Coimbra and the malleable nature of board game tastes

Once upon a time, I was in love with Terra Mystica. I still might be. It’s hard to say since I haven’t played it in over a year. Regardless, the origins of my infatuation are tied to the game’s seven action choices. To me, the game felt like a puzzle or some kind of clockwork mechanism with seven different parts all weaving together into an intricate and grand tapestry. Taken individually, these actions are nothing but by-the-numbers Eurogame fare; build a settlement, upgrade that settlement, build a bridge, and so on. The combination, however, feels epic and brain burn-y in a way that most heavy Euro designs can only aspire to. It wasn’t until I played Coimbra a couple weeks ago that I began to see the cracks in Terra Mystica’s facade.

Terra Mysitca at Essen 2012

Coimbra is a dice placement game. It’s like worker placement, but the workers are dice. It’s not a new genre, and it’s been around for nearly as long as worker placement has, but it’s certainly a lot less common. It’s also a more flexible system than standard worker placement. This is largely due to the variable nature of dice. With six different values, you potentially have six different workers, each with their own functions. Add in different colors for the dice and the permutations skyrocket. In Coimbra, you’ll draft dice of different values and colors, which means there’s a lot for you to keep track of.

The number on the dice are used to determine the cost you’ll pay for upgrades to your income, while the color of the dice dictates the kind of income you’ll receive for that round. So while drafting dice you’ll have to bear in mind both the value and the color for two different reasons. It sounds daunting, and it can be, but its such a clever thing that comes together in a brilliant way. Finishing a round of Coimbra results in an ah-ha! moment that’s sadly missing in a lot of modern designs.

A 4-player game of Coimbra at setup

What does this have to do with Terra Mysica? Well, while the two games may not share many mechanical similarities, there are some elements in Coimbra that remind me of the way I used to think about Terra Mystica. It’s the big-picture stuff, the way the game feels when you objectively scrutinize your experience. I left Coimbra thinking about how its mechanics all flow together so perfectly, which is how I used to view Terra Mysictica. But time and distance has made the latter feel compartmentalized. Segmented. Take away one of Terra Mystica’s seven actions and you’ve still got six left to choose from. It’s like playing with Lego: if you can’t find the piece you’re looking for, just use something else in its place.

This is not possible in Coimbra. Here, each separate element is so dependent on the rest of the game that if you were to take even a single gameplay mechanic out of the picture, the entire experience would fall away. Every phase and action is a load baring column in the Coimbra house. If it was a traditional worker placement style game, there would be no way to determine upgrade costs. If you take color out of the picture, there’s no way to determine your income. The mechanics of Coimbra have been so intricately built around one-another that there’s no removing any of them lest the whole thing come crashing down like a Jenga tower.

This isn’t to say that I dislike Terra Mystica; I still hold that game in high regard. I just wish it was as elegant as Coimbra. This sounds nitpick-y, I know, but that feeling of co-dependence that seeps into every nook and cranny of Coimbra is intoxicating in a way that is so hard to describe. Perhaps I owe my enthusiasm to a renewed interest in the hobby, or maybe I have become a victim of the “cult of the new.” Whatever the case, Coimbra feels like the result of years of board game refinement.

But that’s the nature of board game design, isn’t it? Iteration and legacy beget new classics, and with literally hundreds of new games released every year, innovation in the industry is nearly impossible to keep up with. If we keep moving at this breakneck speed, I wonder if I’ll look back at Coimbra a few years from now and notice flaking paint or cracks in the foundation.

In the years since I’ve considered myself a tabletop hobbyist, my tastes have changed dramatically. Some of those changes boil down to surprisingly-minor details, as illustrated by the Coimbra vs Terra Mystica debate I find myself embroiled in now. Just like music or books or movies, my tastes are not the same as they once were, but it’s still fun to revisit the classics every once in a while. Terra Mystica feels like Green Day’s Dookie (which is still a good album by the way), while Coimbra is like Bankz and Steelz’ Anything But Words. And isn’t there room in my iPhone for both?

I’ve spent the last 800 words trying to articulate one point: tastes change. Board game design changes. My idea of what a good board game is has changed. And I love the hobby for that. Design has undergone a staggering amount of refinement and iteration over the last decade, new coats of fresh paint layered over old ones. But it’s good to remember that the old colors were, at one point, exactly what you wanted.

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