How much luck is too much luck if a game player could chuck luck?
Without delving too deeply into game theory and the differences between input randomness (related to board and/or card setup in a game) and output randomness (the result of a dice roll in game combat, for example), let’s take a look at Sanssouci, a 2013 game from Ravensburger, and designer Michael Kiesling. Kiesling is probably best known for his collaboration with Wolfgang Kramer on two successive winners of the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award – Tikal (1999) & Torres (2000). In 2007, though, Kiesling contributed a solo design, Vikings, which maintains a respectable 7.32 average rating on BoardGameGeek.
As it so happened, Sanssouci was played twice in a row during a recent game night by the same four people, all playing it for the first time. Tom won the first game, and came within a single victory point of finishing dead last in the second (an ‘honor’ that went to me). In our post-game chat, Tom noted that in the second game, he couldn’t get the (hand) cards he needed to obtain the tiles he wanted, and when he had the cards he needed, the available tiles weren’t there.
Players in Sanssouci start with 18 cards in a personal deck; the cards are identical for all players. Nine of the cards depict structures related to the game’s theme – labyrinth, statue, pavilion, topiary, stairway, fountain, rose arch, herb spiral, and grapevine. On a player’s personal board, these structures define a set of nine columns on a 9 x 6 grid. The horizontal axis is numbered 1-6, and further defined by five colors – (second row to bottom row) white, grey, orange, purple, and blue.
The other nine cards in a player’s hand are two-color combinations, defining which tiles from a set available on a central board that a player can take on his/her turn. Each tile bears an image of one of the nine structures. On the central board, 10 of them (randomly drawn from eight stacks of them, also on the central board) are arrayed and each player may choose one, based on one or the other of the two cards he has in his hand at the start of his/her turn. The array of available tiles is on a 5 x 2 grid on the central board, with two spaces for each of the five colors. Color combinations available in your total deck of 18 cards do not include all possible color combinations; no orange/white, for example, or grey/white. There is a wild card.
On your turn, you choose one of the two cards you have in your hand from your deck of 18 and use it to collect a tile. If you choose one of the two-color cards, you may select a tile from one of the four central board spaces with either of the two colors. If you have a card with a structure image, you may choose a tile with that image from the array of 10. If you have an image card that does not have a match in the available array of 10, you may pick any tile you want (a very important, second ‘wild card’ option).
Now that, my friends, represents a lot of input randomness:
1) the tiles drawn to occupy the 10 available spaces on the central board
2) which (structure) images match up to which colors on the display of 10
3) which cards from your deck of 18 you hold in your two-card hand at the start of the turn, (and most importantly. . .)
4) whether either of your two cards matches up (to your satisfaction) with an available tile.
Is it too much randomness, though? Randomness contributes to replayability, of course, but at what point does too much of it lead a player to believe that he/she lacks any discernible ability to win the game; that it’s nothing but luck, like Candyland? Normally, you would think that Tom’s ability to win the first of the two games of Sanssouci that were played, would give him something of leg up in the second game. He’d obviously grasped the principles, but was unable to apply them in game two.
So we back up a bit and look at Sanssouci’s scoring mechanisms, to see if there’s a balance to what appears to be a surfeit of luck.
On a player’s personal board, at the top of each of the nine columns in the 9×6 grid, are nine wooden meeples. These meeples (Noblemen, in game parlance) are capable of movement on every turn. Their ‘stroll’ through the game’s garden (only through tile-occupied spaces) is the sole means of acquiring in-game victory points. Each nobleman must remain in the column where he began. He may venture north, south, east or west, an unlimited number of (tile) spaces on his turn, but he must end up back in the column where he started and be at least one further space south from where he started. If the nobleman in the first (labyrinth) column has tiles in the spaces below him, he may move down as many as possible, collecting victory points equal to the value of the horizontal row on which he stops (1 through 6). In addition, the nobleman may drift off his assigned column, as long as he can get back to it and be one space further south than he was when he started. This all assumes occupied spaces through which the nobleman can move, but the ability is key to what happens. Your ‘labyrinth’ nobleman may not have a fully occupied path south to the horizontal ‘5’ row, for example, but there might be a valid tile there (when you place, there is no adjacency requirement). If the next (pavilion) column is occupied down to the horizontal ‘5’ row, our labyrinth nobleman can slide over to that column, travel down to the ‘5’ row and hook left back onto his own column and collect five victory points.
Merrily we roll along, until players have used up all of the 18 cards in their personal deck, at which point, end-game victory points are assigned according to three criteria. Each completed (with tiles) row on a player’s board scores 10 points, minus the value of the row itself (from 2 to 6; the top row is filled-in visually, so no points for it). Every completed column is worth five points. At the start of the game, each player receives two ‘assignment’ cards, drawn randomly (another factor in the input randomness sweepstakes). Each card depicts one of the nine structures in the game. You will acquire victory points equal to the value of the row on which the appropriate nobleman rests. If you’ve got a ‘rose arch’ assignment card and the nobleman in that column has worked his way down to the ‘5’ row, you get five points. Needless to say, player with the most VPs wins.
Ties are broken by ‘gardeners,’ which play that and another key role in game play. These are tiles laid onto the personal board when a space allotted for that particular tile is already occupied. On your turn, let’s say you opt to play an orange/blue card from your hand and collect an orange pavilion tile that’s available to you. Now you’ve got your orange pavilion tile, but lo and behold, the orange pavilion space on the board is already occupied (by you, earlier in the game). Now what? Rules dictate that you turn the tile over to its gardener side (image of gardener) and it can now be placed in any empty spot along the horizontal or vertical axis from the spot where the tile would have been placed. In many cases, you will find yourself deliberately choosing a tile, the space for which is already occupied, just to be able to place a gardener tile. The trick, however, is that when noblemen move, they cannot end their move on a gardener tile (wouldn’t want to be stepping on no gardener). This ‘trick’ has a way of disrupting some of your ‘walking’ plans with your noblemen.
So, balancing the randomness, we have a set of decision a player can make that involve tile selection (choose an available tile matched to one of your cards, or choose a structure card not available on the display of 10, so you can pick any card), and movement of noblemen (do you move the nobleman down to the ‘5’ row, or do you move him to the ‘4’ row, to collect four points immediately and then five points on the next turn, when you move the nobleman one occupied space south). These two types of decisions have a way of interacting during the tile selection process.
Sanssouci has had something of an ambiguous response from the BoardGameGeek community. The recipient of 255 ratings, at present, it has an average rating of 6.91. No one has rated it at 10, but no one has rated it below 3, either. Normally, you’ll get a few people who’ll rip a new game apart with a 2 or 1 rating, but so far, that hasn’t been the case. The first of 63 people to comment on the game, a game designer called Chabousse, gave it a 9 rating, but then said, “A dull, multiplayer solitaire with great puzzles to be solved. A very good game.”
The reference to a puzzle is apt, as is another comment (by Magritte, who gave it an 8) that it “can be compared to Alhambra.” It certainly does have elements of a jigsaw puzzle to it, albeit a puzzle exercise in which you are not always guaranteed development of the full picture. In the two games we played with four (figure eight final displays), only three or four fully occupied horizontal rows were ever developed (of 20 possible) and only about six vertical columns (of 36 available). So you most assuredly will not accomplish all that you set out to accomplish with this game.
Just know, going in, that randomness will have a way of working for or against you in this game; if it’s ‘for,’ you’ll do well, if ‘against,’ you could end up a bit frustrated. Arguably, all that needs to be said about our group’s collective opinion, mine included, is that immediately after playing it once, we played it a second time.
Sanssouci, designed by Michael Kiesling, with artwork by Julien Delval is published by Ravensburger. Playable by 2-4, with an age range that begins at 8, it can be played in under an hour, almost right from the start. It was recommended, but did not win a 2014 Spiel des Jahres award. Retail prices are ranging from $40-$50. Oddly enough, there’s a copy selling for $98 on the Geek Marketplace. The game’s components are really solid. Sturdy central and personal boards, along with robust, thick tiles that will stand up to wear and tear. The cards are a little small, but of good stock.