Cardboard Addiction: Concordia

The word “elegant” gets tossed around a lot in terms of board game design. It’s so frequently used in reviews and in rules descriptions that the word has lost a lot of its impact over the years. “Elegant” as a descriptor has become trite and cliche to the point that a review might lose some of its weight should the author overuse the term. It is with great frustration, then, that I cannot come up with a more apt descriptor for Concordia by veteran designer Mac Gerdts. Perhaps I lack the vocabulary to articulate just how I view the game, but its simple rulebook, the breadth of options available on your turn, and the successful combination of several game mechanics calls to mind only one word: elegant.

Concordia takes place around the Mediterranean sea during the height of the Roman Empire. Here, players vie for influence over those that might help the empire prosper, attempt to spread their reach across as many provinces as possible, and fancy themselves master merchants. Each player begins the game with an identical hand of actions cards. These cards make up your action options each turn. In an absolute stroke of elegance, the only action available to you on each turn is to play one card. That’s it. Play a card, take its action, and move on to the next player. Yes, the game calls for a fair amount of decision making, but the core rule (singular) could not be any simpler.

I have not played any other games by Gerdts, but from my understanding his trademark is the “rondel” method of action selection. In the rondel, players select an action from a circular area on the board. Future selections must move in a clockwise fashion, and spaces further around the rondel might require payment from the player.

The rondel from Navegador, another Gerdts game
The rondel from Navegador, another Gerdts game

In Concordia, the actions cards replace this rondel, and each card can be played in any order at any time. The simple rule of “play a card” is complicated by the sheer variety of actions available at any time. I won’t go over each card here (you can read the rules on Board Game Geek), but timing plays a large role. For example, the Tribune card allows the player to pick up their already-used cards and have them available for use again. The wrinkle is that the Tribune offers a bonus of extra currency for picking up more of your cards. This means that you often want to wait as long as possible before playing your Tribune. This element of timing is just one example of the puzzle aspect of Concordia.

The influence of many different game mechanics can be seen in Concordia: there is the hand management of a typical card game; one of the cards allows for the purchase of news cards to grow your hand, lending a deck building element; resource management comes in the form of having to keep track of supplies such as brick, wine, and tools. The blending of all these mechanics results in a cocktail flavored as of one of my new favorite board games of all time.

The game also get bonus points for replayability. The resources each city produces is different each time you play, and the game ships with two maps depending on the number of players. The board is bright and colorful, making it a delight to look at as the colonists scurry around and new settlements pop up here and there. Since all players make their card selections simultaneously, the game flows smoothly whether you’re playing with two or five people.

concordia map

There are also a pair of expansions available.  Concordia: Britannia and Germania is a collection of two new maps, and Concordia: Salsa introduces a new resource, salt, that can be used as a sort of wild card in place of any other resource. I don’t have any experience with either expansion, but I feel like it’s inevitable that I will own them at some point.

concordia salsaWhile I am as enthusiastic about Concordia as I can be, there are some negatives here. In the majority of the games I’ve played, at least one player has experienced the dreaded “analysis paralysis” (AP), the act of freezing up in the face of too many options. There is a lot to manage in any given game and it can be a tad overwhelming to players unaccustomed to the Euro-style of board game. The “play one card” rule helps alleviate the AP a bit, but between resource management, settlement building, and moving colonists around the board I can sympathize with the AP-prone here.

The final scoring is also rather difficult to explain. Among the myriad other mechanics present, there is an element of set collection. Each card is associated with a different method of gaining points. For example, cards labeled with the Roman god Mars will provide the player points for every colonist they have on the board. This bonus is doubled if the player holds two Mars cards, tripled if they hold three, and so on. Mars is only one of six different scoring conditions, meaning that final scoring can take quite a long time while everyone meticulously adds up their points. For game as simple as Concordia, the scoring feels needlessly complicated.

I can look past these shortcomings, however; I enjoy this game too much to let it get dragged down by AP or tedious scoring. Mac Gerdts has earned himself a new fan in me, and I have found myself recommending Concordia to anyone willing to listen. When asked why I think the game deserves a spot on everyone’s shelf, I can point to the “play one card” rule confident that whomever gives Concordia a shot will agree with me when I say that it is a picture of elegance.

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