Rio de la Plata

3-5 players, 90+ minutes
designed by Michele Quondam
reviewed by John Humphries

Having read a brief description of this game pre-Essen 2010, it went on my ‘possibles’ list. However, due to the large number of games launched last October it disappeared from my radar. That is until this June when I saw it advertised in the Special Offers section of one of the UK’s leading games retailers. Naturally I bought a copy.

Although I have only played three games so far, I believe that Rio de la Plata deserves more publicity than it appears to have received to date. Hence this review.

The theme of the game is the founding of Buenos Aires which is of course on the River Plate, hence the title. Each player represents a family of settlers.

It is basically a worker placement/resource management game with a number of interesting twists. Whilst players compete to gain prestige and victory points they must cooperate to defend the city from attacks by hostile natives and raiding pirates. They also need to collaborate in the construction of major buildings such as the palace and fort.

The main feature of the game board is the city site, a 16 by 10 grid divided into 8 districts and containing a small 2 by 2 grid called the Plaza Mayor. Outside the city walls are a number of smaller grids which have different uses, for example constructing large buildings such as the palace, harbour and cathedral, acquiring resources and coins, building roads and walls, and determining raids by natives and pirates. There is a Time track along the top edge of the board and a Victory Point track along three sides.

The components consist of wooden discs representing worker/settlers and raiders, resource cubes, coins, buildings tiles, character tiles and wooden road and wall pieces, all of a good quality.

At the start of the game each player has 10 worker discs and 1 pawn of their chosen colour, 2 stone and 2 wood resource cubes and 2 silver coins. 1 disc is placed randomly on the turn track to start the game.

A full game consists of 20 turns from 1580 to 1599 and a marker is moved along the time track at the beginning of each turn. There are 3 phases per turn with each phase being completed by each player before moving on to the next.
Worker Placement Phase

Players have 9 workers available to them and may place up to 5 each turn. They may be placed on the city grid within defined rules. They must be placed adjacent to a `property’ tile belonging to that player. A maximum of 2 discs per square. Workers of different colours may not be on the same square. Workers may not be placed within the Plaza Mayor. In the first round as there will not be any tiles in the city, discs must be placed along the marked Starting Zone. Workers may be placed on any of the major building grids outside the city at a cost of 1 stone and 1 wood resource per worker; on the resource grids for a monetary cost and on the road and wall grids for free. They may also be placed on the Turn Order track.

Effects of worker placement phase
It is during this phase that the majority of the action takes place. A chart in the rule book shows the costs and benefits of workers placed within the city walls.
This is best explained by a simple example:

Round 1
1st phase: The green player places 2 workers on a square in the starting zone.
2nd phase: the workers are replaced by the player’s Hut tile.
Round 2
1st phase: The green player places 1 worker on his Hut tile and another in an adjacent square.
2nd phase: The player pays 1 stone and 1 wood resource, retrieves the worker and flips the tile to show a House tile. He then pays 2 stone resources and replaces the other worker with a Stonecutter tile.

Round 3
1st phase: The green player places a worker on the Stonecutter tile.
2nd phase: The player retrieves his worker, pays 1 stone and receives 3 stone resources in return.

I hope that all makes sense.

Only the Hut/House tiles belong to the player who placed them. All other tiles such as Carpenter, Market, Corporation, Church and Square are public and can be used by any player. So in the above example, a player whose turn preceded green could have place a worker on that Stonecutter tile. In order to benefit from a public tile, the player must have a House tile on a square adjacent to it and that includes diagonally adjacent.

While all of these `minor building’ tiles give benefits, some do not arrive until the end of the game in the form of additional VPs.

Workers placed on the various building grids outside the city must remain there until the grid has been completely filled. At that point the player who placed the last worker has the benefit of placing the building tile. Major building tiles are placed in the city within certain constrains. For example the Palace must be placed in one of the spaces surrounding the Plaza Mayor. Wall pieces are placed on the outer edge of the city where walls are not already printed on the board in order to reduce the spaces through which attacks can be made. Road pieces are placed to link the centre of a district to the Plaza Mayor.

Once the Harbour has been built players can begin to load the ship with their resources. When the ship is fully loaded with 7 resources per player, it sets sail. However, by paying 2 coins a player can send the ship on its voyage before it is fully laden. The ship returns two game turns later and players receive coinage and VPs for the resources they have sold abroad.

Those workers that are placed on the Mine and Forest receive stone or wood resources. Every 2 workers placed in the Field yield one silver coin and each worker in the Artisan area can trade wood and stone for precious resources.

Players can purchase one of the 12 Public Offices. To do so, a player must have acquired a minimum number of VPs and pay the required amount in coins. Each Public Office gives certain benefits to the purchaser. For example the Master Carpenter requires at least 10 VPs and costs 5 coins. In return the player will receive one free wood resource per turn and 5 VPs at the end of the game. Each player may only acquire one Public Office.

War Phase

To determine whether or not a war will take place, both dice are rolled and the total compared to the position of the counters on the Enemy track. If there is to be a war, the raiders will be revealed as natives or pirates or both.

Each player takes the part of the attacker once per game. The player who is furthest along the Order track and has not as yet performed that role becomes the attacker for that turn. The attacker takes a number of purple discs according to the number of settler discs situated within the city walls and the number of defending players. These discs are placed in the gaps remaining in the city walls. These can be stacked in 3s, 2s or 1s and will affect the movement with 3s only moving 1 square and singles 3 squares. The attacker’s objective is to destroy buildings within the city and gain VPs. If the Fort has been built and one of the defenders has purchased the Gunner tile, he can attempt to reduce the number of attackers. This is where a rather odd calculation takes place. The Gunner takes a guess at how many attackers he can remove to which 6 is added. Both dice are rolled and if the total equals or exceeds that number, the guessed number of attckers can be removed.

Both attacking and defending discs can be moved and combat takes place when an attacker and a defender are on the same square. The outcome of each battle is very simple. For example if 2 attackers meet 2 defenders all 4 discs are removed from the board and the defender scores 2 VPs for each attacker and 2 VPs for each defender lost. So in this example the defender would score a total of 8 VPs while the attacker would score zero. However should a single attacker defeat an undefended building, both would be destroyed and removed and the attacker would gain VPs according to the type of building, eg. 2 for a Hut up to 12 for the Cathedral.

The war ends when there are either no attackers or defenders remaining or the attacker has not engaged in combat after three consecutive movements.

The game ends after the 20th turn, or earlier if players agree, and at this point the additional VPs are totalled. Players receive 2 points for each House they have in the city, plus bonus points if the houses are in the same districts as certain other buildings or connected by road to the Plaza Mayor. Interestingly players may receive minus points if their Houses are in the same distict as Production buildings such as the Carpenter, Stonecutter and Market. Victory points are also awarded to the holders of Public Office tiles and each silver coin is worth a point. The winner of course is the player with the most VPs.

Because of the number of worker placement options available, it is difficult at first to ascertain any sort of winning strategy. Resources and coins are necessities, so it is wise to initially place workers to obtain these and putting discs on the Mine and Forest is one of the simplest ways to gain stone and wood. To take advantage of any Carpenter and Stonecutter tiles, make sure you build Houses adjacent to them.

Several of the minor buildings demand a requirement to enable them to be built and will immediately reward the builder with VPs. A Square for example can only be built on a space where at least 5 buildings are adjacent to it. The cost is 1 coin and 1 precious resource and the reward is 6VPs. So players must decide for themselves whether or not the effort required is worth it. Few of these minor buildings have been built in the games we have played so far.

Whilst placing workers on major building grids ensures gaining VPs, remember that those workers are tied up until the grid is completed, so it is not a good plan to devote too many discs to that purpose.

The Public Offices vary in the benefits to their owners. Many give free resources, roads or walls each turn with VPs at the game end, others such as the Bishop only earn the player endgame points.

The best part about the wars when attacking is destroying your opponents’ Huts and Houses as this will set them back quite a bit. The strategy here is to make sure that you are the last player to be the attacker as this will ensure that there are no reprisals.

Rio de la Plata is definitely a gamers’ game and takes a while to get into but there are plenty of options and interaction with the other players both as friend and foe and although the rules take two or three readings it is in my opinion well worth the effort for something a bit different.