Lisboa is a game about the reconstruction of the great Portuguese capital city after a series of terrible catastrophes. On November 1, 1755, Lisboa suffered an earthquake of an estimated magnitude of 8.5–9.0, followed by a devastating tsunami and 3 days of raging fires. The city was almost totally destroyed.
If you have become aware of anything about Lisboa since its publication in 2017, it is likely to be one of two or three things: it’s a heavy game; it has incredible production values; and its aesthetics divide opinions.
Lisboa was a labour of love for designer Vital Lacerda. The game is based upon the rebuilding of the centre of the City of the eponymous Lisbon, following the triple tragedy of earthquake, tsunami and fires in 1755. Players take on the roles of influential nobles, trying to gain favour with the king, the marquis and the master builder.
At its heart, Lisboa is an action selection game, with a draft of multi-use cards being played to determine the actions. It also has elements of tile placement and area control, and features a rondel of sorts.
So, there are lots of things going on, to suit everyone. But perhaps not anyone, as the weight of the game means that it has a steep learning curve, which may prove to be a barrier to entry for some. If you are familiar with Vital Lacerda’s other games, this will come as no surprise however. And if you are not, this may not be the one to try first.
Gameplay sounds deceptively simple. On their turn, players play a card in one of two places. If they play a card to their “portfolio” (or player area) there are modest immediate benefits, such as immediate income, but, more importantly, cards played into the portfolio contribute to the shaping of future turns, by gradually building an engine. These cards will typically reduce the cost of future actions – especially building costs (remember, Lisboa is about rebuilding the great city).
Alternatively, cards may be played to the Royal Court, allowing players to visit a noble – these actions are the main actions of the game, focused on building shops (shops give you goods, which can be sold or traded) and municipal buildings in the city’s grid-like streets. These actions are more expensive, but these are also the actions which result in earning wigs (wigs are the name given to the game’s victory points).
Deciding when to play a card to the portfolio, and when to play to the Royal Court, is key to success in the game. You may be eyeing up a particular building spot for a shop; but if there is a lot of rubble to be cleared from the street, it will be expensive. Maybe you should wait until someone else clears some of that rubble. But you will run the risk of someone else building on that spot…
And on that note, in every respect, Lisboa is a traditional Euro. If you like your games with plenty of player interaction, then this is perhaps not the game for you. The closest players come to interaction in Lisboa is, as mentioned above, blocking building sites. Producing goods (in the shops that you build) will reduce their resale value for all players in the game. But beyond this, there is no real direct player interaction.
There are a lot of very intricate details to Lisboa. A description of all of these would become very cumbersome here, but every element has been included for a thematic reason. For instance, there are three colours of rubble cubes, each representing damage from a different cause (fire, earthquake etc). In-game benefits are earned by players who clear rubble of all three types. Lacerda has discussed at length the different reasons for design decisions he has made (several of these are raised in the rule book).
For some, the sheer detail and depth of these thematic decisions have the unfortunate effect of diluting the theme. This shouldn’t detract from the game too much, but if you like your weighty euros to be really theme-rich, you may need to bear this in mind.
As well as mentioning the theme, it would be remiss to not discuss the game’s visuals. Artist Ian O’Toole (who has now become established as the illustrator for Lacerda’s games) has done an amazing job of echoing the art of the period in Portugal. Whilst this may not be to everyone’s taste (it is rather blue!), there is no denying that the artwork, the faux-tiling effect and the palette capture something very particular. And of course, this is an Eagle-Gryphon game, so the production values are second to none.
All tokens and boards are thick and sturdy. The board for the player’s portfolio is elevated, to enable cards to be slid underneath, as well as having recesses for pieces on the top. The box insert is very well designed, to allow all game components to be organised easily. And if you are fortunate enough to get hold of the Kickstarter/Deluxe version, the extra detail in the wooden pieces and cloth bags adds the to look of the game. Player aids come in the form of a booklet (necessarily so), which my gaming group refer to as the menu.
Final Thoughts on Lisboa
There is a lot to love about Lisboa. Its weight is fairly typical of Vital Lacerda games (perhaps slightly heavier than others, but it isn’t in a different league). It is a really satisfying brain burner, which can leave with you with that feeling of “what if I’d…”. And although the game’s appearance may not be for everyone, it certainly rewards repeated plays.