Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: Fresco

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, my original schooling path was art, so I've had to endure many dull lectures about the pros and cons of the restoration of art and have actually developed opinions about the subject. However, never once during any of my Art History classes did I ever think, "Wow. This would make a great game."

The Overview:

Front cover of the English edition box. Most notable is the spelling of "Fresco" instead of "Fresko". 

What is inside the box. Lots of cubes and tiles. 

Fresco is a worker placement Euro-style game where the players each take the role of a competing artist hired by a bishop to restore the fresco painting on the ceiling of a chapel. Each player needs to manage his or her income and satisfy the morale of their apprentices in order to succeed. Ultimately, the game ends when the fresco is nearly completed and the winner is the player who has amassed the most Victory Points.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 45-60 minutes. More players, as would be expected, tends to add more to the playtime, but ultimately not that much, provided your players do not suffer too heavily from analysis paralysis. The game is listed for players 10 and up and seems to be aimed somewhat towards families, which is perfectly fine, unless you are in the Ashcroft or Cuccinelli families since there are exposed buttocks and breasts in the fresco painting. But then again, you could just opt to not restore the upper left corner tile or the tile on the left edge, second from the bottom, and you would be just fine.

The game board is two-sided and is different for 3 or 4 players (2 player rules use the 3 player board with some extra rules). Players set up all of the components and place the 11 point fresco tile on the center of the fresco space and shuffle and place all of the other tiles randomly on the rest of the spaces. There are four market stalls in the game and each of them are filled with tiles indicating what paints that vendor is selling.

The game is then broken down into two phases in each turn.

The first phase is choosing your wake up time and adjusting your mood. Whoever is currently last on the Victory Point track chooses their wake up time first. The earlier that you wake up, the worse your mood will become and the more your paint purchase in the market will cost. If your mood becomes too negative, however, you will lose workers to place in the next phase. So choosing an early wake up time worsens your mood and makes the market more expensive, however, you will get the first chance to purchase paints at the market and you resolve your actions first. If you choose later wake up times, the market prices will be less and your mood either will not deteriorate or may actually improve, but at the cost of resolving your actions later and only having the left over paints to purchase in the market.

The second phase of the game is planning and performing your actions. Each player takes their available workers (which may have been affected by their mood) and places them behind a screen on the actions that they wish to take that round. After everyone has placed their workers on their actions, everyone lifts their screens and the actions are resolved.

Each action has enough spaces so that you can place up to three of your workers on a specific action on each turn. The different actions that you can take are:

• Market: This action allows a player to buy paints at a single vender booth. Each tile on the booth contains a number of different paint colors on it. For each worker you possess, you can purchase all of the paints on one tile from that one vendor (for the price determined by your wake-up time). After your purchases, no matter how many you bought, the remaining vendor tiles are discarded and no one may purchase from this vendor. This can be done as well without buying any tiles and just closing down the market booth so other players cannot get the paints. After you purchase the tiles, you take cubes matching the colors and put them behind your other screen. The tile then is discarded to be shuffled into the next day's vendor tiles.
• Cathedral: This action allows the player to restore a segment of the fresco. The fresco is covered by 25 tiles, each of which has a Victory Point value on it and icons indicating which color paints will be used to restore it. So a tile that has a 5 written on it and an Orange, Yellow and Blue cube would obviously cost one orange, one yellow and one blue paint cube to restore and be worth 5 points. Before a player restores a tile, he can pay 1 Thaler (coin) to move the Bishop pawn which sits on the fresco tiles one space. If the Bishop is adjacent to the tile restored, the player received 2 bonus Victory Points. If the Bishop is on the restored tile, the player received 3 bonus points. Alternately, instead of restoring a fresco tile, the player may instead opt to "restore the altar", which he or she instead discards a number of paint cubes for straight Victory Points listed on the altar. This generally is worth fewer points than restoring a fresco piece, but if other players went before you and restored the pieces you were planning on restoring, you may be left with an action and useless paints.
• Studio: This action allows a player to paint portraits. For each worker placed on this action, the player received 3 Thalers (coins).
• Workshop: This action allows a player to mix his paints to get other colors. Each worker on this action allows the player to blend his paints up to two times. For example, a player can blend red and blue paint to get purple paint. So the player would discard a red paint cube and a blue paint cube and take a purple paint cube. For those who do not know basic color mixing, a cheat sheet is supplied for each player.
• Theater: This action represents taking your workers out to the local opera. Each worker that you have placed on this action moves your mood up two spaces. This may remove worker penalties received from waking up early, or gain bonuses by becoming very pleasant and thus more people want to work for you.

After this is resolved, the next turn begins. New market tiles are laid out and each player collects 1 coin for each fresco tile they have already restored and sits in front of them.

This continues until there are 6 or fewer fresco tiles left to be restored. Then one more round is completed, but the Theater action is replaced with a second Cathedral action (which takes place after mixing paints).

After this final round everyone is awarded 1 Victory Point for every 2 coins that they have. Whoever has the most points wins and is recognized as the master fresco painter. Even though he is technically just a fresco restorer.

Now the game also comes with four supplemental expansion modules ready to play in the box.

The first supplemental module is the two-player game. It has rules for creating a communal third player (Leonardo) whose control is swapped from turn to turn. It isn't technically listed as one of the official supplemental expansions, but it is listed in the supplemental rules and does change the game enough that I think that this is where it belongs.

The Portraits supplemental module adds a variety of different portraits that can be painted in the Studio action. A player could simply take 3 Thalers, or he may choose a portrait card that is dealt to the Studio at the start of the turn. Each card gives different rewards, some of which are one time rewards and others last through the game. It creates the most diversity and, in my opinion, is the most interesting of the supplemental modules.

The Bishop's Request module offers new ways of getting Victory Points and paints, based on the fresco tiles a player has already completed. Each fresco tile has colors printed on the back of them. When you have tiles that have the colors matching the current Bishop's Request, you can have one of your workers taking the Workshop action to trade in the tiles and receive the Victory Points listed. From that point on, they will receive the colored paint listed on the tile when they collect income at the end of the turn. This is the most "euro" and abstract module in the game. It doesn't really add strategic depth, but it does offer a few more options with your completed fresco tiles than simply getting one point each for them. This is also the most confusing of the modules, so family gamers may wish to really get to know the game before adding it.

The Special Blend Colors module adds new fresco tiles to the mix which include even more complex colors of pink and brown. They are generally worth even more points and require extra steps to blend to get pink or brown paints. This module doesn't really change gameplay at all and really just adds more options out of the actions that already existed in the game. This is probably the easiest of the modules to introduce into the base game since it really require the least explanation.

The Theme:

This is a Euro game and as such the mechanics are really supposed to be the art and they are supposed to be what you are enjoying instead of the... well... art.

But I will state that there are flaws in the theme to begin with: You are not painting a fresco, but you are restoring one. First of all, this is a highly controversial thing in the art world. Many people think that this really destroys art. Others believe that it brings existing artwork closer to the original impression and color that the artist intended.

But whichever side of the debate you are on, most of the time restoration of important classical pieces in the Renaissance time used tools such as walnut oil, linens, wine-dipped sponges and wetted bread. Only in cases of extreme damage were actual paints used (and often sparingly). And that would be fine, but the set up and premise of the game seems to imply that you are famous artists creating a beautiful fresco. But they're not. They're restoring some other great artist's work.

So the "tacked-on" Euro theme isn't exactly accurate. That doesn't take away from the mechanics, which, considering the genre of the game, I suppose we should be focused on. But thematically, the game has some problems for me.

Learning the Game:

The game appears to have a lot more going on that it really does. This is not a bad thing, but it does have the effect of appearing more daunting to learn than the game really is. Without the expansion modules, the game is played and learned fairly easy and play becomes pretty intuitive after playing through a full turn or two. In fact, the rulebook excellently explains everything in an 8 page 8" x 10" full color book full of illustrations and examples.

In fact that it is easy to learn puts it closer to the family game category. However, the fact that it appears very complicated means that most non-gaming families will avoid it. And, truth be told, the mechanics are easy to learn for any BGGer, but I would imagine the amount of fore-planning and thinking needed in the game will ultimately keep it from being a family game as it is listed.

The Components:

A game in progress. The sheer amount of bits and things that appear to be going on with the board will frighten off most families. 

The game has some very nice components to it. 

The fresco that is being restored, complete with buttocks and breasts. 

I think that every game that is being produced feels obligated to create its own unique "signature" meeple these days. And people think that Ameritrash game plastic is unnecessarily overproduced... 

The game is beautifully crafted and although the board really seems daunting with everything that is going on with it, it really is surprisingly practical. And the board is two-sided and the board set up is different depending on how many players you have. I personally love it when games do things like this. It makes games much more playable depending on how many players you have.

The cardboard tiles in the game are sturdy and should not show wear for a long time. Other than the Bishop's Request module expansion, they all have easy to determine and realize icons on them.

Even the box insert is well-produced, which is a nice extra touch, since you do not need it at all for the game. I really have no complaints on the production of the pieces, though some might think that there are too many and they can be easily confused, such as the Bishop's Request tiles being too easily confused with the fresco tiles.

Playing the Game:

The game appears more complex than it really is. When playing the game, it becomes easy and intuitive to learn and most of the module expansions really do not complicate the game much more.

But games like this are supposed to be about the mechanics and the flow of them. And, the game really does play tight and tense. It takes a fair amount of planning and forward thinking to be the most efficient, but you also need to plan around what your opponents may be doing, which isn't exactly easy since worker placement is hidden and simultaneous and their paints are hidden behind a screen. Sure, you can watch what they buy and make mental notes and have some idea of what fresco tiles they might be able to restore, but if you are wrong and they wake up earlier than you, you may find yourself out of luck as they take the tiles you were after.

But there are a couple of new seasonings added to what is a game that is in a market saturated with different formers of worker placement games. The most notable is the wake-up time. This is an interesting mechanic, even if it does not make the most thematic rational sense (If you woke up at 6 am, then I cannot wake up at 6 am). Still, it creates an interesting mechanic that makes you focus on not just restoring and economy, but also mood (which is essentially just another economy to adjust and manage with actions).


The game really is designed for 3 or 4 players and each one has its own board and set up, which makes each of these games equally fulfilling since it takes into account the blocking factor of a game with only three players. The two-player game is playable, but ultimately the Leonardo dummy player mechanic does not work as well or cutthroat as it would with a live player. The two player game isn't terrible, but it also doesn't make the mechanics that make this game stand out shine in any way. I would suggest that this game really is for 3-4 players and the official included 2-player variant feels like most 2-player variants of games designed for more players. It's just included and not found by searching through the variants forum on BoardGameGeek.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. That being said, my wife does not mind this game. She definitely would not suggest the two-player variant for her and I during an evening together, but she doesn't mind when it comes up when friends are over. I don't think she'd ever suggest it, but I also think she probably would not turn it down if our friends mentioned it.

The Pros:

*An interesting choice of theme that isn't really touched upon...
*Well-produced and visually beautiful game.
*Plays a lot more simple and intuitively than it looks.
*Tight and tense gameplay.
*Elegant implementation of mechanics.
*Requires good forethought and planning with an eye on your opponent to really do well.
*Interesting "twist" of adding mood as an additional economy to manage in the game.
*Gameplay flows well, like a good Euro should.
*Included modules really can expand upon gameplay.

The Cons:

*An interesting choice of theme that isn't really touched upon... which ultimately makes the game seem to stand out more because of theme than because of the actual mechanics.
*Thematic elements don't really fit that well (I know, I know. It's a Euro).
*Bishop's Request module stands out a bit from the others, adding unnecessary complexity and breaking the flow of an otherwise elegant game.
*Probably too complex for most families, despite the game's own description in its rules as being an "exquisite family game".
*I'm unsure if the game is bashing artists by making them restorers of greater artist's work, or if they are promoting art restorers as being great artists.


Fresco is an elegant implementation of game mechanics with beautiful components and pieces. Ultimately, however, the game's theme is suspect and that is what really makes the game stand out more than anything else. Still, it isn't bad and it is challenging with enough going on to occupy most gamers. The game doesn't stand out as anything spectacular in my opinion, but it is, at least, less dry than a number of other Euro games. Hardcore Euro fans will love this game, but unless that is your genre of games, the game does not offer enough to bring in an outside audience to check out the interesting and rather untouched theme.


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