Board Game Arena and Oldies and Newbies: Troyes, Alhambra and Res Arcana

First off, if you’re not playing board games on, why aren’t you?  It’s free, it’s browser-based, and it’s awesome.  All of this was true prior to the pandemic, and seeing as that’s still going on, all the more reason to play games online.  I love how it sets up and records everything for you — games of Race for the Galaxy take only 5 minutes to play, for example.  Even more involved and epic games can be completed pretty quickly.

Furthermore, it’s got a ton of great titles, including some 2 older ones I’ve never played in Alhambra (2003) and Troyes (2010) along with the fairly new Res Arcana (2019)They’re all really good.  There are just so many great games out there, but I’d play any of these 3, any time, online, or in person.  Res Arcana was something of a surprise to me in how much I enjoyed it.

Overall Feeling

These are gamey games.  They mostly feel like you’re playing a game, and trying to press the levers so that you win.  They do things with theme and art, but those are all secondary.

Alhambra has a general sense that you’re building a beautiful palace but mostly you’re just sizing up the cards available and figuring out what you want.  The game provides a constant market of cards that you can buy from OR you can take some income, already a tough choice in many cases.  There are various building colors and some tend to have higher values while some tend to be lower, but you want to win categories, such as blue, purple etc.  Meanwhile, the cards you’re buying also provide you with wall tiles that you’ll arrange into an Alhambra, or palace, and there is another category for having the longest wall, but you need a well constructed Alhambra to make sure you can keep putting buildings down and therefore scoring off off them.  Sometimes you really need a particular type of wall piece to keep your Alhambra going and you have to focus on getting that, regardless of color.  There’s one more neat mechanic — if you pay exact change, you get to go again, a very powerful action.  In 2-player, it’s everything, and you almost don’t buy anything unless it’s with exact change, or because it’s a critical piece of your wall.  With more players, it’s a great bonus if you can get it, but everything is at more of a premium so you don’t necessarily have time to wait for exact change.

Troyes has a feeling of medieval France, of trying to curry favor with the church while you fight off bandits and make things, with, say, the artisan.  There’s an almost gritty, “power of the people” feeling to it.

The object of the game is to score the most fame, or victory points, and it’s a classic Euro game.  You start out by placing a number of workers, snake draft style, around the city with 3 main areas, a red (military), white (church) and yellow (manufacturing).  Each worker you place grants you a dice of that color and on your turn, you’ll throw a dice for each of your placed workers and put them in your pool.  In this way, each 6-sided dice represents your worker and it’s a very cool mechanic I haven’t seen before.  Those dice are essentially your primary resources to gather money and ultimately, victory points to win.

Then the game really revolves around the cards in the center of the board, which any player can buy and use, though the first one to get a card will get additional victory points from it.  The Red cards tend to boost your military capabilities, which are a direct path to victory points.  The Yellow cards typically provide their own path to money, victory points, or both.  The White cards tend to boost the Red and/or Yellow cards, but sometimes offer their own path to victory points.  There are 9 cards total, all played face down in the middle, but you reveal a red, white and yellow card before each of the first 3 rounds.  The 9 cards are drawn from a deeper pool of cards so you never really play the same game twice.  Some games, there are powerful combinations to exploit and you can score big points.  Others will lack strong combos and will be lower scoring.  Anyone can also score by using white dice and working on the temple.  In lower scoring games with weaker card combos, this matters more, in higher scoring games, it matters less but it always helps.

The turn starts out with military threats that must be dealt with in the form of black dice.  You can only use your red dice to deal with them, but the good news is, your red dice count as double.  A lot of the game can revolve around this mechanism, probably a little more than I’d like, but then again you just plan for it by making sure you have some red dice to roll.  Red dice also let you fight enemies and gain cards for victory points, so unlike white and yellow, it’s hard to win without at least some red.

Res Arcana has the most feeling of these 3 games, one of magic, magical creatures, magical items, magical places, and more.  You feel like you could be playing Magic the Gathering, only you’re in a slightly different magical world, one that the game does a solid job of presenting.

The object is to score the most points, and the game ends on the round where someone reaches 10 points, so that’s generally how you win, but the game can end with one more players with more than 10 points.  The more advanced game starts with drafting cards, but either way you start with a deck of cards and choose between one of 2 mages to play the game with, each with its own special ability that lends to a particular strategy.  Then you use your 4 different types of resources, plus gold, to put down cards from your deck called Artifacts, or to use cards from your deck.   Artifacts take many forms, from items to animals to dragons, but basically they all do something to help you.  There is an added game within the game of selecting cards from the center, that anyone can use, each of which grants a bonus for a full turn.  Then you buy Places of Power and from the center and use their advantages towards a strategy of generating points, or denying your opponents resources to get points, or both.

Do you do something in these games?

You definitely do something in Alhambra, as you build your Alhambra — it’s a palace, but what you’re really building and carefully constructing is the wall around it, trying to make it hold as many buildings as possible.  It’s nothing amazing but it’s yours, and there is the possibility that you could build a really nice one that you’ll feel proud of, even if you don’t win (but of course if it’s really that good you probably will win or maybe it wasn’t really that good).  I can imagine this would be even more true in person, playing with presumably nice tiles.

The other 2 games, to me, you don’t really do anything.  Yeah, sure in Troyes you fight some bandits and you put guys in the town hall or whatever, but you’re not really building anything up other than a point engine.  It’s pretty similar in Res Arcana.  You put down animals and dragons and buy Places of Power, but at the end of the game, the only thing you’ve really built is your engine.  But, they’re both really good games, full of interesting choices and powerful card combinations that you exploit to win the game.

What do these games do that others don’t?

I would guess some things about Troyes have been copied since it came out but nonetheless, I haven’t played another game where you roll the dice and then use those dice as workers, not anywhere.  The mix of medieval  worker placement and cards depicting varying occupations is probably familiar enough from other games but it all revolves around the really interesting and unique dice system.

The mechanics are simple enough and you’d probably find them elsewhere, just not this exact combination pulled off so beautifully.  You’re not going to build an, ahem, Alhambra in any game like this one.  You might build a walls in other games, but build walls while bidding on various cards?  Probably not.

Res Arcana is similar in that there’s not much about this game that is truly unique.  It just combines good elements, and does them all really well, and combines them really well.  That’s enough.

Was there anything I didn’t like about these games?

There’s very little I don’t like about Alhambra.

Sometimes you’re going to play Troyes and there just are no combinations to get.  You and the other players have access to the same cards, so you all deal with it.  It’s just a lower scoring game, but it’s not so fun when it happens that way.  Troyes can also screw you with the red dice and fighting.  You can do things to mitigate it, but when you’re screwed, you’re screwed.  Still a great game but it’s something to be aware of.

I mentioned being a bit bored of the theme of Res Arcana but that’s hardly a detractor.  I find the attack mechanism a little forced and a little weak, but others on boardgamegeek claim that it’s too strong, so I figure it’s probably well balanced.

How were the theme and components?

That’s the thing about boardgamearena — I really couldn’t say.  But, the art at least is excellent for Res Arcana and for Troyes.  Alhambra doesn’t require much in the way of art but it looks well done.

Anything interesting about the mechanics and game play?

All 3 of these games have strong mechanics and game play, and are winners based on that alone.  As I said, it’s not like you really do much of anything in these games, but it’s the mechanics and game play that make them all good.

Alhambra is so simple yet so brilliant:  Cards have a value 2-10, and a cost, and on your turn, you can buy one.  If you pay exact change, you get another turn — a brilliant mechanic that lets you rip off some big, juicy turns.  Meanwhile, those cards give you tiles to build the wall around your Alhambra, and you’ve got to make those wall pieces fit together to earn points from that part of the game.  So a couple of simple mechanics — buy cards, build a wall — combined together with some solid art are all you really need for a great game.  The theme doesn’t even matter that much and I don’t even know exactly what it is.

Troyes is teeming with interesting stuff and mechanically, I found it the most interesting of these 3 games.  You start by choosing between 2 randomly drawn characters, each with a secret victory condition.  As mentioned, your workers are dice, and you roll the dice and place them, plus you can also buy your opponent’s rolled dice.  There’s also more classic worker placement stuff, where you’re putting a worker on one of limited spots, and bumping another worker aside as you do.  The “Troyes” thing, as in 3, as in there are 3 buildings and paths you work with:  red, yellow and white, each with different tendencies, and different combinations every game.  Then there’s an added wrinkle of having to “battle” bandits and other baddies with your red dice, and white and yellow cards that can potentially help you do that.

Finally, Res Arcana starts like Troyes, where you choose between 2 randomly chosen characters, but instead of victory conditions, your character has a special ability like the Alchemist, who can turn energy into gold.  The game then has you acquiring and using 4 different types of magic energy, plus gold, which is pretty much a separate resource.  You use them to play the cards in your deck that you drafted to start the game, which give you income, or attacks, or defense, or other special abilities.  You accumulate enough resources to acquire places of power and BLANK, which you add to your tableau, and they also add income and abilities but most importantly, ways to generate victory points.  There’s also a very interesting mechanic with BLANK in the middle of the board.  The players take turn drafting these cards each round, and then you return your card to the middle when you pass.  When you pass on your turn, you get first choice of cards, but if another player has the card you want, and he hasn’t passed yet, you’ll have to choose something else, but that’s ok because they’re all good.

How is the Replay Ability?

It’s solid for all 3 by which I mean, I’ve already played all 3 multiple times and would be up for playing any again.  Troyes is a pretty deep, strategic game and with the variation in card combinations, every game will be different, will force you to make some strategic choices, and will probably end up pretty close.  I could say the same for Res Arcana, with its card combinations and variety in places of power.  It might sound like those two games are similar but they really aren’t — Troyes is classic worker placement, where Res Arcana is more about drafting your deck and getting your combos off.  Alhambra isn’t like either of those, but it gets going quickly and it’s always fun to build your Alhambra.

Any other game design notes?

I just have to note that Res Arcana — if you would have told me about the game, I’d have told you I’m not interested.  If the publisher or designer would have told me about the game, I’d have told him that it wouldn’t work.  We need more magic themed, summon magic items games like we need new versions of Monopoly.  We already have Magic the Gathering, and the Elder Scrolls series, and Seasons (also on BGA) and so many more games where you summon and use magic.  Despite that, if you take a good theme and make a good game and do it all well, there’s room for more good games.  As one of my buddies put it, it’s not even great.  It’s just good.  But, good is fun and good is good.

Troyes also has a theme that has been done, but there’s nothing really quite like it that I’ve played, where you roll dice and then place them as workers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some game has copied the mechanism, or maybe even another game tried it before Troyes did, but Troyes does it well and was probably the first game to do so.  Everything else might not be revolutionary but it is all high quality.

Alhambra is pretty unique and interesting and is the kind of game that could probably succeed at any time.  It’s worth noting, I tend to favor heavy theme and mechanics are often subjugated to “how do I make this cool thing happen in my game?” but I should really consider seeing if I can combine 2-3 interesting mechanics into a “gamey game” of my own.  Fans of my Epic Duels stuff know I’m no stranger to combining simple, solid mechanics, nor to coming up with clever card combinations.

Publication Notes

Alhambra was published in 2003 by Queen Games and designed by Dirk Henn.  There are some 16 expansions or spin-offs listed on Board Game Geek, too many to list here, but it’s clear that it’s a popular game with more you can get into.

Troyes was published in 2011 by Pearl Games and designed by Sebastien Dujardin, Xavier Georges, and Alain Orban.  Troyes boasts several expansions including Troyes Bonus Cards (2011), The Ladies of Troyes (2012) and Troyes Dice (2020), a roll and write.

Res Arcana was published in 2019 by Sand Castle Games and designed by Thomas Lehmann.

Do you need to add any or all of these games to your collection?

I’ll keep an eye out for Alhambra and if I can add a used one to my collection, I will.  Building the Alhambra in person, in front of me, would be fun.  It’s simple enough that I could see myself playing it with the family on holidays.  It’s complex enough to play with the gaming group.  It works with 3 or 4 players, but it’s also a really good 2 player game and fills that slot.

The other 2, I probably won’t be on the lookout for, but if I knew someone trying to get rid of one or both, I’d take a look at acquiring Troyes and Res Arcana.  They’re both really good games.  If you love worker placement games, I’d definitely look to add Troyes to the collection.

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