Designed by: Vital Lacerda
Published by: Eagle Gryphon Games
Playtime: 60-120 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK
Jesus Christ, I have absolutely no idea where to even start with Lisboa, the latest table-hogging, mind-destroying eurogame from the highly respected Vital Lacerda. I’ve reviewed one game from Vital previously and utterly adored its lavish production values and stellar gameplay, but damn was it hard to review simply due to the way every mechanic tied to everything else. To explain one thing meant having to digress into about a billion other things before stumbling back to the original topic like a drunk emerging from a pub lock-in. It was confusing. Lisboa is just as complex and tricky to discuss, so please forgive me as I muddle through talking about Lacerda’s latest attempt to turn my already worryingly overheating brain into a melting pot of pink goo.
The entire game is based around Lisbon, which is actually Lacerda’s hometown and thus clearly something close to his heart. This location suffered massive destruction in the 1700’s when it was hit by a colossal earthquake that left Lisbon, one of the wealthiest and most beautiful cities, in ruins. The disaster was all the worse because it struck on All Saint’s Day when the majority of Lisbon’s 275,000 strong population were packed into the six massive cathedrals. Following the earthquake numerous fires broke out, claiming more lives. And then some 40-minutes later a towering tsunami struck. An estimated 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were annihilated, from houses to libraries to incredible works of art. However, the town was rebuilt, the rubble cleared and the streets made broader. And as for you, dear reader, you will be playing as a member of the nobility using your influence and money to rebuild Lisbon, make your own interests more profitable and chase Wigs, because as we all know Wigs were the most valuable thing of all, as Lisboa acknowledges by having them be the game’s victory points.
I can’t go further without stopping to discuss just how damn big, beautiful and well produced this game feels. Ian O’Toole, the very same artist who worked on The Gallerist, has embraced the blue tiles that were so popular in Lisbon at the time, creating a gorgeous blend of blues with splashes of other colors. Much like The Gallerist it looks subdued and refined, and impressively, despite the complexity of the game, the board is laid out sensibly with lots of little things helping remind players about the various mechanics. The components themselves are brilliant, a mixture of thick cardboard, lovely finishes on the cards and chunky wooden pieces that scream quality. My only complaint is that the plastic insert doesn’t fit everything as well as I’d like, but you’ll still fit everything in while a plastic lid helps keep it all from getting muddled.
As for the theme, it has been expertly woven into the gameplay so that everything feels like it makes sense, with the rulebook itself containing snippets of text explaining how and why certain things work the way they do. The way you remove rubble from the city in order to make construction cheaper before also using said rubble to expand your own business, for example, is great, as is how influence must be used when visiting the nobles in order to do certain things, or how that same influence can essentially be used in place of currency. Due to the game’s insane depth you quickly forget about the theme amidst a barrage of calculations and planning, but it’s always there and feels like it is built into absolutely everything.
The key concept behind the game is that each turn breaks down to playing a single card, and then taking a new card from the four face-up ones at the end of your turn. At least, this is what Vital Lacerda likes to say, but only because he’s a miserable bastard who enjoys watching his fellow human beings suffer. Basically, on your turn you’ll take a single card from your hand of five and opt to either play it to your personal board, called your portfolio, which represents your own business and interests, or play it directly onto the main board in order to visit one of the three nobles and take their primary action, such as constructing a new business on the right-hand side of the board.
If you choose to play the card to your portfolio, there is one of two places it can be put. Political cards – those with one of three noblemen depicted on them – get slid underneath the top of the board at which point you’ll immediately gain whatever was shown on the now covered portion of the card, be it goods, cash or something else. The top of the card will stick out and indicate how much influence you’ll earn during certain events such as building a ship, but we’ll come back to that later. Treasury cards, meanwhile, get slid upwards into the bottom of the board which instantly earns you cash equal to the current value of the royal treasury before then moving the treasury marker down one space, while the bottom of the card provides another constant bonus such as discounts when building property or even a boost to the value of your goods.
If you do choose to play a card straight to your own board then you have one of two options; either sell goods by putting them on a ship you own or that an opponent earns and thus get some money and a few victory Wigs, or you can trade with the three nobles by giving them goods in return for taking up to two of the six available state actions, which are essentially secondary, smaller actions.
Let’s start breaking these six state actions down. I mentioned a ship earlier, so we’ll start there; building a ship costs a few goods such as some gold or fabric, but it comes with a number of benefits, starting with the fact that when you slide a ship into your player board you instantly receive influence for it and any other cards you have. Having a ship also gives you a place to sell any goods you’ve earned or produced, and while any other player can also use it to sell their own stuff only you will score the points for doing so.
Another potential action is to send two of your little officials to a track referred to as the plaza which sits just underneath the noble’s offices to quietly whisper in the nobles ear’s. To do this you just take two of your little wooden officials and then place them on the track below any of the three nobles, which later on will make other players pay more influence when visiting them and let you get an audience more easily.
You can also snag a special token known as a Royal Favor which lets you “follow” someone else’s visit to a noble, skulking behind them before quietly slipping through the giant doors before anyone can realize you’re just some scruffy peasant from the streets. In other words, it lets you have an extra turn of sorts, albeit in slightly more limited fashion as you can only perform the noble’s main action or a secondary action rather than both. Still, smart use of these tokens can really help you earn a bunch of extra wigs, even if you do still have to spend some influence in the process.
If that isn’t quite you’re thing then you can head over to the Church to Meet the Cardinal and start throwing your political weight round in the Holy Sanctum of God himself, as portrayed by a cube being moved around the Church track, leaping over Clergy tiles as it goes. You can then pick up one of the tiles it has leapt over and add it to your board where it will provide a constant benefit. There are also two spaces on the Church track that trigger certain events, with the first being located half-way around which increases the Royal Treasury. The second space is every full lap of the track and lets players earn some extra influence by getting rid of Church tiles they no longer want while also scoring Wigs for them. During the 1700s the Church was incredibly influential, but this period also so a battle between the Church and the State that was waged to decide who would ultimately be ruling.
Another action you can take is to produce goods based on what buildings you currently own in Lisbon, the construction of which we’ll get to later in this review. For every building you earn once resource of the matching type, but the catch is that the value of the goods you produced then drop by one, as tracked by markers on part of the board. In other words the more of one type of product the less valuable it is when it’s sold. It’s yet another thing you need to consider when navigating Lisboa, constantly keeping a wary eye on this simple little economy.
The final State action that can be taken is to acquire a plan for a public building, done by simply taking the top tile from the blue or green stack depending on which building you’re aiming to construct later. We’ll come back to public buildings, don’t worry.
Those are the smaller State actions that essentially serve to prepare you for the nobles themselves. To visit one of three nobles and take their associated action you simply pop your chosen card onto the board and then choose one of the two State actions underneath the depicted noble, plus the main action. First, though, in a neat thematic touch you need to spend some of your influence in order to persuade the noble to support your plan, and the amount that must be spent equals the number of other player’s officials currently sitting underneath the noble you wish to talk to. Got that? In other words the more officials you have in court whispering to the various nobles the easier it is for you to get them to see things your way, and the harder it is for everyone else. It’s all about politics, people.
We’ve already covered the six secondary actions available, so let’s jump into the three main actions. The blue noble (Marquis de Pombal, the Prime Minister) lets you snag one of the nine face-up decree cards which provide end-game bonus points based on a bunch of different things such as the number of stores producing fabric, how many blue public buildings exist, who has the most gold and more. Grabbing some of these cards can give you some focus in the early game. For beginners, I think this is very valuable because Lisboa is a big, meaty game and having a sense of direction and purpose is hugely helpful. My only gripe here is that the decree cards sit beside the board rather than on it, making them feel weirdly disconnected from everything else, but that is a tiny criticism.
Now we come to the meat of the game as the last two nobles that need to be discussed both allow you to add new buildings to the right side of the main board, slowly rebuilding the ruins of Lisbon into something new and stronger. The first involves constructing your new stores within the city if Lisbon with the help of Manuel da Miaia who was the Master Builder, done by first consulting the right-hand side of the board where there are a series of rows and columns that were randomly seeded with rubble cubes at the start of the game. These cubes come in three colors representing fire, tidal and earthquake damage, and before you do anything else you can grab one of these cubes and add it your portfolio where getting a set of three colors will let you expand and thus store more goods and allow you to slot more cards into your board at any given time. The other reason getting to remove a cube is handy is because the cubes dictate how much you need to pay in order to build, PLUS you also have to cough up the current value of the Royal Treasury.
With all of that done you finally get to actually place your building, except that’s not so simple, either. By removing one of the little wooden buildings from your portfolio you also get a bonus, so you need to consider what you want. Then, the colored stripes in the building grid will determine the type of product your store will be able to produce. Finally, your new store scores Wigs based upon the number at the bottom of the column which gets multiplied by the amount of matching public buildings, which is to say public buildings in the same row and/or column that have colors matching the street on which you built. Got all of that? No? I can’t blame you, it’s a system that feels fiddly at first, but once you get the hang of it there is a lot of depth in choosing where to build and when to build. Not only must you consider the cost of the location but adding a building will cover up a bonus symbol which grants you another reward, and of course you also want to score as well as possible while keeping in mind what goods you want to produce in the future.
So this brings us to the final action of placing public buildings around the edges of the grid, which means paying a visit to the King himself. Firstly you need to have one of the plan tokens we chatted about earlier, which you then spend to grab the matching top tile from the two stacks of public buildings. You can then place this building anywhere on spaces along the edge of the grid, taking any rubble cubes that are there and placing them on your player board, as well as getting any bonus shown. Unlike stores you don’t pay anything to put up a public building, but you do have to assign some of your own officials to run it as indicated on the plan token, which you do by removing the officials from the court and returning them to your player board.
Right, so let’s get to the scoring! As I hinted at earlier the public buildings display two colors and only stores built on streets matching those colors will get scored using the same method as I previously talked about, except the catch is that during scoring for a public building ALL stores will get scored, including other player’s. Yup, adding yet another layer to the game is attempting position your own stores and public buildings so that only you will score off them.
But how does all of this convoluted, puzzling brilliance come to a close? Well, the game actually has two segments to get through, so let’s talk about those first. When you initially set the game up everyone gets dealt a hand of basic blue-backed cards, and then on the board are placed four piles of red-backed cards, with each noble get a deck plus an extra one for treasury cards. At the end of each player’s turn they get to take top faceup card from any of these decks, and thus once three decks runs out the game is briefly paused. The same thing also happens whenever a player reaches their second complete set of rubble cubes. At this point all player’s get a chance earn some bonuses and influence by discarding any amount of cards from their hand before they then get replaced by new ones from a purple-backed deck. Finally, the decks on the board are replaced with brown ones and the game carries on.
The actual end of the game happens when somebody completes their fourth set of rubble cubes or when three of the decks of cards once again run out. At this point there is some extra scoring to be done with players being granted more Wigs based on ship sizes, who has the most of each store type, decree cards, influence and a few other things.
Whew, that’s a lot to take in and a lot to attempt to write about in a semi-coherent manner. Lisboa is perhaps trickier than most to learn simply because its theme isn’t as intuitive. Because of that people, I played with would often struggle to remember how to do specific things or the sequence of events that play out when performing an action. Of course, a few playthroughs sorts this out, but it’s certainly not the most intuitive game I’ve played.
But it’s worth spending the time needed to learn Lisboa’s many little nuances and tricks. Your first few games will be spent just remembering how to play, stumbling through each turn with no real plan in mind and if you’re like me no idea how to really score points. Eventually, though, things start to click and the brilliance of Lacerda’s design will reveal itself. The wonderfully thematic mechanics are cleverly interwoven so that you always need to be thinking ahead, planning what buildings you want to place, how you want to get the money needed for them, whether you should aim to gather more influence or whether you should place more officials in the court in order to curry the most favor with the three nobles whom you’ll constantly be seeking audiences with. Every aspect of your turn feels like it holds important decisions to be made; should I sell some goods? Should I tuck a card into my portfolio? If so, which of the six secondary state actions should I take? Do I even have the goods needed to do them? Would it be good to visit the Church and take that tile, or perhaps gather some goods to sell next turn? Maybe I should pre-empt another player by getting a Royal Favor token, or should I get a plan for a public building and send more officials to court to prepare for it? Should I build something, and if so where should it be built and what cube should I take? If I put a business there will it help my opponents too much? Every decision, every moment feels like it means something, and when you waste one of those decisions it almost hits you with a physical force. It can be gutwrenching to fail and elating to succeed.
If that wasn’t enough there’s a solid solo mode where a set of rules guides an A.I. player around the board, determining what actions it will do, where it will build and much more. It’s an intriguing prospect because unlike playing against a real person you know exactly what the A.I. player is going to do and can work toward countering it. It’s also fairly challenging in my estimation, although in fairness I’m hardly an excellent player.
Call me a boot-licking fanboy if you like, but Lisboa is a thing of beauty to this still fairly inexperienced gamer. Its theme is built into the mechanics brilliantly, the depth of the gameplay is so satisfying to explore and the whole thing feels like it was meticulously designed to click together like an intricate puzzle that you spend ages staring at in complete ignorance before the picture suddenly becomes clear and you see how everything fits together. It’s not for everyone; no game this size ever could be, but if you like a brain-melting puzzle game where the table sits in silence due to sheer amount of things to think about then this is the game for you. I love it. I really, really do.