Saludos, Amigos!

Published by GoldSieber
Designed by Peter Lewe
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2-7 players
60 mins

Over the years I have made a number of jokes about the most boring game subjects. The winner, by a long chalk, is a game I once owned about obtaining planning permission. Terminally dull did not begin to describe this one. But sure enough, as the European game market plumbs ever more obscure subjects, we now have another game on this very subject. Being German (Vorsprung Durch Technik and all that), it does at least make a valiant stab at being interesting, and in most respects it works well enough. However, and this will be sufficient to stop many of you reading further, it is a negotiation game. And not just a little bit of haggling here and there either, it's present all the way through. In fact, it is right out of the Intrige, Rette and Diplomacy drawer. Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting systems here and the game fairly rattles along, so all may not be lost.

Saludos is based on a Bavarian property scandal, in which it seems backhanders were proffered and accepted to build a number of new buildings in beautiful mountain scenery. The game's theme therefore concerns obtaining permission for various hideous developments, and greasing their progress through the local council planning body. You, as the senior councillors, aim to extract as much money as you can while not being exposed in the newspapers, or out-manoeuvred by your rivals on the committee. The player who has the most money when the game ends is the winner.

Each player starts the game with three identical councillor cards valued between 1 and 3. These are kept face down initially. Each player rolls a die and adds this number to the cards, with each councillor counting one - this gives each player their negotiating strength for that turn. A counter is drawn from a bag which will depict a section of one of the six buildings under construction. These vary from a single house to a huge power station. Each piece placed has a bribe value attached, which vary according to building size and which increase further the closer each structure comes to completion. So, an early part of the thermal baths might be worth 6 million and it is this amount that is up for grabs in this example turn.

It is now the job of the players to form a coalition that will give them a majority of influence in the council (by adding their votes together), thus squeezing out any rivals and bagging the cash. So, on turn one, Anna rolls 6 (giving nine total), Bert 4 (7), Colin 1 (4) and Deirdre 5 (8). Colin has the worst possible roll, so exercises his repeatable option to discard one councillor in exchange for a re-roll. He rolls a 4, giving him 6 (two councillors left). The players now make a deal and the result is that Anna and Bert combine for 16 and agree to split the money 4:2 respectively. The losers, Colin and Deirdre, have a total of 14 so trail by two in the council. If nothing else happens, the winning coalition gets to divide up the spoils between themselves, the losers each take a new councillor card as consolation and the next turn starts. In this way, the balance of power gradually shifts - if you keep losing, you will be building up your opposition forces for a spell in power, ready to milk as much as you can. However, before that happens the losers also get the chance to contest planning permission in a special council session.

The penultimate phase of the turn then, often passed up, is the challenge. If the losing coalition believe that they really have enough secret clout on the council, Kremlin style, they can propose a challenge to the planning deal. In the same way as the majority coalition, the opposition agrees to split up the income should they win. If the challenge goes ahead, everyone secretly places a number of councillors into the fray, but this time instead of being worth just one vote each, they show their true worth by turning over to reveal their numbers. The totals are added up and compared, and if the challengers manage to make up the previous shortfall and surpass any councillors played by the previous winners, they are successful and bag the loot. The drawback, for all concerned, is that once revealed and used councillor cards are removed from the game, usually leaving you to lick your wounds and build up again from scratch. The challenges are therefore not to be taken lightly, but negotiations will usually indicate whether you have any chance.

And that's it. Money is allocated each turn, the game rolls on, and power shifts continuously. Finally, there is a twist in the basic mechanism. In the bag with the building sections are three journalist counters. When one of these is pulled, the player with the lowest number of councillors is identified. Anyone with more councillors than the lowest loses the difference in millions - a major drawback to building up huge council forces. So given that you will only be playing this one if you enjoy negotiation games, you may now be concluding that this is a game to buy. Unfortunately, two of the better ideas are actually counter-productive and the end game is almost laughable.

The first failing is the die roll. This can vary between one and six, which added to your councillors quickly determines who is in power that turn. It often matters little how many councillors you have (since you will usually have just a handful), as a six will put you in the chair, or at least be attractive as a partner to the number one. A one, conversely, will see you looking around for equally powerless allies. The option to re-roll is a useful one, but seems to seldom be exercised since the cost is high. The only wider factor is whether you really want to team up with a player who is close to you, or even ahead, but since a short term majority is almost certainly a guarantee of income, it takes little thought to team up and ditch your previous friends. A fickle approach for sure, but since the situation changes every turn it shouldn't matter too much. The second factor is the otherwise rather nice newspaper mechanism for evening out the players. It certainly acts as a disincentive to hold a lot of councillors, but it also tends to penalise on a random basis - you can get caught out with a lot of councillors in last place just as easily as you can in first.

Finally, the end game really has problems. A player ahead overall in the game gets no help from the others, and his only chance is to make a challenge alone or plead to join a money making coalition. Naturally, in the way of these things, he is totally ignored until he drops to the back of the rankings, or close to it. Then the same process is repeated on the new leader with the game inching along to a close. It's like the death of a thousand cuts. The saving grace is the sudden death ending (two journalists appear after four buildings are completed, spilling the beans) which is essential for this reason as most players have negotiated quite enough for one evening at that point.This is a little ironic since the game takes much less than an hour, sometimes much less, but by that time you have had enough of the mechanistic coalitions and deciding who to be nasty to next.

I have played this game three times, with four and five players. As it handles up to seven, a useful number, I'd like to try it again with the full complement since that may well be an improvement - it strikes me the more groups there are struggling for power, the more coalition combinations there will be. But quite how it works with two, I haven't yet fathomed. As for results, one group never even gave the game a chance and it died quickly, almost in silence. Group two got into the spirit and we found it a good laugh, but we did hit problems towards the end. Group three really enjoyed it, but this was because we had five players, a runaway winner, and everyone else was able to gang up to try and stop him. Personally, in the sprit of testing, I rather enjoyed it for a couple of outings but it isn't my sort of game. However, thanks to the fact you never actually lie (negotiation is just offer and counter offer), and with the die rolls quickly indicating who might join with who, I think the system is light enough not to worry too much about shifting alliances and bad blood. Indeed anyone taking it too seriously will have misjudged the game. But with all that said, if you don't like negotiating and picking on other players, then this game will not suit you, so don't buy it. For the rest of you, this isn't a patch on Rette as far as mechanisms and flavour go, and I'd recommend that over Saludos every time.

Production is very nice indeed, and for the price it puts the likes of El Grande to shame. I suspect we are however looking at substantially higher print runs than Hans im Gluck's 5 or 6,000. The thick card components are well printed in glorious colour, and they supply a little felt bag from which the tiles are drawn. You even get a little beer stein and a cardboard pretzel as markers, which at least tells you where the game is aimed. The rules are weird, being written in a Bayerische dialect which I found impenetrable. However, The Rules Bank already has a couple of English rule sets from Messrs Dwyer and Mellor which are crystal clear. Thank you, gentlemen.

Saludos Amigos is a game with a number of interesting mechanisms that don't quite mesh to form an overall system. It plays quite well, is quick and with the right group it can be an awful lot of fun. However, just to re-state beyond doubt, it is a negotiation game which will immediately turn many of you off and with the wrong group it will die a quick and painful death - if it makes it out of the box. And it isn't even a particularly good negotiation game compared to Rette. Add this to the reservations mentioned above and we have a simplish game that, as good as it is in parts, cannot really be recommended unless you are a fan of the genre and are willing to tweak it a bit for optimum performance. Looking wider, I have now played six Goldsieber titles which, taken as a whole, have shown much promise but have failed to deliver for the hobby market. I am sure they go down a storm in the family sector, but I for one will be rather more cautious when these big, tempting boxes appear on the shelf.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell