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Renaissance Man: A brain-burner from Rio Grande Games

Renaissance Man

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What we have here, ladies and gents, is a brain-burner. The process of playing Rio Grande Games' Renaissance Man is simple enough, but there's a layer of complexity involved with the execution of your plans that will please gamers who are into that sort of thing, and irritate those who lack patience with the dreaded AP (analysis paralysis).

Box Art for Renaissance Man
Publisher (Rio Grande Games)

One of the players at our session with this game (Steve) stepped out onto a patio, during a break, and said, "This game'll make your head hurt." Perhaps not so coincidentally, Steve won. The box says 30 minutes, and while I'm willing to concede that with a few games under your belt, it might happen that quickly, I doubt seriously whether it'll be that short the first few times out.

As noted, the process itself is fairly simple. You start the game with five cards, laid out right to left in an order you choose, next to a personal board. Over the course of the game, you're going to place four cards on top of the five, three on top of those four, etc., pyramid style, until one player crowns the pyramid with a single card at the top. Game over. Person who placed that card wins.

Getting these cards out there onto the pyramid is where it starts to get tricky. Thematically, the idea is that "each player is a Renaissance Man, skilled as a Scholar, Merchant, Knight and Baker," for whom the goal is to train, hire and recruit others, aiming to produce a Master (the top card in the pyramid) of one of these four areas of study." Accomplishing this objective requires a complex array of tasks that boils down to matching icons on the cards.

The five cards in your possession at the start depict the Scholar, Merchant, Knight, Banker and one Renaissance Man. Each has three identical icons at the top of the card that represents that particular skill; The Baker icon is a loaf of bread, the Scholar shows a book, the Knight displays a shield and the Merchant shows a coin. The Renaissance Man displays all four of these icons together (like a wild card; could represent any one of the other four).

The three identical icons at the top of each card will come into play in two ways. The center icon, the largest of the three, defines for a player the type of action he/she can perform on their turn. The Baker (bread icon) allows you to Barter, the Scholar (book icon) allows you to Teach, the Knight (shield icon) allows you to Recruit and the Merchant (coin icon) allows you to Hire. The Renaissance Man cannot be used to perform an action, which is why, in your start display, he only has two icons, in the upper left and upper right corner of the card.

In the other 96 cards which comprise the game deck, each card, again representing one of the four skills, has five icons on it; three identical at the top, as in your start display of five (that match the depicted worker), and two at the bottom corners. These two icons at the bottom corners are often different, but can be the same.

Here's the trick. In order to place a new worker onto your pyramid, the bottom two icons on the card you want to place, have to match the top two icons of the two cards they're going to straddle on your pyramid. So, if you've placed your Knight (shield) to the right of your Baker (bread) in your start display, then the icons of the card you place on top of these two has to show, in their bottom corners, a loaf of bread on the left and a shield on the right. The problem, of course, is that you may not have a card with such an arrangement of icons at the bottom, and you'll have to find one, either in the deck as the game progresses and a starting hand of four cards is replenished at the end of every turn, or on a Recruit board, offering four of them from which to choose on your turn (with the Recruit action; more on this a little later). This display of four cards on a Recruit Board is laid out at the start, prior to decisions you make about your start display. In other words, if you see on the Recruit Board, a card showing a shield in the lower left corner and a loaf of bread in the lower right corner, you may want to place that Baker to the right of your Knight in your start display, and then, on your turn, Recruit that card with the hopes of placing it onto your pyramid structure.

So, a matching icon exercise, which in and of itself can lead to a dizzying array of possibilities, as you search for cards matching, at first, the icon displays on your starting five cards, and later, matching icon displays on cards you've added to the pyramid. All of this might be easy if all you had to do was pick cards until you found the right ones, but the effort is controlled by the actions you're allowed to take on your turn.

The Hire action (the Merchant; coin icon) is the easiest of the bunch. You look at the four cards in your hand and see that one of them has two, bottom corner icons that match two upper corner icons on adjacent cards in your display. You take that card in your hand, place it in the appropriate position on your pyramid and you're done.

The Recruit action (the Knight; shield icon) allows you to take a wooden marker and place it above the card (among four) you want on the Recruit board. If nobody else tries to claim that card, it'll be yours to take into your hand.

The Teach action (the Scholar; book icon), allows you to place a token of a given icon (bread, shield, book, coin) into a special 'academic' area of your board. Once you have put one of each of those icons into that area (no duplicates allowed), you'll get to take a Renaissance Man card and place it directly onto your pyramid; because the icons on the Renaissance Man represent all four of the icons, like a wild card, it automatically matches any two cards onto which you'll place it. You'll clear the 'academic' area and (perhaps) fill it up again for another Renaissance Man.

The Barter action (the Baker; bread icon) allows you to take a token of any icon (same token used in the Teach action) and place it in another special area of the board. On future turns, you can use one of these tokens to take the action, essentially an extra action, associated with it.

The final complication is associated with the fact that you will only be allowed to take a single action, per level of your developing pyramid. Everybody gets to pick an action of their choice at the start, from the four that are available. But once you have added to your pyramid by placing a card that covers two cards below it, the actions of those two lower cards are no longer available to you during the action phase of that level.

The game proceeds from everybody choosing an action from Level 1 of their pyramid (if one is available; if you've already built a complete second level, it covers the five start cards and no action is possible in the Level 1 action phase). Once everyone has completed an action from Level 1, everybody moves to possible actions available to them in Level 2, and so on, up the pyramid. It should be clear that as the game progresses, a player is going to have fewer and fewer actions from which to choose per turn, as fewer and fewer cards are exposed at the higher levels of the card pyramid. In fact, at the end, there will only be two possible actions; whichever two you've managed to place at that higher level. If one of those two is a Renaissance Man (no actions associated with it), the player will only be able to complete the pyramid with a single action (whatever that action happens to be, up there at the top). That player needs a very specific card to win the game. The bottom two icons of the final card, have to match the upper two icons on the cards that make up the pyramid's fourth level.

There's some potential for confusion in the action phases. Your choice of actions will be dependent on cards available on your pyramid. How you take those actions is dependent on the card icons on the cards in your hand. When, for example, you opt for a Recruit action (because a Knight card is uncovered at some level of your pyramid), you take a card of your choosing from your hand and discard it. You place a marker onto a space on the Recruit board that matches the top icon on the discard. You might be looking to recruit a Baker, whose bottom two icons match something you need to build the pyramid, but that Baker might be under a Shield icon on the Recruit Board. The card you discard to take the Recruit action has to have a shield icon on the top, so you can place a marker in the appropriate Shield position, above the Baker you want.

When you Teach, you discard a card, and place a token into the 'academic' area that matches the top icon of the card you've discarded. When you Barter, you discard a card and place the token that matches the top icon of your discard into the Barter (extra turn) area.

This is one of those times when something is almost as confusing as it sounds. The coordination effort necessary to match the actions you want to take, with the cards in your hand, and their represented icons, and figuring out how to order the whole process in a way that keeps your pyramid under steady construction is daunting, and as Steve noted, can make your head hurt.

A key element to this process is a rule that allows you to remove cards from your pyramid at any time. By so doing, you expose two cards underneath the one you've chosen to take off the pyramid, thereby allowing you to take the actions of the exposed cards during the appropriate action level of the pyramid. It's like taking a step backwards to provide you with preferable options for moving forward.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the game, once I'd settled into the idea that it wasn't going to be as easy as it looked from the instructions indicating that all I had to do was play 10 cards, pyramid fashion, onto my play area, and it'd be over. This is true, of course, though a classic example of something being easier said than done.

It's drawn some criticism from the BoardGameGeek crowd (141 ratings with a 6.08 average rating) for its lack of interaction and the luck factor of one's own card draws and the four cards available on the Recruit Board. It is something of a mad, logistical scramble in search of the cards you need to complete the task.

Renaissance Man, designed by Anthony Rubbo, with artwork by Martin Hoffman, Claus Stephen and Mirko Suzuki, is published by Rio Grande Games. It will be one of the games being demonstrated at Cafe Jay during the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA from August 4-9. It is playable as a solitaire game, and with up to four players, with a recommended age starting at 13. I continue to question the box top assertion that it can be completed in 30 minutes. The components (card stock, player boards, and meeples) are typically top-notch. Suggested retail is $34.95, with, as always, bargains to be found by the diligent shopper.