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[Review] Capitol

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Alan Moon is an extremely prolific designer, and has produced many excellent games, such as his recent Ticket to Ride, and the often highly lauded Elfenland. Several of his games have been done in conjunction with Aaron Weissblum, another prolific designer, and those games are often quite good! My favorite of the lot is Capitol (Schmidt Spiele, 2001 - Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum), one of my favorite building games.

There is nothing about the game that I dislike. Most people highly dislike the scoring mechanism, but I found it unique and thematic. The components are extremely top-notch, and the strategy in the game, tempered by a small amount of luck, is so good, and so much fun - that after a game, players are usually ready to play again. The entire theme of the game is slightly irrelevant to the game mechanics, but the theme (building in ancient Rome) is an enjoyable one. The building fun can occasionally overshadow actual strategy - a phenomenon that I also see occasionally in Manhattan. However, the game plays so easily that many casual gamers ask to play it more, yet at the same time it offers a good set of strategies for those who are looking for a deeper game.

A game board is placed in the middle of the table, divided into nine areas. Each area is one of three colors (pink, purple, or light blue), has five to seven small squares (building sights), may have one or two fountain squares, and has one large square for improvements. Each player takes a “Stop” card in their color, as well as all the roof pieces of their color. Three stacks of cards are shuffled (“Roof”, “Floor”, and “Permit”) and are put next to the board face up. Two “Roof” cards, two “Floor” cards, and four “Permit” cards are dealt to each player. A large stack of wooden blocks (“Floors”) is placed near the board, and each player receives six of them players use these blocks and some of their roofs to create the following buildings: two one-story buildings (one with round roof, the other with triangular roof) and two two-story buildings (also with both types of roofs.) On the sides of the board, some “Fountain”, “Amphitheater”, and “Temple” tokens are placed, next to four “pillars” which are used as a scoring mechanism. One player is randomly chosen to go first and receives the “First Player Marker” - an oval cardboard token with a picture of a Roman senator on it. This player goes first in the first round (there are four rounds), with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

The first phase in each round is the Construction phase. During this phase, on a player’s turn, they may play one of their cards or pass (which removes them from play for the remainder of this phase). If a player plays a “Floor” card, they take two floors from the general stash and build buildings with them. They may start new buildings, or add to any existing building in front of them that has no roof. If the player plays a “Roof” card, they may put either a round or triangular roof on one of their buildings, “completing” it. If a player plays a “Permit” card, they may place one of their “complete” buildings onto the board. The area must match the color on the Permit card, and the building must be put into an empty square. The first building in each of the nine areas can have any type roof, but all subsequent buildings must have the same type of roof. The first building must also only contain one floor, while later buildings must have floors that equal or exceed the highest building in that area. When all players have finished playing their cards (have passed), the phase ends; and play proceeds to the Improvement Phase.

During the improvement phase, two fountains are auctioned off, as well as an Amphitheater or Temple (depends which round it is). All three types of cards have numbers on them, with values of “1” to “8”. Each player takes all their remaining cards and arranges them in a face-down pile in front of them. All cards that they have above the “Stop” card in their deck are the cards that they have bid towards the current auction, while all those below are not used. (A player may put the Stop card at the top of the pile, if they don’t want to bid.) Each player turns over their cards until they reach their stop card, and then the sums of the values on the cards are compared. The player with the highest sum wins the auction, discards the cards he used, and takes the item he won - placing it immediately on the board. (Ties are broken by the highest individual card played, then by turn order). Fountains can be placed in any empty square on the board, while amphitheaters and fountains are placed in the large square in each area (there can be only one per area).

The next phase of each round is the scoring phase. Each of the nine areas on the board is scored. The player who has the most floors total in each area scores 2 points plus one point for each fountain. The player with the second most floors scores 1 point for each fountain only. All ties are broken by the player who has the tallest building in that area. Temples double all points scored in an area. The scoring markers are moved accordingly, and the game proceeds to the end phase. During this phase, starting with the First player, each player draws six cards - from any pile(s) they wish. The player who has the most floors in any area that contains an Amphitheater gets two additional cards, with the second-most player getting one card. After all players have drawn cards, the Start marker passes to the player on the left, and the next round occurs. After the fourth round, the player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: When one opens the box, the absolutely stellar components just bring about a rush of good feelings. The wooden blocks for the buildings are a good size, and stack well, and look pretty nice with the brightly painted roofs on them. They do not fall easily, which is good, because a lot of them are placed on the board. The board is very colorful, and has a lot of eye candy, representing a “god’s-eye” view of ancient Rome. The three colors for each area are distinctly different, and match the color on the cards well (haven’t played this game with a color-blind person, but I suspect that they may have some problems). The cards are of a small size, but since they are extremely simple in their use, don’t need a lot on them - basically a picture and a number. Everything about the game is very thematic, from the pictures on the cards, rulebook, and box - to the colorful board, to the cardboard insert in the box, which is designed to look like a small city. Everything stores well in the box, and the name and decoration of the box cause this game to be often requested from my crowded game shelf.

2.) Scoring pillars: There is a lot of antagonism from folk about the scoring mechanism in Capitol. However, I really like how it works - even though I know that I’m in a very small minority about it. Basically, there are four pillars, one of each color, that slide underneath a cardboard strip - each pillar slid so that the number of the player’s current score is showing. People’s complaints generally center around the idea that the pillars slide. I cut out another strip of cardboard and glued it to the back, causing the pillars to slide between the two strips of cardboard. This keeps them sliding fairly smoothly in our games - and we haven’t had any problems. Still, I can see (barely but grudgingly) how this could cause some problems for some folk.

3.) Rules: The rulebook, sadly, is in German - but suitable translations are available on the internet. The rules are very uncomplicated, and I doubt much reference to the rulebook would be made after the first game. The game is extremely simplistic to teach and learn - and while the strategy may elude many first time players, the game itself plays out smoothly.

4.) Strategy: I mentioned in the beginning that this game suffers from a minute problem that Manhattan also has. New players sometimes get so caught up in building huge buildings - warring for a certain area - that they ignore the overall picture, and lose the game in the process. There are a lot of opportunities for players each turn. The face-up decks, in particular, are pretty interesting. At first, this concept really threw me for a loop - very few other games keep decks face up. But then I realized that this added to the whole strategy for the game. If I really don’t need a Floor card but the top Floor card is an “8” value, should I take it anyway? These decisions, once made, usually seem to be wrong, and cause players to want to play the game again.

5.) Auctions: I’m a huge fan of this auction method. It’s basically blind bidding but done in a very ingenious way - using the Stop cards. It works really well, and players enjoy it - it keeps tensions high. You must win some of the auctions to strategically place the tiles where you need them, but you cannot win them all. So it’s part of the strategy to win certain auctions. The Amphitheaters in particular, while seeming to be weaker than the theaters, give a player a huge advantage in future auctions - two cards makes a huge difference in the game.

6.) Theme and Fun Factor: The theme is nailed onto some good mechanics, and it works really well - one of the better thematic “German” games I’ve played. The game is not quite as fun as Manhattan, but is probably a better-designed game, with more opportunities for strategy. I have yet to play this game with anybody who didn’t enjoy it and ask to play it again. Even some of my friends who are jaded against more intellectual games liked this gem quite a bit, and asked for a repeat. This, of course, always pleases me.

Capitol is indeed a great game. It has a decent amount of luck in it - with initial card draws, but really emphasizes tactics over luck. It plays excellently with three players (it’s okay with two), but a four-player game really shines, as players constantly must try to outmaneuver each other. As long as players don’t get caught up in a blood feud (I’ve seen buildings that were ten stories high - ridiculous for this game), the results of games are fairly close. People are intrigued by any game that lets them build things, and Capitol capitalizes on this attraction nicely. If you have an opportunity to pick this game up, don’t let the fact that it’s in another language deter you. It’s one of the best building games you can get, and even more so - it’s a lot of fun!

Tom Vasel

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