Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Designed by Virginio Gigli and Flaminia Brasini, both co-designers of Lorenzo il Magnifico, Coimbra is a hot new title from Eggertspiele, part of the growing empire that also includes Next Move and Plan B Games.
The game actually takes its name from Portugal’s fourth largest city. The city of Coimbra rose to a position of some importance during Portugal’s ascendancy in the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th Centuries. It’s often forgotten in our Anglocentric view of the world but it was Portugal that largely led the rest of Europe in exploring the globe. Led by Henry the Navigator (the son of King Joao I, and, to give him some English context, first cousin of our Henry V), Portuguese expansion extended through large swathes of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and on eventually to Brazil, which is of course why Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country.
This is the setting of Coimbra the board game. That said, this isn’t an exploration game. Although there are expedition cards, these are essentially abstract devices that allow players to spend one or other of their two currencies in exchange for an end-game scoring bonus. Coimbra is in fact a dice drafting ‘worker placement’ style game. Players are each utilising the dice they draft to recruit personnel (cards) who, in the main, will help them to advance along the four influence tracks (political, merchants, clergy and university). The tracks each offer different victory point scoring potential for the player who advances the farthest. Players can also earn various bonuses (randomised each game) by sending their pilgrim to visit the many monasteries laid out on the map part of the board. To cap all this, there are set collection bonuses available for diplomas (found on the green academia cards).
In short, players are amassing influence across the four tracks, and accruing and spending coins and military strength (guards), the two currencies of the game, tracked on their individual player boards.
You will be drafting dice from those rolled collectively, you will be putting them into their castellated holders to show which dice ‘belong’ to which player, you will be placing the dice out on one of four city locations, and you will then be choosing the cards or tiles to buy. The dice you choose have two effects: one for the number and the other in relation to the colour. The dice colours correspond to the four influence tracks and will determine which tracks you will action for the purposes of drawing coins (orange), more guards (grey), pilgrim movement (purple) or victory points (green). The number on the die determines the order in which players take more character cards from the city: the highest number placed will get first choice, but that number is also what they will have to pay to take that card. The character cards give immediate or deferred benefits and may well contribute to end-game scoring, and each card specifies whether its cost must be paid in coin or guards.
Coimbra is best played with its full complement of four players. For it to be played with two or three, players have to compete with dummy dice (tiles representing a dummy player’s dice) which have the effect of limiting or making it harder to benefit from placing out dice at a particular location (the dummy will always take the card with the highest influence value, or the one furthest to the left in the event that two or more cards have the same value).
Players have a lot of information to take in as they evaluate the relative merits of all 12 of the character cards on offer and the alternative benefits for foregoing a character card and instead placing a die in the castle (where lower value dice have the advantage). Analysis paralysis is mitigated by the fact that players can peruse the cards on offer and contemplate their actions while others are taking their turns. Nevertheless, you will still find it initially slow going while players acclimatise themselves to the not entirely transparent card and tile iconography. You will find that the game speeds up once players are familiar with the iconography so experienced players can expect a game (which lasts four rounds) to be completed in a little over an hour.
Aside from Coimbra’s visual appeal, you’ll be impressed with the careful balance maintained between the various point scoring elements. It means that this is a game with no single killer strategy. The points for topping the most valuable influence tracks can prove to be decisive but the game rewards players for not just giving up on tracks on which they have fallen behind. Even in a two player game, there is worthwhile points bonus awarded for coming second in a track, provided that player finishes within three steps of the winner.
Other than competing for first choice of the available cards (and players may well not actually be chasing the same cards) - and with the exception of a few of the character cards that come out mainly in the last round - you will mainly be focused on maximising your own progress: Coimbra isn’t a ‘take that’ game where players are attacking or sabotaging each other. Players don’t block each other’s pilgrims on the map, and the monastery bonuses are open to all whose pilgrims reach them, not just the first player to arrive. Likewise, investing in a voyage doesn’t block any other players from investing in that same voyage and reaping the same end-game reward. In many respects, the array and close balance of different point-scoring opportunities mirrors other euro games like Alexander Pfister’s Mombasa (one of our favourites), but Coimbra is notably less confrontational. Some will view that as a negative, but we found it a big plus, allowing players to focus primarily on developing their own point-scoring engines without having to worry unduly about other players upsetting their careful plans. Just occasionally, however, you’ll find an opponent grabbing a card that is of only modest benefit to them because they know it will give a huge benefit to you if they leave it for you to pick up.
Coimbra is a very well designed game that’s easy to play once you have mastered the iconography. The array of choices mean that it is a step up from the average ‘gateway’ game, but Coimbra is appealing and accessible enough to work as an introduction to more complex euro games. (Review by Selwyn Ward)