Rococo was one of two runners-up to Istanbul for the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres prize, given to the best advanced or “connoisseur’s” game of the year, a complex strategy game that moves fairly quickly but has so many different ways to score that the handful of decisions players have are both involved and critical to the outcome.
Rococo’s theme is a new one in my experience: Players represent owners of dressmaking firms in 18th or 19th century Europe, starting with five employees apiece, and must collect the raw materials to make dresses and suits for partygoers, choosing either to sell them or to “rent” them by placing the completed tokens in one of the five halls on the board. Different employees can undertake different tasks, and each employee card has a second bonus action to be executed after the employee’s main action.
The three employee types are the Master, who can take any action; the Journeyman, who can do anything but hire another employee; and the Apprentice, who can only take fabric, “depute” an employee, or fund a decoration on the board. Players have six options for their main actions: buying one of nine (in a 2-3 player game) or twelve (in a 4-5 player game) fabric tiles from the warehouse on the board; making a dress, then selling or renting it; hiring one of the four employees available on the side of the board in that round; deputing one of his/her existing employees, taking a small fee in exchange for sending that employee to a better place; asking for the queen’s favor, making that player the start player in the next round while gaining a 5-coin bonus; or buying a decoration somewhere on the board, most of which are worth point bonuses at the end of the game, some significant.
Rococo has a deckbuilding element to it, even though player decks never get very fat. Each player starts the game with those five employee cards, and may add to it or delete from it as the game goes on. In any single turn, a player chooses (not draws) three cards from his/her unplayed deck to be his/her hand for that round. If the unplayed deck contains fewer than three cards, the player chooses cards from his discard pile to get his hand up to three cards. If the player uses a Master card to hire a new employee, that employee goes right into the player’s hand, so it’s possible to have four or even five cards (and thus turns) within a single round. That means players will get between 21 and maybe 25 turns in total for the entire game.
Once every player has used all of his/her cards for the round, each player receives a base income of 5 coins plus any bonuses tied to the Fountain decoration—some for having dresses placed on the board, some for decorations already purchased. In my experience playing Rococo, I found getting some source of increased income to be vital to competing.
To complete a dress or outfit, players must match the specific fabric requirements on the dress’ or outfit’s token. Each token shows several bolts of fabric in one or two colors (red, green, yellow, and the rarer blue), as well as up to two icons showing lace or thread. Some outfits or dresses have a golden thimble, indicating that they can only be made by a master, not a journeyman. Players acquire fabric, lace or thread from the warehouse, taking one tile for a fee of zero to two coins and then choosing either the fabric bolts shown on the tile or the lace and/or thread shown on it, but not both the fabric and the lace/thread. A player may only take a dress/outfit token when s/he has the resources required to make it, and selects the token from a shifting queue (found in many games today, such as Concordia and Morels) where the two tokens at the end are free and their costs rise by about a token per space from the end of the line.
The scoring for the placement of rental gowns comes straight from Spiel des Jahres winner Zooloretto: You get points for having the most dresses/outfits in any particular hall, and in a game with three or more players, there’s a smaller bonus for the player with the second-most dresses. There’s a separate bonus for having at least one outfit placed in all five halls as well. Decorations placed on one of two levels of the fountain grant the player an extra coin of income each round for every dress s/he already has rented out and placed on the board. (Dresses that a player sells are removed from the game.)
Players also score points related to other decorations, and that’s where the scoring starts to get complicated, perhaps a bit too much so. Players receive two to five points for each dress placed on the board, plus the aforementioned Hall bonuses. If a player has purchased one of the spaces on the Statue, s/he gets a bonus of up to eight points for one complete set of dresses (or outfits—they are mostly equivalent in this game), meaning one in each of the four colors, with a partial bonus of two per color if the set is incomplete. A decoration on the Terrace means the player can move one dress to that level to watch the fireworks, earning twice or three times the normal bonus for that particular token. And the last round of employees includes cards with game-end bonuses in lieu of a typical bonus action; one card gives two points for each outfit-dress pair the player has on the board (that is, two times the lesser number of the player’s outfits or dresses).
Any game with this many ways to score yet with relatively few moves available during the game is going to end up complex because of the enormity of the player’s decision tree. The specific mechanics of Rococo are simple; the strategy is not, and its strategic complexity has a steep learning curve—you have to play this a number of times, probably more than I’ve played it, to get a good mental grasp on how best to allocate your turns toward the different scoring avenues.
Rococo is an hour-plus game, 90 minutes for three players, and I’m guessing two hours for a five-player ordeal. The artwork is fantastic, with a lot of detail in the drawings and plenty of bright colors—an underrated quality in the complex strategy genre where you spend a lot of time staring at little pieces on a giant board. My eight-year-old had no problem with the game’s mechanics but I had to guide her through the decorations as they related to scoring, because the diversity of ways to rack up points was too confusing. I’d recommend it more for fans of games like Agricola or Le Havre than for fans of the slightly lighter-weight Istanbul, the game that defeated Rococo for the game of the year.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.