First, I may have to disappoint you. If you are expecting a game themed around a performing arts venue in Chalk Farm in North London, you had best look away now. This is not a game about staging rock concert gigs. The Round House in this game from publishers EmperorS4 is a Ming Dynasty Chinese village multi-family home. I hadn’t previously heard of them before either but, as the rules explain, this style of communal dwelling was unique to the Hakka people in the southeastern Fujian province of China in the 17th Century. The proper name for the round houses is tulou; tho’ that’s information that is probably only useful to Scrabble players.
That Round House rondel looks like it could get quite crowded…
Round House is a game that was initially released at last year’s Essen Spiel. It is a medium-to-heavy weight euro game. It involves worker placement and is played, as the title suggests, on a rondel – or, rather, two rondels (an inner and outer circle). Players move their leader pawns to different rooms as they progress clockwise around the Round House and they take the actions indicated in each room. Each turn, they can move a leader a distance of up to three rooms; more, if they leap over rooms that are already occupied (blocked).
Players each control a clan in the Round House and they are seeking to earn prestige for their family. They do this by taking various trading, recruitment and set collection actions.
If you’ve never played a game using a rondel. then you’ll initially be attracted here by the novelty value. Even for those who have played other rondel games – including Imperial 2030 and Navegador (both by Concordia designer Mac Gerdts) – you’ll find Round House quite a different experience. In, for example, Imperial 2030, the rondel functions solely as a means of selecting players’ actions across a world map, whereas in Round House the rondel itself forms most of the playing area of the game. In other rondel-based games like Navegador, players can share positions on the rondel. That’s very much not the case in Round House, where getting to a location ahead of and denying it to an opponent is a key element of play.
Round House plays up to five, and it’s a game where you will probably find you are blocking your opponents and they will be blocking you at particular locations. That’s the main interaction between players and it’s definitely going to be par for the course when you play this with four or five. It wouldn’t naturally follow, however, with just two players. For that reason, the two-player game is offered as a variant where players are required additionally to move pieces for non-player families. This is so the roundels get as busy and full as when playing with a full complement. This works but it is inevitably something of a compromise: you’ll enjoy this game more with more players. If you were to try playing it with two players without a dummy player, however, you would find it quite a sterile points collection jamboree with almost no interaction between the players.
Don’t be put off by the notion of locations being blocked off. Round House is a game where you will find yourself spoiled for choice of productive locations to go to. Though of course it can be annoying to have a desirable location blocked, this is more likely just to redirect your choices that turn than to wholly frustrate any strategy you may have in mind. In fact, blocking will be likely to open up still more choices because it will extend the distance your leader pawn can travel (remember, you leapfrog over blocked rooms). With an inner and outer roundel, that means each room blocked could potentially open up two more options of rooms that can be visited. Round House is a cornucopia of point scoring options: this is a game where you’ll always find lots of different ways to score points.
So how do I score points in Round House? You’ll be spoilt for choice!
Players start with an order to be fulfilled. Order cards cost resources to fulfil but they yield prestige points at the end of the game and they each have a once-per-turn in-game beneficial effect. Order cards are among the many randomised elements in game set up. Others include the cards representing experts who can be recruited to a family, amulets and the modular elements that make up the outer rondel, not all of which are used in each game. This variable set up means that no two plays of Round House will ever be quite the same: a big plus for replayability.
Some of the experts give permanent benefits that last throughout the game but others are one-time use only. Some single-use cards are discarded after use but others are retained to be used to score in set collection. Prestige points can also be scored for collecting the bonuses available to those who ‘worship’ – a compulsory action at the end of each completed circuit of the rondel. Players will be putting out ‘assistant’ pieces as a secondary action at the room locations they visit because these can be called back to join the leader at the temple, where they will contribute to the player’s points score.
There is a lot going on in Round House and it will take you a while to absorb all the rules and to get the game underway. Once players are familiar with the game, however, Round House has the potential to play quite quickly. Be warned though: like Concordia, this is a game where you will almost always be choosing between an array of very desirable options: just on the rondels, there will usually be six different rooms you can choose to visit with each of your leader pawns, and within the rooms themselves you will be making further choices over which action to take. That could potentially mean a long downtime if you are playing with four or five and one or more of your opponents is prone to analysis paralysis (AP)…
I enjoyed the game playing it fast with a group where all of us made our moves quite quickly. I enjoyed it notably less playing with opponents who felt inhibited from taking a turn without first precisely calculating which was most beneficial of all the various options available to them. Some delay over moves is inevitable: because you cannot predict with certainty whether or not the room you plan to visit will be blocked by another player, this is not a game where you can forward plan your next move as soon as you have taken your turn. The game became intolerably tedious when a player then started asking for ‘take backs’ when they belatedly spotted a more profitable option! It’s long been my philosophy that most two-player games benefit from the introduction of a chess clock. I haven’t made use of it yet, but last year at Essen I picked up a game timer cube that functioned like a chess clock for games involving up to six players. Round House may be a good candidate for a game to deploy this with…
Will Round House make me feel like I’m living life in rural China? Not exactly.
Most of the components in Round House are standard fare: cards, cardboard chits and wooden cubes and pawns but the creators have gone for a 3D effect with the outer roundel by making the sections out of ultra-thick card. These chunky pieces stand out because they are ¼ inch thick. The ancestral hall, which is the starting point for the leader pawns, is a raised platform that straddles the rondels, which again adds to the visual appeal of the game.
It is unfortunate that the standard wooden commodity cubes in the game are exactly the same colours as four of the players’ clan pawns. This isn’t a killer shortcoming but it can be a minor initial cause of confusion for new players. Though the actions each turn are relatively straightforward, there is quite a lot for new players to take in. This is a game that experienced games players will pick up after a couple of turns but which may seem a hard slog for those more akin to more accessible gateway games: Round House is a good few steps up from Ticket to Ride. On the plus side, most of the iconography on the cards is reasonably clear. This is not a game where you’ll have constantly to rifle through the rulebook every time a new order or expert card is revealed.
So does Round House transport you back in time and leave you with the feeling you’ve sampled rural life in 17th Century China? The honest answer is no. The theme is ever-present in the game but your focus will be very much on accumulating prestige points rather than savouring an Oriental experience. You could easily strip out the references to ancestor worship and paste an alternative theme onto the same core game: substituting, for example, the compartments of an alien torus-shaped spaceship for rooms of a tulou. Nevertheless, Round House is a solid euro game with good replayability: a strong 7/10, but only provided you play it with people who get on with the game and don’t insist on overanalysing and agonising over every action…
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.