After taking the base game of Fresco around the block a few times, we got the chance to add the three extra modules that come with the game, and it seems pretty clear that aside from games in which we might be teaching new players, the modules are going to be a part of any future games we play. The modules don’t really change the game in any significant way, they just add a few twists that generally increase scoring, and provide you with a few more things to think about as you ponder possibilities on your turn.
Fresco is a worker placement game, basically, in which, on your turn, you will be choosing from among five different activities in which you may participate. Players choose their turn activities in secret and when all is revealed, they will execute the chosen activities in a pre-determined turn order. The activities are performed in a certain order, as well, such that you need to plan ahead for their execution. You don’t want, as an example, to be ‘blending paints’ to use for the purpose of restoring a fresco tile during a round of play, because your opportunity to restore that tile will occur prior to your chance at blending paints. You’ll tend, in many cases, to perform actions in one round with the idea that you’ll benefit from them in a subsequent round. Not always, but often.
The theme is the restoration of a cathedral ceiling, which is laid out on your board and represented by 25 cardboard tiles. Each tile bears a certain number of victory points you will obtain for ‘restoring’ it. Each one necessitates ownership of a certain combination of paints to restore – two red and a blue, for example, or an orange, green and purple. There are, in the base game, five different colors in the form of wooden cubes; the primary colors – red, blue and yellow, and three blended colors – orange (red & yellow), green (yellow & blue) and purple (red & blue). You start the game with one each of the three primary colors. Generally, the higher number of victory points on a tile you wish to restore, the more difficult the combination of paints will be necessary to restore it. In the base game, there are tiles ranging from 3 to 11 points available. One of the expansion modules increases points available on seven of the 25 tiles to 13 to 24.
There are two different considerations at work that determine turn order. The first, once the game gets underway, is your position on the scoring track; last will go first, etc. At the start, you’ll draw a colored player pawn from a black bag to determine the turn order. Once this is done, players will then determine who takes actions first by selecting a time of day that they wish to arise; anywhere from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. (five possibilities). The player who gets to make this decision first might choose to arise first at 5 a.m., but maybe not. There are considerations to take into account.
The earliest riser once all selections have been made may get to execute actions first, but he/she will pay more in the market for paints, while his ‘mood’ might lead to less apprentices available for his use (or more, if he’s in a better mood). If you get up at five, you’ll pay four dollars (thalers, in the parlance of the game) for paints in the market, and see your mood drop by three spaces on the mood track. If you get up at 9 a.m., you’ll be going last when it comes to actions, but you’ll only pay one thaler for paints in the market and see your mood improve by a space on the mood track. At the extremes of the mood track, you will either get an extra apprentice to work with (giving you the ability to perform an extra action) or lose one (giving you one less action than everybody else).
There are 15 spaces on your personal ‘action’ board; five different actions times the possibility of placing three apprentices (you start with a base of five) in any of the five action columns. You can choose to go to the market to buy paints (you’ll probably do this in virtually every round). You can actually use paints you’ve accumulated to restore a fresco tile and score the appropriate victory points. You can paint portraits, which is essentially a way of earning money. You can blend paints, which is a means by which you can exchange paints in your possession for necessary blends (trade a yellow and blue paint cube for a green cube), or you can improve your mood; adjust your position on the mood track. Bear in mind that actions will be executed in exactly this order; buy, restore, get money, blend, improve mood.
Depending on the number of players, there will be between nine and 13 tiles available for purchase in the market. These tiles display either individual or multiple colors; three blue, for example, or one blue and yellow, or a single orange. These tiles are arranged in an array of market booths (three in a three-player game, four in a four-player game) and on a player’s turn, he/she will select one booth from which they may purchase as many tiles as the commitment of their apprentices to that activity allows. In each round of play, these market tiles are scrambled in a black cloth bag and randomly drawn to take their place in the market booths.
And that’s about it. Based on your position on the scoring track, you select a time to arise. After choices in this regard have been made, you distribute your apprentices among the five action choices available, and then, in the turn order based on your wake-up time (earliest goes first), you perform your actions. There is, by the way, a white bishop pawn on the board, which can be moved on the board prior to restoring a fresco tile. If the bishop is on the fresco tile you’re restoring, you add three points to those available on the tile. If the bishop is adjacent to a tile you’re restoring, you get two extra victory points. Proceed until there are six or less tiles on the board, and when the next round is completed, the game is over.
Fresco was a nominee for both the 2010 Spiel des Jahres, and International Gamers Award. It won the 2010 Deutscher Spiele Preis award, just ahead of Vasco Da Gama and World Without End (see links below for Examiner reviews of these two). It’s been rated over 1,000 times on BoardGameGeek, where it maintains a healthy 7.52 average, making it #155 on the overall board game ranking list, #77 on the strategy game ranking and just out of the top ten (#11) in the family game ranking.
My personal ranking would be a little higher than the average. It gets a share of extra points for its rules, which I was able to decipher and then successfully teach to others, with little more than the occasional reference to the rules to clarify specific points. It sits on the fence of being a gateway game. It might, as one BoardGameGeek commentator noted, be the first game you introduce after you’ve gotten a more user-friendly gateway game to the table. That said, it is more of a gateway game without its expansion modules than with them. Introducing the game to newcomers might work better without them, but that would depend on the general gaming comfort zone of your newcomers. If you’re bringing it to the table for people who’ve been playing other complex systems, toss the expansion modules in right at the start. As noted early on, they tend to broaden your decision tree on a turn-by-turn basis, and thus, add a little complexity to the process, without overly complicating the game itself or injecting any significant analysis-paralysis. This’ll happen, on occasion, and more so with the expansions because you have to analyze what you’ve got and use the information to make some decisions; some people (like me) can take a little longer to do this sort of thing than others.
Fresco is designed by Wolfgang Panning, Marco Ruskowski, and Marcel Subelbeck, with artwork by Oliver Schlemmer, and published by Queen Games. It features a two-player variant, that includes a ghost player (Leonardo DaVinci), but is generally better (IMHO) with three or four players. It is recommended for ages 10 and up, and can be played, explanations and any analysis-paralysis issues aside, in about an hour. It retails for around $40.