Sala Games, c.£9

When Alan Moon calls to say that a whole bunch of gamers, himself included, have completely flipped over a new game, it seems a wise move to get hold of it and see what all the fuss is about. The game in question is Koalition, one of the first releases from Salagames which is the reborn Hexagames, apparently the same in nearly all respects except that the logo is round instead of hexagonal.

Koalition is a card game that will warm the cockles of the federalists amongst you. It concerns elections in the twelve European countries featuring a number of parties and is a game of tactical card play, rapid mental arithmetic, planning and negotiation.

The main game mechanic is simplicity itself, but the number of influential factors is by no means trivial. Each player is dealt a number of cards, sufficient to play two politicians per country for the coming round of three or four elections - cards are replenished for subsequent phases. Politicians represent one of a number of pan-European parties and vary in stature from 12 down to 1. A player will use candidates of all parties from his hand to obtain victory points by winning or sharing victory in coalition governments. A country card is turned over (the larger countries such as Germany and France carry more points than the likes of Greece) and players take turns to lay one politician and then another in two separate rounds.

The result, taking our five player games as an example, is ten politicians contesting the country in question. Their varied factors, representing votes cast, are added into a grand total and also analysed into the strengths of the respective parties. In order to gain victory, one party or a coalition needs to achieve a simple majority. For one party to achieve this is rare, but entirely possible, and any players involved will share the victory points proportional to the votes contributed to the win. That is, the player with the most party votes wins the lion's share, the next highest gets a lower amount and so on down to fourth if appropriate. We played it that anyone below fourth didn't score, but the rules seem a little unclear on this. If no single party can gain the win, the more usual phase of negotiation begins, headed up by the players with the most votes in each party as spokesmen.

Each party has a fixed list of opposing parties with which it can ally. This gives rise to one or more party combinations that may be able to win so negotiations immediately start with the aim of getting a personal slice of the pie. Leverage over other parties is not extensive, and often revolves around players doing well overall being excluded or deals for future turns, but in the main it is down to a clearcut decision on the best deal for yourself. So the end result is that one or more of the spokesmen decide on a coalition deal and the points are distributed in the same way as a single party victory, except all parties in the coalition can score.

There are a couple of twists to the above system, mainly revolving around the 'x2' politicians that will both double a party's votes and who also automatically become the spokesman. There are also scandal cards that can be played on the highest rated politician removing them from the election and the mysterious, floating Gaudino Colorino who can join in with anyone that is winning, much like Herr Genscher.

Given the above, the tactics have to be considered right from the initial deal. The countries obviously come along at random so there is a need to conserve cards for any forthcoming important elections for fear of being blown out, though you can occasionally work something out even with duff cards. When deciding which cards to play, you need to watch what has already been laid and decide whether to jump on a forming party bandwagon or try to set up a rival faction. This is of course difficult if you have to lead the round or play early on, giving you a large disadvantage and a tendency to lead small value cards, so we revolved this responsibility for each election. Once the first round of cards are down, there is often some pattern in evidence and the stronger cards should then start to appear.

Card play is geared to two levels; you are trying to win the elections and build up a steady stream of victory points, but you also need to watch the cardplay of players ahead of you in the game and also monitor the possibility of a hung vote and the chance to play a small card that might swing it in your favour and bring you into the points equation. It is also possible (even desirable), as in Bridge, to 'duck' early rounds to confuse the opposition and save your good cards for later, hopefully uncontested, countries. You can also play the risky double bluff of trying to probe or draw out large cards in the hope of a future win with your lower ranked politicians. Suffice to say there are probably more than enough strategies to discover and at last there is a new card game that I can truly say offers decent play depth. Koalition should keep you occupied for half a dozen games at the very least, though I guess it could easily be a lot more before the tactics become stale.

For a game that comes in a little card game box, it is well produced. The politician cards have some well drawn charicatures and the names are meant to be vaguely humorous in that unfathomable European way. I may be mistaken, but a number of famous people are featured - game designer Alex Randolph for one. The English rules do have a few problems as they stand (and I have a nagging doubt that something important might be missing) but these can be resolved with a look at the German picture examples and a new version is in the works. At the end of the day, you basically get a pack of cards for the now traditional £8 or £9 but at least this one works well enough to play.

To describe the overall feel of the game, I will use an adjective that should gain weight as a one word encapsulation of a game system. The word in question is Teutonic and, while in no way always complimentary, it applies to games such as Die Macher, Extrablatt and Adel which have a large number of variables for consideration and an essentially mechanical, slightly abstract, often repetitive structure. Koalition is undoubtedly Teutonic in nature but it is also light enough and interesting enough to offer good play balance. It is sufficiently short at about an hour to keep the interest up throughout and although one should really view it as nothing much more than a card game, it also stands as an interesting vehicle for interactive negotiation while preserving Trump-like clarity in the deal making processes.

I have to say Koalition is an impressively clever system (more so as a 'small' game) but it does not strike me as outstanding, essentially because of the intricate but, I suspect, ultimately restricted tactics. That said, it has no real problems, works well and can be played at several skill levels without great loss and luck tends to even out with good play. It is certainly more substantial than many recent German card games but definitely does not offer the broader strategies of Extrablatt or, mixing categories, something like 18xx. My only slight worry, beyond the closed system, is that its Teutonic qualities are rather pervasive and I wonder if the embarrassment of factors to be considered is being confused with those of a good game. Extrablatt had the same 'strengths' but, with extended play, the realisation is that in order to consider all the options, the game will grind to a halt or require a computer-like brain. Whatever, the answer will only emerge with further play, which I am happy to undertake. Recommended.

On to the review of Advanced Civilization or back to the review of Der Fliegende Hollaender.

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