In Praetor players take on the role of what amount to city planners in order to (historically Praetors served as either military or civic leaders, during this game you focus upon the development of civil as opposed to military capacity) expand the Republic. This is performed by assigning workers to either build certain city features or activate the features in order to develop capacity. However, what makes Praetor unique is the fact that each of these workers become more efficient and powerful the more that they are used, until such time as they become so skilled they are able to retire and live out their lives in relative ease (except of course for when they are pressed into forced service through those pesky labor camps). The player that is able to best exalt the glory of Rome through the creation of the most buildings and monuments, is named Praetor Urbanus and the winner of the game.
Game play commences with each player receiving an individual player board and three dice, turned to 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Each players morale is set to 0 and their starting score is set to 10, 9, 8, etc. depending upon each players starting player order. The starting city tiles are then laid out, with the market, work camp and imperial outpost tiles in the middle and a gold mine for each player laid out on the periphery (the starting layout and number of city tiles will vary depending upon the number of players). The remaining city tiles are laid in a face down stack and city tiles equal to the number of player plus one are revealed. A stack of Imperial Favor tiles is also laid, face down and the top Imperial Favor tile is revealed. Each player places one of their markers on one of the gold mines. Each player also start the game with 10 coins, four wood (orange), three stone (grey), two marble (white) and one weapon (black) cubes.
On their turn each player may either place a worker on a tile to gain a resource or action; activate a special action tile; build a city tile by placing an active die upon the tile, paying the tile’s construction cost and placing the tile adjacent to another tile; or pass.
Most tiles are triggered by placing a worker die upon them. If the tile was built and therefore controlled by another player the player using the tile must pay the controlling player a use cost in order to use a tile. There are some tiles that do not require a worker (special tiles which have a grey background). Unlike the other tiles these tiles may be activated by each player; however, no player may activate these tiles more than once during a turn. The tiles perform different functions and the power of some tiles increases when activated by a more skilled worker. In other words, some tiles create more resources if they are triggered by a worker die with a higher value. Generally speaking, production tiles create a number of resources equal to the value of the die placed upon them.
The actions available vary wildly; however, the actions available can be roughly summarized as follows: producing each of the resources; selling and buying resources; converting resources; increasing moral; increasing victory points; training citizens in order to convert them to workers; hastening training, meeting Imperial Favor in order to gain victory points that increase in value as more demands are met and pressing retired workers into service.
When building a tile a player may select from the face up city tiles, place one of their available worker die upon (value is irrelevant) and pay the production cost. The player then get points equal to value of that tile and places one of their markers upon it. Each tile may be used right after it is built (by another player since the active players turn is over once the construction is complete) but as noted above its use will require the player that uses it to pay the builder the activation cost.
In the example below, white would pay blue one coin and then receive, one marble cube (white). Black would pay white one coin and then receive, two coins. Finally, black would pay two wood cubes (orange) to the bank and construct the stone quarry, receiving four points at that time (a base of two, plus a point for each of the green plaza tiles that matched the tile that he laid). Later, blue played upon that tile and paid black one coin and received three stone cubes (grey).
After all players have passed or used all of their active workers, the board clears and all workers that triggered a red action tile or built a new tile advance in experience (the die face is changed to the next highest value). If a worker reaches a value of six that worker is retired and the player that controls that worker immediately gain victory points, with more points being awarded if the worker retires earlier in the game.
In the example below, both of black’s dice would advance to five, since one was on a red space and the other was used to construct a tile. Likewise, both of the white die would advance to six and retire, with the white player immediately scoring twenty-four or sixteen points, depending upon whether they retired in the first or second era. Additionally, because white constructed the labor camp he was able to use one of his retired workers to gain moral at the Coliseum; however, he did have to pay black three coins for the privilege. (Note, a die is not placed in this space in order to use it and it may be used by all players that that pay the price of one weapon cube (black).) Finally, though blue would be able to covert a citizen to a novice for free, his die would not advance since it was on a blue work space.
Players then must pay one coin for each active or retired worker (in some cases more coins must the paid) to feed their workers. For every worker that the player cannot feed they lose one space on the moral track, which will either award or deduct points from the player’s final score at the end of the game. Players then advance training workers one step, or turn workers that were on the final stage of their training into a value one active worker.
In the example below, the white player has three active workers and one retired worker. So, white’s feeding cost will be four dollars. He is also at the two point space on the moral track. If the whiter player only had two dollars during the upkeep phase, his moral would degrade to zero moral. Additionally, white’s novice worker would advance one more space through his training and would become and active worker (that would have to be fed) during the next upkeep phase.
Finally, the face up city tile tableau is refreshed and a new Imperial Favor tile is revealed (with the old one being removed from the game).
Play then recommences with the lowest scoring player going first, the second lowest scoring player second, and so forth.
Once the final city tile or Imperial Favor tile is revealed the game end is triggered. The last round proceeds as usual. Thereafter scores are totaled with players gaining or losing points equal to how high they have proceeded up the moral track as well as point equal to the face value of their active un-retired workers. The player with the highest score is the winner of the game.
During my initial plays of Praetor while impressed by the mechanics I was very concerned about balance. Games tended to be run away victories for a single player and I was very concerned about the run-away leader problem. Typically when that happens, I have no one to blame but myself and, not to be too blunt about it, neither do you. But this does not change how deflating it is to realize halfway through a one hour game, that you have no competitive chance. However, after repeated plays I came to realize that this experience is not typical of Praetor. To the contrary, after a few plays, and some proper early instruction, most of my game plays were tight and wonderfully tense affairs.
In light of my experience I would commend to you the following advice. First, it is imperative for players to gain access to production facilities, i.e. wood, stone and marble. I have played and won games where I did not have ideal production capacity, but being unable to produce at no costs can make engine building very difficult. Second, the gray tile spaces are incredibly powerful and if one player has control of all of these tiles they will be at a remarkable advantage. Be sure to deny access to these tiles to a single player, regardless of the cost. Finally, tile familiarity is very valuable. Before play it is helpful for the players to know how many tiles of each type will come out during the game. During early plays you should allow time for the players to look through the tiles that will be available during that game (more tiles are used for larger play counts) before they are randomized.
This brings us to the review proper.
The first notable feature of Praetor is its components. The art work, unique to each tile type, is visually arresting and fairly clear. Moreover, the iconography is very clear and easy to understand, making the game, language independent. The tiles are durable and properly sized. I first thought that they may be too large to fit on most tables during larger games; however, this concern has not yet been realized. While the game can spread out over a substantial part of most gaming tables, I have not yet had a problem with the spreading play mat encroaching upon player spaces. It remains possible for the tiles to extend in long irregular tendrils, because to the plaza scoring mechanic (which will be discussed in greater detail momentarily) tile placement tends to be centralized, making the playing space fairly compact. The dice are not remarkable, but they are serviceable, especially since they are placed and not rolled.
The game play is intuitive and elegant, making for fairly rapid turn progressions. Little touches, such as the game’s dice placement conventions, make for easy upkeep and limited downtime. Moreover, while none of the game mechanics are innovative in and of themselves, the manner in which they are combined and employed makes this game fresh and unique. For example, leveling up workers is a previously employed mechanic, but combining this with the retirement of leveled up workers as well as the fact that not all spaces cause workers to level up makes this game unlike any other I can recall. Likewise, while the construction and control of action spaces by players is a tried and true game mechanic, combining this with action spaces of varying costs, values and utilities makes this mechanic feel fresh. And while many games tie tile placement to scoring opportunities, the plaza scoring mechanic where more points are scored when the colors of the corners of the tiles are matched to adjacent tiles, is a slight but significant innovation.
Moreover, Praetor’s balance is exceptional. After many plays, I have discovered multiple paths to victory. Moreover, the balance of benefits against foregone opportunity costs is exceptional. As a general rule, the types and number of resources that are required to build a city tile are commensurate with that tile’s utility or value. Obtaining certain spaces may be of great benefit to players employing one strategy, while of much lower benefit to others. Furthermore, because players can receive substantial income from their competitors when they construct and control certain city tiles, putting together an efficient game plan relies upon knowing not only the tactics that you intend to employ, but also the tactics that your competitors hope to use.
Because of the way that tiles are bought and used, player interaction is significant. Throughout the game, players are trying to gauge when they should use certain spaces, hoping to beat their competitors to certain key spaces while putting off other actions for as long as possible. For example, cagey players will delay building certain city tiles until later in a round so that they have more plaza scoring opportunities and so that their competitors will not be able to use that tiles effect during the current round. Additionally, it behooves the players to keep their resource stores robust, so that they are in a good position to obtain some of the game’s more valuable city tiles, once they are revealed.
The game’s variability and related replayability is also above average. The number of tiles used differs depending upon the number of players and while the tiles are categorized by era (with more expensive and valuable tiles coming out during the later era) the cards are randomized within their respective eras, making each game experience unique. Moreover, the order in which the Imperial Favor tiles come out can significantly alter game play. While these tiles have not been discussed in great detail in this review, they can be huge point makers and their acquisition may be hotly contested during some game plays. Moreover, because the game provides so many opportunities for victory, the tactics employed by competitors will significantly impact game play. Notably, it is difficult to challenge a competitor for victory along the same path. Put another way, if two players try to use the exact same tactics during a single game, chances are they will both end up losers. As a result, players need to continually assess and reassess the game conditions, changing tactics as conditions require.
Praetor can be purchased for $39.00 at most online retailers (miniature market, coolstuffinc.) and can often be had for less than this amount. Given the number of plays you are likely to enjoy as well as the depth of each game play experience, this is a fair, if not a remarkable value.
Praetor is a game that will grow in your esteem, the more that you play it. The design is fluid and intuitive and game play is engaging throughout. When playing with experienced game players you will find that end game point differences are tight and game play is competitive. Though Praetor employs familiar mechanics it does so in a innovative way that makes the game play experience unique. A wonderful design and production by a young and promising publishing company.
While Praetor plays well with three to five players it is less engaging with two players. During my early game plays, my two player games were utter disasters. I was beaten by 40 points each time. While I am ok with losing, and losing big, this game play experience was brutally disheartening. It is harder to keep another player’s actions in check in the two player game and if certain tiles come out at certain times, one player can gain an insurmountable lead. While I have become more adept at preparing for these eventualities, in the two player game luck continues to play an outsized role in determining the winner.
I found that Praetor shines after you become familiar with it’s key mechanics. As noted above, I would encourage you to give new players a few tips before their first play. By avoiding certain pitfalls you can make game play far more enjoyable. In the same regard, if you find early plays of the game daunting I would encourage you to muster through, preferably with two or three other players of comparable skill. Your investment of time and energy will not be wasted.
The game provides for asysmetrical powers as a game play variant. While this option does improve variability, the adjustments are slight and I tend to prefer playing the game in its traditional mode. That said, these differing powers do confront the players with new challenges and are worth uses on occasion.
While the rules are generally clear and well written they are plagued by some ambiguities. For example, one of the spaces allows a player to gain points equal to their progression up the moral chart. However, it is not clear if the player gets points equal to the number of spaces that the player has advanced up the tract or the value of the points described upon the tract (the values increase at more than a 1 to 1 ratio). Moreover, if a player goes to that tract to block another player and the have negative moral values, must they lose points? We have come up with our interpretations of this rule and they seem to work. NSKN Games has a fairly impressive and useful website and would encourage them to add an FAQs section to the site for the clarification of these and similar questions.
One of my favorite features of this game is the speed with which it plays. This is not to say that game play sessions will be short. With four or more players, game play tends to run 90 minutes or longer. However, the turns tend to go quickly, with one exception. When players go to the market game play can slog down considerably. Notably, there are no limits upon how many resources may be bought or sold, so shopping visits can be lengthy. I have found that allowing a player to shop while other players go forward with their moves may be warranted on occasion. While I have played once or twice when players took an inordinate amount of time with their turns, these are players that can take twenty minutes to complete a turn in King of Tokyo, so I do not count these delays as a fault of the game.
The aforementioned review derives from a copy of the reviewed game which was provided by the publisher, free of charge.