Dock of the Bay – Die Speicherstadt review

Looking through the big list of reviews that we’ve had on the LMDS site over the past couple of years (because yes, we’re coming up on our second birthday), it strikes me that there’s comparitively few Euros there. That’s gives me a bit of a disconnect because I actually really like Eurogames, despite the fact I’m not the best at them. I like a bit of chaos in my games, sure, but sometimes the you get an itch for pure information that just needs to be scratched. Unfortunately, the people I play with the most prefer stuff with a little more confrontation so convincing them to push cubes about requires something a bit special.

If you’re looking for a great Euro, there’s a name that’s quickly becoming one to look for: Stefan Feld. He’s responsible for the Essen 2011 release Trajan, the excellent Die Burgen von Burgund and much more including the subject of today’s review: Die Speicherstadt. Based on a real area of docks found in Hamburg at the beginning of the 1900s, the objective for players is to complete contracts to score points, the winner (as you’d expect) being the person who scores the highest after the game ends.

The year is represented by a deck of cards that contains the aforementioned contracts as well as various other useful things. These include buildings that potentially bestow bonus points, extra cash and the ability to deal with fires – more on that in a minute. It’s not so easy as just grabbing that cards you desire though… first of all, you’re going to need to bid on them in an auction with a difference. Each player has three meeples at their disposal, each of which must be placed on the board where the currently available cards are dealt out. Above each card lies a row of spaces where your minions are placed, but how do you know how much to pay?

What's in the box? Well, lots actually...

Well, therein lies the “different” aspect. The cost of a card is determined by how many little wooden guys there are lining up to take it, so three meeples will mean it’ll cost you three coins. However, there’s a twist; if you can’t afford the card you must retrieve your meeple immediately, knocking the price of the card down by one. It’s such a simple concept but so full of opportunities to mess with other players… If you can see that someone is desperately in need of a certain card, you’re perfectly within your rights to put as many of your guys down for it, bumping up the price dramatically – and the best thing is you don’t even have to buy it! You can just do it to be mean!

After each round, the cards are discarded and a new set are dealt out. Once the second of the game’s four phases kicks in, ship cards start to appear from the deck containing the necessary elements to complete the contracts you’re collecting. Resources can also be sold (assuming you’ve bought the trader who’ll accept that specific one) or exchanged at a frankly terrible rate for stuff that you need, but you’ll need some careful planning to ensure that nothing you collect goes to waste. At the end of each round you’re only allowed to keep one cube maximum (unless you’ve bought a warehouse) so keep your eyes on what’s happening at all times.

Prudent play should hopefully see you collecting exactly what you need, completing those lucrative contracts and getting points… but then you’ve also got to deal with the problem of fire. Seemingly it was quite an issue in Hamburg’s docks (so much so that it’s quite an important aspect of the game!) but thankfully you can mitigate against the destructive power of the flames. Firemen cards are dotted all the way through the deck with increasing values, and when a fire card is revealed the game pauses briefly to deal with the flames. Players must total up the values of all their firemen; the highest number gains bonus points as marked on the fire card while the lowest is penalised by the same amount. Good management of your firemen can mean the difference between winning and losing – yet another thing you need to balance while playing Die Speicherstadt.

A few examples of contracts, showing the five resources: Cotton, Spices, Tea, Coffee and Silk. Let's go make some money!

A game of this is an exercise in making sure all your bases are covered. Money is always in short supply so you’ve got to ensure that you don’t run out, but you’ve also got to be ready to pay through the nose should a vital card appear on the board. Wasteful play will always come back and bite you too; sure, a couple of cubes discarded through a game may be fine, but if you find you’re near-constantly getting rid of resources you’re on a fast track to losing. Yet despite that fact you need to always be paying attention and it can feel a little like a workout for your brain, Die Speicherstadt is a great game to introduce to players who are relatively new to the hobby. It shows how different (and tricky!) designer games can be but is never cruel or punishing. It’s got a gloriously straightforward set of rules that all levels of players will pick up quickly – seriously, after only a round or two even the most inexperienced gamer will have a handle on exactly what to do.

The whole game has been beautifully produced, as you’d expect. Artwork throughout is lovely though far from exciting – after all, it’s set in the Hamburg docks – but it straddles the line between functional and pretty quite well. The money tokens are good and thick (useful considering they get handled a lot) and the first player token is a properly minted coin; very satisfying to tap on the table and annoy your opponents!

All told, I heartily recommend Die Speicherstadt. Games are done quickly with a play time of around 45 minutes – even with a maximum of five players – and it offers a challenge to people who’ve been playing games for years while not alienating folks who are newer to the hobby. If you’re looking for something a little different from your games that will require a bit more though than normal (but not too much!) this should definitely be on your list.

Die Speicherstadt was designed by Stefan Feld and released in 2010 by eggertspiel. The English language version (just switch Die for The) is available through Z-Man Games and will cost you around £25 / US$30.  Enjoy!

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