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Colonial: Exploration, colonization, trade and the acquisition of prestige

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Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas

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Wanted to get this in before the experience had totally faded from memory. Working without a net here, so to speak. Played Colonial a little less than a week ago with four members of my local gaming group, two of whom (me, for one) had never played it before. Generally, I like to have at least the rules in my possession, and ideally, one or two plays of a game before I attempt a review. There have been exceptions, and as I've noted in the past, there's something to be said for a game that you can write about without benefit of the normal tools at your disposal (rules, and/or extensive experience with the game).

Its full name is Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas. Lot of plurals and possessives in that title, so we'll just call it Colonial, and utilizing a tool I do have at my disposal - its page on BoardGameGeek - I offer its base description:

Colonial "is a board game about colonial times, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Players are the rulers of mighty European states and send their ministers to explore the earth, establish missions, ascertain scientific supremacy, and trade in exotic goods.

It goes on further to explain that "this fast-paced board game requires careful management, knowledge, diplomacy, and a degree of luck to lead to victory in the race for prestige."

It can feel, at times, as if it's taking as long as its described time frame - "from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution" - so I don't necessarily concur with its description as a "fast-paced game." I do agree with the requirements of "careful management" and "degree of luck" part, though I'm a little hesitant to buy into the need for knowledge, beyond what's necessary to play the game, and diplomacy. To the extent that the game does, in fact, entail "skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility" (one definition of diplomacy), then yes, Colonial requires some diplomatic skill, but more importantly, it requires careful selection of appropriate tools at your disposal at a time when you're called upon to make some critical decisions.

What you have here, at its core, is a race for victory points, or in Colonial parlance, prestige points. It has a kind of Settlers of Catan feel to it in that way; the first person to acquire 10 prestige points wins the game. You accomplish this by, as noted above, sending "ministers" out to explore, and eventually colonize the four corners of the globe, other than Europe, because, of course, the players themselves represent Europe.

It is something of a beast, in terms of rules and the breadth of understanding necessary to make wise decisions, and without delving too deeply into any one aspect of this beast, let me see if I can simplify.

The process begins with a set of role cards; six of them, each with two roles on it. You will use only five of the six possible cards in a round of play, and only one of the two roles on a card when you play it. These roles define what you'll do on your turn and sometimes offer either/or choices. In addition to the basic selection process, the order in which you choose to execute these roles plays a part, as well. The actions you undertake play out on a massive, artful playing surface, showing a map of the other-than-Europe world, onto which you will place markers, representing your forays into that world.

Did I mention dice? There are dice, specialty dice with two sides of each one (of 10) having a laurel wreath, which, in effect, means success in either exploration or battle. Did I mention battle? There's battle, but only if you opt to employ it as a means towards your 'prestige points' end. That said, being a peace-loving sort of guy or gal in this game is only going to get you so far. It brought me to within a single point of winning, until an opponent chose to exercise his battle option, and thus, steal a prestige point away from me. Had he not done so, I would have taken actions to secure the final prestige point I needed to win the game. As it was, I was now short, and someone else went on to win the game. Thus, it should be noted, as a hard-fast, unwritten rule that you ignore the development of your naval forces in this game at your peril. The game of Eclipse has this sort of balancing act in it as well. With both, you earn points through exploration and expansion, albeit on different landscapes, and can merrily go about your business without recourse to war, until, of course, an opponent notices you're doing pretty well, and decides that an attack is the only way to slow you down.

It's a game that you'll want to learn from and possibly always play with, someone who knows it pretty much inside and out, because some of the rules governing exploration (can't go here, can go there), monopolies, trade, rebellion, war and a host of other mechanics can take a while to get used to. With one play of it under my belt, I could play it again without too much instruction, but I'd be depending on the game's owner for certain specific actions, like the conduct of a battle or the shipment of goods to market, which, with Colonial, can often entail offering to ship other people's goods, as well, leading to varied advantages/disadvantages that never did settle into my head.

Late in April, designer Christophe Pont, responding to a variety of threads on BoardGameGeek, released a second edition of the rules on the site for download. They include a "Nations" variant (with separate, downloadable cards) and, submitted by others, a player aid, and something called "Colonial Easily Overlooked Rules." It may well be that by the time you make a decision regarding purchase, the copy available will include these revised rules.

I liked this game. The 'beast' quality to its rule set and breadth of understanding requirements is offset by a game that when you get right down to it, is pretty straightforward. Like driving a car, it may take a while before you fully comprehend every switch, gauge and dial on the dashboard, ever pedal at your feet and the nuances of parallel parking, but when you get through all that, you'll be enjoying the ride.

Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas, designed by Christophe Pont, with artwork (excellent, by the way) by Pont and Maxime Estoppey, is published by Stratagem, Ltd. Though it suggests that it can be played with between 2 and 6 players, it is likely to be at its best with the higher numbers. The age recommendation is 14 and up, which is about right. Playing time is indicated as two hours, although it should be noted that first-time play is likely to take a good bit longer. It's got something of a hefty price tag that begins at around $50 and can climb as high as $72 and up, depending on where you purchase it.

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