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The Dusty Dragon #6: Villa Paletti (review)

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Villa Paletti boxIn modern board gaming, we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Six of the top ten games on Board Game Geek were published after 2010. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.

In The Dusty Dragon–a monthly column on iSlaytheDragon–my goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150. The goal of the column is to balance out the more immediate board game coverage on iSlaytheDragon by reminding us of some games that might have slipped through the cracks. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)

Villa Paletti won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2002, yet despite this boost in prominence, I have mostly known it as “the game that should have lost to Puerto Rico.” I picked it up cheap in an auction to help justify the shipping of my other item and thought I would give it a look. It’s currently fourteen years old–does Villa Paletti stand the test of time, or does it topple under the shaky fingers of the years? Find out below!

How It Works

Villa Paletti is a stacking game for two to four players. Players have to move columns from a lower level onto a higher level of the tower. Whoever controls the seal when the tower falls is the winner.

Players place the pillars on the provided mat and place the largest floor tile so that it rests on the pillars. The youngest player rolls the seal to determine which color he or she will play in the game; in clockwise order, each other player chooses a color.

The game of Villa Paletti set up. It's very colorful.
The game of Villa Paletti set up. It’s very colorful.

On a turn, players must either move a piece of their color from a lower level to the current highest level or (if they don’t think they can safely remove one of their pieces) place the next largest floor tile. When moving pieces, players may use the included hook or their hands, and they may hold the floor tile above the piece steady or even lift it a little to aid in getting the piece out.

Once a player piece has been placed on top of the floor, that player checks to see if he or she gains control of the seal. A player steals the seal if he or she has more points in playing pieces on a level than the current seal holder. (Bigger playing pieces are awarded more points.)

The game continues until the tower is knocked down. The player who controls the seal (or the player who last controlled the seal if the current controller knocked the tower down) is the winner.

The Wiggles 3D edition of the rules. Very cartoony, and not as fun as the Zoch edition rules, available on BGG.
The Wiggles 3D edition of the rules. Very cartoony, and not as fun as the Zoch edition rules, available on BGG.

Note: There are multiple ways to play the game and multiple iterations of the rules. Despite the rules that came with the Wiggles 3D edition I own, I’ve followed the original Zoch directions in my explanation. The Wiggles edition also includes a random free-play mode (where players roll the seal at the start of their turn to determine which color column they have to move) and a tournament mode (where players score points based on the size of the pillar they’ve moved and knocking down the tower only loses a player points rather than the game).

Solid Foundation, or the Walls Come Tumbin’ Down?

Villa Paletti is a dexterity game, which is enough to tell some contingent of readers whether this game is for them. For those who know and love dexterity games and wonder how Villa Paletti stacks up to the competition, I say that Villa Paletti is a top-tier game, on par with some of the best dexterity games.

Villa Paletti is such a simple concept, and in many ways, it’s similar to other, more mass-market dexterity games. In fact, simply looking at the rules gives the impression that if you own one, you don’t need to own this: you take a piece from the bottom, and you place it on the top. The differences here, though, are what make the game what it is.

The columns come in four colors and three different sizes. This simple fact makes Villa Paletti so much fun to play.
The columns come in four colors and three different sizes. This simple fact makes Villa Paletti so much fun to play.

The first thing that sets Villa Paletti apart is obviously the pieces. Rather than moving rectangular blocks, players must move cylinders from a lower level and place them on top. Because of this, the game comes with floor pieces. Once it looks like no more columns can be removed without affecting the structural integrity of the villa, players place the next smallest roof, and so on, until all that’s left is a tiny scrap of real estate atop the villa. This is excellent, because the game builds tension as the landing place for columns gets smaller and smaller. The game will end with someone toppling the villa. The question is only when and who.

The second thing that sets Villa Paletti apart is the color coordination of the pieces. Each player is assigned a player color at the beginning of the game and can only move pieces of their color. Rather than players going for the easiest piece to move, full stop, players must consider which of their own pieces to move, which is an entirely different matter, especially considering that some columns will certainly end up holding a floor in place, and you’re better off if it’s another player’s columns and not your own performing this task.

The floors keep getting smaller and smaller, and there is less and less room to place columns. The tower WILL fall--will you be the one to do it?
The floors keep getting smaller and smaller, and there is less and less room to place columns. The tower WILL fall–will you be the one to do it?

And the third thing that sets Villa Paletti apart is that columns have different thicknesses. That is, it isn’t always a no-brainer which column to move. In fact, it might not be in a player’s best interest to move their easiest columns first, as thinner columns are worth fewer points than thicker columns, and the seal is controlled by who has the most points. Villa Paletti sets up a compelling game of chicken. If I begin by moving my thickest column to the next floor, other players must do the same if they hope to wrest the seal from my control. If I make the easy play of moving one of my thin columns up, I may be safe from toppling the tower this turn, but another player can easily supersede me and take my rightful gains.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that there is more strategy in Villa Paletti than in most other dexterity games I’ve played. You have to consider which of your columns is the best one to move, coupled with where to place it on the next floor, coupled with how to lock in your opponents’ high-scoring columns so they can’t move them up in the villa. This creates some hilarious moments of tension. It also creates a dexterity game of big risks: you don’t want one of your columns trapped, so surely the villa can balance on your opponents’ two columns…

The game in progress.
The game in progress.

But Villa Paletti, while including some strategy, also retains the tension and silliness that make the dexterity genre so great. Villa Paletti is not a staid affair. It is a riot. Players egg each other on, trying to get them to take big gambles in the hope that they collapse the building. Kinder players may offer suggestions of the best columns to move and concentrate on the structural integrity of the villa. There is the tension of removing a column–and then the dramatic relief of a successful maneuver. The game allows players to use their fingers or an included hook to move pieces around, and either way, it’s a lot of fun to watch other players take their turns.

If there’s anything negative to say about the game, first of all, the box is ugly, at least for the version I have. Even after I purchased it, I wasn’t eager to set it up, simply because it didn’t look very good. The scoring system for passing the seal is also a little wonky, but necessary, if only to get players to take bigger gambles in moving their pieces. And of course, as with any dexterity game, there is the caveat that if you don’t like dexterity games in general, you probably won’t like this one. I think the biggest detractor, though, is perception. From the outside, this game doesn’t look like much, and the rules won’t disabuse you of this idea. But this is why we play games instead of just reading about them. Villa Paletti is far more than the sum of its parts.

I'm not sure why this photo turned, but I'm not building sideways. The tower will come down soon now.
I’m not sure why this photo turned, but I’m not building sideways. The tower will come down soon now.

And the parts in the game are good for what they are. The columns are sturdy wood. The seal is nice. The floor pieces are interesting shapes and make the game fun to set up and look at. The hook works well for surgical precision in removing columns from the villa. The components aren’t outstanding, but they are serviceable. They work, which is essential for a dexterity game. The components allow for interesting situations and balancing acts in the game, so they get the job done.

Villa Paletti is for two to four players. I find I prefer the game with two or four players, simply because you can play the more strategic “everyone-has-their-own-color” game in a less cumbersome way. The random game (roll for a color; move a pillar of that color) is fun, but not nearly as good as the standard, more strategic game. Assigned colors with point values makes a huge difference in the decision space (and the tension) of the game.

Poor tower. It was bound to happen. Thankfully, it didn't happen on my watch.
Poor tower. It was bound to happen. Thankfully, it didn’t happen on my watch.

I didn’t expect much from Villa Paletti–despite its Spiel des Jahres win, it didn’t look exciting, and I had only heard it compared (negatively) to Puerto Rico. (Puerto Rico, by the way, probably should have won the award in 2002, but the games are hardly comparable.) But looks, in this case, are deceptive as Villa Paletti is one of the most compelling dexterity games I’ve played (and I’ve played a lot). It’s a go-to dexterity pick in my collection, and I think it’s still good, even almost fifteen years after its release.

The tools of the trade.
The tools of the trade.

How Villa Paletti Stacks Up

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros:

  • Excellent gameplay
  • More strategic than most dexterity games
  • A ton of fun to play and watch

Cons:

  • Wiggles 3D edition is ugly
  • Doesn't look like much
  • Those who hate dexterity games need not apply
9.0 Great

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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