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An Intro to…Alexander Pfister

Introduction to Alexander Pfister

Are you a fan of Euro-style board games? Chances are you’ve played some by Austrian designer Alexander Pfister. If not, you’re missing out, big-time! His first major hit was card game Port Royal, released in 2014. He hasn’t looked back since. He’s designed nine titles since then, including two Kennerspiel des Jahres winners.

Pfister’s board games offer varying mechanisms that dovetail and compliment each other. Some are marvellous in their simplicity. Others are bewitching in their next-level complexity. Every one of them are downright delightful. So, let’s take a look at 10 of his titles, starting with his card games…

Small Card Games - Big Scope for Strategy

It seems appropriate to begin with Port Royal, Pfister’s first major success. This is a push-your-luck card game, published by Pegasus Spiele. Up to five players compete to earn money, hire crew members and fund expeditions. The winner is the first to earn 12 points. Theme-wise, Port Royal is about pirates and sailors.

Face-down, cards represent coins (like those in Bohnanza). You’ll spend these to buy other cards. The active player reveals as many cards as they want from the deck, one at a time. They ‘bust’ if they reveal two duplicate ships, but the more cards they reveal, the higher the rewards. Everyone gets an opportunity to buy or take a card from those turned over. The catch is everyone has to pay the active player one coin to take a card.

Port Royal so simple to grasp and quick to play. We’re talking 25-40 minutes, here. The brilliant twist is that it’s inevitable some cards end up face-down, as money. The significance? The other side of that card might never show face-up during the game!

Oh My Goods! (OMG!) is another card game by Alexander Pfister with duo-sided cards (coins on the reverse). In essence it’s quite simple. And yet, at the same time, it has some wonderful tactical nuances woven within. It’s a step up from Port Royal in complexity.

Up to four players compete to earn the most money and points. Here, push-your-luck meets set collection, hand management and engine-building. Players have with a hand of multi-purpose cards and two beginning face-up in their tableau. These cards represent both different resources, or a building.

Cards are revealed from a communal deck. Players have to gamble which of their face-up buildings they want to activate that turn. Why? Buildings need specific quantities of goods to function. These come from already-revealed cards, plus those in their hand. Then a second batch of cards are revealed. Now the players try to pay required cards to activate their building to earn money!

Cards face-down represent money. Again, this means some cards might never enter the game face-up. Efficient player can convert goods from one building to another. You can make a tidy profit out of such production chains. If you make enough money that turn, you can then buy another building from your hand. Add to your tableau… And the cogs of your engine keep on turning!

Like Port Royal, the artwork is by Klemens Franz. Oh My Goods! is published by Mayfair/Lookout Games. For newer players, this might clock in at around 45-60 minutes. There are also story-based expansions for OMG! in the form of Longsdale in Revolt, and Escape to Canyon Brook. These two offer Event as well as extra building cards.

Tybor The Builder takes place in Longsdale (OMG! world). This is a card drafting game, with set collection rewards. It offers 32 different modular set-ups. Pick one of eight ‘chapter’ cards and then one of four scenario cards. This provides a different combination for scoring and bonus points. The aim? Score the most points, by building cards.

Cards in Tybor The Builder have multi-purposes, too. You can select them to act as either a Citizen, a Worker, or a Builder. Citizens grant special powers and discounts off certain buildings. Workers contribute towards a labour pool. Builders you discard to purchase a building, providing you have enough of a labour pool. Lots of agonising choices, especially what you might gift your neighbour!

All three card games are not nailed-on gateway games. They’re not mind-bending, though. Each has a certain amount of iconography, but nothing that will intimidate. OMG! and Tybor are the more serious of the three. Port Royal, once rules are out of the way, is a fantastic, light-hearted game to enjoy at the pub.

Alexander Pfister Collection - Port Royal

Gateway Plus - The Next Step Up

The next two titles fit into a category of ‘gateway plus’. They’re excellent candidates to introduce to newer gamers. (Consider getting them comfortable with the likes of Takenoko or Ticket To Ride, first). The following take familiar board game mechanisms and add extra gusto.

Isle of Skye is a tile-laying game (a perfect next-step after Carcassonne). Up to five players are competing to build a section of the island and become king (by, ahem, scoring the most points). Instead of building a communal expanse of land, players build individual layouts. It clocks in at about 45-60 minutes.

Each round, players draw three tiles. In secret, they’ll price two of them behind a player shield. They also pick one to discard. Then, in turn order, players gets to buy one tile off another player, paying the set price. Later, players can also purchase their own tiles still remaining. They pay the cost they themselves set.

Then, players place their purchased tiles. They’re aiming to connect roads, expand matching terrains and acquire certain landmarks. Four different scoring mechanisms are randomly selected at the start of the game. These kick in across the six rounds. This helps players decide which tiles are worth buying, and when.

Fascinating psychology takes hold when pricing your tiles. Price high, to scare off other buyers so you can claim the tile for yourself? But price it too high, you won’t have enough dosh left to buy any other tiles! Further expansions exist in the form of Journeyman, and Druids. Extra tiles, additional ways to score, a Journeyman track to earn extra goodies… Even more decisions to make!

Isle of Skye won the Kennerspiel des Jahres award in 2016, putting it alongside fellow winners Wingspan and The Quacks of Quedlinburg. But that’s not the only Alexander Pfister game to have won the Kennerspiel! Broom Service won in 2015. This is a pick-up-and-deliver, hand management game, themed around witches delivering potions.

Up to five players can join in, aiming to score the most points over seven rounds. At the start of each round they’ll pick four cards (from their own deck of 10). These cards range from acquiring potions, to moving and dropping off potions.

The clincher here is that each card has two strengths to it: A ‘brave’ part, or a ‘coward’ part. Playing a card and picking the coward option guarantees the player something basic. But if they gamble and pick the brave option, they get a far more efficient equivalent. Only one player can be the bravest, though – this being the last player in turn order to play that card.

It’s a neat game of cat and mouse. Do you gamble, or play safe? Broom Service is a re-skin of an older game called Witch’s Brew, which is more like a card game version. Alexander Pfister collaborated with Andreas Pelikan to recreate Broom Service.

Alexander Pfister Collection - Isle of Skye

Meaty Euros - The Big Hitters

These next three entries are Pfister’s ‘biggest’ games. The ones with the most meat on the bone. Ones that are likely to take over two hours to play. Let’s start with Great Western Trail. At the time of press, it’s ranked as the 11th best board game of all time on BoardGameGeek. High praise, indeed.

GWT, as it is affectionately known, is set in the old American West. It’s part deck building, part hand management, and part point-to-point movement. Two to four players compete to travel along the trail, herding their (hand of) cattle (cards) to the train station. The combined value of their different cards allows them to ship cows off to a far-flung location. This earns them dollars for their next venture. It also rewards them if they reach unique stations down the train track.

The trick is to manipulate your hand of cattle to be the most profitable by the time you reach the trail’s end. You can hire cowboys to buy better cattle, and hire craftsmen to build useful locations along the trail to aid you en-route. You can hire engineers to help you chug along the all-important railroad.

An expansion, Rails to the North, adds even more tracks for trains to visit. With the introduction of branchlets, your strategy will change. The core heart of the game remains, though. It’s all about notching off those unique destinations. In doing so, you remove a marker from your player board. As a result, this unlocks better functions for the next trek.

Mombasa too has a blend of mechanisms on going on at once. Hand management, deck building, area influence, stocks and shares, simultaneous action selection, and worker placement. Phew! We appreciate that sounds like a lot of plates to spin. But after a couple of rounds, everything will start to make sense…

Up to four players aim to build trading posts across southern Africa for four companies. All the while, they’re trying to gain shares in each of them, too. The more trade posts they place, the more valuable the shares become. There’s only a limited number of territories on the board, though. This means that some companies can take over, bumping their rivals off the board. And in doing so, lowering that rival’s share value…

The superb hand management is what drives Mombasa to greatness. Players pick three cards to play each round, placing them in columns. They can use these to buy new cards, to dominate markets, or to explore/expand a company’s presence across Africa. Over rounds, these three cards will accumulate into three columns. At the end of each round, players pick one column of cards to add back into their hand. When you master this, you realise its brain-burning brilliance.

Blackout: Hong Kong also has a similar-but-different mechanism. It also has a reclaim-some-of-your-cards in its ‘clean-up’ phase. Also featured is a rondel, network building, alongside hand management and deck-building. Blackout: Hong Kong is about (guess which country/city?) an electrical power failure. You need to restore power and sort food supplies, and so on.

GWT, Mombasa and Blackout are all ‘medium’ or ‘heavyweight’ Euro-style games. Medium if you’re familiar with the aforementioned mechanisms. Heavyweight if you’re not! All three are games that take over two hours to play, including set-up, rules and the game itself. I like to call these kind of games ‘the main course’!

Alexander Pfister Collection - Mombasa

Alexander Pfister - 2019 Releases

So what’s next, and what’s new from this maestro designer? Last month at Essen saw the official release of two more games from Alexander Pfister. Maracaibo, by Capstone Games, and Expedition to Newdale, by Lookout Games. Both are fresh off the productboard games offer varying mechanisms that dovetail and compliment each other. ion line as we write this!

Maracaibo sees players as privateers in the Caribbean, circa the 17th century. It promises point-to-point movement blended with hand management and tableau-building. Throw in some basic economic factors, and it appears closest in style to Great Western Trail. It is bound to appeal to fans of GWT! Game length is approximately 40 minutes per player.

Expedition to Newdale, meanwhile, is part of the Longsdale series of card games. This is a standalone game, though. Neither does this come in a modest card game-sized box. This comes with individual player mats and a main player board – it’s a bigger sibling. There are chapters (like the Events provided in the OMG! expansions).

Take note: This is not a ‘legacy’ game. It can play like a campaign though, playing through the chapters, if you like. If you liked Oh My Goods!, chances are you’ll love Expedition to Newdale.