How you define a “shelf of shame” depends a lot on your perspective. The busyness of life can hamper gaming opportunities so classic titles that you may have been given will remain un-played for far too long. Sometimes a game needs the right people around the table to make it “sing”. Otherwise, it is like trying to wash your hair but with too little shampoo- it will work but it just doesn’t feel satisfying!
Crystal Palace, I confess, has been taunting me for far too long. Given as a gift by my family, I admit I have been daunted by its apparent complexity. The opportunity came to reach it down from the “shelf of shame”. With a few hours available, I lifted the lid and stepped back into Victorian times.
Was I nervous?
Should I have been scared?
Probably not. After several playthroughs, and having taught it to different family members, there is a smoothness and flow to the game.
Will it remain on the “shelf of shame”?
No, absolutely not. For the last eleven months I have been missing out on an opportunity here, but no more. Let me explain why.
Crystal Palace has nothing to do with football, but is set in the mid 1840s. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, wishes to showcase great Victorian inventions and has set 1851 as the date for the World Fair. Countries from around the world have been invited to demonstrate what their scientists and inventors have created. This conference, if you will, is set in London within the great glass pavilion built specifically for the occasion- the Crystal Palace. This little history lesson is important as it sets the theme and tone of the whole game.
This is a worker, dice- placement game for two to five players. Each represents one of twelve countries and as the overseer for your nation, you have a number of helpers and assistants at your disposal. The game is set in the two and a half years prior to the World Fair. This time is divided into five rounds represented by Spring and Autumn seasons in 1849, 1850 and Spring 1851. At the beginning of each round players will allocate their workers to tasks in London.
The capital is represented by eight areas. Some might be useful for acquiring money or resources, for example at the Bank of England. The British Museum holds a repository of scientific work. This building could be useful for inventions and research to help fill your country’s World Trade stand. Great inventors of the day may need to be acquired and pursued to help your cause. This can be achieved at the Reform Club. And with them, their inventions could be acquired by sending one of your assistants to the Patent Office to gain the rights for the invention.
There may not have been Instagram or Facebook in Victorian times, but social interaction was just as important. How can you get recognition for your team? What is the way to become a household name and influencer? Here you need to create a “buzz”. To be successful in your task you want your country’s invention to be on everyone’s lips, creating a gossip and regular commentary about events. The media interest through papers, posters and flyers will generate a groundswell of influence- called the buzz track. So not only do players need to manage the substance of their exhibition, but word on the street is almost as important. After all, you want the public to make a beeline to your nation immediately rather than being side-tracked at the opposition’s stalls.
Underpinning these plans is the Victorian black market. This will allow players to advance their cause and gain additional help and resources, but outside of the traditional routes. Most of the time the establishment will turn a blind eye to these shady dealings. But if too many players decide to take advantage then this little earner is raided and everyone will lose out. Whilst this might sound like a reimagined standard “euro” game, it is the hidden movement and variable turn order that sets Crystal Palace apart from perhaps Nusfjord or Agricola.
At the start of each round the players can choose how to resource their team. The four workers are simple D6 dice. Secretly each player assigns a value to each worker, indicated by the pips on each dice. This resource must be paid from any money available [or a loan is taken]. The player with the highest total becomes the start player of that round so can choose one dice [worker] to place in one of the eight London locations. Play continues in a clockwise fashion but each player can select which dice worker they want to use. This does not have to be the most valuable.
The value of the D6 dice not only affects the starting player but also which locations remain open, and the cost to utilise that space. Most of the eight locations have just two to four slots for your worker [depending on player count]. The left hand spots may only be occupied by higher value dice. These may give additional resources [or money]. Conversely the spaces to the right, whilst able to be taken by lower valued dice, will require a cost to be used.
Playing a dice at a location does not guarantee your worker to be successful. Once every player has allocated all of their dice, each location is “resolved”. This invariably leads to some disappointment as the number of “successful” workers is always one less than the starting spaces for each location.
Again, the value of the D6 worker dice is important. Starting with the highest value dice, and left most positioned, the workers are assigned positions in each London location. This affects their ability to acquire certain resources. This is a little like seeing a big queue outside the British Museum [represented by a couple of two pip D6 dice] and flashing your museum membership card [and allowing your six pip worker to be placed]. You now can jump to the front of the cube and select the best idea, and relegate one of your other players to the gardens outside in Russell square!
Once the actions of each location have been resolved, and resources, inventors, shares and media frenzy has been accounted for, the outcome of the initial decisions start to play out. The currency is both physical – in terms of money, and social, as indicated by a newspaper tracked on each players board. This newspaper influence can be exchanged and converted at any point during the round to other resources.
Each round players must pay the salaries of any character cards that have been acquired. These salaries will vary according to the character but also can change depending how much schmoozing in Westminster you have been doing. With political influence at stake, players who choose to get the ear of a few MPs in Westminster may reduce their salary bills. Even in Victorian times it seems as though going into politics wasn’t just about serving the greater good!
It is important to keep sufficient cash available for salaries as taking loans will impact on end game scoring. Once the characters have been paid the players can utilise any special character abilities during this phase. This may enable a player to gain extra resources or even patents.
The Victorian times were all about pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Any patents that have been acquired might be converted to working prototypes. Players need to use resources, money, energy or materials to do so. Two prototypes can be built each round. Most of these will award a player victory points and can offer additional benefits. These maybe advantageous for one player, but could be applied or awarded to others. Indeed, some of the effects can be considered penalties if certain conditions are not met and maybe better being sent to opposing player.
Each player receives an income for the work and administration performed. Initially players are assigned a modest four pounds wage, but by influencing others and gaining some resources, this income marker will increase. However, once expenses have been paid, everyone’s income will drop each round. For some, in later rounds, the anticipated income may even be zero and this has permanent effects with the loss of victory points and money.
The “buzz” track is an indicator of social influence. It allows extra scoring possibilities each turn. The player who is advancing first, and reaching key milestones will gain added bonuses. Finally the black market effects are calculated. There might be resources on the side or even influence in Westminster to be had. More influence in Westminster means a reduction in later salaries. Position in the black market is moved at the end of each round, players and character cards are replaced and replenished and worker dice are returned.
The end of the game is triggered after the Spring of 1851, the time of the World Fair. The player with the highest number of victory points is declared the winner. Typically a three- player game takes just under two hours and a four- player game about 120 minutes.
Thoughts On Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace has been sat on my shelf for nearly a year. The box art has screamed of Victorian times with a picture of the ironwork of the original Crystal Palace and a couple of gentlemen with oversized sideburns gazing out. There is not too much excitement on the box, but this is a euro game through and through. It is not promising anything more than a thought-provoking challenge.
I would describe the game as a medium heavyweight, not just in physical weight [1.8 kg] but also in the challenge of its play. It is certainly as complex as Agricola in its scope and gameplay. Indeed Uwe Rosenberg was quite intimately involved in the design of Crystal Palace. The similarities of these two are quite plain to see.
This is a big box, full of components, with very little space. In December 2021, I wrote of the issues with packaging and utilisation of space. Feuerland must be commended here, in that the box of Crystal Palace if over 47% filled. That is almost a filled as the Tiny Epic Mechs game box! The tokens and location boards are all made of thick card. Gamers today would not expect anything less. The assistant and other markers are all wooden, and of good quality. Standard cubes are replaced with little pillars, but everything feels very “euro”. In keeping with the theme, money is in pounds sterling with notes of card rather than coins.
The rule book is not excessively long. The seven phases of each round are nicely explained with clear examples given. Each location around London has several paragraphs of explanation. There is little confusion, and after playing the first round [Spring 1849] with an open rule book for the first time, we were soon underway. The subsequent phases of each round are both numbered and coloured. This too allows players to keep a tab on any bonuses that might be available. Feuerland have also produced a double sided, four-page appendix. This gives a detailed icon overview. There is also a listing and explanation of key patent and character cards with abilities that these cards provide. This separate appendix is extremely useful.
Crystal Palace takes up quite a lot of table space. At least by having eight separate location boards these can be placed at convenient positions rather than having a huge six- fold board occupying the entire table. This also allows an element of customising the positions of the buzz track and black market area so that all players can access these important slots.
As a family we have enjoyed the hidden dice selection element of the game. This is a clever mechanic. A player may really want to get prime position in the Bank of England [for example] and is determined to place a six- pip D6 dice. However, this is only guaranteed if the total sum of all of their dice is the highest, to become the first player. In this case the player needs to question whether to pay a premium to be the first is really worth it.
Sometimes selecting a lower value set of dice will save money in the short term, but this means always playing second fiddle toother player’s choices. Similarly, many location spots will be inaccessible or cost more to be used. Selecting medium value dice [which is what most seemed to do] will keep most choices open but also ensures that many players could become the first player or claim prime position in certain locations.
The mechanism of not being certain of the resources at any of the locations does mean a little bravado is needed. Unless you place a very high valued dice first, and in the left hand position, no resource is guaranteed. Sometimes playing last can be an advantage as a player can know the final outcome of every location when they play the last dice.
This is strangely cathartic. It means a player need not worry about getting a chance of the best resource if they could be absolutely certain of a medium value resource with the last dice. This balance of variable turn order and multiple opportunities to acquire key resources brings plenty of balance to this game.
Players need to keep their eyes on several competing tracks. Ignore the buzz track at your peril. Quickly establishing a media following means plenty of bonus points each round and extra resources as your token progresses. Similarly, the black-market track means resources can be predicted in later turns, providing the other players do not saturate the market and close it down. This element adds some push-your-luck to the game. It means that others can affect your subsequent turns and plans quite easily, if they are prepared to sacrifice their own potential gains. This is unusual in many “euros” and is a welcome addition.
This inter player interaction, coupled with hidden dice selection, means each round starts with a few minutes of quiet thinking. This time might be spent planning not just what I wish to gain but looking to see what resources or locations other players might favour. You might predict an unhealthy competition at the Patent Office. So, this should be avoided perhaps in favour of generating newspaper column inches and advancement on the buzz track.
I was surprised at Crystal Palace. As I reached it off the shelf I expected a significantly challenging game, but this is not a very hard game. After our first foray we felt that there was plenty of different pathways to victory. My daughter won with plenty of social influence [but she is a teenager of course and understands these things] but I came extremely close having “majored” on patents, prototypes and inventions.
The cards that are available for selection are drawn randomly. There is a small element of luck. If a specific inventor became available with a patent and prototype, then there can be some synergy and advantage if a player holds both. There may be some speculation in acquiring certain characters or patents early in the game, hoping that their corresponding inventor or invention is drawn later on.
With plenty of player interaction, coupled with the randomness of available research patents and characters [among other elements of the set up], Crystal Palace does have plenty of replayability. Every game has been quite different as each round is also determined by the hidden dice selection. This elevates the game beyond a standard worker placement and selection of first player [as in Nusfjord]. The added weight and thought needed here will mean that Crystal Palace is best played with slightly older teenagers or adults.
Final thoughts On Crystal Palace
Having reached Crystal Palace down from my “shelf of shame” and enjoyed getting to grips with it, will it be played? Like many heavier euro-games these need the right people to get to the table. You also need sufficient time to commit to the game. For me this means it will be a game that comes off the “shelf of opportunity”, not shame. When the rest of the tribe are home from university it will be played on a wet Sunday afternoon. We have similar views with Agricola and Teotihuacan.
For value for money, Crystal Palace is very good indeed. There are currently some excellent offers available and for such a lot of game these offers should not be overlooked. Like many euro games it requires a commitment to set up. But, once underway its mechanics are learnt extremely easily and it has a slickness of gameplay that most should enjoy.