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The Traders of Genoa
Being a good game player can be a curse. Of course it’s very satisfying to play a game well, and even more so if victory comes as a result. But when you win frequently, especially within the same group of players, you start to develop a reputation. And once you have that reputation, it’s impossible to dispel. It becomes an albatross around your neck, a blinking Technicolor neon “Kick me!” sign that blazes to life whenever another player has to choose who among his opponents to help or hinder.
Everyone in my group might as well wear buttons that say, “All else being equal, screw Peter.” My win rate for each of the past five years has exceeded fifty percent (I’m one of the twisted, Gollum-like gnomes who records every game in a database, my precious). So the sad thing, the inescapable reality, is that my group’s maxim is usually justified. Especially since I maintain my win rate despite their efforts— which only reinforces this vicious little circle.
This helps explain why I don’t care for “Take that!” games like Family Business and Lunch Money, in which players can pick on each other arbitrarily. In negotiation games I at least have a chance to make an offer my opponents can’t refuse. Even so, we don’t play the otherwise terrific Kohl, Kies, & Knete very much because, quite frankly, it’s not much fun for me to get cut out of every deal.
I was pleased when Chinatown came along, a negotiation game in which each player’s position and holdings are sufficiently distinct yet interdependent that boycotting someone from the outset becomes self-defeating. Now The Traders of Genoa threatens to render Chinatown obsolete, improving upon the latter in every way but game length.
The goal of Genoa is to finish with the most cash by delivering messages, fulfilling merchandise contracts, collecting card sets, owning buildings and collecting rent, and squeezing loot out of opponents in trades. The really neat thing is that everything— cash, cards, resources, special tiles, the works— can be traded. The entire economy of the game is liquid. This opens the gamespace to a variety of approaches and helps to make all of them viable. This fungibility is the game’s greatest asset, making it possible for all players to pursue divergent goals through mutually-beneficial deals. It’s also Genoa’s liability with respect to new players, who are faced with a potentially overwhelming smorgasbord of choices. The good news is that it’s very difficult to go wrong and easy to change course midstream. Don’t like the contracts you have? Trade them for something else.
On his turn a player controls the movement of a “tower” through a simple city map. Each of the eighteen depicted buildings is effectively a vending machine, offering a specific kind of resource whenever activated by a visit from the tower. The tower can move a maximum of five spaces per turn, which means up to five opportunities can become available. The tower player can choose only one of these for himself. The rest are offered for sale to opponents, each of whom are similarly restricted to one per turn.
Opponents more commonly make offers to the tower player before he moves the tower, to convince him to move it somewhere they want it to go. Payment can be in any form— cash, goods, or even sharing in the benefit of the target building in cases where the building yields multiple resources (in fact, such resource-splitting deals are usually preferred). When an agreement is reached, the tower is moved to the designated building and the purchaser gains the building’s benefits. All deals must involve the rights to activate the building the tower is in or to which it is about to move— no side deals are allowed, nor any nonsense like paying someone not to move somewhere. Thank goodness. There are enough offers flying across the table as it is, and sorting through them and the ramifications of their acceptance can already slow down more analytical players.
The reason for all the offers is that most ways of earning money require a player to have activation rights to a particular building. A small contract might require a player to deliver rice to the tavern, while a large contract might call for copper, pepper, and silk to be dropped off at a corner villa. The more actions a player gets, the more opportunities he can realize. The one activation each player is guaranteed on their own turn is woefully inadequate. To compete, you’ve got to get in on the action when opponents are controlling the tower. Quite often the tower will not visit enough buildings to go around and some players will wind up sitting on their hands for the turn. The bidding wars to avoid being the wallflower can produce a tidy windfall to the player controlling the tower.
The items dispensed by the various buildings fall into a few distinct groups. Goods are procured in pairs from four warehouses, each of which offers a specific pairing. Contracts (small and large) describe what to bring where. Cashing them in requires having the correct goods and then activating the named building. Contracts and goods are the gears of the economy.
Tiles provide special abilities when cashed in— trading an item for any other item, acquiring an extra building activation instead of being limited to one for that turn, grabbing a good of the player’s choice, etc. Although these tiles are generally not income opportunities in themselves, they help to drive other pursuits to closure and can be extremely useful.
Messages earn their bearer cash if the tower visits the two listed buildings on the same turn. Unlike contracts, messages do not require the player to activate a building to cash them in. Their reward is low but since they’re dispensed in pairs, can overlap each other, and payout passively they’re a popular commodity.
Privilege cards represent an entirely different paradigm. There’s a matching card for each building on the board’s perimeter. Each set of adjacent cards a player holds pays off at the end of the game— the larger the set, the greater the payoff. Like everything else these can be traded, and there is often a flurry of activity near the end of the game as players try to form sets.
Tokens introduce a final subsystem to the game. After acquiring some, it becomes possible to “own” any of the buildings on the board. Whenever an opponent activates a building, the owner receives a kickback from the bank. Each placed token also converts to cash at the end of the game. One of the most clever pieces of design, however, involves the secondary function of tokens. The special tile dispensed at the palace allows a player, while activating any building, to also activate any building they own. Place a token on the post office, for example, and a player can pick up messages either at the post office itself or by getting and invoking the palace tile. The palace tile is therefore a wild card affording a spectrum of possibilities to the player with multiple buildings to his name.
Rio Grande’s Jay Tummelson emphasizes that The Traders of Genoa is a trading game rather than a negotiation game, the implication being that players shouldn’t spend forever haggling, hemming, or hawing. The game can truly bog down otherwise, and players would do well to heed his advice and conclude deals with brisk efficiency. Our group uses a house rule prohibiting a player from making an offer identical to someone else’s. This works great for two reasons: it prevents “me too” offers which muddy the waters without really driving a deal to conclusion, and it avoids the problem of choosing between two identical deals (and the hard feelings that can result over being passed over arbitrarily, or the time it might take a player to analyze everyone else’s position and render the decision less arbitrary).
The Traders of Genoa is a meaty and captivating game. Incremental successes throughout the game spur everyone onward, and a constant inflow of new goals and opportunities keeps all players in the thick of things. I’d play this all the time if it clocked in under 90 minutes. Instead, it’s one of my top picks when more time is available. A
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)