When you see the box, components and theme, Minos instantly looks like a winner. It also represents something of an unusual departure for Ravensburger as it is very much a game for adults and game groups rather than the family games they are presently known for. Perhaps this is because Minos is a bought-in product from the Flying Turtle design team and, most unusual of all for a German game, it features a limited amount of combat. Unusual it may be, but whether it remains a winner is debatable.
At first glance, Minos appears to be a simplified version of Civilisation. The map covers similar territory, that is the land masses adjoining the Mediterranean, which are divided into irregular crazy paving sections in much the same graphic style as the Tresham classic. The game also features comparable ancient races with cities and armies for each player to control. Beyond that though, there are few similarities in actual play mechanics but the general theme is close enough to see where the inspiration probably came from.
As usual, Ravensburger's production values are first class. The map is excellent, with clear and impressive graphics. Counters are made from crystal plastic and the little city pieces all stack up and interlock neatly. There are six special dice, more on which later, and a whole boxful of coins representing the all important talents. As ever, half the battle is won as you lay this little lot out.
The idea of the game is to be the civilisation with the highest income when all settlements have been established and there are two major cities anywhere on the board. The cities are the mark of income and how powerful and rich your empire is. They build up in stages, with the higher levels costing progressively more. Cities can be built with different sub-units such as harbours (for generating ships), residential buildings (soldiers), warehouses (extra income) or city walls.
Each player starts with just one ship from which his entire empire will spring. This is not unusual, but the way this happens is, because the turn mechanism in the game is based on poker dice. To start his turn, each player makes up to three rolls of the six special dice, putting aside any dice after each throw those that he wishes to keep. The die faces feature a symbol representing one of movement, income, combat, building and two types of joker. Movement gives you a number of points to move armies and navies; Building enables you to found or improve cities; income generates, er, talents; combat allows you take battle rings which equate to supply necessary for war. Finally, there are jokers that can be used in restricted combinations with other symbols, usually just providing an incremental benefit or doubling up.
The key then is to try and optimise the combinations of movement, income, building and so on that you need for the current phase of the game. If you are short of money, you may try to roll for all scale symbols and jokers to earn maximum income. If you are planning a campaign, you should be acquiring as many battle rings (aka Donuts) as possible to prolong your fighting capability. If you want to expand your empire, you will need a mix of movement and building dice, and so on.
In the same way that you won't always get a full house in poker dice, sometimes you will get dice that are useless and, rarely, you will get to do nothing useful at all. I rather liked this whole idea of generating your actions with elements of player control and fate cleverly worked in. I even started thinking about it for use in other games, perhaps as a method of command control using just one roll. Anyway, it's fine for a bit but rolling three lots of dice and thinking in between each one can take time and, by the end, I felt most of the initial excitement had been replaced by a desire to get the right dice rolled and on with the game.
The end result of the rolls is a combination of actions possible for that turn that can be played in any order. So, having sorted out the dice combination, you have the elements of your move clearly laid out in front of you. You may then move around the map with your units (doing battle en route), found cities in any of the marked development areas (nearly all on the coast, connected by march routes) or claim gold as determined by the size of your current empire.
Later in the game, when large settlements are generating a number of armies, enforced combat will probably not be far away whether you are defending your towns or making sorties to capture them. Like the turn sequence, combat resolution is a unique but heavily abstracted system which feels rather like Pontoon - you'll see why in a moment. A typical battle will see a stationary army holding a city. Casually walking along the road in line astern are perhaps five enemy units. These attack one by one and if any one of them wins, the city is theirs and adds to their empire. If they lose, the next attacker may move in to try his luck until a result is known.
The combat itself uses the same special dice. The attacker rolls and tries to score as many scoring combat symbols as he can on the dice. To expand, you score three points for an arrow, two points for a joker, one for a star, giving you a combat value. The clever part is that if you don't think this is high enough, you pay a supply donut and re-roll the non-scoring dice. This is possible for as many turns as you want to spend donuts (which accordingly have a certain rarity value). However, the twist is if at any time you roll a scale, that dice is no longer available for re-rolls. Ultimately, either by choice, by spending all your donuts or by rolling scales, you will have a combat value on which you declare, or stick, to use the Pontoon phrasing. The defender then tries to beat your total for the win. Original and not too realistic, but this is a Ravensburger game after all. Again though, quite time consuming.
All this may sound fairly intricate, but in fact the game cranks along and easily plays in 90 minutes or less. Unlike most expanding multi-player games, there is a speeding up towards the game end as money is plentiful, settlements therefore become easier to build and, usually, the tactics are pretty clear cut with dominant players in evidence. At that point, you either go out and delay the leaders or lose. This would all be straightforward except for the fact that there is a long lead time on building up armies and getting them to sensitive points. We found that once you see a need to intervene, it is often too late. Were we to play again, this would probably give rise to more considered play and early stuffing of neighbours, powerful or otherwise.
Overall, I found Minos to be an original but slightly flawed, unspectacular game. It is also strikes me as something of an oddity for Ravensburger, but that hardly matters. The real problems are in the die rolling that, while initially interesting and appealing, loses its flavour and takes too long with people dithering. Combat aggravates this still further. Worse is the lack of interaction between players. In the three player game we tried, it would have been quite possible for one or even two players to build up steadily to a win without even coming into contact with another race. The only reason it didn't happen was that we wanted to try the combat rules, so purposely picked on neighbours. Played more aggressively (trying to reduce an opponent's cities and claiming them for your empire) with four it could be better due to the more crowded map but the temptation, as with Full Metal Planete, is to keep yourself to yourself and go quickly for the passive win.
In terms of purchasing decisions, it is difficult to call this one. I was lucky enough to play it before I laid out money and haven't bought it subsequently which I guess says a lot. If I see it more cheaply at Essen (say for £10-£15) I might buy one and try it again, but only with four players who were prepared to mix it a bit. Otherwise, considering the likely UK price of £25, I'd say, on balance, you can probably live without it.
On to the review of Race To Win or back to the review of Final Score.
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