The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews to Extract the Essence of Games by Nicholas Hjelmberg
Lisboa - The Rise of a Beautiful City and a Beautiful Game (Published 17 July 2016)
This is a preview of Lisboa based on a Tabletopia game and subsequently used at the successful
Last week I was given the opportunity to play test Vital Lacerda’s next game Lisboa on Tabletopia (”Table 35”). My understanding is that Lisboa is near completion but that minor adjustments may still take place in the final version of the game. Hence, this preview will not focus on details but rather attempt to capture the gameplay and what it feels like to play Lisboa.
Lisboa is set in the reconstruction of the Portuguese capital after the great earthquake of 1755. The game literally starts with the earthquake, simulated by covering the city map with cubes (”rubble”). The players take the roles of nobles using their influence to contribute to the reconstruction. They do this by playing event cards to trigger actions that let them manage money, influence and goods and to engage in politics, trade and building. Lisboa ends when the remnants of the old city center has been cleared away and the new one has risen.
Tabletopia Table 35: The yellow newbie (me) has just won thanks to strategic building majorities in the city center (or perhaps I was just lucky).
The first that came to my mind was how well the mechanisms and the theme go hand in hand. As a euro gamer, I’m usually more interested in inventive and elegant mechanisms than elaborated background stories. Nevertheless, a game where the mechanisms makes me feel like I’m part of the history by letting me face the decisions of the real men and women of the time always score high in my books. What Lisboa does is to capture economic considerations (how do I finance the buildings?) as well as political considerations (how do I get support from the government?).
Let us look closer at those decisions. Basically, my success is measured in victory points (wigs). To succeed, I need money and influence to build the buildings. To get money and influence, I need goods, and to get goods I need… buildings. This is a challenge that puts Lisboa apart from many standard euros, where you typically build an engine and follow the route money->investment->more money->switch to victory points. Instead, you have to juggle many different resources (money, influence, goods, officials etc.) and understand how they all relate to each other. Typical questions you ask yourself during the game is not only how to get a resource but also how to use it once you get it.
The city scoring mechanism deserves a paragraph of its own but I must admit I haven't fully understood how you best use this "multidimensional multistep rocket" to your advantage. Do you play tactically for the best rewards, the cheapest land or the most expensive goods? Or do you play strategically for the most victory points and if so, do you play for majorities in colors or to dominate rows or columns? Do you open the public buildings yourself or do you "tailgate" on other players' rows and columns and wait for them to open public buildings that earn you victory points? This is a game in the game that still blends very well with the other mechanisms.
The depth of the decisions gives newbies the challenge of too many decisions and it probably takes some games to fully understand this intricate web of interdependencies. Nevertheless, the game never comes to a full stop; you always have things to do and you cannot ”break your own game” and leave yourself with no possibilities to act.
Let us move on to the actions or the execution of the decisions. It's deceivingly simple: you manage a hand of noble cards and treasury cards and play one each turn. But each card has several branches. Do you play it to your portfolio, to get long term benefits, or do you play it to the court, to get powerful actions? Which of the actions do you choose and which of the action benefits do you choose? You must also plan your actions so that you have the resources you need now and get the resources you need later. And of course, the actions are all linked to historical persons and events.
This does not mean that you are dependent on lucky draws. The cards available for replenishment are open. The cards held by your opponents are open. There is a small randomness in which cards get available but the control remains with you.
This leads us to the interaction. Lisboa is not a solitaire puzzle. Yes, you can plan your actions but the cost and gain of them are affected by the other players' actions. Do they produce goods? Then the prices fall. Are they present at the court? Then it costs more influence to get there. Have they started to clear a street? Then it is cheaper to build there but you will increase the value of their buildings as well. But since all the players' cards are open, you can predict what they are up too (and since you can do so much with them, it's not about knowing many cards, it's about guessing what they will do with the few they have).
Finally, let us assess the tension throughout the game. Resources are scarce in the beginning but do they continue to be so? It is true that you get more goods throughout the game but the goods prices go down, the ship prices go up and you need to recruit more officials to open buildings so you never have enough goods. As influence and money are concerned, I felt that they became less scarce, since cards and tile abilities increase influence and decrease costs while land gets cheaper the more rubble that gets cleared away. However, this is something that the developers were aware of and look into and I am confident that the final version will have adjusted the balance to perfection.
We have covered more than enough for a game and not even mentioned mechanisms like follow other players' actions, selling to other players' ships, unlocking abilities and competing for majorities in the city. Yet, Lisboa never feels overloaded as all of them are part of the same web and well integrated with the theme. This allows the players to set up and follow a strategy while staying attentive to tactical opportunities on the way.
Last but certainly mot least a few words about the art. There are a lot of spaces on the board but thanks to the clear symbols (of which, I understand, most were finalized at the time of the play test) it never feels cluttered. The symbols are also large enough to be distinguished across the table, on the other players’ player mats. Some specific symbols, particularly the ones illustrating the clergy tile benefits, were a bit hard to interpret so perhaps a symbol list on the player aides would help in the first few games (after which I expect you will have learned them by heart). I also like how the modern art of the nobles helps conveying the message of a city rising from the disaster by leaving its past behind and entering the modern age.
It has been a privilege to play test Lisboa and I look forward to see the game come true.
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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