Venice came alive for me on 25 March 2021.
1600 years after the city was first founded, and almost a year to the day that we were due to have arrived in La Serenissima ourselves. But with the Pandemic changing everything, our own travel plans to visit the sights and smells of the Floating City (and other places) were unavoidably cancelled.
I have no doubt that we will resume our plans to tour the waterways one day. But for now, I can cruise the canals courtesy of designers David Turczi and Andrei Novac, and publisher Braincrack Games through their latest Eurogame release, Venice.
Queen’s Gambit Gearing Up!
Before I begin, however, I think I had better give a little more context to this piece, as it is not a straightforward review.
You see, anybody who knows me will be acutely aware that I am extremely patience-challenged.
Waiting is not my natural state. Shop queues, traffic jams, even being processed through the IKEA showroom; the glacial crawl is just too much (or too little!) for me. Good news, bad news. It doesn’t matter. I just need to know now. I need to react and I need to act. Time waits for no woman, and I am never in the mood to see-what-happens.
And so, a week prior to its official retail launch, I downloaded the rules for Venice. Looking up at my ceiling at midnight whilst lying in my pillow palace (the only time I allow myself the luxury of going horizontal), I tuned out the rhythmic snoring of my Bearded Moon bed-fellow and dived in!
Ignoring the complete lack of actual components to parse, I just wanted to skip over the wait and start playing. And with the entire 12am – 5am slot available to me and my imagination, I doffed my merchant garb and (along with two other make-believe mongers) went paddling, stalling, racing, and sailing around the imaginary board.
Over the next few hours, I worked my way up and down the narrow canals, collecting goods, activating assistants, and completing missions along my way. I won, of course 😉
If you haven’t already, you can read my Queen’s Gambit inspired experience in full here, and, having now played the actual game with Bearded Moon and our brilliant bubble sharing mother-in-law, I feel like many of my preliminary predictions were pretty on ponte.
Without doubt Venice is a beautiful pick up and deliver game weaving together other big mechanics in the form of resource management and engine building. It also dangles the possibility of linking multiple actions/bonuses together in one turn which is not always the case in this type of game (and one of the reasons why pick up and deliver isn’t often my favourite mechanic).
And for me, knowing that there are ways to earn even a little bit more money that will let me sail around the board faster, hitting up more buildings, activating more assistants and their bonuses, and achieving more missions as the game progresses makes it feel like there is always the potential for something interesting or different to be done in this game.
Having played other pick up and deliver titles before Venice, this chaining is now a sought-after element for me going forwards. Whilst it is true of course that, in all games of this type, you are going to need to use your first few turns stock-piling as no engine runs on empty – even gondolas need their boatmen and their oars! But the potential to ratchet up a number of points and bonuses through linked actions in a single turn definitely makes Venice feels less like a simply “going through the motions” move-pick-move-drop-sell-move game than many of my other experiences.
Speaking of which, going around the board in two gondolas can be an expensive business (especially if you don’t want to swap over - continuing your ride in one will cost you 3 coins!).
But getting your lengths in is the way we found that we were best able to get our assistants out on the board (remembering that the first to get all 10 out gains an 8 point bonus!), to accumulate the goods needed to really start cranking our engines, and therefore to pay for those missions that rewarded our financial sacrifices multiple times over. And some missions did, over and over again! Which was brilliant especially when they resulted in more coinage. (Beware, however, because if you go for the upgraded metal, stackable coins, you can lose hours just staring at the beautiful things!)
If you’re not into hard graft, when the opportunity arises, you can also build a bridge which will automatically gain you one coin every time you sail under it. And conversely slap your opponent with an intrigue every time they have to do the same – as Mark Knopfler once famously didn’t sing; money for nothing, intrigue for free!
In each of our first two plays, I admit that I was initially too scared of intrigue – projecting too far ahead to the end-game scenario where I could be arrested and prevented from winning for being too much of a gossiping Gertie. I focused on avoiding this for more of the early play than I should have, and it cost me dearly in the end.
But there are ways to lose intrigue and it is only really towards the final stages where you can and should start thinking about zipping your lip. Using what is on the board (like mooring at the Minor Council or the Church for example which reduce intrigue, or choosing an action that will gain you scrolls) to wipe your indiscretions away is a better strategy than being a fraidy-cat because early on intrigue is actually quite useful. Especially when visiting the Major Council which rewards you if you have more intrigue than other players and allows you to move along the track for possible huge end game points – those curious council folk love to know the 411! Even bargaining your way out of jelly-gum jail is a possibility at the end if you have enough coins and scrolls to pay the price!
There are a number of elements in Venice which I really like (and not just those very cool floating gondolas!). Having different buildings coming up on each game means that no single strategy is ever going to work. This is because the actions which the assistants can do (and will advance onto) are always going to change in the game-scenario, and therefore so are your preferred routes around the board. With more plays, I know we will become more familiar with the “best” ones and so the race will be on to get to them as and when they shuffle into the set up. But the overall collection is always likely to feel quite fresh.
Similarly, I love missions. In anything. Give me a goal or a purpose and I will laser in on it. I will do it. No matter what. In fact I think these are what I enjoy the most about Venice – working my way to a connected building, paying the price, and tucking the completed mission card under my board. The coins and points for doing it are almost irrelevant to my enjoyment (although not my end score!); the real satisfaction comes from knowing that I have connected certain steps together to achieve the objective itself. I also like the influence cards but, hey, who doesn’t like something for free?!
However, at the time I rode around in my ghost-gondola, I think my brain oversimplified or at least underestimated some aspects of the gameplay which felt more fiddly or involved once factoring in other players and in-game interactions. Our initial plays were long and that was in part because we kept losing track of all the things we could and should be doing on each turn. And that compounded the time-element. I think we sort of lost focus on the big picture, in part because I for one wasn’t concentrating enough on what I needed to do in order to actually win overall, but also because there is a lot of options generally.
The board is also quite busy – especially when gondolas are vying for the same spots – and my hand issues meant I knocked my boat and my opponent’s boats over numerous times, scattering little cubes everywhere. Something which I think has also happened to others when playing at higher player counts. A little more space would have therefore been appreciated to make things less fiddly.
But on the flip side, that lack of oar-room also felt quite realistic – the tight waterways and boatmen having to bump and squeeze past each other in order to continue their journeys. And this is going to sound very silly indeed, but as well as having a tactical purpose, just the action of being able to offload goods from one gondola to another as my ships passed within a hair of each other in the day (or night!) made me smile.
The versatility of Venice is also not to be ignored as it is a welcome element– with the solo Doge automa and the 2 player Smugglers rule set (which promises the tension many pick up and deliver games often lack at power player counts) to try when my very accommodating mother-in-law is busy, there are a number of ways to play this game which I haven’t yet tried and could resolve some of the minor issues I have and which are probably in truth more about me and my gaming style than the game.
Going, Going, Gondola!
Ultimately, I have a feeling that my imaginary ceiling playthrough was probably conveniently perfected in places by my willingness to skip over a few details, preferring to think that some things would just work when it came to the real thing (basically completely ignoring the rule goofs/missteps I would actually make in real life). In truth, the limitations of my cerebral and mechanical processing power have been exposed by the steeper than expected learning curve in Venice but we will play, and we will practice scenarios, and I will improve.
This is of course not to say that Venice was not what I was anticipating – it is indeed a beautiful pick up and deliver game which twists as nicely as a Venetian palazzo pole. But it is perhaps also more game than I had initially expected or needed. Left to explore the waterways unrestricted, I can get lost which is a little frustrating for a fast-laner like me. And so Venice has become one over which I initially need to pump my internal brakes. One I need to understand better so that I can then select what I am going to focus on in a particular game in order to get me (hopefully!) to first place at end game in a timely fashion.
And therein lies my main personal hurdle in Venice. In order to take full advantage of the momentum boosting assistants (which set this game apart from a lot of other pick up and deliver titles), I need to know it. I need to know which buildings to target, which actions to chain, whether to drop some elements entirely, and how much intrigue to handle. Because, by implementing your knowledge, your turn set-ups and hard work pay off in satisfying, visible ways.
But it takes time to learn these things and, as such, those first handful of playthroughs are going to be slower than ideal. And this could risk you seeking a similar appetite-quenching feeling in a shorter, less open game. However, I would suggest bearing with early trips around Venice because, once firing on all cylinders, if you like pick up and deliver games then it is a worthy investment in time and experience.