Buzzworthiness – Aldabas: Doors of Cartagena

Thanks to Grand Gamers Guild for providing a review copy of today’s game.

In Cartagena, Colombia, there is a tradition from colonial times of having highly ornate door knockers, called aldabas, that indicated the trade of the person who lived there. For example, you might see a lion for a soldier, or a fish for a fisherman. Here’s a selection of the actual door knockers you might find:

image from andrewforbes.com

This tradition has now been translated into a game called

image by BGG user kamus73

Aldabas: Doors of Cartagena is a game designed by Nathaniel Levan and Joshua Mills, to be published by Grand Gamers Guild. The game will be on Kickstarter on May 4 (here’s the preview link if you want to get notified at launch). In the game, you will be setting up a block of doors in an attempt to get the most benefit from the people who live behind them.

Each player gets a vault, which is a tile that will form the lower left corner of a 4×3 grid you’ll be constructing. The game comes with 81 door cards, and each player will begin the game with five of them. Five more are dealt to a market area (called the Dock) like so:

preproduction components

From your hand of five, you’ll select one to play underneath your vault. You can also choose to discard as many as you want from the rest for one coin each.

On your turn, you’ll do two actions. They can be the same or different, but you must pick from these three options: take two coins, buy a card, or play a card.

TAKE TWO COINS: Pretty self-explanatory, wouldn’t you say? Be aware, however, that if the supply runs out of coins, the game is over.

BUY A CARD: Take a card from the Dock, paying the cost if there is one printed above the card slot. The other doors to the right of the one you bough become cheaper as you slide them down to fill the hole, then you draw a new one to complete the row of five.

PLAY A CARD: This is the meat of the game. There are some restrictions to placement. First, it has to fit within the 4×3 grid (four across, three high). Every door must be placed next to another door (your vault is your first door), and you can’t place two identical colors next to each other. Also, you must build as far to the left or as close to the bottom as you can. In other words, you can’t leave any imaginary spaces to the left or below your card empty.

When you play a card, you get to activate its action, as well as the actions of the doors that are orthogonally adjacent. Some cards have ongoing actions that are just permanent, and you don’t activate them every time. Soldiers allow you to increase the influence on cards by placing coins on them, or to add coins to your vault. Fishermen give you cards or coins. Nobles give you points at the end of the game or make Soldier actions more powerful. Clergy allow you to add more cards to your vault. Builders give you a discount on buildings for the rest of the game.

preproduction components

The game ends when someone has completely filled their grid, or when the money in the supply runs out, or when there are no more cards to fill the Dock. At this point, it’s time to score. The first thing you’ll do is score two points per coin in your vault before moving them to join any other coins you’ve collected (called your purse). Then you’ll count up the influence for each Suit, including influence from cards in your vault. The scoring is as follows:

  • Whoever has the most Soldiers gets to score 3 points for each Noble they have on their board. Second place gets 1 point per Noble.
  • Whoever has the most Fishermen gets to score one point per influence still in their hand. Second place per two influence in their hand.
  • Whoever has the most Nobles gets one point per coin in their purse. Second place gets one point per two coins in their purse.
  • Whoever has the most Clergy gets one point per 3 influence they have in their block. Second place gets one point per 5 influence in their block.
  • Whoever has the most Builders gets one point per non-Builder they have in their block. Second place gets one point per two non-Builders in their block.

The high score wins.

image by BGG user kamus73

I was sent a preproduction copy of Aldabas, so components aren’t in their final form. It is a pretty looking game, with door knockers that are based on the actual ones you can find in Cartagena. Icons are used to indicate actions and scoring conditions, with a text explanation of each on the back of the vault. As I said, things aren’t in their final presentation, but everything looks good. The only comment I’d make is that some of the icons currently need to pop a bit more so they don’t blend into the background. But again, I’m sure more work will be done.

The game doesn’t really have a narrative element to it, but it still has a very nice theme. I like it when games force me to learn something about a small part of the human experience that I didn’t know. I had no idea about this tradition in Colombia, and it’s cool to see a game built around it.

Mechanically, the game is very simple. You get money, buy a card, and/or play a card. The real depth of the game comes from the scoring. Having players score for being first or second in influence makes the game feel a lot like a classic area control game (such as El Grande). In a lot of those games, it makes sense to go for second in a bunch of places rather than to spend too much energy going for first in just a few. That seems to be the case here – diversification is one path you can take.

At the same time, each scoring condition is dependent on something else in the game. Soldiers need Nobles to score. Fishermen need influence that hasn’t been played. Nobles need cash. Clergy need influence on the board. Builders need non-Builders. Waste too much energy on building influence in one faction, and you might not score anything at all. I found this out to my detriment in the first game I played – I won the influence in Soldiers, but neglected to have any Nobles on my board. So my opponent, who had both, got to score while I got zero. Then she got to score again for the Nobles, and I again got nothing. It’s a pretty delicate balancing act.

This trick is really what gives the game its strength, but it’s also a little bit of a limitation. During my first play, it didn’t really click with me how I needed to be playing until scoring. I saw this happen again to my opponent in my next game, and she was quite frustrated by that. This is a game that will benefit from multiple plays to understand the strategy, and that may not be a good thing for some people. For me, I like it when games reveal hidden depth as they proceed.

The game is for 2-4 players, and I’ve only been able to play with 2. The game is mostly a on-your-own type experience with a few chances at interaction. There’s indirect interaction in the market, as you might take a card someone else was hoping for. There’s also a bit of direct interaction as one of the fisherman actions is to steal two coins from a single opponent or one each from two opponents. This bit of take-that is something I don’t really think the game needed. It really stinks in a two player game as you’re guaranteed to be the one stolen from. And because each card could be activated up to three times, that’s six coins from your opponent playing one card.

Other than that, I like the actions in the game. There are some I haven’t completely grasped their usefulness yet, but I can see their potential. It’s a nice variety, and it’s very interesting that the actions don’t necessarily relate to the faction’s scoring. The game kind of forces you to diversify, and I think that’s a cool effect.

Overall, the game has a pretty small footprint. You of course need the space to put your grid, but a 4×3 grid doesn’t take up that much room on the table. The game plays very quickly, though people prone to AP might take a bit extra time to make their moves.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Aldabas is a small game that packs a lot into its frame. It provides a lot of strategy while making you think non several different directions at once. I enjoy it, and I think you should check it out when it goes live on Kickstarter in a couple of weeks. (This preview link will update to the actual campaign when it launches.)

Thanks again to Grand Gamers Guild for providing a review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

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