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Review: San Marco - Agonizing Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

December 31, 2005

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Whether to go for a banishment and transfer, or to build a bridge and move the Doge? How many limit points to take? Which regions to go after; should it be Santa Croce and Dorsoduro or Castello and San Polo? What is everyone else going to try to do? These are just some of the many questions you will face during a game of San Marco. What difficult, agonizing questions the game poses, and what brain-burning fun it is.

First things first, what are you getting in the box and what does it cost? San Marco comes with 1 game board, 100 aristocrat blocks (25 in each of four different colors), 8 prestige markers, 12 plastic bridges, 62 action cards, 28 limit cards, 1 doge figure, 1 die, and 1 phase marker. San Marco retails for $35.00. The components are generally very good. The board is absolutely gorgeous, with very attractive colors, and is also functional, and not too distracting. While the aristocrat blocks are a bit too small, this seems to be a common problem with eurogames. The bridges would be nicer if they were made out of wood, but the plastic bridges serve their purpose. The cards are small, but workable, and the images on them are clear enough to convey their meaning without being too cryptic. Finally, you may recognize the doge from Princes of Florence. Overall, the components are good (especially the board), but not exceptional.

So what are you doing for 90 minutes surrounded by all these tiny aristocrats? San Marco is an area control game, with a twist. There are six different areas in the game, separated by the Canal Grande, over which players will build bridges to connect the regions. Players earn prestige points by having the most or second-most aristocrats in a region when it is scored. The game is played over three phases, which are subdivided into rounds. During each round, two players are assigned the role of Distributor, and the other two players are given the role of Decision-Maker (for a four-player game; alternatively, in a three-player game, one player is Distributor and the other two are Decision-Makers in each round). Each Distributor receives 5 action cards and 3 limit cards, and divides them into two piles in any way that he or she chooses. In a 3-player game, the Distributor receives 6 action cards and 4 limit cards, and divides them into three piles. Each Decision-Maker then chooses either pile of cards, and the Distributor receives the remaining pile of cards. This mechanism in which one player divides a set of goods and the other player chooses which set of goods to take and which set to leave is the heart and soul of this game. While San Marco is an area control game on its face, itís really a game of psychology in which you try to figure out what the other player will want and how to divide the cards to make sure you get what you want.

There are only five different types of action cards. First, there are region cards for each of the six different regions, which allow you to play one aristocrat in the depicted region. Second, there are transfer cards, which allow you to transform one opposing aristocrat to your color. Third, there are banishment cards, which allow you to pick a region, role the die, and remove that many aristocrats (the starting setup and banishments are the main source of luck in the game, besides luck of the draw, which is mitigated by the splitting/choosing mechanic). Fourth, there are bridge cards, which allow you to build a bridge connecting any two regions, and bridges increase the flexibility of region cards, allowing you to place aristocrats in neighboring regions, and allow you to move the doge. Finally, there are doge cards, which allow you to score one region, but only those which can be accessed by crossing bridges (and paying tolls for using opponentís bridges).

The limit cards show either the number 1, 2, or 3, and in contrast to the action cards, are harmful. Basically, when someone reaches 10 or more limit points, the end of the phase is triggered. Anyone with less than 10 limit points gets to play in one final bonus round, and anyone with less than 10 limit points gets bonus prestige points equal to the difference between their total limit points and the most that anyone has, and the person with the fewest limit points also gets one free banishment. Why would anyone take limit points you might ask? The answer is that the Distributor will inevitably put more limit points with the better action cards, so you have to decide whether itís worth forgoing all the benefits of having fewer limit points to take the better pile of action cards. The trick is that itís not always clear which is the better pile.

What makes San Marco so great anyway? The key to San Marco lies in the unique divide/choose mechanic, which gives players different roles (Distributor or Decision-Maker) each turn, both of which present very difficult decisions. The Distributor is presented with a handful of cards, which he can divide any way he chooses. Itís necessary to analyze not only your own position, but also your opponentís, which makes this game anything but multiplayer solitaire. Itís necessary to discern your opponentís goals and strategies, and try to build a pile of cards that will tempt them, but wonít be too powerful. Itís necessary to figure out exactly what theyíll do before they even know it themselves. The scoring for the game is also very unique and makes the game interesting. You can have control of plenty of regions, but thereís no guarantee that those regions will score you any points, because rather than intermittently scoring all of the regions, scoring only happens in individual regions each time a Doge card is used. Moreover, the rules for ties make scoring even more interesting. If two players tie for the most aristocrats in a region then they both get the amount of prestige points normally allocated to the second place person. However, if two players tie for the second most aristocrats in a region then they get nothing at all. Since the points for first and second place are not very different, this makes all of the players strive not only to get the most in a region, but also to try to have the other players tied for second. Hence, players are once again forced to constantly consider and analyze their opponentís positions in order to avoid giving away points when scoring the regions they control.

San Marco is not a game for players who donít want to pay attention or who may be distracted. San Marco requires careful attention and scrutiny, but rewards players with agonizing decisions, followed by more decisions, and then some more on top of that. This is truly a game where you will control your fate, as long as you keep a watchful eye on your opponents, and figure out his plans before he knows them himself.

(See this Review for this article plus additional comments on it)