San Marco

A game for 3-4 players by Alan Moon & Aaron Weissblum, published by Ravensburger
These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated April 16, 2001

Note: I had originally posted a preview based on one playing. I have finally played it enough times (over ten) to actually review it. Hence, this file is changed from what appeared here earlier.

What You Get

A nice looking game is what you get. A board with a colorful map of Venice, divided into regions by canals. Four colors of small wooden cubes, as in El Grande, are used to denote Aristocrats. There is a Doge figure (leader of Venice), who determines which region is scored when a Doge card is activated. Two decks of attractive cards (Action and Limit cards), some markers and twelve bridges round out the components.

The board has six regions separated by water. Each region contains scoring numbers, such as "8/6" or "6/5." As in El Grande, when a region is scored, the player with the most Aristocrats in that region scores victory points equal to the first number, and the player with the second largest quantity of Aristocrats scores the second number. A scoring track runs around the edges of the board. The board also contains a track to record who has which role in a given round - more on roles later.

The Action cards allow you to place Aristocrats into various regions, place a bridge between two regions, swapping one of your Aristocrats for someone else's already on the board, banishing Aristocrats from a chosen region, and scoring a region. Action cards are the only way to do most of these actions, so it's important to win the right to use them.

Limit cards are simply numbered 1, 2, or 3. These are the bitter cards you must take with the sweet Action cards. I'll describe their function later.

To start the game, the Action cards are shuffled and placed facedown beside the board. The Limit cards are also shuffled, separately from the Action cards, and placed facedown beside the board. Each player takes the Aristocrats of one color, and randomly determines starting locations for eight of them (roll a die four time, placing a pair of Aristocrats in the appropriate regions, which are numbered 1-6). Choose a start player, take turns placing one or two bridges each, and you're ready to begin.

The Basic Three-Player Game

Since there are differences in terminology, numbers of cards, and even sequence of turns, I'll describe the three-player game separately from the four-player game. Later I'll talk about things they have in common.

Roles: there are three different roles in the game. Each turn the players rotate being Divider. The other two players are then randomly chosen to be either the First Chooser or the Second Chooser.

A note on terminology: I believe the publisher translated the designers' original rules from English into German. Later when they decided to include English rules with the game (hooray! - other languages included with the game are French, Dutch, Italian and, of course, German), instead of simply using the original designers' rules, they translated them back from German into English! So we have some, um, interesting terminology in the game. While you get used to it, I'm going to use what I think the original English terms were, as in the previous paragraph, based on hearing Alan use the terms.

The doubly-translated rules calls them Distributor and Decision Makers...

The Divider begins a turn by turning over the top six Action cards and the top four Limit cards. He then has to divide these cards, face up and visible to all players, into three piles. There doesn't have to be any pretense to equality in the piles - so long as each pile has at least one card, any combination of cards he wants is legal. More on what the cards grant later.

Once the cards are divided, the First Chooser chooses one pile and executes the Action cards in any order he wants. He keeps the Limit cards by him for all to see total value in points he's accumulated. When he's done, the Second Chooser chooses a pile from the remaining two piles, carries out the Action cards, and keeps the Limit cards. Finally the Divider gets the left-over pile and does the same.

If everyone has nine or fewer Limit points, the next player becomes Divider, the First and Second Choosers are chosen randomly, and the previous two paragraphs are repeated by players in their new roles.

If one player has ten or more Limit points, there is only one more turn in the Passage - and only the two players with nine or fewer Limit points play in it. In this case, one fewer of each type of card is drawn, and the Divider makes only two piles. At the end of that turn, a new Passage begins - unless it's the end of the third Passage, in which case every region is scored one more time, and the game is over.

If more than one player has ten or more Limit points, the Passage ends immediately.

The Basic Four-Player Game

The game is similar to the three-player game, with the following differences:

  • Players control only one bridge at the beginning of the game, not two.
  • The role that rotates each turn is that of First Divider.
  • The other three roles are then chosen randomly:
    • First Chooser
    • Second Divider
    • Second Chooser
  • The first Divider takes only 5 Action and 3 Limit cards, and makes only two piles, keeping them hidden from the other players.
  • The Second Divider simultaneously takes 5 Action and 3 Limit cards, and makes two piles, also keeping them hidden.
  • When all four piles are made, the First Divider's two piles are turned face up.
  • The First Chooser chooses one of the two piles created by the First Divider, executes the Action cards and keeps the Limit cards. The First Divider then does the same for the remaining pile.
  • The Second Divider's two piles are then revealed, and the Second Chooser and Second Divider take their turns as above.
  • If one player has ten or more Limit points, the remaining three players play one more round in the Passage exactly as described above under the three-player rules.
  • If two players have ten or more Limit points, there is one more turn in the Passage between the remaining two players.
Note: I only like this game as a three-player game.

The Action Cards

There are five types of Action cards:

  • Place an Aristocrat in a specific region (or adjacent region across one of your own bridges),
  • Swap one of the Aristocrats from your stockpile for any Aristocrat on the board (which is returned to the owner's stockpile),
  • Place a bridge between two regions (or move one, taking control, if no free ones are available),
  • Banish Aristocrats from a region of your choice,
  • Move the Doge (or leave him where he is) and score the region he ends up in.
If you choose a pile of cards that has more than one Action card, you can choose which order to execute them. This can be very important! You may wish to check the results of a banishment before deciding where to place an Aristocrat, for example, or which region to move the Doge to.

Banishment is handled with a die roll: you choose a region and roll the die. You then remove as many Aristocrats as the number you rolled. You choose whose Aristocrats are returned to their stockpile, of course, but if you roll a "5" in a region in which there are only four opposing Aristocrats, the fifth one must be taken from your own color, if you have any present. I've seen regions completely wiped out through Banishment, which wasn't what the banisher wanted ...

Bridges are important for two reasons:

  • "Place an Aristocrat" Action cards always specify a region. You must place one of your Aristocrats in that exact region, unless you control one or more bridges that touch that region. In that case, you have a choice: you can place the Aristocrat in the region named, or in a region you can reach by crossing one bridge you control.
  • When moving the Doge to score a region, you may move him over any bridges on the board. But you must pay one victory point to any player who controls a bridge you have the Doge cross over. The Doge crosses over your own bridges for free, of course.
When you place (or move) a bridge, you put an Aristocrat on it to show control.

The Limit Cards

The Limit cards determine a few things:

  • How many turns you remain playing in the Passage. If your Limit total passes ten before anyone else's, you'll have fewer turns in that Passage.
  • At the end of a Passage, anyone who still has fewer than ten Limit points scores victory points. You get the difference between your Limit point total and the highest Limit point total that Passage. So if I end up with 13 Limit points and you only 8 Limit points, you score five victory points at the end of the Passage.
  • If there is a single lowest Limit point total below ten points, that player gets to do a free Banishment when the Passage ends.

Decisions, Decisions!

That's basically the game mechanics. They're not terribly hard - actually easier than El Grande because you have fewer Action cards to understand. Ah, but the decisions you have to make! That's where this game shines.

The first and most obvious decision is the Divider's. He has to analyze the situation on the board and the cards he drew, and sort them into two or three piles, knowing he'll get the least desirable pile from the other players' points of view.

Lots of factors go into this decision - too many to list here easily, in fact. First of all, cards that allow placing Aristocrats are usually more valuable to some players than to others. If you have 8 Aristocrats in the San Marco region and I have only 1, for example, neither one of us will be very excited about getting the Action card that lets the active player place an Aristocrat in San Marco - unless we have bridges that let us place that Aristocrat in a neighboring region that's a closer contest. But if, in a three-player game, the third player has 7 Aristocrats in San Marco, suddenly the card becomes of interest to him and to you with your 8 Aristocrats - but still not to me with my 1 Aristocrat, unless the bridges help me.

So if I'm the Divider and I see a card that the other two players want, but I don't want, I might figure I won't get stuck with it, since they choose before me. So I stick a couple of Limit cards with it to make it less beneficial. But I have to be careful! If I put too many Limit points on it, they may both decide it's not worth it and stick me with it - I not only get an Action card that's not very valuable to me, but a lot of Limit points! (This is the voice of experience, folks, and the use of the first person singular is deliberate, alas.)

And it can get really ugly when there are three players and only one Doge (scoring card). Who gets to score that turn? How much will it cost them in Limit points? If I can afford more Limit points than you, I might stack a few more on the Doge to make it more likely that I'll get it ...

So you can begin to see that it's not easy being Divider. You have to analyze the cards you drew relative to every position on the board, your opponents' psychologies, everyone's current Limit card status, and probably the stars at the moment. You might think this would make for a slow game, and I suppose with the wrong type of gamer, this could be true. In the games I've played, however, it just wasn't a factor. None of us were extreme analyzers. And in a three-player game, everybody is pretty interested in those cards, so the others aren't just sitting around bored - they're staring intently and probably silently willing certain combinations to appear.

Comment: The four-player game can drag a bit if both Dividers are the slow type, true.

But that's not all the decisions, of course. Once the Divider is done, the First Chooser has to go through the same calculations. Except he doesn't get to sort the cards - he simply has to choose a pile. Of course he wants the most advantageous pile for himself, but remember that can be relative. If the Divider's situation is such that one pile nets him 0 points and another pile nets him 8 points, you have to take that into account. So if that first pile nets you 8 points and the second 3 points, you're actually better off taking the second pile, because you'll have a net gain of 3 points over the Divider, and you'd be tied the other way. Of course, it isn't always easy to see a pile in purely victory point terms, because there may not be a Doge in either pile, and things may change again before the next scoring actually occurs ...

Rule Clarification

There is one unclear rule in the game, so I e-mailed Alan Moon about it. He kindly told me the correct way to play it, so I'll offer it here:

If the situation arises in which the person due to be next starting player is not in the round because he/she has too many limit points, the starting player position simply passes to the next person, clockwise around the table, who is in the final round of the Passage.

At the beginning of the next Passage, the starting player position simply passes clockwise again - it does not go back to pick up someone who missed a turn as starting player because of limit points.

In addition, Alan has ruled that you may go into negative points at the beginning of the game to pay another player for the right to move the Doge before you've collected any points.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

If your group does have some very slow, thorough analyzers, this may not be the game to play with them. People are patient with a Divider, but I'd imagine only up to a point.

If you don't like this general family of games (greatest influence in a region scores for it periodically, no actual combat, open Action card information before the turn begins, etc.), you'll find that this is a prime example of it. Not for those who hate El Grande or Wongar (though in some ways it's a cleaner design than either of those games, as fine as they are).

The game has a limited range in number of players: 3 (see below on why I don't like the four-player game). This might not be a good choice for some groups who consistently have five players, for example. (On the other hand, it's probably the perfect game when you're in the mood for El Grande but only have three players, as the latter is best with five.)

Banishments can cause an extreme variation in luck. I don't mind - in fact, I actually like the uncertainty - but some players may find it an unacceptable level of luck. If you're in this camp, try playing with 1d3 Banishment rolls (roll a d6, divide the result by two, rounding up). Or use an averaging die (2,3,3,4,4,5). Or a d4. Or make a mini-deck using playing cards: Ace = 1, and add 2, 2, 3, 3, 4 - whatever you think should be in such a deck - there are plenty of possibilities. In fact, for those who don't like the luck associated with it at all, you could simply say a Banishment allows the active player to remove up to three Aristocrats of his choice from any one region, period. Or up to (or exactly equal to) the accompanying value of Limit cards! (For the end of Passage Banishment, perhaps just one Aristocrat, since such a player already has a victory point bonus.)

Problems with the four-player game: having two different Dividers can create a big discrepency in scoring. I have seen one pair of players have three scoring cards and three "1s" for limit cards, while the other pair was dealt no scoring cards and three "3s" for limit cards! In addition, it's more likely that someone will be a Chooser more often - see the next paragraph. Having two Dividers working together, without showing their cards, can be frankly boring - sometimes you just have to think about it carefully, even if you're usually a fairly quick player. Finally, the people who have the problem with extreme luck in Banishments don't complain so much about it in the three-player game for some reason. At any rate, I've tried the four-player game often enough now to know that I simply don't want to play it again - it's a great game three-player, but a very flawed game four-player.

I'm a little worried about a possible flaw: because the First Chooser is randomly chosen each turn, there is a chance that one player will be First Chooser more than the others. This might be a problem because I believe it's the most advantageous role to have in the game. But it might not be an issue - it seems like it should be, but I haven't really kept good track of how many times a winner was First Chooser.

If it appears to be a problem, I already have a potential fix: simply label players as A,B,C,D and use the following charts, which equalizes their roles while still allowing them to interact with all other players. Start the cycle over again after turn 6.

     Three-Player San Marco:

     Turn           1     2     3     4     5     6
     Divider        A     B     C     B     A     C
     1st Chooser    C     A     B     C     B     A
     2nd Chooser    B     C     A     A     C     B

     Four-Player San Marco:

     Turn           1     2     3     4     5     6
     1st Divider    A     D     C     D     A     B
     1st Chooser    B     A     B     C     C     D
     2nd Divider    C     B     A     B     D     C
     2nd Chooser    D     C     D     A     B     A

Summing Up

I found this to be an exceptionally good three-player game - one of the best new games I played in the year 2000. The decisions make the game very tense and exciting, and the game can change quickly and dramatically with the roll of a "6" on a banishment. The mechanics are clean, easily learned, and there are very few exceptions. The decisions are what drives the game, and I enjoyed the game even though I have made horrendous decisions which ended up killing any chance of victory I had up until that point.

Highly recommended with three players; not recommended with four players.

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