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Review: Rialto

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Venice. Land of bridges and gondolas and noblemen vying for the favor of the powerful doge. You are one such nobleman, with lots of cards, cylinders, coins, and cardboard at your disposal. If you’ve got an hour, you’ve got an opportunity to ride your gondola to the top.

Is controlling Venice in the cards for you? Find out in Rialto!

How It Works

Rialto is a card drafting area control game for two to five players. Players seek to gain influence in the districts of Rialto in order to win a seat on the Venetian council. The player with the most victory points wins.

At the start of the game, each player is placed on the starting space of the doge track and receives money and choice of level-1 building reflective of their position. The six round tokens are randomly distributed, one to each district, and the bridges are shuffled and the pile placed face-up on the board. The round marker is placed on the 1.

The game set up for three players.

Rialto is played in six rounds, and each round has three phases: the card phase, the action phase, and the blue-buildings phase. In the card phase, cards are dealt into six-card rows, one for each player plus one. Players then, in the order they are placed on the doge track, choose one set of six face-up cards and receive two additional cards face down from the deck, choosing seven of these cards to play in the action phase. Players may also activate green buildings, which allow them to draw and/or hold extra cards in the action phase.

In the action phase, players follow six steps in order, and in each step can play cards of matching type. The steps are doge (move along the doge track), gold (earn money), construction (get buildings), bridge (earn points and assign value to districts), gondola (get more councilmen in personal supply), and councilmen (place councilmen in current district). The more cards a player plays in each step, the more powerful the action will be. Additionally, the player who plays the most cards of each type receives a bonus, like earning extra money or placing extra councilmen. There are lots of ties in this phase (and elsewhere in the game), and all ties are broken according to players’ positions on the doge track. The card phase is when players activate yellow buildings, which generally give some benefit while playing cards.

The round marker in San Marco. The round order is determined randomly each game.

In the final phase, players may activate their blue buildings, which grant points, additional councilmen, or movement along the doge track. Any cards that a player did not play in the action phase are saved for the next round’s card phase. The round marker moves to the next district in order, and play continues.

After the sixth round, players score points based on how many councilmen they have in each district, the value of each district determined by the bridges and gondolas facing that district. Players also score points for coins and councilmen in their personal supplies and for their buildings. The player with the most points wins.

Grand Canal, or Slough of Despond?

Stefan Feld is very much in favor these days. He is known for his multilayer, multiple-paths-to-victory games, where everything scores you points and players must choose between viable paths in order to win. His games are often on the heavier side, and his most lauded games take over an hour.

Compare that description with Rialto: a game with multiple layers but which has one basic path to victory, which is lighter and has more luck elements, and which plays in under an hour. It’s no wonder that many Feld fanboys and -girls are calling foul with Rialto. But as someone fairly fresh to Feld, and as a huge fan of lunchtime games, I think Rialto is quite good.

A sample draft. Players, in the order of their favor with the Doge, choose
one pile of six face-up cards and receive two more from the deck.

What I like about Rialto is the tension inherent in that the game requires diversification yet rewards specialization. Players must perform each of the six actions if they want to do well, yet they receive powerful bonuses when they perform the action better than the other players (meaning that they allocate more of their seven-card hand toward a specialty). This tension is present everywhere in the game, and it helps keep the game exciting. Players may be tempted to ignore actions, but ignoring any of them can be perilous to a player’s strategy. Ignoring the doge ensures last choice in the card draft and losing ties (which are plentiful in Rialto). Ignoring gold means forsaking building abilities. Ignoring buildings means limiting player abilities, especially relative to other players. Ignoring bridges means losing points and undervaluing the districts where you have a majority. Ignoring gondolas means having fewer councilmen to place on the board. And ignoring the councilmen action means forfeiting points for districts–once the round marker moves on, it’s very difficult to get into a district (and doing so reduces the value as the back-door method of placing councilmen requires a gondola). I think this tension is the highlight of the game, especially as it is so interactive.

What makes the game so interactive is that the game is won and lost on little gains. Rialto feels similar in some respects to the military strategy in 7 Wonders (or any “chicken”-style contest) writ large. Military can pay off handsomely in 7 Wonders if players can win with minimum investment. The same holds true in Rialto. Players aren’t necessarily rewarded for winning big, just for winning. Playing the most cards by one gives the same bonus action as winning by three or four. So Rialto, at its heart, is a hand management game, especially when it comes to knowing how to allocate jokers. But all of the green and yellow buildings, and even the doge track, aid players in managing their hands. (Green buildings give more cards, yellow buildings let players play their cards differently, and the doge track can allow a player who merely ties to win the bonus.)

A step in the card phase begins with the player who won the last step, and going last is an advantage. Players (especially the first player) must guess how many cards the other players will play. Some of this information can be known (six of the eight cards drafted in the first phase are face-up), but building abilities, jokers, and face-down cards add uncertainty, especially when trying to win by a narrow margin, saving precious resources for other fights. In this respect, there’s even an element of bluffing in Rialto (especially as the yellow buildings come into play, one of which allows a player to go last in the card-playing order).

The doge track–the determiner of fate. A three-way tie would be broken red, green, then blue.

I love the choices and tension involved in placing bridges and gondolas. Bridges have two sides offering points, and the points range from 3 to 6. Gondolas also offer points, but each side gives only one point (thus, if you are controlling a district, you want as few gondolas as possible pointing in your direction.) There are four connections attached to each district, and these connections can bear either a bridge or a gondola. I love this because, again, controlling a district isn’t enough; you have to work to make it worth something.

The phase cards. I like the art on these a lot, and they are also easy to tell apart, even on tiny cards from across the table.

Another thing to like about Rialto is there’s not really any part of the game that bogs down. The game follows a natural flow that is represented visually on the board, and if one player “calls” each phase, it’s very easy to play, and play quickly. Some players may not like this “on the rails” feel to the game, but I think it works well to speed the game along. It’s easy to see, at any given time, where players are in relation to the end game. There are six rounds, three phases. It’s easy to track with.

Now, despite being a fast-moving game, there are some pitfalls to watch out for if you’ll be playing over the lunch hour (which is when I usually play). The first is setup time. This game has a lot of pieces that must be arranged before the game can begin. I’ve tried to bag my pieces in such a way as to make setup time minimal, but it still takes several minutes to lay out the buildings, shuffle the bridges and cards, and give each player their starting stuff (which is based on seating order, so you can’t really do this while players heat up their lunches–everyone needs to be there). Similarly, if you play with deliberate or AP-prone players, you may have to gently prod them to keep the game moving. The game does everything it can to finish in an hour, but players must meet it halfway.

The round order is on the board. This is very helpful.

There are some other things to consider about this game. I love the look of the cards and board, but the score track…is a little puzzling at first. (Spaces are not clearly delineated, with the space occupying the canal between two lanterns.) However, I don’t think this is as much of an issue as some other reviewers have made out. The wooden councilmen pieces were of variable quality in the copy I bought–not bad enough to burden the publisher with a costly replacement request, but still: the quality control on the game seems a little off, which is surprising, given its German provenance. The cards are the tiny Euro ones, which I’m usually against, but I’m actually grateful for them in Rialto–the game would take up a lot more table space otherwise. The art on the cards is fantastic, and it’s easy to tell what each card is from a distance, which helps in the drafting phase. The iconography on the buildings is clear (as is the color coding), and the round order on the board is very helpful, making player aids unnecessary, at least once one player has the bonuses down.

Those gondolas are driving the price down for green! At the end of the game, this district will be worth 13 for green, 6 for red, and 3 for blue.

There is an element of luck to this game, as the heart of the game is card based. And while players draft their cards, they draft them one row at a time. This can be very frustrating if you choose later in the order, especially if you are beaten out only marginally on the doge track. (If you’re not even trying in the doge contest, well, you deserve to go last and are probably doing well somewhere else.)

Some of the rules are also hard to remember–especially with regard to turn order. The card draft takes place according to the order of the doge track, yet the card phase takes place clockwise. Some of the bonuses are hard to remember, but after a few rounds, players catch on. While these things can be annoyances, they’re not enough to turn me off from the game. Granted, Rialto is a bit of a niche game. If I have a time slot of more than an hour, I’ll almost certainly choose a different game. But I often don’t, and if an hour’s all I’ve got, Rialto is one of my top picks.

The scoreboard takes some getting used to and could be better, but I’ve seen worse (for example, Rio Grande Games’ first edition of Medici. Woof).

I know opinions on Rialto are mixed, and at least for reviewers, they’re trending downward. Let me break the streak: I think Rialto is excellent for what it is: a choice-driven, short, and interesting Euro. Is Rialto the game Stefan Feld will be remembered for? Probably not. But I think if this game were released by just about any other designer, there would be lots more happy gamers. So my advice: evaluate Rialto as a game, not just as a Stefan Feld game. You’ll be happier, and you’ll likely have another good option to play over your lunch breaks.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Quick gameplay.
  • Nice tension between diversity and specialization.
  • Interesting combination of mechanics.
  • Great phase design/reminder on the board.

Cons:

  • Score track takes some getting used to.
  • Councilmen pieces (wooden cylinders) are of variable quality.
  • Game has an "on the rails" quality that will not appeal to some gamers.
  • Some rules and exceptions are not intuitive.
  • Could use councilmen minis to reinforce the theme (...okay, just kidding).
9.0 Excellent

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

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