Ever wanted to run a world-class university? Or wished that you could hire and fire professors at will? If so, Alma Mater might just give you that longed-for buzz of pedagogical power. But be warned: This is a medium-to-hard core Eurogame, with a lot of different things to juggle. So, if you want to turn your personal college into a prestigious university, you’ll need quick wits, surefire ways of creating “knowledge” … and lots and lots of money…
How Does Alma Mater Work?
The overall aim of this worker placement game is to garner the most “prestige points”. You'll do this by raking in both of the game's currencies - books (representing knowledge) and ducats. The game plays for six rounds, and each player has 4-6 “masters” to place in each round. You can send them to different spaces on the board to recruit students, hire professors, do research, or buy books. Or you can always have them beg the “Bishop” to give them some cash if you’re feeling skint.
Realistically, you’ll be feeling poor most of the time in Alma Mater. Because recruiting students costs you books, and books cost money. Hiring professors costs you even more books, and often money too. So you're also always trading with other players, selling your books, and buying theirs. Ultimately, you can't attract people to your college without different types of knowledge.
This is where one of Alma Mater’s cleverest and most novel mechanics comes into play. Depending on players’ relative progress on the “Research Track” (pictured on the left), their books become more or less valuable. The students demand more books from the college that has done most research in each round (see top right). That means that if your research goes well, your textbooks will be more in demand. The other players will be flocking to buy them from your library, earning you more lovely ducats!
This mechanic is also crucial to Alma Mater’s player interaction. Since you have to buy from other players to get students into your lecture halls, or hire professors to teach them, negotiation is vital to success. But you’ll also often end up thwarting others’ plans by placing “masters” in the spots that they wanted. If a placement space is already taken, the next player often has to place two “masters” to perform that action. And that means they might not be able to do all the actions they need to in that round. The board gets crowded fast! In short, it feels as if there is never enough time or space to do all of the things that you really want or need to do.
So, worker placement and moving up the "research track" lie at the game's core. But there are other ways to get ahead too - like gaining achievements to unlock key bonuses and chancellors' special powers. So, in the picture above, amassing 25 ducats gains you an extra “master” and Paracelsus’ bonus power. Unlocking one of these achievements also gives you a “bust card”, which gains you extra points at the end of the game. Meanwhile, each player always gets a bonus power from their own chancellor too.
You also get various types of bonuses or income from your students and professors as well – although when your professor uses their power by “giving a lecture”… you have to pay them a book for the privilege. And, every time another player buys one of your books, they pay you ducats, but they can gain “prestige points” too. All in all, there are so many ways to score!
And yet, does all of this make Alma Mater a great game?
It’s undeniable that there are lots of good things about Alma Mater. For a start, this game is gorgeous! The artwork is lovely, and the materials are amazingly high quality. The tiny books and dictionaries are possibly my favourite game components ever. Fans of Coimbra (by the same design team) will even notice that some of the same characters appear in this game too. The setting is also novel, and some of the mechanics are quite original. It’s also very replayable, featuring a different selection of professors, achievements, and research track cards in every single game.
That said, Alma Mater is not a game that everyone will love. First off, the game’s very variability means that it can take 20 minutes to set up, even for experienced players. The manual is also quite hard to learn the game from as a first-time player. You might need to look at some videos to help you figure things out, even though the heart of the game is quite simple. Alma Mater also relies too much on complicated symbols rather than plain text. You’ll find yourself constantly turning to the manual’s appendix to decipher the cards’ hieroglyphics.
This problem is related to the fact that Alma Mater’s theme and mechanics aren't always that well integrated. Using books to represent trading in “knowledge” is a great idea. But the game doesn’t reward you very much for doing “research”. In fact, the research track can be so hard to scale that it’s easy to get through a whole game without bothering to climb it. And the person at the bottom is even incentivised to stay there by getting two ducats’ consolation prize at the end of each round.
The game also works rather less well with two players than it does with three or four. With two people, you are forced to play alongside a dummy AI player, Ignotus. Sure, the deck of cards that determine Ignotus’ actions is serviceable enough as a work-around. But the deployment of Ignotus’ workers is still frustratingly random, making it hard to play the game strategically.
In sum, Alma Mater isn’t generous in the way that engine-building games like Terraforming Mars, or even Wingspan, are. You’re constantly being forced into sub-optimal, frustrating decisions. And by the time you’ve managed to build an engine, there’s no time to reap its benefits - the game can feel both too short and too long. Even when you’re winning, it can be hard to tell exactly why, or how you could replicate that strategy again. And since a lot of the rewards are only amassed at the game’s very end, the process of pursuing “prestige” doesn’t always feel hugely fun, in and of itself.
But in the end, if you like “crunchy” Eurogames - even those that can feel convoluted - Alma Mater might be just the thing for you. And, last but not least, don’t forget the appeal of all those gorgeous tiny books! They’re so sweet you could almost gobble them up…