There's no more awkward feeling than being on the outside of an inside joke. You're not sure whether to laugh and play along or sit quietly and try to let the moment pass. On the flip side, being in on the joke is great! And so I sit here wondering if should just smile and try to enjoy Venetia or just wait patiently until it's over.
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
Roll of the Dice
Everything about Venetia screams serious. Perhaps scream is too strong a word. It announces itself formally as a serious experience. From its muted color palette to its sophisticated map, Venetia wants you to take it seriously as a thoughtful, mentally engaging and, most importantly, serious game. So I was somewhat surprised to see that the game revolved around dice and randomly drawn action cards. Games that want to be taken seriously usually frown upon random elements that could foil long term plans. Luckily, the dice in Venetia are cleverly configured in such a way that it never proved a problem. Venetia values clever moves of opportunity and working within the confines of the allotted dice, though thematically incongruous, was satisfactory enough.
The action cards are perhaps more of a concern. They allow players to subvert the rules of the game in unexpected ways. They can really change the landscape of the board as players reach beyond the grasp of the republic and influence valuable cities or quickly turn the tide of influence in a pivotal region. But since everyone has a pretty even chance of drawing cards, their power tends to even out over the course of the game. I never felt like I was being unfairly punished.
Even the random attacks from enemies didn't feel punitive. They are mostly concentrated on the outskirts of the empire, which makes sense thematically. The empire's grasp grows more and more tenuous the further away from the capital you are. It only makes sense that enemies would attack more frequently there.
It's a Small World
Venetia allows for a lot of back and forth between player control of cities and regions. You can never feel completely confident in your control. And I like that tension. Always hoping and pleading for other players to overlook your little corner of the Mediterranean for more enticing targets. A valuable region may see change in ownership multiple times in the course of the game, leading to mind clouding resentment. Resentment to leads to sub-optimal play as you try and wrestle back your territory when the smarter plan would be to cut your losses and move on.
But all this is only really possible in a 4 player games. With fewer players, the map is small enough for everyone to carve out their own corner and not worry too much about the other players. There is a little contention in a 3 player game, but 2 players is definitely not where this game shines. There is no consideration in the game rules to compensate for lesser player counts. So if you plan to play Venetia, try your hardest to get 3 others to join you.
Aside from the central tenant or region control. Venetia has you running for the office of Doge, fighting pirates and a multitude of enemy empires, and there are advanced rules for more in depth elections and historically accurate starting positions. While I don't have a problem with any of these elements on their own, they don't add anything to the experience. Unless you happen to be a fan of medieval Italian history. All of these elements are in place to support the historical elements and not so much the game. There are some games that can make a particular topic interesting even to people who have no affinity to its theme. Venetia is not one of them. This is a game that preaches to its choir. That's totally fine. I don't want to deny the choir members their sermon, I'll just be in the jazz club across the street.
Venetia is an interesting beast. I can't point to any particular faults and I think the core element of controlling regions and cities is actually pretty solid. My issue is that everything apart from the central focus doesn't add anything to the experience. Unless, you are a fan of the the history. It's clear that the designers respect and are fans of Italian history. So much so that I'm afraid they've created a game that will only truly be appreciated by other fans as well. (There's a 12 page booklet devoted entirely to historical background!) I love the fact there are games created for all types of people with all sorts of interests. But that also means that games are made that just aren't for me.