn and Taxis is a simple game and its rules can be very easily summarized. A basic turn consists of three actions which must be performed in sequence: take a card, play a card, and then if you choose, score your cards. In addition to these three actions, players may choose to take one (and only one) of four possible bonus actions (or action enhancements) on their turn.
There are twenty two cities on the board. Cities are linked by a network of roads and they are also grouped into colored areas (or provinces). Players use the cards to create routes that link cities. Each card represents a city and each city card in a route must be directly linked by road to the one played next to it. Also, no city may appear in the same route more than once.
At the start of your turn you draw a city card and add it to your hand. Cards are selected from a set of six face up cards. If you don't like any of those cards then you may choose the top card from the face down supply instead.
Next you MUST play one of the cards in your hand and you MUST play it to one of the two ends of the route you already have in play unless you have no cards in play in which case you start a new route by playing one of your cards face up in front of you. New cards must be played to either the front or the end of your current route, never the middle. Once cards are played, they may not be rearranged. If none of your cards in your hand can be legally added to your current route then you must discard all of the cards in your route and start over using one of the cards from your hand. This gives Thurn and Taxis a little bit of a press-your-luck feel. As you play you will find yourself constantly trying to make sure you always have one card in your hand that you can legally play, even if it's not really the one you want, just to be safe and avoid the disaster of having all of your progress erased.
Finally, if your route is three cards long or longer, you may chose to score it by placing houses in the cities along your route. You may either place houses in every city you've visited in a single province, or you may place one house in a city you have visited in each of the provinces your route passed through. At the end of the game, unplayed houses cost you one point each so there is a big incentive to play as many houses to the board as you can.
If by playing houses you have satisfied one or more of the many bonus scoring conditions, such as playing houses in all of the cities in an area, then you get to collect the bonus chip for each of those conditions. Bonus chips are worth a decreasing amount of points each time they are collected. So it's better to be the first player to collect a bonus chip for a given category because whoever is second, third or fourth will receive incrementally fewer points.
Bonus chips are award for having at least one house in each of the board's several provinces*, for having houses in all of the cities of a province or pair of provinces, for completing routes of a given length, and for being the first player to reach one of the game's ending conditions.
*more precisely, each of the provinces but one which basically amounts to the same thing
Players also try to "upgrade their carriages" by completing ever longer routes. The first carriage requires a four card route, the next requires five cards, the next requires six and the last requires seven cards. Each carriage is worth an increasing amount of points so upgrading your carriages improves your score.
Earlier I mentioned that there are four bonus actions (or action enhancements) and that you can choose to execute any one of them during your turn. These four actions are: (1) draw two cards instead of one, (2) play two cards instead of one, (3) discard and replace all six face up cards before drawing your card, or (4) upgrade to the next carriage level with a route that's up to two cards short of the listed requirement. A large part of the strategy in the game hinges upon which of these enhancements you choose on each of your turns.
The game continues until one player has either placed all of their houses or upgraded to the final carriage. All players get the same number of turns so if the first player satisfies one of the end conditions then all other players get one final turn but if the last player satisfies one of the end conditions then the game ends immediately. At that point you add up the values of your carriage plus all of your bonus chips and subtract one point for each unplayed house to calculate your score.
Thurn and Taxis is a very nice light to medium weight strategy game. It's aimed squarely at families and casual gamers and I think it hits its mark. Clearly the Spiel des Jahres committee agrees with me there. They tend to select games that are attractive and simple to play, which play in about an hour and offer a relatively high number of strategic options. They also tend to favor games that offer relatively little direct confrontation between players. Thurn and Taxis is exactly the type of game they look for.
I have played Thurn and Taxis with two, three, and four players and I can say that it works well across the range. This is to be expected for a game that has so little player interaction. That isn't to say that there is no player interaction at all. A good player will pay attention to what his opponents might be looking for and take advantage of opportunities to deprive them of key cards. It's also very important to build your routes as efficiently as possible and in such a way as to always leave yourself as many good choices as possible.
If you're looking for another deep gamer's game like Puerto Rico then this isn't the game for you but if you're looking for a very enjoyable lighter game that offers enough strategic potential to keep it interesting over repeated plays then look no further. It's been a huge hit with both my family and my gaming group. I'm quite happy to play this game any time.