A Zero-Star Review of The Estates
I don’t usually assign scores, but The Estates deserves zero stars. That’s right. Zero. As in nothing. Even harsher, I’ll award its predecessor, the decade-old Neue Heimat, negative eight points. Just for being German. Yeah, I went there.
But here’s the thing: when it comes to The Estates, that’s a stupendously flattering score. Come on down and I’ll explain why.
At first glance, you might think The Estates is about getting filthy stinking rich. As in, having parties on a private island rich, or marrying a trophy spouse in a chapel with a waterfall rich, or burying your family scandals by bribing the Federal Trade Commission rich. Certainly you’re working with enough cash. Rather than flimsy paper money — which is fine, by the way, stop complaining about money that looks like money — cash in The Estates is denoted by big chunky cheques. Not checks. Where do you hail from, the swamp? These are cheques, teletyped by buttoned cashiers and traded between developer barons and occasionally sequestered in offshore accounts for funsies.
For that first play, there’s even a chance that somebody will strike it big. Your task sounds simple enough. Purchase companies, develop properties — ensuring that you always have the penthouse, otherwise why bother? — and maybe finish up by slapping a roof on that baby. When the cranes pack up and the cement mixers stop mixing, your companies’ holdings in any finished rows of developments will rake in the dough. There’s money to be made, so why not make it?
But here’s where that first nagging doubt enters in. It’s entirely possible that you won’t successfully purchase a company. What happens then? Do you sit around until you inevitably lose? Twiddle your scabrous thumbs like some middle-class loser?
No. Oh no. But we aren’t ready to talk about that yet.
Turn by turn, The Estates is an auction game. And, as with the best auction games, there’s an element of fluidity at play, an ambiguous value-space where any given component might be worth many times its list price or absolutely nothing at all, depending on something as subtle as timing or as obvious as Geoff really wants this piece and he always overpays. I might even describe it as Knizian. Crud, why not? It’s Knizian.
Here’s the deal. On your turn, you grab a piece and put it up for auction. Maybe you pick a development, one of those dice-looking things. Perhaps you pick a barrier that will expand or contract a row’s space for properties. Maybe, if you’re being fancy, you’ll pick a roof. Or the mayor hat, a preposterously ostentatious stove pipe that, once again, whispers the lie that this game is about getting filthy stinking rich.
At this point, everybody goes around the table and makes a bid. You receive the highest bid, the bidder gets to place their new piece, everybody is happy but also probably angry.
But this is deceptive, failing to express how many competing elements are at play. Even the game’s most common sale, the development, is enormously loaded. For one thing, the first person to purchase a particular color also purchases the corresponding company, therefore lashing their fate to the value of that color. So you’ve got to consider whether there are other cubes of that color, when they’ll likely come up for auction, and what their values are. This is crucial because a high number is worth more points at the end of the game, but only if you still own it. Smaller numbers can be built atop higher numbers, sometimes stealing an entire tower for another player’s company. That’s unless you’re building atop a foundation of sand, in which case it’s often worthwhile to plop your highest-valued cube into that spot, just like Jesus taught. And then—
Look. The point is, a single decision in The Estates is often like staring into two mirrors placed parallel to one another, with every consideration growing smaller and more distant at the same time that it seems to grow sharper and more multifaceted. It’s the sort of game where you’ll pick a piece that obviously somebody wants, only for everyone to pass. Or you’ll make a purchase, only to realize that it screws you over no matter where you place it. And we still have yet to talk about the game’s twist, the one that redefines everything.
I think I’ve been clear that The Estates is not, in fact, about becoming filthy stinking rich.
Rather, it’s about not becoming filthy stinking poor. As in, begging your relatives for gift cards to McDonald’s poor, or sleeping in a stranger’s basement because the door was ajar poor, or burying your family scandals by sleeping with somebody from the Federal Trade Commission poor. All those checks — they aren’t cheques anymore — have become a lead weight wrapped tight around your throat and thrown into the frothing sea.
The critical moment arrives when you tally up the final score. Sure, it’s possible to strike it big. Every completed row scores points. Completed means that every space has a building, and every building has a roof. If the mayor was deployed to your row, you even score double. Huzzah, right? Well, no, because you see all those unfinished rows? They don’t score zero. They score negative points. And heaven forbid you invited the mayor to ribbon-cut a bunch of wattle-and-daub condos with holes where shingles should be.
This inversion changes everything, effectively driving a splintered crack into those parallel mirrors. Now, sometimes, you want to place somebody else’s cube atop yours, if only because it sheds the fiscal responsibility for an abandoned development. Sometimes a low-value roof is worth fourteen million buckaroos because it finishes the right house — or the wrong one, slapping a huge penalty onto a rival. Sometimes building a house upon the sand is a bad thing, as no holy book could have predicted. Sometimes — surprisingly often — the winner will be the person who spent the most time and money playing corporate sabotage rather than snapping up companies and properties.
It isn’t uncommon to win with a low score. Or a negative score. Or a flat zero points. Hey, breaking even still means you’re breaking even.
The result is one of the meanest, jerkiest, jackassiest auction games I’ve ever played. I absolutely love it. And while Klaus Zoch has plenty of his own titles under his belt, it feels very much like something Reiner Knizia could have designed, all flimsy theme! on the outside while smuggling gunpowder and shigawire beneath the skin. Every decision is loaded with dangerous ambiguity, often coming back to bite you in unexpected ways. Imagine navigating a minefield that also features quicksand and you’ll have some idea what it feels like.
Zero stars. For once, that makes it a winner. After all, you should have seen its competitors.
A complimentary copy was provided.