Jumbo, around £20
Designed by Reinhard Herbert
3-5 Players, about 60 minutes
Reviewed (after a fashion) by Mike Siggins

I promised a full review of Rheingold but I doubt it is ever going to happen for reasons that I mention below, so I'll go with some abbreviated comments instead.

Rheingold is basically a Castle Risk style game without the dice combat. It could well be re-appearing soon in an English variant known as Highlanders. Typically for a Jumbo production, quality is high yet it carries a reasonable price tag. The board depicts, rather fetchingly, seventeen castles on or near the Rhine. These are given point values depending on their size or importance, ranging between 1 and 3. The castles are linked to numerous movement areas by tracks (as in A House Divided), meaning that some of the castles are in powerful positions (especially those providing or guarding a river bridge) and others are stuck out on a limb. At the start of the game, the castles aren't owned by anyone and the winner of the game is the one with the most points of captured castles at the end of the game.

The only twists are that the player taking the penultimate unoccupied castle is given the last one for free, thereby ending the game (usually within the hour) and that there are no armies present on the board at the start of the game. These appear, for each of the 3-5 players, at a rate of one per turn. A die is rolled and an army is placed into one of the six corresponding arrival boxes located around the edges of the map. These equate to a type of strategic movement area where no combat is permitted. In this way, you gradually build armies and deploy them, though without ever having the luxury of accurately placing reinforcements just as you desperately need one in the South, you roll a man in the North and another turn slips by. With regard to reality, Rheingold has very little going for it and is really a heavily abstracted multi-player combat system attached to a loose, but fitting, theme. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to rationalise most of what is going on which doesn't help my enjoyment of the game.

Movement is basic. You have three movement points with which to move one army (or group of armies) three spaces, three armies one space or any combination thereof. Combat is as simple as moving up to a smaller group of armies and stomping them, so two beats one, eleven beats ten. Being equal is no good in this situation you can't move in which leads to blocking ploys and a lot of running away as reinforcements eventually come up. Victory in battle is automatic (without so much as a die roll) and the defenders are removed from the board. Losing a big battle, say a twelve man army beating your ten, can be decisive if nothing else it is ten moves worth of armies down the tubes. Oddly, the game isn't too prone to Risk Mobile Army/Big Stack problems as their range is always limited. Additionally, single armies thrown in their path will stop them at small cost due to combat being the last action in the turn with no 'overrun' movement allowed.

The key to the game, and the way to win, is taking those castles. When the castles are neutral, you only have to attack with twice the point value between two and six armies being required to conduct a siege which, like combat, is instantaneous. Once taken, you occupy it with one of your shield counters (valued between 0 and 3, selected randomly, which only you know the value of), plus a garrison of at least one army. Any further attacks on that castle must again double the combined value of the garrison, except now the shield is added into the equation, being revealed only to the attacker in the event of his failure. If the attacker fails, he loses all his men. If he guesses right (or deploys enough to guarantee victory, ie (((Garrison+3) x 2)+1) he moves a garrison in and puts in one of his own shields. These changes of ownership continue all game until all the castles are full, but in reality castles don't change hands very often. Instead, players tend to prefer open country combat (if anything) and grabbing neutral strongholds all of which means a quiet, relatively unexciting game.

Rheingold has some interesting ideas, not least the hidden values of the castles, but at the end of the day it lacks a logical backbone and a spark. Unlike Kamchatka in Risk, it does not provoke a response while defending the Marksburg and the lack of dice (and last man stands) is a big factor here. Beyond the graphics, it has no identifiable charisma, it is dry and clinical and it has blobs instead of little medieval soldiers. It is also Teutonic and abstract. And all this, deep down, is the problem. The game is playable (6 or 7 times now), inoffensive and yet largely uninspiring. I still don't know if I actually like it, but I don't dislike it. There is nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't make you leap around for joy. This is why this review is staccato and inconclusive my emotions have not been engaged either way.

The best suggestion I can make, to pull the game out of anonymity, is to use the official Six Castles variant which ends the game when one player has six castles to his name. This seems on the surface to be a way of shortening the game when it doesn't need to be shortened, but in reality forces a sudden death, cutthroat game that is in no way encouraged by the standard rules. Indeed, I have seen an entire normal game go by with not one battle lots of scurrying away and frantic agreements, but no real action. The Six Castles rule is enough to make everyone point to the leader and say, 'He only needs two more to win', and miraculously people start piling in all over sieges are attempted, big battles are fought, players fall out and the game goes up a gear. Try it, please let me know what you think and while you're at it, let me know why the standard game is quite so unprepossessing.

On to the InsidePitch or back to the review of Pro Action Football.

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