Board Game Review:  Thurn and Taxis

Over the past decade, European board games have revitalized the industry, offering games which reward strategic thinking and eliminate or at least reduce the importance of dice. Thurn and Taxis is by Andreas Seyfarth, author of the popular and successful Puerto Rico and San Juan. Seyfarth has a knack for engaging themes, and Thurn and Taxis borrows from the historical period of late 15th Century Germany during the formation of postal routes. While that may not sound like an interesting idea for a game, Seyfarth’s tried and true dynamics offer compelling gameplay with no dice.

Rio Grande Games emphasizes storytelling in its artwork, and here again Thurn and Taxis succeeds, featuring an attractive game board and colorful cards with wistful depictions of the major southern cities of Renaissance Germany. Those who have played Puerto Rico will not be surprised to see the game pieces are painted wood blocks representing houses where postal routes have been established. In a nod to the theme, instruction cards are printed in English on one side and in German on the other.

The modest genius of Thurn and Taxis lies in its simplicity. Players take turns drawing city cards, either from the current display of six face-up cards or from the top of the deck. The object is to collect strings of connected cities through which the postal routes are created. A route can begin and end in any city, so long as all cities along the route are connected by a unique road. There’s some luck involved; each of the 22 cities has only 3 cards, so you may not see the one city you need to complete your route when you need it. This dynamic reminds me of playing blackjack – if you’re good at counting cards you can optimize your route planning. The game ends when one player has placed all of his houses. The winner is the player with the most victory points, received by completing routes of various lengths and being among the first to serve all cities in the five geographic regions.

The strategy in the game comes from the actions of the four “Officials.” Officials include the Postmaster, who allows you to pick two city cards on a turn, the Administrator, who lets you discard the current display and replace them with six new cards from the deck, the Postal Carrier, who lets you place a second city card on your route, and the Cartwright, who gives you the point value of the next longer route. Unlike Seyfarth’s other games where players choose from the same pool of decisions, so that the first to play has the greater power to influence the course of a turn, Thurn and Taxis offers every player the full set of options, removing that competitive element. The game does not suffer for it, and my opinion is that the strategy is enhanced. Which Official you decide to use on a turn determines how efficient you will be at building routes and gaining victory points, and whether you win the game.

Competition comes from selecting cards or clearing the display when you see an opportunity to impede another player’s route. And it’s critical to be the first player to reach all cities in the geographic areas to collect the most victory points. Most importantly, not all cities are equally accessible, so players that select cities and create routes judiciously have better chances to succeed. Without giving too much away, a rule of thumb is to make shorter routes of the border cities, so you’re less likely to strand a postal carrier with no way to complete a route.

Gameplay is nuanced, but in general there are two strategies which carry the day. I won’t give them away but seasoned strategy board gamers will quickly seize on the road to victory. This might seem like a dagger against replay value, but when all players know the successful strategies the game actually gets more competitive because the decision of which Official to employ takes on heightened importance.

Thurn and Taxis has two expansions: Power and Glory, and All Roads Lead to Rome. Unless you’re the game owner that needs to purchase every edition of his favorite games, I would be hard pressed to recommend purchasing either expansion. One good reason to do so would be to get your copy before they are no longer available. While you can still get new copies of each through Amazon and other retailers, Rio Grande Games lists Thurn and Taxis as out of print.

Thurn and Taxis is for 2-4 players and takes about an hour to play. $25-$30 is a good price for this game.