Designed by Philippe Keyaerts
Published by Jeux Descartes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
3 to 6 players
Vinci sets itself a tall order - to portray the rise and fall of civilisations in just a couple of hours. It goes about this in a novel way, mixing elements of older games such as the Britannia family and Risk, and spicing them up with the power/skill combinations we see in Magic The Gathering. The designer is unknown to me, but if this is his first game he has played a blinder, picking up the Sim D'Or prize (and a Sumo!) already and garnering much praise around the hobby. Which was how I learned of the title in the first place - word of mouth about what a good game this was. There was talk about Civilisation in two hours, and the next History of the World. Impressive. Then came some dissenting voices from the Bromley Mafia, so it had to be bought and tried. We liked it. It isn't a Great One, nor is it particularly exciting, but it is unusual and a new, appealing slant on the conquest theme.
The central driver in Vinci is the civilisation counters. Each civilisation has two, and the combination of these results in a distinct flavour for the emerging nation. They also display a number, which indicates the initial strength of the army (and there are no reinforcements coming either). Typical counters include agriculture, slavery, medicine, mountaineering (!) and diplomacy. Each trait delivers certain benefits, and sometimes the second chit is Specialisation which simply doubles the effects first. But it is the combinations that indicate what your tactics might be, how appealing the nation is to own, and where you might try to live on the map - geography, ports and resources play an important role, but every new empire must work its way in from the map edges. A civilisation with Field General and Weapons will make rapid gains against almost anyone. Ship Building and Currency makes for an interesting, expansive colonial policy. Mountaineering plus Fortification is going to lead to an empire of hermits.
So, yes, it is a little deterministic but the fun is in choosing, and running, the empire to the best of your ability. And for several games, even commanding several empires per game, you will see mainly new combinations - which is variety of the highest order. The great twist that enables this fluidity is that unlike Britannia, there is no fixed arrival schedule or forced maintenance of empires, nor is there any luck in the combat system - which cuts both ways. If you have a squirming runt of a kingdom, then you simply declare it 'in decline'. It scores you no more points, and you are free to start another, hopefully better, one somewhere else. New lamps for old, but a clever way of keeping the game flowing along, and stopping people whinging about poor fortune or bad decisions. Well, for too long anyway.
So how do you secure the empires? That is the other clever rule. At any time there are six empires on offer. In the style of ShowManager you can take the first one for free. Taking empires further down the 'queue' costs proportionately more victory points, knocked off your total immediately - so you have to be sure you are getting good value. Additionally, you sometimes get a victory point bonus if you take on a lost cause - the more times an empire is passed over and left unclaimed, the more valuable the premium. I am not quite sure how calculable this phase is, I suspect when one is familiar with the likely scores and terrain grabbing abilities you might be able to say, "Ooh, that's cheap for Astronomers with Espionage". Certainly the General seems to be a powerful chit, especially twinned with Militia we found. Looking wider, I can see this device being used elsewhere - and thinking back to Six Billion's neat victory point innovations, we have seen considerable design progress this year. And of course I wouldn't (if I were Jeux Descartes) rule out future expansion sets of new civilisation chits and maps. I'd buy them!
"With easy to learn rules and beautiful game components" says the box blurb. Umm, yes. The rules are actually okay, but just about everyone raises valid rule questions. There is already a web site that caters for official clarifications and errata, but when you encounter a problem in the game, I suggest you make a house rule and move on. As for beauty, I think they had the dictionary upside down. Beautiful Vinci isn't. The box art is poorly done, the counters are merely okay, and the board is truly awful - a splodge of clashing colours, that does nothing to enhance the game. In fact, just about everybody thought it horrendous.
The added factor here is that the board clearly shows Europe, albeit abstracted. What this means is that gamers attuned to history will be thinking, hmm, who are these people meant to be then? They sound like Assyrians but they are starting in Sweden. To be honest, it didn't worry me too much. But I think the game could have gone two ways - more historical, in which case you lose the random flavour of the chit combinations, or completely ahistorical which means one is left to do the imagining from scratch, rather than having the jarring sight of Caesarean Romans starting in Ireland. It might also have been interesting to have had a tile-based random map, along the lines of Lords of Creation or Games Workshop's old Mighty Empires. That would have neatly moved us away from Europe, and given a new map each time to thwart the perfect planners completely.
Where the game goes a little awry, in almost exactly the same way as some of Fanfor's efforts, is in the scoring system. The winner is the first to 100 points, accrued through control of provinces plus bonuses from your chits. As the game is based on combat, and broadly free placement often allows you to get at players in the lead, the end game can drag on. As my learned friend Rick Heli says (and I can express it no better), "For a game which allows this much direct attacking of player positions as this one, players should not be aiming to reach a pre-determined point total like 100. This will work okay in a game like Settlers where the only means of attack are indirect, but here it just sets up all kinds of long and weird analyses that don't reward skill but do tend to spoil the game. There is a lot of blackmailing going on, for example, as every player must make sure that the player to their left does not 'go out', but everyone else further right may tend to totally ignore that possibility. There are a number of ways to fix it: you could fix the number of turns ahead of time; you could make the current point totals secret as in Tigris; or maybe the best suggestion is that any time anyone ends a turn with 80 or more points they roll a 20-sided die. If the score plus the die is 100 or over, the game ends on that turn."
Vinci's highlights are the civilisation chits, in combination and individually, the victory point bids and the ever changing situation - intra game, and inter game. Where Vinci also scores is in delivering a veneer of diverting historicity, some interesting tactical choices, a lot of action and decision making in a short time frame. Okay, so it is not the toughest game in the world, and many will point at the uninspired (but entirely reasonable) combat system, but it works, and it retains the attention throughout. There is much that is clever, and almost everyone has enjoyed it. With rapid play by all concerned, it can be done and dusted in ninety minutes; with slower players or much combat, it is nearer two hours. And that is ideal. But like History of the World and many other games, there can be a lot of downtime between turns.
Vinci has flaws, but overall it is a breath of fresh air. We have waited a long time to see designers take existing systems, combine and improve them, so that these elegant, streamlined games emerge. I hesitate to term them second or third generation, because I haven't yet worked out what the first or second is. So 'post modern' may be better for now. Vinci is clean, quick and interesting to play. It's an empire game, so I am contractually obliged to mention 'ebb, flow and high water mark'. It packs a lot of gaming into 90 minutes and those of us of a historical bent can easily imagine the types of civilisations portrayed, if not their home town - and they at least have flavour. Conversely, I suspect it would benefit from an absence of history, the victory criteria needs fixing, and the art director should be ashamed, fired or both. But this is a game that most will enjoy, that I am sure rewards good play, it has little luck to speak of, and it is certainly one of my favourite games of this year. Recommended.
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The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell