(Digital) Trading in the Mediterranean
There’s a pair of reasons why I’ve never written about Mac Gerdts’ Concordia. First, it’s already been reviewed four thousand times, and the odds I’ll slip something worthwhile between the cracks is slight at best. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I’d never played the thing. Trading in the Mediterranean? That’s as novel as settings come, but I’ve been busy tackling such rare beasts as vikings and zombies.
In any case, in light of tomorrow’s release of Acram Digital’s, er, digital edition, I’ve finally learned how to play Concordia. And let me tell you something nobody else has mentioned: it’s quite good.
So you’ve decided to trade goods in the Mediterranean. Well done on selecting this rarest of occupations, as scarce as retail sales or clerking. The cities of the Mediterranean are all specialized; some produce grain or bricks, others iron, and the truly well-to-do towns weave cloth or press wine. It’s your job to get these resources where they need to go. Abstractly, anyway. In most cases, cities apparently need more of what they’ve already got. Apart from bricks and food — most folks hanker after those — a town that produces wine needs more wine, cloth cities need more cloth, and so on.
That’s in part because Concordia isn’t really about trading so much as it is about setting up a trade network. Oh, there’s actual trading to be done, never between players but via the Mercator card, which lets you sell excess resources and buy anything you’re short on. These prices are fixed. Sitting on a bunch of iron? You can sell those ingots for five sestertii a pop, or buy more for five sestertii, or sit on them until the end of the game when they’ll be automatically sold for five sestertii. A complex simulation this is not.
Nor should it be. That’s part of what makes Concordia such a delight to play. Every detail has heft, every action and card is considerable in its own right, but none of it could be described as complicated. Turns revolve around playing a single card, and whether you’re sending colonists to distant territories to build production houses or having a diplomat copy somebody else’s card, every action is both simple and meaningful. There’s an element of “deck-building,” but there’s neither deck nor shuffling, just a hand of cards that occasionally gets bigger. Resources have a tangibility that often goes missing from other games, but they’re readily acquired. There’s that aforementioned Mercator card for buying and selling, plus Prefects for producing resources.
Prefects, actually, are the prefect card (teehee) for exhibiting why Concordia is so special. These produce resources in a chosen province, but the trick is that every house earns a resource for its owner, no matter whose turn it is. Early on, you might have the only houses in a region, pulling in two, three, four resources at a time all for yourself. Before long, though, other merchants get in on the action with houses of their own. Now they get resources whenever you deploy a Prefect in that province. It’s the very definition of positive interaction, letting players be cunning without ever taking from one another.
This isn’t to say there aren’t barbs. The cost of building a house in a city doubles, then triples, as more trading houses are built there, so the expensive spots are best colonized in the game’s early stages. There are periodic moments when a healthy stockpile of resources is a boon, letting you expand into many cities at once or produce a timely colonist when your hand resets, but holding too many resources can lead to wastage — and openings for rivals to produce without awarding you anything extra. The biggest example is the card market. None of the cards are flashy. Most are duplicates of the cards that begin in your starting hand. But in addition to their action they also provide extra scoring options. Points for colonists, for houses, for provinces settled, for sets of resources, for particular production lines. Everything matters. Or might matter, with the right cards. More importantly, you might find yourself in a direct confrontation with a rival, racing to seize the cards that reward your shared approach.
Put all that together, and you have the title that pretty much everybody uses as the yardstick for other games about trading in the Mediterranean. Though they be few in number, it’s easy to see why. Concordia is one of those playthings with no spare corners or loose threads. Yet it’s lean rather than sparse. It presents trade as rewarding to all involved while still being a contest of vipers, the sort of contest where everybody profits but mere profit is a loss compared to making a Marcus Crassus of yourself.
The digital implementation is pretty much what you’d expect: a slick and functional version that faithfully reproduces the game, allows for asynchronous play without significant hiccups, and trades out some of the immediacy and clarity of a board and counters on a table for handy charts and victory point tallies. It doesn’t seem like much, but there’s a significant difference between glancing with your eyes and panning with a mouse cursor. That’s one of the greatest advantages of board games, after all: as a medium, board games are designed to compress a wealth of information to digestible tidbits, and you can generally tell at a glance where everybody stands. Even the inherent three-dimensionality of a board game is part of that, houses and colonists popping from the table to give you a sense for where everybody is, what they own, and what they’ll likely pursue next. With this adaptation, as with all digital implementations, that tactility, that comprehensibility, is flattened. The effect is similar to the digital remoteness of your fellow players. They’re there — warbling in the chat, claiming that card you wanted — but their digitization is as incomplete as the game’s visual geography.
By no means should this be considered a ding on Concordia or what Acram Digital has accomplished here. Everything is perfectly serviceable insofar as I’ve gathered. Better than serviceable. This is a solid adaptation of a perfect game, and times being what they are we could well afford as many such adaptations as we can get. All the better that the game has functional AI, even if it’s only stout enough to provide a contest over how high of a score you can earn. I’ve been playing it nonstop for a week, and I’m as eager as anybody for it to release. Maybe then I’ll be able to play with somebody other than Geoff.
Most of all, I’m glad that the digital edition provided an opportunity to learn Concordia. What a game.
A complimentary key was provided.