02nd Nov2018

‘Coimbra’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

coimbra-box

Coimbra is a brand new game from Eggerspiele in which two to four players don the relatively familiar doublet’s of near-renaissance era explorers, based in the famous Portuguese city that shares it name with the game. Coimbra is a fairly classic euro style game that was actually designed by a group of relative veterans, each of whom has a number of other, similar games under their belt. Most famously perhaps, a subset of this team was responsible for creating The Voyages of Marco Polo, which is a thematic trading and exploring game that shares more than just a few features with Coimbra.

Essentially, Coimbra is a victory point collection game that thematically links the scoring of points to the overall prestige or fame level that players are able to achieve. Specifically, Coimbra is built around several key phases that initially feel a bit convoluted, but soon become second nature once you’ve played a few rounds. Similarly, the setup in Coimbra is a bit of a headache to begin with thanks to tweaks and changes for different player counts, the setup of different decks and so on – again, this is something that familiarity soon gets the better of and in all fairness, it’s not an unusual amount of complexity for a mid-weight euro.

As I mentioned, the objective of Coimbra is to score the most victory points, which is achieved in several ways over the course of four rounds. Every round has six key phases and then a cleanup step and all of the phases are taken in turn and play out relatively quickly. Each of the rounds begins with the first player, who will roll a handful of dice (actual number depending on player count) to begin with. The players will then draft and place the dice in turn order, beginning with the first player and proceeding according to the turn order track (which isn’t necessarily clockwise.) When a die is drafted, the player that takes it will immediately place it into one of their plastic castle miniatures and then put it onto the board.

Where the die is placed and the value it shows will determine what the player can do in the next phase, but the players will first take turns to place all of their dice before anything else happens. Dice placement locations are all located on the left hand side of the board and comprise of the Castle, and then the Upper City, the Middle City and the Lower City. In each of the city locations, the highest value die has priority and dice will be placed in ascending order of value from left to right. In the Castle, the opposite is true and the lowest value die will be placed in the leftmost position. Any dice that are of the same value as another take priority. At less than four players, there may be ghost dice values which act to discard cards in the next phase – this is one of the fiddly setup aspects that I mentioned earlier.

Once all dice are placed, the players will retrieve them in the next phase, again beginning with the starting player. Beginning with the lowest die currently placed on The Castle and then working through each location one at a time, the players will choose a tile (for The Castle) or a card (for each City space) and claim it. Each of the cards comes with a cost in either guards or coins, both of which are tracked on an individual player board. The amount that must be paid is equal to the value of the dice used to claim the card, whilst the preference for guards or coins is shown on each card.

Each card will have one or more benefits on it, with all of them causing the player who drafts them to move upwards on one of the four influence tracks on the board. Usually, the cards will also offer an instant benefit (such as coins or guards) or they will be placed on one of the sides of the player board marked C or E (for example) to indicate that their ability triggers during phase C or E. This is another fiddly area to keep track of, but unlike in some games, Coimbra does at least have a clearly marked space for such cards on each player board, which makes it much, much easier to remember. If a player chooses not to draft a card (or cannot pay the guard or coin value to do so) then they may take a distress action, which allows them to take two coins and two guards.

Once all the dice are resolved as the result of tile or card drafting, or through distress actions, the turn order for the next round is determined. This is achieved by calculating the total sum of all crowns from sources available (on cards, on tokens and elsewhere) and arranging the turn tracker accordingly. Then, players receive income from each of the influence tracks that matches a die of a colour they drafted. Having an orange die allows the player to take coins equal to their position on the (orange) merchant track, for example. A purple die will allow the player to move their pilgrim based on their position on the purple (priest) track. I’ll also mention now that positioning on each of these tracks comes with some end game scoring and the value of the tracks is randomised with each play.

The final phase (aside from the cleanup activities which I wont bore you with) is to invest in one of the voyages along the bottom of the board. This essentially means that you can pay a depicted cost (in coins, guards or both) and then place a disk on the voyage in question. Any number of players can invest in the same voyage, but obviously you’ll only score a voyage if you do invest in it. At the end of the game, each voyage will give a different benefit – usually linked to something else. For example, Malaca will provide two victory points for each priest character, although there are some cards (like Goa) that simply provide straight victory points.

Speaking briefly about the pilgrims, since there is no specific phase for them – they are simply moved at the time when a reward is received that says the player needs to activate them. Each pilgrim sets out from a different corner of the city of Coimbra, meaning that the players must all initially move outwards away from each other. The paths all wind around the board in a one way fashion and along the way there are a number of monasteries that can be visited (by placing a disk of your colour on them) for a reward. Most rewards are instant, although that isn’t always the case.

After four rounds of rolling, dice and card drafting and manipulating the income and pilgrim tracks, the game ends and a number of different end game conditions are taken into account. Voyages, influence tracks, sets of coloured diplomas (shown on cards) and other factors like remaining wealth are all counted up and the player with the highest total (added to what they have already earned) will win. Once you’ve learned the game, Coimbra takes about an hour to play, but it is certainly capable of running to ninety minutes at four players or even two hours including teaching new players. I’d consider it to be at the lighter end of midweight, though I guess that’s a matter of perspective!

Thematically, whilst it’s possible to liken Coimbra to the kind of colonialism/religious expansion/exploitation games that have recently become so unpopular due to their questionable use of human suffering, I just don’t think that’s a factor to worry about here. Sure, this is a game about one of the most exploitative European powers doing what it did at the peak of the colonial era and the pilgrim track and voyages clearly demonstrate that, but it doesn’t feel as if any element of gameplay relates to the negative side of colonialism. Yes, your pilgrim will visit monasteries that are thematically all over the world and yes, you will invest in voyages to Africa, The Americas and the Middle East, but you never interact with the local populace – either aggressively or in favorable trade. As such, I felt like the theme of Coimbra was mostly a celebration of the wonders of the world – whether that be in God’s name (for the Catholic Portuguese) or simply because of the natural beauty of the wider world.

If you completely disconnect the idea of exploration during the Age of Sail, then Coimbra (like most games) is a series of different interlinking mechanics that could be replaced by almost any other theme. That said, the need to influence different groups of people to gain support and money does feel especially relevant to the fifteenth and sixteenth century, whilst the idea of a pilgrim wandering through new lands is easy to understand. Either way, I guess what I am saying is that whether you like the theme or not, it shouldn’t put you off Coimbra.

What might you like about it then? Well, those mechanical elements which I’ve just mentioned are very enjoyable to work with, overall. Coimbra is the kind of euro game that feels as if it constantly rewards the player, rather than leaving them with tough decisions about doing this or that. There are most definitely occasions when you’ll only be able to invest in maybe one or two cards, but being able to take the distress action for what feels like a reasonable return softens the blow considerably. Similarly, you’ll never feel as if you’re not making progress on the influence tracks and nor will you feel like cards are ever a waste – since almost all of them reward you one or more times in different ways.

I also enjoyed how fast Coimbra seemed to play. When I mentioned earlier that it takes around an hour to ninety minutes, I think my longest play (including teaching) was at the top end of this, but after that it just seemed to flow. Again, this is down to the mechanical simplicity and the way that (love it or loathe it) the theme fits with what you’re actually doing. I should also shout out to the graphic design, which presents an attractive and colourful board that is also resoundingly clear. The way that colours match between dice, cards and influence tracks is just great and all of the iconography is clear and obvious.

Overall, I highly recommend Coimbra as a fantastic option if you’re looking to venture steadily into heavier euro games, or if you already play lots of very heavy games, it could be something to relax into at the beginning or end of your game night. It sits right in the sweet spot between being interesting and offering lots of ways to win, without feeling as if it gives up too much of the complexity that makes decision making in similar euros such a big part of the experience. It also looks fantastic and it packs away neatly into a medium sized box, with a good insert. Overall, Coimbra is a fantastic mid-weight euro game that I can see hitting my table on numerous occasions in the future.

**** 4/5

Coimbra is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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