Review – Canalis

            Canalis is the fifth game in AEG’s Tempest line, and the first after the initial launch of Courtier, Dominare, Mercante and Love Letter. Canalis is a euro-style game featuring tile laying and card drafting, wherein the players are laying out a new sector of the city-state of Tempest, attempting to bring industrial buildings online by connecting them to the harbor, to workers, and to required resources, while also achieving various player-specific side goals. Canalis retails for about $40.

What’s In The Box?

In addition to the sturdy board and pretty rules, Canalis comes with 6 sets of faction boards and matching tokens, 64 draft cards spread between two decks, 18 mission cards, money tokens, and a stack of different tiles for the different canals, gardens, and buildings. All of the components seem built to last. The rulebook isn’t perfect, but it isn’t lacking – we had to read it closely and carefully to make sure we were getting it right, but as far as I’m aware we were able to pin everything down without resorting to other resources.

Basic Gameplay

            A game of Canalis starts with a grid board that is almost entirely blank, with some action on the edges – two edges have harbors, two edges have three random resources each (6 of the 8 in the game), and the corners have gardens. Over the course of the game, the players will fill the board with tiles, attempting to score industrial buildings by connecting them to the harbor, one or more resources, and a source of workers. A building is “connected” to another building, a resource, or the harbor if it is immediately adjacent or if a path can be traced through canal tiles (the harbor counts as canal tiles for this purpose). In addition to scoring buildings, players have a faction, which gives a way to score bonus points (and also an ability), and start with two mission cards, which are additional sources of points.

In order to accomplish that, the players will draft and play cards. In each of four stages, each player will start with 4-7 cards in hand (depending on the number of players), and one of them with the first player marker. Each of these cards has two options on it – laying a tile (or a couple of tiles) on the board or executing a scheme. Almost all cards name a specific tile that you get to play – for example, you get to play the Butcher, not any random industrial building of your choice. Each player will simultaneously choose one of the cards available, and then set the others aside. Starting with the first player, each player reveals his card, chooses whether to lay a tile or execute the scheme, and then discards the card (you must execute the scheme if you cannot lay the tile, for example if the tile specified on the card is already on the board). Tiles can be placed anywhere on the board that they fit – there is no restriction of any sort on where they can do, so there’s a lot of freedom. Once placed, a tile is marked with the faction symbol of the player who placed it (the control markers are double-sided so you can both distinguish who controls the building and whether the building has already been scored). Schemes most commonly generate money (which is needed to play buildings) and victory points, but they can also do other things like give you a new mission or fetch a random card back from the discard pile so you get two plays the following turn. The unplayed cards are then passed left, along with the first player marker. This process is repeated until all of the cards have been played, at which point the stage ends. There is one deck for stages one and two and a different deck for stages three and four. The game ends after stage four.

The Cards and Tiles

Of course, a lot of a game like this isn’t just the rules framework, but also what your individual choices are.

The tiles come in five broad flavors – industrial buildings, canals, special buildings, gardens, and tenements (technically a tenement tile is both a resource and a special building. The sizes include smaller two-square rectangles (canals, gardens, industrial buildings), three-square lines (canals), three-square bends (industrial buildings, gardens), four-square squares (tenements, industrial buildings, special buildings, gardens), four-square lines (canals), and five-square irregular shapes (industrial buildings, special buildings).

In the deck for the first two rounds, the buildings include canals and all but the biggest gardens, two- and three-square industrial buildings, and tenements. The schemes might grant gold, grant more gold at the cost of VPs, give VPs, or let you draw an extra mission card.

In the deck for the third and fourth rounds, the buildings include four- and five-square industrial buildings, special buildings, large gardens, and canals. This deck also includes cards that let you play out the remaining two resources, and also some “wild cards” that let you play out a building of your choice of a given size or sizes. The schemes are similar, except they might be more generous with the gold/VPs, or might let you get a random card back out of a discard pile, and some of the schemes actually lay tiles (gardens, in particular).

The most basic tile type is the industrial building. Each industrial building has a money cost to play, and they also provide some immediate benefit – usually some VPs, but the square ones give money instead. These VPs might be fixed (for the smallest ones), or variable based on the number of adjacent or connected tiles. The smallest industrial buildings need only be connected to a tenement for a source of workers, while the biggest require not only workers and the harbor, but two of the unique resources. The smallest industrial buildings are worth 3 when scored, while the biggest are worth at least 10, possibly more if you have already scored specific named small buildings.

Special buildings are mostly victory point sources that don’t require connections. They might be a flat VP total (12 for the Senate) or be variable (the Estate gives 2VP for every 3 gold you have left at the end of the game). Like industrial buildings, special buildings have a gold cost to play, and also provide some immediate benefit. Additionally, two of the four-space special buildings act as pseudo-connections – one (the School) counts as a source of workers only for your adjacent buildings, and the other (the Black Market) counts as a harbor connection for your tiles next to it.

Tenements are the game’s only sources of workers. Like other buildings, they cost gold to play. They also have an immediate effect of making you lose points for adjacent tiles. The benefit from a tenement is that if your tenement(s) is the only source of workers when a building is scored, then you get bonus VP. So getting to play a tenement right away is pretty handy, as you can often get pretty decent VP out of it by making sure it’s nice and convenient for other players to build near – players will have to let you get some VPs based on their scores, or else hold off connecting up to the current source of workers in hopes that they will get to play a tenement later (scoring buildings is not optional, so you can’t connect a building to a tenement and the harbor, then wait until later to see if you can score it without handing off points).

Gardens generate extra VP for adjacent buildings that score. And canals, of course, connect things. Gardens and (usually) canals are not controlled by any particular player.

Factions and Missions

If you’ve played the prior Tempest games before (and if you haven’t, why not? Snap to it!), you’ll probably be familiar with the six factions – the artisans, the church, the canal guild, the shadowmen, House Elmen, and the Atheneum. Each faction board has two sides – which faction you get, and which side, are random. Each faction choice gives a special ability, and also a source of extra VP. Abilities may be “always on,” or may be a “guile” ability that can be activated three times per game. Your faction board represents who you are, and is public knowledge.

The church plays chapels (basically gardens that only count for the church’s buildings), and then can score points for how they connect those chapels. The artisans get more points out of gardens. The Atheneum has ways of scoring buildings without access to tenements. House Elmen gets more cash and gets VP for having or getting even more cash. The canal guild’s abilities and VP relate to (shock!) the placement of canals. The shadowmen get access to more cards (mission or draft, depending on the side), and some extremely difficult goals that require most of the resources to be used (see below).

Additionally, each player starts with two missions. Missions represent the goals of your hidden allies, and they are not revealed to the other players until end-of-game scoring. The missions award 10-20 VP when completed. The missions include getting the seventh and eight resource out and next to each other, connecting the two harbors, scoring specific industrial buildings, playing or scoring lots of different types or sizes of buildings, or connecting a specific special building in a particular way.

Opinions/Judgments

Canalis reports as playable in 45 minutes. This is realistic. The game carries 2-4 players, but a two-player game will be substantially different from 3-4 players. With each player getting 7 plays per round, the game turning into a zero-sum affair and both players having 100% information, there is some serious room for analysis paralysis.

My opinion of Canalis comes in two parts. Canalis presents fun and distinctive strategic for the first three rounds of the game. Card drafting is something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, and it’s used to good effect here. The “you can play it anywhere” aspect of the tile-laying opens up the first three-quarters of the game to some good strategic options. The different factions and missions, and the interactions between them, mean that just doing the exact same thing over and over again is not the right way to go (even if the conflicting plans of the other players would let you do that anyway). So most of the game is fun, is distinctive, and has a very nice framework.

Unfortunately, the fourth and final round drags the experience down as the board position at that point minimizes options and decision-making. This endgame is not necessary, but rather dictated by player strategy – but in each of the games I’ve seen and played in, across multiple groups, this has been the outcome. There is typically little difficulty getting buildings connected to harbors. There may be some deliberate blocking, but everyone needs the canal connections, and so they usually happen. But the resources get shut down very easily – in particular, if you are  placing an early single-resource building, the most natural place to play it is right next to the resource it needs, and even if you aren’t trying to entirely block off the resource, you’re going to mostly block it off. Getting a resource out into the wild really requires someone early on dropping a canal (and you could drop a canal between two resources, thus bringing access to them out to the center of the board where it isn’t easily blocked). But there’s usually no incentive for you to do that. Maybe if you have a mission that requires particular buildings you would want to make sure that the resources those buildings need remain available, and maybe then you’d be willing to expend an early play in hopes that later on you actually get a card that lets you play that building at all, and things haven’t been otherwise blocked off by then – but you better get dealt that card, because if you actually manage to keep the way clear for a nice score on a particular building, and I get the card (or a wild card) that lets me drop that building into play, it’s a pretty slim chance that I’m going to pass the card instead of just picking up the nice score for myself. It’s a strategic call that nobody in my sessions has made (well, or they made it but then everything got blocked off anyway).

Now, the fact that you can easily and entirely cut off a resource is not a Big Deal like it might be in other games – except for a handful of mission goals, no one needs to be able to score a particular late building. If you block off the cloth resources, then no one else will be able to score any buildings that require cloth, but you won’t either – it doesn’t necessarily disrupt sunk resources, it just reduces the field of future options. And that is why the end of the game becomes so constrained. By the time you get the chance to play the fancy buildings in Round 3, much of the board can be closed off, and some buildings will be useless (including, most likely, any building that uses one of the two resources that didn’t start on the board – except in a two-player game, there’s virtually no incentive to play a building that needs one without knowing if you’ll get the chance to play the resource out, and no incentive to play the resource without knowing that you’ll get to play a relevant building), but you can still make plays for the ones that are open. By the end of Round 3, the big plays left are basically just the special buildings – the resources are probably all closed off at that point, and even if they aren’t the chances of you getting exactly the right building and then being able to connect it in without anyone cutting you off are virtually nil (I’ve seen others discussing not even being able to play the special buildings down, but I have not had a game where the board got that congested). This leaves plays as mostly grabbing a VP here or there by dropping a Garden next to an already-completed building, playing an industrial building just to grab the small immediate VP boost, or (usually) just playing the schemes that directly grant VP.

Ultimately, it kind of feels like the designer expected the players to approach the game in a different way, perhaps deliberately being more cooperative, so that the game would enter the second half with a more open network (the fact that one of the shadowmen’s faction objectives requires six of the eight resources – in a game that only starts with six on the board – lends itself to this hypothesis). I’ve just never seen that happen. Or maybe we’re wrong, and this endgame is exactly what the designer had in mind. Or maybe the groups of folks I play with are all just doing it wrong (I did go check with some other reviews and reports, and I don’t think it’s just us – but who really knows?). And I’d love if we were doing it wrong somehow, because then I’d have a more fun game sitting here to play! But that is how it kept breaking down for us, and it still felt kind of awkward to most of the players – you’re looking for some sort of climactic build-up, and instead the game feels like it just peters out. Maybe that’s irrational, and one should just be able to enjoy that final round as some sort of denouement, but then “fun” is arguably an irrational notion, and it’s hard to get around the unconscious desire for a certain flow of experience.

This is a shame, because the start of the game was quite promising. Well then, onto other matters …

The difficulty of the missions varied greatly and not necessarily in relation to how many VP they were worth. Some of them may be virtually unachievable in some games. The luck factor of whether you got “good” mission was frustrating to a couple of players. The faction abilities are less disparate, with all of them (except the shadowmen) being achievable. There was some disagreement among the various players and groups about how balanced the factions were, but they did not seem immediately unbalanced to my eye. It is true that, for example, the church’s goals are trivial to achieve (you just have to use your faction ability to drop chapels next to the harbor or the resources, depending on which side of the faction board you have). On the other hand, the church’s ability doesn’t do a lot beyond achieving its faction objective. Although I have to admit that at one of the shadowmen sides not only has a virtually impossible objective (six of the eight resources are used to score), but also has an ability that’s basically just getting a faction objective (you get to draw four and keep 3 mission cards to start the game, instead of 2/2).

So, in sum, Canalis presents a nice combination of mechanics that presents a brisk, fun and distinctive-feeling strategic experience for the first three-quarters of the game, and then seizes up in the final round and leaves me feeling disappointed by the time it’s done. So close! And if you think that fourth turn still sounds fun (or your group avoids the choked board position that my groups encountered), then it should be a real winner for you.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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