The Estates: A four-sided game review

The Estates* is a mean 60-minute area control and bidding/auction game for two to five players (although I’d say three to five, as I don’t think it plays well at all with two). Released as ‘Neue Heimat’ in 2007, it got a fresh lick of paint and a re-release in 2018 from Capstone Games.

In the box you’ll find the game board, 53 chunky wooden pieces, two draw bags, 60 thin cardboard ‘cheques’ (read: money) and six business cards (to grab when you take control of a company). While you’ll find the usual complaints about ‘paper money’, I feel it works well in this game and overall the components are of high quality. You can find the game (delivered) for less than £40, which is OK value.

The components and theme come together nicely, although they don’t really make much sense mechanically. As the game goes on players will be taking control of developers as they build a new housing estate. You’ll place cubes to build tower blocks, place roofs on them and extend/shorten the play area.

Teaching The Estates

The Estates is very much about player interaction. The rules quickly get out of the way to let the mind games commence. Players start with 12 (million, thematically – but you can’t make change) cash. This is a set economy, with no more money coming into the game. And you can squirrel away one money per turn, so the amount available unusually decreases as the game goes on.

On a turn, the active player chooses an available piece for auction. In clockwise order, players either pass or place a single bid for the item (which must be higher than any previous bid). When you get back to the active player, they either take the money from the highest bidder or pay them the same amount to take the item. If no bids were placed, the active player gets the piece for free.

If you want to put either a building block or roof up for auction, it must be place-able – and the winner has to place it. Additionally if you’re the first player to take a building block of a particular colour you also take the matching company card. You will now gain (or lose) points for that colour. The other pieces (which we’ll get to) can always be chosen to auction, but the winner can choose to either place them or discard them.

The key to winning The Estates is getting buildings you control to score while scuppering your opponents. The starting area is a grid of 12 plots, split into three columns of four plots. The game ends when two columns are completed (full of houses with roofs). Those two will score positive points, the other negative. The remaining pieces you can bid on extend or shrink this area or multiply the scoring of a column.

The game has 36 building blocks, numbered 1-6 in six colours. But only 24 are drawn at the start of each game, meaning the companies aren’t equal. Apart from a few bungalow plots (which can only have a single block and a roof), most can be built high. Until a building has a roof you can place another block on top if it has a lower number. When you do so, the building changes ownership – so the owner of the top floor of each building will score points for it.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While the Estates’ rules are simple it’s hard to teach what you actually need to do. It takes half a game to start to see how things pan out. This should be OK in such a short game but I do see people disengage. This mix of simple but not seeing can clearly be frustration. I’ve heard, “What’s the point?” too many times as players fail to get into the game. Which is a real shame, as I think it is a very intelligent and competitive design.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there is important strategy. Identifying strong colours to try and own is the start. But you need to consider their starting positions on the 3×8 cube grid. You can only put one of the six end cubes up for auction, so identifying cube position can also be crucial. If you end up with a company whose cubes are only on the edges, you’ll need to place, roof and then defend those positions. Cubes nearer the centre will come out later, if at all – so you need to work to get them available.
  • The trasher: Vicious. You won’t find many games where fortunes change this quickly. The Estates defines cutthroat, as the colours and columns ebb and flow. What really defines this are shifting loyalties. Think a player has a lot of spending power? Then try and get one of their cubes scoring in a row you want to complete. While you need to think about your scoring colours, remember you can buy any cube. Taking an opponent’s cube can be just as effective as getting one of your own. Especially if you just want to drum up some funds.
  • The dabbler: I didn’t really get the point of the game. The components were nice and the theme made sense on the table. But why would I pick a purple three over a grey one? I didn’t really have a clue what was going on and I still almost won! I won’t be playing this one again.

Key observations

While The Estates generally looks great, one big miss are the bungalow plot markings. They’re super clear – right up until you put a cube on them. It is incredibly frustrating when someone wins bid, thinking they can place a cube somewhere they can’t. We try to ‘wonk’ the cubes diagonally that are on bungalow plots, but that looks stupid and still doesn’t always work. It could so easily have been avoided with a clearer board – as the original Neue Heimat had.

Also, with the wrong crowd, the game can be a big anti-climax. The game averages well over 7.5 on Board Game Geek but I know people whose reviews I respect who rate it a one. And if one or two players aren’t on board, the game can drag much more than the average. Players can simply not know what to do, which is just about the worst thing to feel while trying to play a game. Especially when you know the rules are super simple.

Take a bidding game such as Ra, for example. It has a similarly simple rule set for bidding. But on top of that is a scoring format based around set collection. This opens the game up for euro gamers, while keeping the interest of bidding fans. Unfortunately, The Estates is far less approachable for a lot of players. Half will be totally immersed – but the other half will be genuinely bored.

The Estates: Conclusion

If you’re looking for a tight, elegant, viscous, closed economy bidding game then look no further. The Estates demands you take a long, hard look at it. The game has depth and tough decisions built into a very simple framework. And it can be so mean. A single well-placed piece can literally see you go from first to last place.

But it won’t be staying on my shelves. Especially for players who love euro or abstract puzzlers (which is most of my crowd), what I see as simplicity often translates to bafflement. Intelligent players sitting around looking blankly at the board, not having a clue what to do. I can’t think of a more divisive game. And not enough of my friends were taken by it to keep it. But I think it’s a fantastic game and I know enough others who own it that I can get the occasional fix.

  • Thanks to Capstone Games for providing a discounted review copy of the game.

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