The Pied Piper is one of those stories that I've heard time and time again, in various media and styles - but with essentially the same plot each time. When I heard that the Lamont brothers were designing their yearly game about this story - I was quite interested, considering the surprise success of their first two games - Leapfrog and Shear Panic. Initial reports talked about how integrated the theme was with the game; and when I first opened the box, I was once again absolutely astounded at the incredible components included.
My thoughts on the game, however, are a bit mixed. There is no doubt in my mind that it is very thematic (with one odd exception) with great bits and unique mechanics. However, at some points it did feel a bit clunky, and I occasionally felt like my options were forced. That being said, I did enjoy the game - it just felt like it could have been polished a bit more, to avoid points where I was compelled to take an action simply to survive. The male/female aspects are often humorous, and the game certainly does put players in forced partnerships, which is rather intriguing.
The board includes a scoring track, an influence track, a turn order track, and a buying of influence track! It also shows the city of Hameln, divided into four neighborhoods - each made up of several houses. Each neighborhood has a matching "Pied Piper" space, and the Pied Piper is placed on the "yellow" neigborhood's space. Several "King Rats" are placed on the board (four or five - depending on players), and four blue boy cubes and four pink girl cubes are placed in a cloth bag. Six of the middle houses on the board show a number "3" on them to indicate rat activity - counters are shuffled and placed on the rest of the houses randomly (ranging from "1" to "3"). Players take piles of family members ("meeples") of their color and also receive one red "meat" cube (the rest of the cubes are placed in the market place, along with yellow cheese cubes, white ale cubes, and brown bread cubes.) A pile of rat trap tokens (ranging from "1" to "3") is placed in piles near the board, and a cat is placed on the board. Players place tokens on each of the tracks, and then place two of their meeples on the board, in player order. Each house contains one male space and one female space, and a player can only ever have a meeple in one or the other. Finally, piles of small rat counters and florins are placed near the board. Whew! The game then begins, with one player chosen to go first.
On a player's turn, they must do one of the following actions:
- Use male influence. The player activates one or more houses where they have a male meeple. For each of these, they gain a cube that matches the one shown on that house from the supply. Some houses show a florin and award that instead of a cube. The player who controls the female meeple of the house then either prepares one of their children to marry, or gains a florin (if the correct house).
- Use female influence. The player activates one or more houses where they have a female meeple. This allows them to prepare a child to marry, which causes them to remove a cube from the bag - placing one of their meeples on the matching half of the church hall (male or female). If the player instead activates a house with a florin, they take a coin instead. Again, the player with the matching male meeple(s) takes the corresponding male action as explained above.
- Sell goods. The player may sell as many of their produce goods as they want for money. Meat is worth four florins, ale - three, cheese - two, and bread - one. Players may alternatively take a random rat trap token per resource cube.
- Marry and move into a house: The player may marry one of their children in the church, but there must be a player's meeple available of the opposite gender in the church also. When this happens, the two happy meeples are placed in any empty house on the board, with the cost of that house being paid with florins to the bank. Some houses give an immediate boost to the players' influence track.
Whenever a player uses the male or female action, rat activity occurs. Rats equal to the number of rat activity on the house are placed on small white circles that border the house (many of these circles border two houses). If all the white circles are filled, the player discards the rest of the rat tokens and places a "king rat" token on the house. This house can no longer be activated until one or more of the small rats are removed, getting rid of the king rat.
After the compulsory action, a player may take one of the following optional actions:
- Buy the cat. The player can pay the bank four florins and place the cat figure in front of them, taking it from another player if necessary (that player is rewarded with one florin if this occurs). When a player buys the cat, they may remove one rat token from the board.
- Buy influence. The player looks at the influence track and pays the amount indicated, receiving the influence. The marker on this track is then moved (on a circular path), changing the pay/influence ratio for the next player.
- Bribe the Pied Piper. The player may place money on one of the four Pied Piper spaces. The Pied Piper always moves to the space that has the highest amount of money on it.
The game continues until all of the king rats have been placed on houses. At this point, the Pied Piper removes all the rat tokens from the neighborhood he is currently in, including rat tokens that may border two neighborhoods - also removing all king rats from the board. Each player who has children in the church must then either pay the Piper one to three florins for each of the children (price varies on the neighborhood the Piper is in) or place their children on the first available space on the road to Transylvania (these spaces are all worth negative points). The Pied Piper then moves to the neighborhood with the second highest amount of money, or clockwise if no other money is on a neighborhood. More king rats are prepared (the number changes for each round), and the next round begins. Player turn order is determined by the influence track.
After the third round, scoring occurs. Points are earned from a variety of things, including one point for having the cat, and one point for being the player to finish the game. The player with the highest total value of rat traps scores three points (one for second place), and the players with the most influence score three, two, or one points (top three only). Most money gets players "5", "3", or "1" point, and players score points for each house in which they have a family member equal to the cost of that house, but ONLY if the house is not overrun by rats. Finally, negative points are scored for the children on their way to Transylvania, and the player with the most points is the winner, with ties broken by the influence track.
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: On this account, Hameln really shines - with a box that is really brimming with wonderful components. There are piles of wooden meeples that look as if they were lifted from Carcassonne, and the rat influence markers and rat trap tokens are wooden discs with numbers printed on them. Piles of colored cubes are used for resources and the kid cubes in the bag, plastic chips are used for the money, and black wooden discs are used for the rats. I have the components split between ten bags in the box, and that doesn't include the smaller box that holds the six king rat figures, the emperor rat (which is the same as a regular king rat - and is only used to signal the end of the game), the cat, and the hideous Pied Piper. These figures, which will be familiar to those who played Shear Panic, are wonderful, adding theme and high quality to the game - almost looking like Christmas ornaments. My only problem with the components is that it takes a while to set up the game - something that can be a bit fiddly since the game itself only takes about ninety minutes or less. The amount of components can also be slightly overwhelming to new players.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is in full color, with many illustrations, and takes fifteen pages to explain the rules (although a lot of that is simply setup time). It does a good job going over everything, although you really don't know what's going on until the end. I found that it takes a while to explain the game to new players, and they often have to play through an entire round before they completely understand.
3.) Theme: I really enjoy the game, and the amount of eye candy included certainly helps bring the ancient story to life. The male/female dichotomy is certainly well realized, and the cat/rat/pipers all work together in thematic harmony. One glaring problem for me, however, was the rat traps. If they kept in harmony with the rest of the game's theme, than they should have something to do with the elimination of the rats. However, they instead have something to do with points at the end - which confuses every single person I've taught so far - and I question the naming of them. Other than that - I find the theme a major selling point of the game.
4.) Men and Women: The game quickly points out that its gender stereotypes are a result of the culture of the 13th century, and the reasons are quite clear. The men have to pay for new houses, while the women are the only way for a player to get new folk for population purposes. This does lead to one problem - a large influx of women can almost destroy a player, simply due to large amounts of childbearing. I almost think the game would be better if the parents could pick which gender the child was (even though that's not at all thematic), because sometimes the random draw can be devastating. I played a game in which I had tons of daughters, which continued to have more and more children - sort of a chain reaction. This kept me from getting all of the kids married off - and sent off to follow the piper and lose quite a few points. Still, I do enjoy the marriages and the forcing of players to work in alliances. It's an interesting mechanic - one that I haven't seen before, and it works fairly well.
5.) Strategy: With a large variety of ways to score points at the end of the game, I really haven't figured out the best way to strategize for certain victory in the game. Getting a lot of money is certainly useful, but the largest amount of points comes from houses that are not overrun by rats. This makes the Pied Piper immensely valuable in the final round of the game, as he will clear one entire section of rats - and this will score a lot of points for the players there. The forced marriages cause players to score points along with others - which then puts an emphasis on having kids to populate these houses. Having too many kids results in them running away to Lala Land and losing massive points, so it's interesting to see how everything works together.
6.) Fun Factor: The colorful bits and enjoyable theme pull me right into the game - it has traces of the humor that the Lamont brothers inject into their games. Yet I do not find it to be too gripping, despite all of the nice trappings, because I occasionally feel as if the game is playing me, or that the other players (and luck) change what happens between turns so much that I can't keep a clear strategy. This isn't to say that tactics don't come into play during the game - just that I felt I had less control than I wanted to. The game is fairly short (coming within seventy minutes or so) and covers up to five players, which seems to be the optimal number. We had fun talking about the marriages and the fact that I consistently had girls (like real life!), and that made the game more fun; but it was a bit overwhelming for new players, with no payoff of strategy at the end.
I think that's my main problem with Hameln; it doesn't really seem to have a target group. The heavy gamers are going to be slightly dissatisfied with the high rate of luck in the game, and newcomers are going to be overwhelmed with the massive amount of pieces and ways to score points. It's a bright, cheerful game that seems to hide more potential than is really there. I enjoyed the game but felt that I should have gotten a bigger "kick" out of it than I did. To those interested, I would recommend trying it out once and seeing if the theme, bits, and interesting mechanics are enough to draw you in.
"Real men play board games"