Rialto: A four-sided game review

Rialto boxRialto is an area majority board game, from renowned designer Stefan Feld, that cleverly incorporates card drafting and bidding. It was released in 2013, plays two-to five players in about an hour, and retails for around £30.

While set in Venice, the game couldn’t be more abstract; those who need theme in games need not apply. However, the rest of us can pretend we’re vying for control of the six districts of the city (over six turns) while also erecting valuable buildings to support our cause – and, of course, earning the most victory points in the process.

The components aren’t much to write home about but do the job perfectly well (with one exception, the score track – more on that later). The cards are small (original Ticket to Ride size) but work well and are high quality; the cardboard money and wooden pieces are bog standard, while the board is clear and stylish, if a little light on interesting detail.

There is one fiddly part of set up, as you need to stack 12 piles of cardboard buildings on the board. If you separate them up in baggies this isn’t much of a chore and anyone used to setting up a game such as Puerto Rico or Endeavor will be used to it anyway! Otherwise, it’s very easy to get up and running.

Teaching

Rialto player aidRialto’s gameplay is very simple and the eight-page rulebook does a great job of explaining all the moving parts. There’s a double-page set up spread, components page, a page each for cards and buildings and a page of variants; so yes, the actual gameplay is described over just two pages.

Teaching the game is a breeze. Each of the six rounds has three phases; card drafting, card playing and clean up. Four of the 12 different buildings you can buy have effects on each of these three phases, adding plenty of variation and room for multiple strategies. There is a round summary printed on the board too, for easy reference, while the player boards are very simple and intuitive.

Drafting is clever yet simple. You deal one more set of six face-up cards than there are players (so four in a three-player game) and each player chooses a set, adding two cards from the face down stack. You then discard down for a hand of seven.

Phase two is the meat of the game. It consists of six set actions all players can take – as long as they play the appropriate cards. The cards you draft come in seven varieties; one for each of these actions, plus a wild. Anyone who bids on an action will do it – but the person who bids most gets a bonus. The actions let you:

  1. Rialto cardsAffect turn order
  2. Get money (to pay to use your buildings)
  3. Get buildings
  4. Get victory points
  5. Get councilmen (placed to gain majorities in areas)
  6. Place councilmen (in this round’s district)

It’s two of the bonuses that make things interesting: action four lets you place a bridge, while the winner of action five places a gondola. These bridges/gondolas are placed between districts (you can place in any empty spot on the board on any turn) and will define the value of both districts they span in final scoring.

Bridges score high, between 3-6 points, so you’ll want them with their higher scoring end in districts you’ll win. Conversely Gondolas all score 1-1 but let you place a ‘free’ councilman at one end, possibly giving you the upper hand in a district – or giving you a way into a district you’d missed (or want a head start in).

Every area has four spots available, so an area’s value can be as high as 24 or as low as 4 (perhaps lower, as if no one bids a gondola or bridge card in a round that item simply isn’t placed). At game end, the player with most councilmen in an area scores those points; the person in second scores half that and the player in third halves the score again. Simple.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: You have to admire Rialto’s drafting. As with all Feld games, you want to do everything every round – but this adds a delicious twist. Choosing first is great, as you get your pick – but the players drawing after you know what you’re going for and can act accordingly. But what were your blind picks? And what will you use your wild cards for? Maybe you’ll even hold some back for next round.
  • The thinker: Once again, Feld has managed to create a subtly confrontational strategy game where both long term planning or tactical nous could be the winning gambit. At first, turn order can seem a mixed blessing – but the turn order track also breaks all ties. In a game where many districts may be tied on some level, this can be huge. But go too hard on it and you’ll be short elsewhere. A tremendous game.
  • The trasher: Must… have… water. How… can… game… set… in… Venice… be… so… DRY?! I was bored looking at it, then I perked up a little at the drafting. But once you’ve got your cards in hand, what you do with them is simply boring. Sure, there can be moments where a well played card can be the difference between winning or losing a district – but it’s a bit like cricket; by the time that one exciting six is whacked out of the ground I’ve probably already dropped off.
  • The dabbler: Rialto is a pretty sweet game, although not really to my tastes. It looks pretty ordinary and never really gets the heart pumping, while interaction is at a minimum and you always need to be concentrating on what’s going on. The tight nature of the area control mean you can get some table banter going on with the right crowd, while it’s simple enough to teach almost anyone. So while I wouldn’t pick it myself, I don’t mind playing it sometimes – but not too regularly, thanks very much.

Key observations

Rialto buildingsSome have claimed Feld’s games can get unfairly high ratings as those knowing they don’t like his games won’t try them – so won’t give them the likely low marks games from unknown designers would get. I think Rialto suffers from quite the opposite; it’s not ‘Feldy’, but those not usually liking his games probably won’t give it a go – which is a real shame.

For dissenting Feld fans, Rialto is often described as too light and seemingly unoriginal – and at worst dull or uninspired. Words such as “smooth” and “standard” mock it with faint praise, while it is somehow criticised for being over balanced, too swingy AND having a dominant strategy. The latter criticisms are often coupled with ‘played once’, which is a shame as the game comes into its own after a few plays – but bored, uninspired players aren’t going to get that far and why should they?

I feel the theme and components play a massive part here. The box itself is wonderfully stylish, but it’s really hard to be ‘wowed’ by what’s inside. Worse still the old Venice theme is far from original, and with no real reason to use it here it seems to weigh the game down to dull before you even get going. All I’d say is that if you can see past the theme, and like area control games – and specially drafting/bidding mechanisms – I’d recommend trying to see the wood for the trees before writing this one off.

Rialto score trackFinally, speaking of what’s in the box, the one component issue hinted at earlier is the absolutely terrible score track on the game board.

You are meant to move the scoring markers between these small artistic street lamps and while it looks pretty, it’s totally counter intuitive to do and a real barrier to keeping things flowing – especially as only the ‘5’ and ’10’ spaces are marked with numbers. Sorry, but the graphic designer that let this get past them needs shooting; I can mount no defence!

Conclusion

Rialto isn’t a game for everyone, but certainly is a game for me – and despite it being the least publicised/loved of Feld’s 2013 releases it has sill found its way into the BGG Top 500. It averages over 7 in the rankings and I personally rate it 7.5 out of 10.

Rialto scoring

11 points for blue, 5 for white, 2 for yellow

For me, the game offers a pretty unique blend of interesting mechanisms that should appeal to strategists – but probably not more tactical players. It is also surprisingly light and I wouldn’t be scared of putting it on front of relatively new gamers, although I’d want to be pretty confident it would be their sort of game (so new, not casual gamers).

Many strategists will easily see past the flimsy theme and enjoy this as the clever abstract game it is. And it’s definitely worth playing a few times before writing it off if you get any enjoyment from your first play; it is deceptively varied in terms of becoming ‘good’ at the game. Watching the draft becomes crucial, while ‘building’ strategies that initially seem weak soon become powerful once you understand them.

Overall, I feel that Rialto is better than the sum of its parts and deserves at least a few plays from any serious euro gamer.

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