Recon #4: Village

Welcome to another episode of Recon. This time we are going to explore Village.  It was designed by Inka and Markus Brand. Originally published by Eggertspiele, an American edition has been produced by Tasty Minstrel Games and is now widely available.
Because it is fairly new, I’ll go through play of the game, but it won’t substitute for learning the rules. In fact I’ll end up covering play fairly deeply.

Each player starts the game with 4, generation 1, family members. There will be colored cubes distributed among 6 action areas (18/21/24 cubes for 2/3/4 players).  A round consists of each player, in turn order, picking up one cube until the cubes run out. So it’s 9/7/6 rounds per turn.  At the end of each round (and the end of the game) a Mass is held (ordinations and promotions occur in the church and someone gets points for church dominance).  Well, that’s all that has to happen, but each time you pick up a cube, you may (not must) perform the action associated with the area the cube was in. That is how you score prestige points, which is how you win. The cubes don’t score anything directly. Here is where two operational requirements collide: you will want to get cubes of certain colors and perform certain actions, but they might not align. You may also wish to pick up a cube to prevent another player from performing an action, because when the cubes run out on an area, that action is done for the Round unless a player wants to make an expensive trip to the Wishing Well.  Of course, none of the areas has enough cubes to make everyone happy.
Each player also starts the game with one coin, which is useful for getting family members ordained and as a “wild” cube. Coins are also worth a point at game end. You may get to use some to buy prestige points in the council chamber, but its quite a trek. You will want to acquire some coins. You can do this by grinding grain at the mill in the craft area or traveling to certain towns in the travel area.
The third operational area is arranging the death of family members. You want them to have notable deaths recorded in the village chronicle, and not end up in the anonymous graves. Certain activities will cost you time.  After every tenth time spent, one of your oldest family members “crosses over”. You remove any one of the lowest numbered generation members still alive. If the area they were in, which includes still being on the farm, has a corresponding space still open in the village chronicle, they go there. Once an area of the chronicle is full,  the corresponding dead go into the graveyard.  At the end of the game you get 4/7/12 points for 3/4/5 family members in the chronicle. There are only 9/13/15 spaces in 2/3/4 player games, so have them die young! You can play without using much time, but that not only lowers your score, it raises other folk’s. In fact having more than 5 dead in the chronicle, blocking, might make sense.
All this dying also determines the length of the game. When either the chronicle or the graveyard is full, the game is over.  The players who didn’t cause the game to end get one more move and a final Mass is performed. Score points for trade and location of some of your folk.  If your family traveled, there will be points for that. Score remaining money and you are done.
Note that the number of living family members is the second tie-breaker after customer tiles from the Market.

The CUBES

Most of the cubes you pick up on your turn will be useful. They notionally represent different kinds of influence. Except the black cubes. Maybe they represent the wages of sin! You tick off 2 time when you pick a black cube and you can’t skip a turn. You could use the wishing well instead, though. Typically the black cubes are picked up last, but in fact the penalty is not such a big deal compared to not getting a useful action.  Done at just the right time, you might grab a space in the chronicle.The cubes are the required cost of many activities, usually in specific combinations, though you can often substitute some time for all cubes in paying for an action. You can use a coin as any cube, but that is an expensive way to go.
There are 5 colors of cubes. Black has been explained and they all go back in the bag each turn. The others are brown, orange, pink and green. I’ll explain how each color is used as I explain each area. A fixed number of each color, varying based on the number of players, goes into the bag each turn. Then most, but not all, of them are drawn and placed on the areas. This varies the game quite a bit, as the colors get randomly distributed across the board as well as having some variety as to which ones come out of the bag.
FAMILY and FAMILY GROWTH

You start with 4 family members labeled 1. Next you get the 3 generation 2 family members. Then there are 2 each of generations 3 and 4. You have to take them in order and you have to remove them in order. The family growth area will have 1 cube per player plus 1 more in 2 and 3 player games. They will probably go quickly. Once a player takes one, the other players will not want to be left out. You may use the move to relocate a family member from anywhere on the board back to the farm Instead of taking a new family member. This would typically be to set up that family member to die in a chronicle eligible space, but other reasons could occur. Getting a new family member is usually better than relocating one.
Grain Harvest

Grain is useful for selling, promoting in the Church and getting coins in the craft section. You are limited to holding 5 grain at any time. There is no limit on ownership of any other good, cube or coins. Each round, one cube per player is placed in the Grain Harvest space. When you take a cube from the space and you have at least one family member on your farmyard you get 2 bags of grain. If you also have a plow and a horse, you get 3 bags instead. A plow and an ox gets 4 bags instead. 2, 3 or 4 is the most you can get, never multiples even for multiple sets of things. None of the objects are consumed and no time passes.
This is another space you don’t want to miss out on. Once the cubes start going, everyone better grab one.
Crafts

Crafts is the most numerous move and it doesn’t score any points directly. You make or buy things that you use in other actions. You can devote a family member to a specific craft and pay time to produce a good when you take a cube from the craft area.  Alternatively, you can pay influence cubes or grain without having committed a family member. The exception is the mill. Two grain and two time are spent, two coins are received.
When you dedicate a family member, they are moved to a craft building and some time is spent.  Think of it as apprenticeship. They then pay the time cost for actually making an item associated with that building.  As long as they are there, they can make another by just paying the cost to make it when another cube is selected from the craft area. The time costs add up with 4 to 6 time spent to get the first item. Someone will pass over soon, but that can be OK. The problem is that after spending all that time, you don’t want to lose the trained person. So plan to have someone die somewhere else so you can get a few goods out of your investment.
The Wainwright builds a wagon. It costs 2 time to place a family member and 2 for each wagon built.  Alternatively, you can pay a pink and orange cube and take a wagon. Wagons can sell at the market and you need one for each travel move, which can total up to 6 wagons. You will want at least a few.
The Stables produce horse and oxen. You place a family member for 3 time and produce either kind of animal for 3 time. This adds up fast. The purchase price is 3 grain, which you notice is more than one harvest action if you aren’t plowing. Aside from the advantage in harvests, horses and oxen sell for the most at the market.The interesting trade-off is oxen to get more grain or horses for more points at the market. Of course, if you can hold on to a mix you have the most flexibility.
The Office makes scrolls. You place a family member for 2 time and produce a scroll for 2 time. Or you can buy one for a pink cube. Scrolls can be sold, but they are mostly useful for the Council Chamber. The scroll is the cost of each move in the Council Chamber. The alternative cost is 2 green cubes, so scrolls are good to have.
The Smithy makes a plow. It costs 3 time to place a family member and 3 time to make each plow. Instead, you can pay a pink and orange cube. Plows may be the least useful trade good. You can sell them, but only one is useful at a time and you don’t expend them. You can almost guarantee a family member will pass if you take a black cube in craft and use a family member for a plow!
Market

There are 25 customer tiles in the game. There are 3 optional bonus tiles available, too.  Generally, you will spend a green cube and a time to execute each trade, unless you initiated the market. You should try to be prepared to pay for and execute some trades even if you didn’t select market.
The tiles vary in value from 2 to 7, with one of each of these. 3s are the most common with nine. Then there are seven 4s, three 5s and four 6s. 103 total points for an average of 4.
The other way to look at them is: which goods do you need to have in order to make a sale? Eight tiles require a single good: 1 a plow, 2 ox, 2 wagon, 3 horse. Four more require a single kind of good: two sell 3 grain, 4 grain and 2 scrolls. Five sell grain with another good: two grain plus scroll, grain plus plow, grain plus ox and 2 grain plus horse. The remaining eight are each possible pairing of two different goods.
I haven’t listed the points you get for each tile, because you can calculate them. Each good is worth a fixed amount: grain are worth 1. Scrolls and plows are worth 2. Oxen are worth 3. Horses are worth 4 points.
So horses trade for more and oxen get more grain, even though they cost the same to produce.
The bonus tiles are jokers. 3 points by returning the first player ring might be a fair price, especially if having someone else grab it is unlikely or you don’t care. A scroll for an extra point for each pair of tiles at the end of the game is liable to be a bargain if you are trading actively. The point for just trading is potentially better than nothing.
If you can trade a lot and not have other folks match you, it’s a very strong strategy.  I don’t think experienced players will let you get away with that. Grabbing green cubes and making goods is required preparation, so you won’t be fooling anyone. You can’t just rely on selecting the one cube for market. When you are spreading out remember that you can get green cubes from travel and Council Chamber as well as selecting them.
The tiles are scored at the end of the game and having the most tiles is the first tie-breaker.
Travel

Using Travel as a strategy means you want to have family members visit most, if not all, of the towns in the travel area. Each move costs 2 time, a wagon and 2 or 3 cubes. You do get a reward for each visit, but the real objective is points at the end of the game. It starts off slow, but you get 18 points if you travel to all the towns as from the 3rd town on, you get 3 then 4 more points for each additional town.  The immediate rewards are 1 coin, 2 cubes or 3 points from each town.
The cost seems very high. You will spend 12 time, 6 wagons and between 15 and 16 cubes to visit all the cities. You will pick up 4 cubes, plus up to 6 when you take the action, 2 coins and 24 prestige points if you complete the circuit. You will probably have to use the wishing well, though, if there is much competition for traveling. Just visiting the 2 towns closest to the gate is worth 9 prestige points, which is a pretty good haul and if you then kill off your traveler soon enough to grab one of the slots in the book you have made a good set of moves.
Travel is a solid strategy. Other players may pick up some travel area cubes just to hinder travel. I’m not sure that is worth a lost action, so being ready for at least one travel move is solid play even if you aren’t planning to travel heavily.
Council Chamber

The Council Chamber is very interesting. It is the only way to change 1st player and the moves open up a set of rewards that can be very flexible, but advancement is expensive. There are also only 1 or 2 spaces in the book for council members.  Placement or advancing costs a scroll or 2 green cubes and 1 to 3 time. Along with the market, this is the only use for green cubes (OK, the wishing well, too).
You can use a family member in the Council Chamber without advancing them, though and that can give you serious flexibility. But the benefits for advancing mean you wow would prefer to advance your family member. This capability is easy to overlook when learning the game.
In each turn, the first player to start a new family member there or use the council chamber can claim the ring denoting 1st player in the next turn.
The second position gives you 2 cubes of any colors and 2 PP at the end of the game if the family member is still there. The 3rd position gives you a choice of any  good tile and is worth 4 points at game end. Now you don’t want a family member who will die before the game ends. The last position lets you buy 3 PP for 1 coin, just once and is worth 6 points at game end. This is a good use of a “spare” coin.
From any spot, you can also take any lesser benefit instead of the one the move grants you.  In early plays I overlooked that you can use the Council Chamber without advancing. Just take the cube and use the privilege of a Family Member already there.
A free horse or ox is at least as good as 3PP for a coin except very near or at the end of the game. The 2 cubes move can be used to take 2 pink cubes that you use to buy the scrolls to “finance” the rest of the trip to the top.
Crowding into the Council Chamber seems less solid than the Church because there are no points for dominance, but the fact is that you can get substantial benefits from it with or without advancing. So having one family member in there can be a solid play.
Getting 2 family members to the top in the council chamber is worth about 24 points: 12 for placement and 12 for goods to sell or use, or just the coin for points. Plus you can grab the 1st player ring if you want it. It will be expensive, especially as you will probably have to use the Wishing Well to get enough actions. Below we’ll talk about 1st player with Wishing Well.
Church

Playing into the church is the most convoluted strategy. Family members do not go directly into “divine orders”.  A family member goes into the black bag at a cost of a brown cube or 3 time. And there they stay at least until the turn end, when a Mass is said. This consists of 4 pulls from the bag. In turn order, each player may select family members from the bag for 1coin each until 4 people have come out or everyone has had a chance to pay. If fewer than 4 have been ordained, random draws are then made from the bag until a total of 4 have been ordained (counting the paid draws, too). Each mass starts with 4 black meeples in the bag to make random draws more exciting.
One note is that family members in the bag are immune from dying, apparently religious training was very healthy.
Once ordained, you may promote family members in the church by paying grain. Each step costs 1, 2, 4 grain and changes end game points for the family member from 2 to 3, 4, 6. Advancing only once at the Church is the most efficient way to use grain there, but higher ranks may be useful for Church dominance.
After each Mass a 2 point award is made for the player with dominance in the Church. This is determined by number of family members ordained. Highest rank is a tie-breaker, but after that, tied players all get the points.
Church is a strong strategy, it’s not too expensive for the points and if you can dominate you can pick up 6 to 10 points as well as the end game points. You will want a lot of wheat to rise in the hierarchy, but you only need to do that with 1 family member to win ties for dominance.
Wishing Well

You may make a move without picking up a cube. You discard 3 identical cubes and take any move. The only restriction is that there must still be at least one cube left on the board. So you are giving someone an extra turn as well as
spending 3 cubes. You will still want to do it because you either:
1.    Need to make a move, but the cubes are gone, especially with travel or market.
2.    Have cubes you will not otherwise use and don’t want to take an available move, especially for a black cube.
Remember that you can make a set using coins as wild cubes, too. The first trip to the Wishing Well in a round gives the Start player an extra turn, which is fine if its you, but potentially a problem otherwise. So grabbing the first player for the next turn sets you up for the Wishing Well.
Winning

The consensus is that this game is strategically balanced. Early claims that Church or Travel are broken were refuted. Trade can be a killer strategy, but only if the other players don’t plan to participate.
The rule that applies most is that any strategy no one else is using is a good one. Beyond that, as John Weber has pointed out in an analogy to Puerto Rico, careful examination of the actual board/player situation is more important than determining strategy based on your personal preference or even what you have been doing so far.
The most common problem for new players is an attempt to conserve the time resource. It seems counterintuitive to see your meeples’ life span as a resource to be consumed to your advantage. That lasts only for a game or two. Then you’ll be knocking them off with abandon, hoping for a prestigious burial.
Figure that all your generation 1 Family members are “expendable”, so don’t place them for end game scoring. You would like to have one generation 2 family member die to maximize points and you might need to have another expendable in case you miss a spot in the book with one death or need to end the game.
Games you play while learning Village will run long both because you are going slow while learning, but also because players will be reluctant to kill off Family Members. Soon though, your games will accelerate as you race to fill the chronicle. Ending in the 4th round will be typical. Playing into a 5th round will seem long. Since total points is mostly controlled by game length, I don’t think it’s worth much discussion. Groupthink will determine how much total scoring is possible. Point differential is the key, of course.
Single strategy play will only work when everyone is learning the game. After that you need to dominate in one area, but participate in at least 2 more. I am pretty sure at this point that you cannot win without some serious participation in trade. You should be willing to sell off some goods, even the ones you use for your dominant strategy, in order to both get some trade points and keep other players from getting 3 or 4 tiles in a single trade session.
Managing time is tricky. Know which Family Member you intend to “go” next and maybe extract one more use from them just before they pass over.
In my last game, I put my last Generation 1 Family Member in the council chamber to both get the 1st player ring and have him die to fill the last spot in the chronicle for politicians. That set me up for using the wishing well in the next round with me keeping the extra move.
Village is a surprisingly deep game worth play and study. I’ll be teaching it at Totalcon and look forward to many fun plays.

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