Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Board Gaming Work Of Art: "The Princes Of Florence"

There was a time in which I'd blindly purchase games according to their overall rating on Board Game Geek.  Although this would usually result in a classic, innovative title like Puerto Rico or Agricola entering my collection, occasionally I'd pick something that turned out to be overly complicated, mechanically intractable or thematically suspect.

Such was the case with Tigris & Euphrates, which I purchased purely based on its BBG User Rating.  Mercifully it all worked out in the end, but for the longest time I genuinely thought that I'd wasted my money on this game.  Soon I began to equate certain well-regarded titles as the gaming equivalent of The English Patient.  Go on, buy it!  Play it!  It's good for you!

Fearful of history repeating itself, I held off on buying a top rated game for years.  But, finally, after considerable research and appraisal, I decided to take the plunge again with The Princes of Florence, which currently sits at number thirty-five on the Geek Rating list.    

Here's the game's elevator pitch, directly from the publisher:


Experience the golden age of the Renaissance.  Assume the role of the head of an Italian Aristocratic dynasty and lead your family like the Medici or Borgia.  The players support the builders, artists, and scholars so that their completed works will bring their families fame and prestige. As the patrons of the creators of great works, the players seek to multiply their fame and reputations, but only one will become the most prestigious prince of Florence!   

The 3 to 5 players - over seven rounds - build Buildings, cultivate Landscapes, and invite artists and scholars to their Palazzi where they provide them with the facilities which inspire such people to produce great Works. All this is done by the players in their Principalities to earn Prestige points (PP), which are recorded on the fame track.

The more impressive a Work, that is, the higher its Work Value (WV), the more money and Prestige the player in whose Principality the Work is created is able to earn. Money is important to acquire more Buildings and Landscapes. Also, the Builders and Jesters, which provide valuable services, expect to be paid. Players will also find that Prestige and Bonus cards have great value in building their reputations and fame.

The player who, after seven rounds, has earned the most PP, is the winner!

Trust not the word of this lowly peasant?  With but a simple click of yon link, let thine eyes be satiated by the full glory of royal decree.

I.E., here's a PDF of the rules, ya mooks.  

Awrite, so how many readers out there felt their brains flat-line half-way through the above blurb?  Well, you're not alone; YouTube video wizard UvulaBob made the exact same point in Episode Twelve of his "Untitled Flash-Based Review...Thing".  Even though the idea that The Princes of Florence is somehow nerdier then Small World, I can certainly see his point RE: the stuffy-looking and pretentious box art and the game's understated components.  In fact, after I bought The Princes of Florence, I immediately beset with buys remorse.  For months I was convinced that I'd just repeated my Tigris & Euphrates debacle.  

But at least reading the rulebook gave me a sense of how the game is played, unlike T&E.  In fact, The Princes of Florence is one of those games were you start to feel a giddy rush half-way through the rules because of the varied and clever mechanics.  Unfortunately it's also one of those games that you really want to have a handle on before you try and teach it because you really don't want to fuck it up.  You know that it'd be a crying shame to misrepresent it, resulting in burnt bridges and friends who vow to "never, ever" play it again.  

It's no coincidence that the first time I tried to table the game was during CabinCon 2012.  During this historic event, not only did I finally conquer my Tigris & Euphrates phobia, I actually played it twice.  I think I did this because I knew that the game's strategies and rules would vanish from my head like a Vancian magic spell as soon as I boxed it up.  Sure enough, if you put a gun to my head today and ordered me to teach T&E to a new gaming group, either my instructions would be as well-received as a Daniel Tosh stand-up routine or my skull would end up with a sunroof.

I didn't press the issue of playing The Princes of Florence during CabinCon 2012.  This was partly because I felt satiated by my T&E victory and also because I was still afraid that the game might crash and burn.  But when the first game turn of 2013 fell unto me, I had to pick it.  I just couldn't stand this guy's contemptuous eyes staring down on me all the time from his lofty shelf-perch.  

"Play me, you errant, logger-headed, boil-brained dullard!"

And so it was.  Even though Andrew was out due to a throat infection incurred after fellating a transient migrant worker, Dean, Mike and Chad were all present and accounted for last Wednesday night.   




Chad started out slow but quickly got the hang of things.  His built the Chapel, Lab and Tower in quick succession, netting him three Prestige Points apiece.  This also added to the happy factor of his Astronomer, Botanist and Organ-Maker.  All three of his Professions were also well-placated with a single, strollable Park and a dense Forest.  Each Work they produced was nicely augmented by the presence of two Jesters: Pattonio Oswalt and Joseph Roganarian.

Although he didn't invest in very many Builders or structures, what he did purchase certainly contributed to his overall strategy.  Perhaps his most astute move, however, was to invest in all three Freedoms.  Partnered with matching Bonus Cards, Chad scored some really impressive Work Value and Prestige Point bumps.

Right at games end he revealed a Prestige Card which gave him eight (!) additional Prestige Points for securing all three Freedoms.  This really put the icing on a well-engineered comeback.


I came out swinging with my Mathematician, who was tickled pink that I'd provided him with a University to bore his students at, a Lake to skinny-dip in and the Religious Freedom to conclude that God is actually a giant, neon abacus.  On a subsequent turn I added the Freedom to Travel and a Workshop, which really got my Watch Maker's clock a-tickin'.  Imminently talented Jester Louis C.K. (the C.K., of course, stands for "Count of Komedy") helped to keep both of my jobbers in stitches.

In spite of heavily overpaying for my first Builder, it was always my plan to add a second one.  That's why I really didn't give a shit about my initial building placement.  Oh, for those keeping score at home, by the way, THAT WAS A GIANT FUCKING MISTAKE.  When I wasn't paralyzed by ill-advised bouts of frugality I was being habitually outbid by my opponents.  Between my failure to procure a second Builder and my schizophrenic urban planning, my goal of constructing an Opera House for the third Profession in my hand had to be abandoned.

Like Chad, I suddenly found myself limited in my building space.  In a desperate bid to keep pace with Dean, I dug a second Lake for three Prestige Points.  Eventually I was forced to pay for a new Profession.  After landscaping a Park for my newly-acquired Theologian, I did manage to score another fairly-impressive Work.

At the very end of the game, I concocted a nebulous, last-minute make-Work scheme.  Using a cheaply-attained Recruitment Card, I lured Mike's Bell-Maker away with promises of Workshops, Religious Freedoms and unlimited prostate massages.  Unfortunately Bell Boy wasn't impressed by my deplorable lack of Forests and, as a result, I was left stranded, just one shy of the 17-point required Work minimum for Round Seven.      


For the first half of the game, Dean was my only rival.  After a single Park impressed the pants off of his Pharmacist some hot Forest action kept his Choreographer and Philosopher in a pastoral mood.  Adding a second Forest helped him score three bonus Prestige Points.  Three more in-game points came courtesy of a Hospital, Opera and University, all the while keeping his Professions appropriately housed.  Freedoms of Opinion and Travel also went over well with his retinue.  

Although his lone Jester (George, Earl of Carlin) provided consistent yuks, Dean got even more mileage out of his Bonus Cards which gave him prodigious bonuses for matching Buildings and Forests.  But, ultimately, it was his ability to secure two Builders which allowed him to lap me.  Liberated from the "corner to corner" placement rule, Dean even threw in a last minute Workshop to score three more Prestige Points just as the buzzer rang.    


At the beginning of the game, Mike didn't have a lot of focus.  Although he was the last player to complete a Work, he also saw that his game required a different approach.  After performing some appropriate adjustments he really started kicking ass during the end game.

Mike's biggest issue was missing some key Work Value points.  For example, he curried considerable favor with his Physicist by building a Lab and cultivating a Forest, but he also neglected to provide any Freedom to Travel.  He quickly learned the importance of this and provided everything that his Bell-Maker (who was horny for a Workshop, Forest and Religious Freedom) and Dramatist (keen on a Theater, Park and Religious Freedom) could ever want on subsequent turns.

Although he never did retain any Jesters, Mike's eleventh-hour investment in a second Builder allowed him to cram his Palazzi (?) with four buildings worth three Prestige Points each.  Some excellent Bonus Cards designed to exploit his Landscapes and various Building sizes allowed him to sprint past me in the end.    


Chad...37 points
Dean...33 points
Mike...32 points
Me...30 points


The games I hate the most are the ones I lose but have no idea where I went wrong.  That's not the case with The Princes Of Florence since I know precisely why my final score sucked hippo rectum.  As Chad was able to prove, Builders aren't imperative to victory but if you're not  gonna buy a second one, then you damned well better keep an eye on your zoning.  It's also wise to use the pertinent information on your Player Board to get an accurate estimate of your projected Work Value, otherwise you wont be able to meet those steep late-game requirements and end up looking like a schmuck.

When the game was over, all of us were shocked by just how friggin' good it was.  Although Mike felt a tad rudderless in the first few turns, his endgame performance exemplified an ability to adapt and use the Profession cards as a strategic checklist.   All of us seemed to really dig the breezy auction mechanic, the placement of Landscapes and Buildings and the "X-factor" provided by the Bonus and Prestige cards.    

Except for some clumsy diction that may have been "lost in translation", the rulebook itself is abundantly clear.  In fact, I can't remember the last time we played a game so durned right.  Although Chad was quick to compliment my aptitude for teaching the game, I was forced to admit that I pretty much just read the entire rulebook verbatim.  Words can't describe how important rules clarity is to me.

Although the components might look a bit lackluster at first, they're strangely evocative.  Indeed, the game feels more thematic to me then, say, Lords of Waterdeep.  The Player Boards and Round / Fame Track are sturdy and durable and the playing cards are all high-gage.  The whimsical Renaissance-style font, colorful tiles and archaic imagery all contribute to the "classical" feel.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the game is that there's very little direct conflict, making it an ideal choice for families and couples.  Although you can "Yoink!"-off an opponent slightly by outbidding them or taking the last of a prized resource, none of this results in a great deal of rancor.  Cripes, there aren't even any lingering negative effects when you lure your opponent's Professions away with a Recruiting Card!      

Although the lack of conflict and direct interaction can sometimes make it feel as if everyone is playing their own solitaire game, it's a damned engrossing solitaire game.  In our match, when someone announced that they were producing a Work, the rest of us were on pins and needles waiting for the final tally.  Now granted this didn't prevent us from "Haw-Haw"-ing someone's misfortune if they lost out on a critical resource, cocked up their Palazzo design or had their Work Value eclipsed by another player.

Its always a learning experience when you play a game for the first time and The Princes Of Florence is no exception.  Just as soon as we were done, everyone began to lament that we might not get a chance to play it again until sometime in 2017.  I, for one, won't be able to hold out that long.  I really can't wait to introduce it to my significant other and her game-friendly family.

This game really does belong in the same hallowed pantheon as Agricola, Puerto Rico and Le Havre.
It makes me want to roll percentile dice and buy whatever comes up on the Board Game Geek Top 100!  


Six pips outta six, y'all!

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