The Mediterranean! It’s a perfect place to trade goods. And sail. And set up merchant houses. And…
I know, I know: you’re tempted to nod off. But before you consign Concordia to the bin of JASE (just another soulless Euro), you’ve got to take a closer look.
How It Works
Concordia is a hand and resource management game for two to five players. Players are merchant family leaders in ancient Rome trying to establish trade connections throughout the Roman world and find favor with the gods. The player with the most points is the winner.
To begin, players will set up the board by shuffling each stack of city tokens and placing them where they go. They place a good token in each province matching the most expensive good produced by that province. Someone will shuffle the action card deck and place cards in the market. Each player receives all the house and colonist pieces of one color, a matching deck of cards, and a matching warehouse. Each player begins with one of each good in their warehouse (+1 food), a land and sea colonist in Roma, and the remaining colonists in their warehouses, along with an amount of money determined by turn order. Players choose a start player, and the last player in turn order receives the Prefectus Magnus card.
On a turn, players will play one action card from their hand into their discard pile and do what it says. Actions include:
- Prefect: The player receives the best good of the province and all players with houses in a region produce goods.
- Architect: Move colonists and build houses in cities.
- Mercator: Buy and/or sell goods for money.
- Senator: Buy cards from the card market.
- Diplomat: Copy the last card any other player has played.
In addition to these actions, there’s the Tribune, which allows players to pick up the cards in their discard pile and get money (and pay to place a colonist in Roma). There are also other actions only available through the market, like the Colonist (which allows players to place new colonists or get money for placed colonists), the Consul (which allows players to get a card from the market without paying extra for newer cards), and the Minerva cards (which allow players to produce one kind of goods in each city where they have a house).
Each card is associated with a Roman god, and each god scores points in a different way. Jupiter rewards building in non-brick cities, Saturn rewards spreading across the map, Mercury rewards producing a variety of goods, Mars rewards getting lots of colonists on the board, Vesta rewards having money, and Minerva rewards producing certain kinds of goods.
The game ends when one player either builds their last house or purchases the last card from the market. That player receives the Concordia card (which offers a 7 point bonus), and each other player gets one more turn. Players score points based on the cards they’ve collected, and the player with the most points wins.
The Wind at My Back?
The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is especially apt for today’s review. I think Concordia has one of the worst covers in board gaming, and its expansion box is even worse. In fact, that’s what put me off trying this one in the first place, despite its being nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2014.
But please, please, please: don’t make the same mistake I did. Concordia is an excellent game, the best game I learned in 2016, and one of the best I’ve ever played.
In many ways, Concordia feels like it came from an earlier board game era, and I mean this as a compliment. It feels like a Euro game in the classic mode: it’s simple enough to introduce to a casual player, but it’s deep enough to reward continued play. It’s the kind of game you can (and will want to) play again and again because the fun of the game arises from what other players are doing and not from puzzling out a way to optimize your route through mechanical constraints.
What makes Concordia great is the tension in the game that results from very simple options. Each turn, you will play a single card, and each card bears an action you can take, and there aren’t that many different actions in the game. Simple. But Concordia is a game that revels in efficiency. You begin the game with a single Architect, meaning you have limited chance to expand. You can build as many houses as you want in a single architect action, but you are limited by the goods in your warehouse, the money in your bank, and the location of your colonists. To get into the best position for a super move can take many prior turns to set up. But the longer you wait, the greater the chance that another player will interfere with your plans and snatch prime real estate before you. Now, this doesn’t cut you off completely–you can still build after someone in a city–but it costs more, sometimes making those precious turns of saving up fruitless. So you have to balance being efficient with being opportunistic. Sometimes you have to make what may seem like suboptimal moves in order to capitalize on the board’s state just now, and you have to set yourself up to have the cards you need when you need them. Maybe you’d rather Architect, but there’s a large amount of coins for you if you Prefect. Or you’d rather Prefect, but another player has played their Consul card, so you should use your Diplomat since Consuls are rare. Unlike some modern Euro games, in which each player is left more or less on their own, in Concordia, what other players do matters a great deal, and you have to tailor your approach to the game to what these other players are doing.
The game has variable setup, but it’s really the player interaction that makes the game different each time you play. The cards you add to your hand dictate your strategy, because each card, besides being an extra action to take, also makes you better at scoring the card’s endgame points bonus. So you not only have to have an eye on what cards you need; you also need to make sure no other player achieves a monopoly on any of the scoring conditions, because each additional god in your hand is a multiplier at the end of the game. Beyond the cards, the board offers ripe territory for interaction as well. When another player builds in a location you need, you aren’t cut off, but you have to pay more money. And money is tight in Concordia. No matter how much you have, you could almost always use more of it. Similarly, if another player’s colonist is occupying a route, you can’t occupy that route, and since colonists don’t move all that often in Concordia, this can restrict the options you have. Again, you have to balance efficiency with opportunity: it might be better to build in fewer cities if you can build in better located cities.
Location is relative, but it leads to one of my favorite interactions in the game: the Prefect. Settlers of Catan is often lauded (especially by those unfamiliar with the hobby) for offering nonconfrontational, positive player interaction. Concordia has that in spades, and the clearest picture of it is the Prefect. Whenever you play your Prefect card, you choose a province to produce goods. You get the best of what that province has to offer, and then every player who has houses in that province gets goods. So prime real estate often means building in clumps with other players. If another player has an incentive to use the Prefect to produce in a region you’re in, so much the better: you get the benefit and don’t have to play your own card to get it. This leads to lots of little wrinkles during gameplay. Do you prefect in a province where you have a large presence if it benefits the other players too? Or is it better to prefect in a far-flung province that benefits no one but you? It’s especially interesting, because as the game continues, options that benefit only you become fewer and fewer. As players expand their influence across the board, there are fewer places that don’t benefit anybody. Also, once you prefect in one place, you can’t produce there again until someone uses their Prefect card to collect coins, so you can’t hit the same reward levers again and again. And even this is positive interaction: you’re grateful to another player for opening production to you again, even though they receive a benefit from it.
All of the options in Concordia are cohesive, and this is one of the things I appreciate about it. It’s a zero-fat design. There’s nothing in it that I could say, “I never use that; that’s not that interesting.” You need to do everything in the game; the trick is choosing when to do it and doing it at a time so as to achieve the maximum benefit. One of these trickier decisions is knowing when to play the Tribune card. As you play, your options dwindle. Cards leave your hand to your discard pile, so you have fewer and fewer chances to capitalize on others’ decisions. Each player has a Tribune card, which lets you pull your cards back into hand and get a coin for each card after three; you get more money the more cards you’ve discarded. It seems best, then, to always push your hand to its limit, maximizing the cards in it so as to always get the maximum benefit from your Tribune. But you also have to balance whether having more options sooner is the better play. If another player uses a card that you don’t have, you’ll want to have your Diplomat handy, for example. I’ve played several games of Concordia now, and I still sometimes miss the best time to play my Tribune.
And this is one thing I love about the game: even though the rules are simple, each time I play, I feel like there’s a new strategy to explore, and player interaction usually forces me to explore it. Concordia is one of the best examples I can think of when I hear “multiple paths to victory.” Sure, in some regard, each player has to do a bit of everything, but I’ve seen players win by focusing on Mars cards, Jupiter cards, Saturn cards, Minerva cards… It all comes down to strategy and opportunity. I may go into a game thinking I’ll try the Saturn route, but if other players buy the Saturn cards from under me, I have to try something different. And often, whatever that “something different” is, I feel like I’ve got a shot right to the end. I said of My Village that it felt like players were playing different games, so no wonder the “paths to victory” were multiple; here, players are forced to interact because each of the roles is so interconnected, so all of the paths converge, yet each is viable if done right.
I think Concordia is a nigh perfect game, but there are a couple of things that some players might not like. First, the scoring is a little strange if you’re not expecting it. When I explain the game, I usually end with, “Here’s how you get points.” The rest of the game makes a lot of sense, but it’s easy in the midst of Doing Things to forget what target you’re aiming at. The first game I play with people, they generally forget to pay attention to what will score them points no matter how many times I redirect their gaze. Thankfully, the game more or less reinforces the scoring: each card you purchase generally makes you better at scoring points with it, so you’re likely to get incidental points even if you aren’t paying attention to this. But new players might ignore certain cards in the market, and allowing any player to achieve a monopoly on scoring conditions is a bad idea. The scoring is strange and often takes a game to get used to, so this isn’t a game where a new player should expect to win. The rules suggest an intermediate scoring to show new players how it works, but this hasn’t appreciably increased understanding in my experience.
Concordia also doesn’t rate high on the “look at the box, get excited” meter. As I mentioned, it put me off for a while, and I am squarely in the target audience. My thematic-game-loving friends aren’t excited about another game of trading in the Mediterranean, and even though the map looks great on the table and the wooden goods pieces are shaped and not cubes, there’s something that still strikes them as boring about Concordia. Once they play it, though, it may not be their favorite, but I think they recognize that this isn’t JASE.
The components in Concordia are excellent. The wooden and cardboard pieces are well thought out. The design of the board is clear, and the rules are reinforced by the design. Most of the rules are on the cards; the rulebook is a mere four pages (plus supplemental setup sheet). And while the game box is ugly, the game itself looks nice on the table. The box advertises play for two to five players. I’ve played at every count but two, and it’s flawless at each. The map board is double-sided to make a tighter or looser game at each player count, and the only difference is to use fewer cards in the market. I’ve played a three-player game in just over an hour, so it moves quickly the fewer players at the table. There are also expansion maps available, but I’ve not played on any of these; the base game is still interesting to me (although I have purchased two of these).
Concordia is an advertisement for the best that Euro games have to offer: simple rules, tense decisions, player interaction (without overt player conflict), and near limitless replayability. The box is ugly, true, but don’t be fooled by the woman on the cover: Concordia is far from soulless, and it is one game that will keep you coming back for more, time and time again. Concordia is a true classic.