Multi-colored wooden cubes? Check. Mundane theme? Check. Middle-aged, white male on the cover set in a European country? Check and check. Victory points and a reputation track? Double check. Larger wooden cubes with a different amount of black circles on each side? Wait a minute. That sounds like dice! What are all these dice doing in the box?! We’re trying to build a euro game over here, for goodness’ sake!
Euro games are often derided for their dull themes and presentation, put down for being tedious exercises in efficiency. Cube pusher, point salad, multiplayer solitaire. All terms to describe yet another soulless euro game. There’s some truth to it all, but you know what? I love it! I love it all! Farmers and merchants win my favor over wizards and warriors any day of the week. The struggles of a business owner are more relatable to me than the trials of an adventurer. So the stakes of a business facing bankruptcy carry more weight with me than staring down a giant troll. When Grand Austria Hotel offered me the opportunity to run my own high end hotel, I was eager to jump in.
How it Plays
As the proprietor of a prestigious Austrian hotel, it’s your goal to serve your customers from your cafe and prepare their rooms. All the while, you must also contend with keeping the Emperor impressed or face the repercussions. The player with the most victory points at the end of 7 rounds will get to put their name in the Hotel Hall of Fame. Or win the game.
Each player begins the game with some cash, hand handful of potential employee cards, prepared dishes in their kitchen, a patron seated in the cafe and up to 3 prepared rooms on their personal hotel board. At the beginning of every round, the first player rolls all of the dice and sorts them by number on the action board. These dice will dictate the actions available to all players for that round. On your turn, you can you can welcome another patron to your cafe if you have an empty table and then you will select one of the action dice to take the corresponding action.
Dice numbered 1 and 2 lets you take desserts or drinks respectively. Take a 3 die allows you to prepare rooms. A 4 die grants you your choice of either cash or increasing your favor with the emperor. The 5 die allows you to hire an employee from among the employee cards you have in your hand. Finally, the 6 die allows you take any of the previously mentioned actions, but at a cost of 1 Krone (or as we call them, bucks).
The wrinkle that Grand Austria Hotel adds to the mix is that the number of dice that match the die you chose dictates the strength of that action. So if there were three 2’s, for example, that would allow you to take three drinks. If there were two 3’s, you will be able to prepare two rooms and so on.
Whenever you’ve served a customer in your cafe and have prepared a room for them, you can send them up for a good night’s sleep. When you’ve managed to do this, the customer will reward you with victory points and/or a unique reward (think of it as a tip). This will free up a table at your cafe and occupy one of the rooms in your hotel.
From this brief rules overview, you might think that Grand Austria Hotel is fairly simple. And it is. To a point. Where things get more involved is the various ways in which you can score points. No only do many of the guests award you victory points when you serve them their meals, you will also receive victory points at the end of the game for every occupied room you have in your hotel with rooms on the higher floors rewarding more points than the rooms on the lower floors. There are also the politics cards which are public goals available for all players to vie over. The earlier you complete these goals, the more points you will be awarded with. Hiring certain employees will also introduce alternative means to earn victory points. And then there’s the reputation track.
Three times during the game, the emperor will visit your hotel to make sure that you are upholding the good name of Austria. If you have curried enough favor with the Emperor for each visit, he will reward you handsomely. Fail to do so and you will be punished accordingly.
Putting the Soul in the Soulless Euro
I mentioned earlier that I am an unabashed euro game lover, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to their faults and pitfalls. I’ve certainly played my share of euro games that have lacked a certain spark. When I sit down at the table to begin a game, I like to ask myself one question: “Who am I?” It’s a simple question, but an important one. I don’t want to feel like a disembodied force that is moving resources from one area of the board to another for the sole reason of gaining victory points. I don’t need every action in a game to have a 1:1 correlation to it’s real life counterpart, and I can accept a fair amount of abstraction and compromise for the sake of game design/balance. But if I can’t easily answer the question, “Who am I?” it will be much more difficult for me to buy into the game experience. Grand Austria Hotel answers that question easily: I am a hotel manager. I felt the struggle of a limited bank account and the pressure of keeping the tables in my cafe turning and appeasing the different types of clientele, not to mention the emperor. I felt appreciative of the many skills and talents that my employees brought to the team. I felt like I was managing a hotel, and it was great.
You might not think that being a hotel manager is anything to write home about, but I’m all in. I’ll never have the opportunity to actually run a hotel and even I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. But in a game setting, it allows me to step outside of myself and experience something in a relatively low risk setting. When a game allows me to do that, I consider it a success on the whole. But let’s take a closer look at some specific things Grand Austria Hotel does well.
A Game of Chance
There’s a reason that dice have been popular for so long. They’re immediately understandable and are immensely satisfying to handle and roll. They can provide a lot of fun. However, they can also be a source of immense frustration. While it can be exciting to roll the perfect number, it can be equally deflating to have your carefully executed plans thwarted by a bad roll.
The dice draft at the beginning of every round of Grand Austria Hotel takes dice and front loads the randomization. It substitutes the manic highs and lows that come from simple die rolls with a more even-keeled and cerebral approach. I’m not opposed to having randomness play a part in my games, but I really dislike when fate is decided solely by chance. In Grand Austria Hotel, the distribution of action dice is chance, but it’s up to you to make the best of it and make them work in your favor, much like an actual hotel manager.
Cards are another form of randomization that the game employs, and they are game changing. The cards represent employees that you can hire over the course of the game and each employee grants an ability that can radically change the way you play the game. These abilities range from providing food for your customers to allowing you to prepare rooms for free. Employees are easily my favorite part of the game, and figuring out how to use the cards in your hand to bend the game to your will is empowering. It makes you feel as if you’ve outsmarted the game, and since every player will have different employees, you’re differentiated from your opponents. It’s always nice to be your own unique snowflake.
But there is a slight problem: if you get dealt a better starting hand of employees than your opponents, you have a distinct advantage. It’s not fun to have the game just about decided before it actually starts through no fault of your own. The rulebook does list a variant in which you draft the employees to create your starting hand, which really should be used once you’ve played a game or two to familiarize yourself with it.
The Snake in the Grass
Grand Austria Hotel does just about everything right. It’s challenging without being opaque, it allows you to define your own strategy of play, and all while delivering on a promise of making it feel like you’re running a hotel. Unfortunately, it’s not all roses and sunshine. I consider myself to be fairly tolerant of downtime, but at higher player counts Grand Austria Hotel really tested my patience due to the snaking player order. Every player takes one action until it reaches the last player, then that last player will then take his second action and play continues in reverse turn order until it gets back to the the start player. In a four player game this means that the start player takes the first action and waits to do anything until the eighth turn. And since all players are selecting from a shared pool, the game state can change significantly from your first action to the second, thereby making planning for that second action rather difficult. It’s such a drag to the pace of the game that I will never play Grand Austria Hotel with four players. Even at three, I’d have some trepidation when playing with particularly slow players. With two, I’d be hard pressed to come up with another game that I’d rather play at the moment.
Grand Austria Hotel isn’t going to dazzle you with glitz and glamour. Just like the hotels depicted in the game, it is a refined and elegant experience. It’s a test in juggling multiple balls and putting out multiple fires, but it’s never overwhelming due to its simple ruleset. With only 14 total actions at your disposal, every move is important and has meaning, and you will accomplish quite a lot with relatively little time to do so. Grand Austria Hotel empowers its players to greater and greater heights through repeated plays and greater understandings of the systems and abilities at hands. If you’re looking for a low player count game that makes you feel smart and clever, look no further than Grand Austria Hotel.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing a review copy of Grand Austria Hotel.