A New Standard For Board Games
The first thing you might notice when your copy of Stroganov, ordered just a few days prior, shows up at your door, is the clear shift that board games have gone through over the course of a mere decade. The emergence of artists like Ian O’ Toole, Vincent Dutrait and Kyle Ferrin have continually raised the bar on what games should look like. You need not go far back before you find many an example of a problem that has plagued European designs since the nineteen fifties. Hansa Teutonica (2009), an earlier work of brilliant german designer Andreas Steding, is one such example; being one of the most excellently clean and engaging designs of the decade, yet finding itself in the unfortunate positions having its board clad in various shades of brown and green and bearing a box art so bland one would not be blamed for thinking it a relic from the sixteen hundreds, much less a modern board game by such a distinguished designer. How many have missed out on the opportunity to play this gem, deeming the box too monotonous to be worth their time? Andreas must have realized this too, vowing to make his later games stand up to scrutiny, and Stroganov (2021), illustrated by the unbelievably talented Maciej Janik, is both his prettiest and most interesting design to date.
In Stroganov you don the role of persons in the powerful Stroganov family, during the early years of the Russian conquest of Siberia, circa 1580 AD. You have a mere four years to prove your worth in this expansion, each consisting of 3 rounds. Those gifted with mathematical ability will have calculated that you get a pitiful 12 turns during this game, but fret not mathematicians of the world, for if you manage to tame the eccentric turn structure Stroganov proudly presents, you will find yourself handsomely rewarded with an action economy beyond your wildest dreams.
But let's walk it back a notch. How does this turn structure even work? Well to put it simply: 1 Move then 3 actions. In practice it’s a little bit more, but as the benevolent reviewer I am, I have decided to spare you the effort of learning more than you need to understand how the game feels to play (lucky you!). Your options consist of basic actions, mostly allowing you to gain resources and manipulate your position on the board, or an advanced action, letting you turn your resources and position into sweet sweet points!
The resources one collects when playing as an Aristocrat are as follows: coin, horses, stories and pelts. That last one is important. Pelts come in NINE different varieties representing everything from foxes to tigers, and often when doing an action you’ll have to pay a specific pelt; “You wanna build a tent here? Pay me in fox pelts. You only have bear pelts, worth a great deal more than the fox pelts I asked for? Don’t care, it's fox or nuthin”. Great thing is Stroganov has numerous ways of dealing with your little bear-fox problem, most of them in the form of free actions, meaning that you don’t sacrifice that precious action economy of yours.
And this is the crux of strategy in Stroganov. When you properly understand its many interconnected systems, it opens up and becomes a game where you’re allowed to be so very creative, almost to a point where this game becomes an art form. A single pelt can, if handled correctly, turn into an infinite amount of things. It can become coin, movement, story, victory points, another pelt, multiple pelts and so so much more. The game lies in figuring out which pelts to turn into what, when and how. Having a good turn in Stroganov often means doing something no one could have predicted; an action requiring such intense utilization of so many weird systems that your friends are left in awe. It makes you feel really really smart for carving a path through the confusing forest of rules this game is.
I also want to applaud Maciej Janik for his incredible work on this game. It stands as a shining beacon not only within his own output, but in gaming as a whole. The game is laden in gorgeous jaw dropping art. I will however point out one thing that may annoy some people. The deluxe edition of Stroganov has gorgeous custom meeples representing the “horse” resource of this game. The retail version has, understandably, dropped these meeples. The replacement though is pretty hilarious. You will not be blessed with more original art, but instead find yourself looking at pictures of the meeples from the deluxe version. I, for one, think this is horribly charming, but I must also concede that playing with what is effectively an advertisement for the deluxe version of the game can feel somewhat disappointing. I would, however, urge you to not let this small gripe stop you from buying Stroganov, because…
Stroganov is truly something unique. The core of most european style games is thus: “What should i do?”. Stroganov prompts you instead to ponder “How do I do?”, and then lets you go wild. This game makes me think of another of my personal favorite designers, Vital Lacerda. Likewise to his games, Stroganov requires long complex processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. I will therefore say that if you like games that focus on the “how” instead of the “what”, absolutely get Stroganov, you will love having your brain melted by Russian aristocrats, song and fur.