Kickstarter’s sewage flow of dungeon crawling steampunk space marine versus Nazi Cthulhu zombies continues to beg money out of the hobby, Ameritrash is dead and El Grande- one of the best games ever published- is out of print. If you’re not on the mill for one of the expansion-based product lines, you’re behind the curve. Sure, there might be a new Uwe Rosenberg game, but how many times do you need to make cubes of one color turn into cubes of another? Welcome to board gaming circa 2014, where the Cult of the New rat race is at a fever pitch and more and more, the grand history of hobby games is slipping into the past as the scramble is on for next week’s game night sensation. There has never been a better time to drop out, to give the middle finger to the endless streams of detritus flooding the market today, and to get back to playing great vintage games- including those great German family games and Eurogame designs that got unfairly tossed out when everybody got excited about anything with plastic gumball machine figures in the box back during the mid-2000s.
So here is your introduction to my new ongoing series, the Eurogames Reclamation Project. Over the past several months, I’ve been trading and buying my way into some games that I played, enjoyed and passed on before boardgamegeek.com was even a twinkle in Scott Alden’s eye. I’ve been discovering that classic Eurogames- I’m not talking about the funless, post-Princes of Florence style of game that favors following the rules correctly over player interaction and competition- are disappearing from print and are really kind of regarded as past their prime. It’s the exact same situation that classic Ameritrash games were in ten years ago. And just like games that had been shunted off as “old” back then, titles like Fury of Dracula and Dungeonquest, these games are well worth rediscovering in a contemporary context. For my part, I’ve been finding that I actually appreciate some of these games more than I did when I originally played them as far back as almost 20 years ago.
Klaus Teuber’s Adel Verpflichtet makes for a great inaugural title to take a look for the Eurogames Reclamation Project because, as they say, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore. It was also, in 1990, one of the first big Eurogames released in an English version the United States- and by venerable wargames/Ameritrash publisher Avalon Hill, no less. Originally published in Europe by FX Schmidt, Adel Verpflichtet has been in and out of print in various versions and under different titles (“By Hook or By Crook”, “By Fair Means or Foul” and the rather unfortunate “Hoity Toity”) but it is currently unavailable. Which is unfortunate, because this game rules.
It’s also a critically acclaimed game, having won Mr. Teuber a Spiel Des Jahres six years before he would win the prize for his far more widely known Settlers of Catan. Those looking for similarities with Catan might be somewhat disappointed because Adel isn’t anything like it. In fact, Adel isn’t really like anything else before it or after it on the timeline of game designs.
The setup is that the players represent wealthy antiques collectors playing a game of collectors’ one-upmanship, vying to procure and exhibit the biggest or oldest range of artifacts at various castles. The goal is to sally forth from the parlor room at the start of a track and wind up at the best (furthest) seat at the society dinner that ends the game. The kicker is that these “gentlemen” don’t just acquire these fine collections of pipes, celebrity memorabilia, porcelain and other collectibles at the auction house. They also employ some bad guys to do some dirty work. And detectives to catch said bad guys.
The game is dead simple, and it moves at an almost disarmingly fast pace. There is no downtime, and players are constantly doing something. Each turn, players select two cards in secret. The first determines if they will go to the Auction House or visit the current castle. The second card determines what action the player will take at the location.
The second card played at the Auction House might be a check, which will be used to buy one of two displayed antiques provided that the player has played the highest value check. Or, the player visiting the Auction house might play a Thief card and steal the paid check out of the till. The third option is for a player to anticipate another playing a Thief and put down a Detective to lock the bagman up. There’s a jail track on the board that holds the caught Thieves until the cells fill up and the longest serving criminal gets paroled.
At the castle, players will have either selected to put on an exhibit of their collection, a Thief or a Detective. Putting on a exhibit is how you win the game, so it’s pretty important to do so frequently. During an exhibit, all players secretly select three or more antique cards from their collection. Each has a letter, A-F, and a legitimate collection for show is one that has three of the same or consecutive letters. Everybody reveals their collections, and whoever shows the most items gets to advance their marker a number of spaces along the track according to values on the castle where the current leader is located. Ties are broken by whoever showed the collection with the oldest item.
But here’s one of the places where the game gets really interesting. Showing an exhibit exposes what you have. And if one or more players has played a Thief card, then they get to poach items directly out of what the exhibiting players have shown. So showing items puts you very directly at risk, particularly since a smart Thief can pick items out of your collection that break up a letter sequence. Showing your full hand of collectibles can wind up being a serious liability, but you might need to in order to get yourself back into the race. You might skirt by showing a minimum exhibit when no one else has selected that action, but on the next turn there might be some crooks headed to the castle to keep you in check.
So there’s plenty of guessing, blind-bidding, bluffing, double-guessing and hilarious turns of events. It’s a pretty consistent 45 minutes in my experience, even playing with five, and that is just about right for the depth of the game and its content. The rules- even in the Avalon Hill edition- can be explained in about three minutes and the strategies are easily grasped by the second or third turn. Anyone can play this game, provided they value fun and interaction over process and cold mechanics. It’s such a lively, fast-paced game that it almost moves too quick to complain about anything.
But there are a couple of oddities. That business about using the Thieves to keep players in check may actually be a little too crucial. If someone manages to accrue a bigger exhibition than anyone else, they can pretty much roll the other players if action isn’t taken and their showcase isn’t properly pilfered. There is no income in the game, only the check cards, and the only way to get more is to steal out of the Auction House till. Which you can’t do if your thieves are all locked up. And since it’s a short game that can be potentially devastating if other players aren’t getting busted. It also definitely feels less good with less than four players. The 2004 Uberplay edition (the Hoity Toity one) supports six players and that’s great, but the game was really designed for five and seems to be made for that number.
Like a lot of out-of-print Eurogames, prices are all over the place for Adel Verpflichtet these days. I’ve seen them range from $25 to $80, with the Avalon Hill edition seeming to fall on the lower end and the Uberplay printing on the higher end, likely due to the sixth player addition. The Alea version can also fetch a little more from folks because it was released as part of their numbered line, which included Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico among other titles in the early 2000s. But the components and artwork are only slightly updated from the FX Schmidt/Avalon Hill versions. There are, however, at least two Avalon Hill editions, one of which had those terrible perforated punch-out cards for the antiques. Strangely, at least in the edition I have, the antique cards are also not translated from German. Regardless, those looking for a copy should feel comfortable picking up any available edition, preferably purchased at an antiques shop or an estate sale as would be thematically proper.
By the way, it’s pronounced (according to the Avalon Hill box) “a-dell fair-fleesh-tet”. Which is still better than anything pronounced “hoity toity”.