|From:Kosmos Cost:$29 Players: 3-4 Playing Time: 30-45 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Reviewed by: Ben Baldanza, Issue 5.2 (18), Spring 1998|
Wettstreit der Baumeister ("The Noble Competition of Architects") is an auction-based game in which 3 or 4 players each take on the role of city planner. Each building in their city is represented on a card which is well made and very nicely illustrated. As the game progresses, each player lays buildings (cards) side-by-side as they attempt to build a complete city to be scored at the end of the game. In the course of the game, saboteurs can destroy buildings already laid or require bribes to keep them. Each building is worth a designated number of points, and there are three specific bonuses available if the final city meets certain design specifications. High score wins.
The game consists of a single die, money tokens (thalers), shields to hide each player's money, and 40 building cards. The cards include Town Halls, Gates (which when laid produce one or two additional thalers for the player on their turn), Churches, and Towers (which provide defense against the saboteur). The towers come in two types: center towers for the middle of the city and right and left end towers.
At the beginning of the game, each person is given 10 thalers (gold tokens are worth 3 and white tokens worth 1 each), and a shield to hide their money. On the inside of the shield, the distribution of the building cards is printed which helps determine the likelihood of success in finding the building you need before the game ends. The 40 building cards are shuffled and laid out in two equal piles, one face-up and one face-down. On each person's turn, they can take three steps: get thalers or a saboteur by rolling the die (required); auction a building card from one of the two stacks (required); and build a piece of their city or sabotage another player's city or hand (optional).
The die has faces of 1-5 and a black dot. If a number is rolled, the player takes that amount of thalers. If the black dot is rolled, the player takes one of the saboteur markers and places it in front of his shield. (If no markers are left, he takes one from the person with the most saboteurs stocked up in front of their shield). A Gate which has been played also generates one or two thalers per turn in addition to the die roll. Then the auction begins.
The player chooses to auction a card from either the face-up stack or the face-down stack. In either case, the bidding goes around until all players pass. Once passing, a player cannot re-enter the bid. The high bidder pays his bid, one half to the bank and one half to the auctioneer (rounded up to the auctioneer). If the auctioneer places the high bid, all money is paid to the bank. The process is straight-forward in a bid for the top card of the face-up stack.
If the player chooses to auction a card from the face-down stack, he first looks at the card and then must place a bid for it. If someone else bids, when it gets back to him he must tell the type of building, but no other details (for example, "a gate," but not "a gate which produces two thalers and is worth 3 points.") No other information is shared and the auction completes as before. No player other than the auctioneer and the buyer see the card until, of course, it is played.
After completing the auction, the player can build or sabotage. If they build, several rules must be followed. First, a maximum of three buildings can be laid in one turn. Second, once placed a building cannot be moved. Third, two buildings of the same type cannot be placed next to each other (all towers are considered one type). Fourth, End Towers can only be placed on their respective ends. Fifth, each city can contain only one Town Hall. If the player doesn't build and has an available saboteur, he can sabotage another player.
If a sabotage is made, the player must sabotage the least-defended city. Defense comes from towers, each of which has a designated number of shields. In case of a tie, the attacker can choose which city to sabotage. The marker is placed on one building in the city, and the die is tossed. If the black dot is rolled, the building is removed and placed at the bottom of the shortest stack. If a 1 or 2 is rolled, the sabotage is ineffective and the saboteur marker is placed back in the bank to be used again. If a 3, 4, or 5 is rolled, the saboteur must be bribed by paying the attacker the value of the building card in thalers or otherwise the building is removed. Having a building removed by a saboteur is the only way to have gaps in a city. These gaps can be filled in later, and need to be if you want to score any points. Alternatively, the saboteur can attack any player who is holding more than 5 cards. The saboteur randomly chooses one card and places it at the bottom of the shortest deck. Towers do not defend a player's hand!
The game ends when either of the two stacks is depleted. After this final auction, the auctioning player finishes their turn as normal. Each player then gets the opportunity for one more build session (up to three cards) but no sabotages. Each city is scored the value of its building points, plus up to three bonuses: 10 points if the city has a Town Hall exactly in the center, 5 points if there are the same number of churches on each side of the Town Hall (zero churches don't count), and 5 points if the two end towers have the same value. From this total, the value of cards held the hand is subtracted. Highest total score wins.
The game flows very nicely and has a number of excellent features. The auction process lends itself to a number of interesting situations. As the auctioneer, you must first choose to auction either the face-up or face-down card. If you choose the face-down, you're committed to making a bid. If you drop out, you're out for good which can encourage higher bidding for the face-down card, until the auctioneer says "it's an end tower" and you already have your two! Since half of each bid is paid to the bank, you never seem to have a huge stash of money to ensure that you'll be able to get the high-point church when it comes up. At the end of the game your money is worthless so it's usually best to bid aggressively. In general, it's not a good strategy to wait for only the highest point value buildings, but note that the largest variance in value is on the Churches.
The card distribution is very well thought out. There are only 8 churches, so in a four player game at least one person better hope that all eight become available before the game ends or risk losing the "equal number of churches" bonus. Odds are everyone will get an end tower, but will they be of the same value to score the bonus? This bonus is very clever: it can keep players in the market for end towers even after they have one each, since the 5 point bonus is greater than the cost of having one extra end tower in your hand at the end.
There is decent strategy in the choice of Town Halls, too. Since every player wants one, but only one, it can be wise to wait until all other players have theirs before you bid, since you'll get it cheap. There is risk, though, in a Town Hall not coming up before one stack empties. Also, having the Town Hall earlier makes it easier to lay out the city and plan well without running out of turns to build. A player with a sizable lead may even choose to hold a second Town Hall to help ensure that an opposing city will have no government, but I find it unlikely that this strategy would pay off too often.
Players must make careful choices in deciding when to build. Gates do not pay off until they're built, but like all buildings once built cannot be moved. Towers provide defense, and this is important because the saboteur can only attack the least-defended city. If the leading player has two shields in their city and no one else has built any towers, the leading city cannot be attacked. It's not uncommon to need to build a tower so that the saboteur can wield his damage in the most useful city. Lastly, while there is no limit to the number of cards you can hold in your hand, only three cards can be played per turn. Delaying building too long can leave your city short, and also make you vulnerable to the "hand sabotage" which has no defense except holding fewer than 5 cards.
The end game gets more exciting. If the card on the face-up stack is of no interest to any player (the 5th Town Hall after everyone has one, for example), then the logical auction is from the face-down stack. This will end the game more quickly, however, and therefore it may be in your interest to bid a face-up card just to ensure the game will continue long enough for you to get the buildings you need. On the other hand, the player who has a definite lead is well served to get through one stack as quickly as possible. If a player completes their city before game end, they can still feel the effects of the saboteur so are very much still "in it."
Overall, Wettstreit der Baumeister is a very nice addition to any game collection. It plays best with four players; three works but the decisions aren't quite as critical. It is simple enough to teach to non-gamers, but has enough strategy components to keep a more serious player interested to the end. It is easy to play, but surprisingly hard to win since the components are so well balanced. On top of this, it plays in well under an hour which makes it a nice choice for almost any setting. Highly recommended.