#013 Symphony No. 9 (2018)
Designer: Frank Liu & Hung-Yang Shen
Artist: Zhen Lu & Steve Tse
Player Count: 2-4
Time: 60 minutes
Symphony No. 9 is the latest release from Taiwanese publisher Moaideas Game Design. They've been making big splashes with some of their games lately: Flip City (2014), The Flow of History (2016), Mini Rails (2017), & Tulip Bubble (2017) to name a few. Symphony No. 9 explores the world of 18th Century composers and their music junky patrons who pay lavish amounts of money for these composers' works--maybe even working them to death!
What's in the Bachs!?
A Well-Haydn Theme
I grew up playing the viola and later the violin. I assume like many of you, you were drawn to this game by the theme. You may be disappointed. I wouldn't say that the theme is pasted on. It's visually there and celebrated very well; however, it isn't really fleshed out in the mechanics. Symphony No. 9 hosts one of the coolest board gaming easter eggs I've encountered in a long while. The back of the composition tiles has the sheet music of that particular composer's final work. Awesome. The career tracks of the composers are supposed to simulate their popularity over their careers; however, the designer, Frank, (and rightly so) chose to go with the math than with the theme here. Symphony No. 9 was originally thought to be a game about Taiwanese YouTubers as YouTubers need likes and support. I would say that the reason the theme doesn't feel really entwined with the mechanics is due to the game design. At its heart, Symphony No. 9 is a stock holding and commodity speculation game, and a rather simply designed one at that. There just aren't many ways for the theme and mechanics to be intertwined together.
Getting a Handel on the Mechanics
There are four main things in the game: money, cubes, tiles, and bidding. Money gets you cubes. Cubes get you tiles. Tiles are how you win the game. Money helps you with your bidding. Your cubes dictate how you should bid. Winning bids gives you money. [nutshell] the game [/nutshell]
The game will play over 6 phases. Each phase will of 3 phases: Sponsor (get cubes and win tiles), Concert (blind bidding and win money), and Cleanup (Composers die and prep for next round).
Sponsor. Each player starting with the first player takes any two cubes for free from any career tracks from any composers. Then each player (clockwise) may take one more cube by spending $4. Then in the third and final rotation, each player may take one more cube for $8. Players then see who has the most cubes on each composer. The player with the most cubes of one composer wins a composition tile of said composer. Ties go to the player closest to the first player. If you gain a tile, then you must discard one cube for every two cubes you have.
Concert. The composers are ranked into three tiers from most to least popular (according to their career tracks). 1 is the highest tier. 3 in the middle tier. 2 in the lowest tier. The players then negotiate and make a blind bid. The bids are added up together and one and only one tier of composers' music will be performed. If you own cubes of composers in said tier, then you will receive money (e.g. $4 per cube). The highest bidder receives a bonus depending on the tier. If the bids are too high or too low, a penalty is given to the highest or lowest bidder.
Cleanup. If a composer no longer has cubes on his career track, he dies. The round marker rotates around the group counter-clockwise, and the next round begins.
After 6 rounds of play, a final scoring will occur. Players score points for unsold furniture, unspent money, owned composition tiles of dead composers, and scoring tiles. Each composer's career track has a unique and random scoring tile. Players will earn points in various ways through the number of composition tiles owned of said composer. Usually the more tiles you have, the higher your received score. The player with the highest score wins Symphony No. 9.
Are you Schubert this?
There are two veils in this game. I define a veil as an unmet expectation. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was expecting a different movie when I saw Donnie Darko but was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed myself. If you came here for theme, you may be disappointed. Don't ask: If I like this theme, will I like this game? Do ask: Do I like stock holding & commodity speculation games? This game is not for your family get togethers. It's not for grandma. It's not for kids. It's for gamers. It's for gamers who enjoy stock holding & commodity speculation games. It's for gamers who thrive in and relish the opportunity to calculate and crunch numbers. Now ask if that theme is strong enough to pull you in; is it?
The second veil is the misdirection of the game. It's really easy to focus on the concerts; however, the concerts don't win games; the composition tiles do. During the game, you will end up easily spending more money on cubes than concerts. Concerts do generate a lot of money if you bid correctly; however the composition tiles trigger the scoring tiles--the bulk of the end game points. There is also an ebb and flow to the game. Being last is incredibly punishing as you will lose all ties--all of them. This is most likely why the last player becomes the first player in the next round. All this creates a barrier for newer or slower players. Not the worst thing in the world, but it needs mentioning.
There are four more minor quibbles that need mentioning: coins, furniture, money chests, and color blind (color weak) gamers. The highest blind bid a player can make is $8, so it's a bit odd that there are $10 coins; they never get used--never. It would have made more sense to just print an $8 coin. House Rule #1: Treat the $10 coins as $8 coins.
The loan system is a bit odd in this game. Everyone starts with 9 points represented in furniture. You can sell your furniture (and the victory points they give you) for money. Cute. However, almost everyone I've played with sold all their furniture. It feels almost pointless. In the first game I ever played, Frank began selling his furniture on round 2. Becoming broke is extremely brutal in this game. Crawling out of poverty can be done but takes very careful planning and a smidge of luck. Thankfully the game is under an hour, but this will definitely turn off some players to this game.
I'm not sure how everyone else will feel about the money chests, but I love them. During the thousands of games I've played throughout my lifetime, I think I can honestly say I don't remember a single game where a player shield didn't fall down. (Maybe I just have clumsy friends?) The money chests are an interesting design choice. Frank later admitted that during play testing, they used spools of duct tape to hide their money. Everyone liked the idea so much, nobody wanted to see it go come production time. BUT you can see inside. It happens. We try not to, but it does. House Rule #2: Place your phone over your chest. (Shields your money and nobody fiddles with their phone during the game--a win-win!)
The game out of the box isn't color blind friendly due to one problem--the musician rank markers. House Rule #3: Never place the musician rank markers on the royal concert board. Instead, place each musician rank marker directly on the first empty space of its composer's career track. We liked this so much, we play this way all the time. We use left over cubes to mark the royal concert board. Tiles (musician rank markers) are easier to slide; cubes (donations) are easier to pick up.
Moaideas Game Design has been doing a stellar job at designing my favorite kind of games--simple rules with heavy strategy. The rules to Symphony No. 9 are quite light, but the decisions thrust upon you are heavy. Now, if you or any member of your game group suffers from analysis paralysis, don't say I didn't warn you. Thankfully, this game roughly lasts an hour. Game time could fluctuate between game groups though as negotiation can occur during the concert phase--especially in the 4 player game. With 4 players the market really opens up, there are six (not five) composers, high tiered concerts happen more frequently, and composers are more likely to die. It was the 2-player game that really blew me away. It's essentially a 3-player game with the third player as a half AI-controlled & half player-controlled bot. By adding in only one simple mechanic, you turned the 3-player game into a tense and tightly tuned 2-player game. I cannot think of another stock holding & commodity speculation game that plays this well with two people and under one hour. The randomized double-sided scoring tiles, the double-sided career tracks, and player negotiation breathe liveliness and replay value to this number crunching game. Although I'm not particularly fond of bidding or stock games, I found myself really enjoying and coming back to Symphony No. 9. Its unique, simple, and reasonably short game play has made it earn its space on my shelf; it's a war I tell you. The theme, while not fully mechanically represented, is enough to pull me into the game and celebrate and share my unreasonable disgust of Handel. Listening to Water Music makes my skin crawl.
Gamer: Cardboard East highly recommends Symphony No. 9 if you enjoy stock holding & commodity speculation games or prefer heavier number-crunching games.
Family: Cardboard East does not recommend this game for your next family outing.
Party: Cardboard East does not recommend this game with adult beverages.