There aren’t many good games out there specifically designed for third wheels — pardon me, for three players. It’s a niche that often goes unfilled, frequently leading to the phrase, “Let’s just wait for Geoff to show up, and then we’ll play something for four.”
No longer! Trieste may or may not be named for the city in Italy (more probably because it sounds like “three” in some magic language), but it’s certainly determined to be one of the best three-player games you’ve ever played. Does it succeed? Only one way to find out.
Without equivocation, Trieste is at its best when it’s playing around with its three asymmetrical factions, all of whom bring their own cards, strategies, and goals to the table. The game is set in one of those stereotypical medieval cities locked in a permanent struggle between three factions — the City Watch, the Merchants, and the Thieves — and at the end of the day, only one can truly rule the city. In this case, however, “rule” means something very different to each player.
For instance, the faction that sets the tone of each round is the City Watch, the street-patrolling boot-clanking punks who are out to clean up this town, even if they have to make everyone miserable in the process. And they play very differently from the other two teams, whether by imposing taxes that bilk the Merchants in exchange for “protection” and making certain activities prohibitively expensive for the Thieves, or by dipping their toes into the criminal underground by issuing search warrants and bounties, setting up contraband checkpoints, or loosing patrol officers, bloodhounds, undercover agents, and raiding parties against their enemies.
Much of their gameplay revolves around preempting the Thieves’ plans to rob the rich, and as the prison fills up with state offenders, not only do they grow closer to victory, but the cost of a Merchant victory grows more distant — someone has to pay to maintain the prisons, after all.
Game rounds in Trieste pass quickly, not only because the game is simple — though it is — but also because instead of alternating rounds, everyone is mostly playing at the same time. Instead of alternating rounds, each phase resolves for each player quasi-simultaneously. Everyone is drawing cards, selecting one to play, paying for it, and resolving it in quick succession. When the box informs you that the game takes about 20 minutes to play, it isn’t lying.
Even so, turn order matters. For instance, as the Merchant player your goal is to amass a bunch of wealth, probably so you can become the city’s first proud owner of one of those newfangled water closets. The only thing standing in your way is those pesky Thieves, because they hinder your progress towards victory whether or not they succeed — if one of their rank steals your money, you lose some the cash you need to win; if they fail and are sent to prison by the City Watch, victory still slips away because you now need to amass even more riches.
In order to wrangle this vicious circle to your favor, you play a Security Guard to protect your investments. If he catches a thief, you’ll not only block the intrusion, but you’ll also get to draw a couple extra treasure cards! With some luck of the draw, you might even win this round.
So everybody reveals their cards, and you feel that shiver of excitement run up your spine because your opponent’s card is a Veteran Pickpocket! Soon you’ll be rolling in the dough — But wait, the City Watch player has sent an agent of his own, and since the City Watch always resolves their cards first, they’ve caught the thief and sent him to prison and now you have the pay for the bugger’s gruel and daily lashings. Blast!
As the above example shows, Trieste isn’t only about managing your cards and finances, it’s about managing the other factions too. And if playing the players is your thing, you just might be ready for the Thieves.
These guys have plenty of instruments in their sack, from the blunt (such as Back-Alley Muggers or City-Watch-hassling Saboteurs) to the subtle (Foxy Vixens) and the expendable (Street Urchins). If your opponent is coming on strong and attempting a bunch of arrests, should you pass the turn with a harmless action or sacrificial low-level character, or go big with The Foxtail Gang and screen their passage with a Smoke Bomb in the event they’re snatched? Should you use that Jail Break card now, or wait for someone with a higher profile to get caught first? It isn’t enough to deny the City Watch the victory by playing it too close to the chest, because wait too long and the Merchant’s bulging wallet will easily buy him control of the city. And anyway, your goal is to pull off enough heists, pickpockets, and muggings to solidify your position as the most infamous gang in the city, so you’re going to have to get out there and work for your keep.
There are other considerations, no matter which team you’re commanding. For one thing, you can buy back characters from your discard pile, though of course that will give your opponents a better idea of what you’re hiding in your hand — unless maybe you want them quaking in terror at your tax-levying Politician? And, my personal favorite, there are special heroes for customizing your faction. The Theives might be led by “Cutpurse” Caterina and her hordes of orphans one game, and Borso the Burrower and his thief-springing pickaxe the next. Are you sick of having too many treasures stolen as the Merchant? Then lock some of it away with “Little” Antonella’s sound investment strategies. Want to capture thieves from their discard pile? Then bring along Sketch Artist Antonia.
When it all comes together, Trieste provides quite a bit of bang for such a small game. Three factions constantly working at cross-purposes, eying each other’s reactions as they draw new cards, counting how many times they dip into the treasure deck, calculating the odds that they might be holding another of that particularly mean card in their hands.
Unfortunately, it’s held back by a single glaring problem: the victory condition for the Merchants is far too easy, and unless the City Watch and Thieves are in an unaccountably cooperative mood, alternately stealing their treasures and locking up high-value prisoners to increase the Merchants’ victory threshold, it’s usually a straightforward task for the Merchants to amass the required fortune.
I have three thoughts on this. First, it’s possible I just suck at playing the Thieves and City Watch, but not as the Merchants. And maybe every single other person I’ve played Trieste with has also sucked in exactly the same manner. I suspect not though. Second, maybe it’s an intentional imbalance deriving from a commentary on how bankers and merchants always win in the long run, while the “little guy” ends up downtrodden. Maybe. I hope not, because I don’t want that crap sneaking into my games unannounced and messing with an otherwise lovely experience. And third, my group mitigated the problem by playing three games in a row, alternating factions and keeping a meta-score to determine the “true” winner. The Merchants won about 80% of the time, but at least this way we weren’t stuck grumbling about it. In fact, this mostly fixed the problem for us.
At any rate, Trieste is an excellent three-player game — and despite its rather profound balancing issues, I really can’t emphasize that enough. Dedicated three-player games are rare enough, and this one is a flawed gem worthy of protecting, investing, or stealing. Your choice.