Time: ~40 minutes
Times Played: 9
Auction/Bidding style games are some of my favorite and I have played a lot. When I saw The Estates, I knew it was another game in the genre I loved and I needed to not only buy it, but get it to my table as soon as possible.
The Estates, part of designers Simply Complex set of games, is an easy to learn auction game with some teeth to it. It’s a re-implementation of Neue Heimat.
Players start with twelve million dollars and will be making a single bid on blocks (that represent properties) that are unique in color and number each turn using that money. The economy of The Estates is static and players can (and will) know who is holding the money throughout the game. Each turn starts with a player choosing a block to put up for auction. When choosing a block, it has to come from one of the ends of the rows of blocks that were created during set-up. This choice allows players to set their own internal prices as they can see how valuable a block is, or is not, compared to what may come next.
Once each player has bid, that starting player either receives the money for the block being bid on or spends that amount of money and buys the block themselves.
That block is then placed on the 3×4 starting board in a spot where the acting player wants to place it, with the only restrictions being that it has to be placed on an empty plot of land or on top of a higher numbered block.
The first player to place a block of a color will become the owner of that company/color. That will dictate how players score at the end of the game. It’s possibly for a player to own multiple companies.
Once two rows of land are developed, the game will end and scoring will commence. Whoever has the highest amount of points wins. I highly recommend checking out the rulebook as it’s easy to read with lots of pictures.
There are some additional rules, such as the start player can stash a check each turn for end of game scoring, thus removing it from their hand and more importantly, the game. Blocks aren’t the only item up for auction either. Rooftops complete the building being developed and the development rows can be lengthened or shortened which might make for a longer or quicker game. The Mayor’s hat doubles the scoring of the row it’s sitting on. Lastly, the uncompleted row will score negative points (and possibly double negative if the Mayor is there).
That last piece of information is the most important and is what gives The Estates an edge over similar auction games. Players could be perceived to be doing well and might end up losing the game as their row is not developed. It creates an interesting dichotomy as players are working together (to complete rows) while simultaneously working against one another (to complete columns). This doesn’t even bring in the possibility of a player expanding (or shortening) a row to change the game length and thus, the victory conditions.
The static economy and the auctioneer being paid by other players are also interesting concepts as it will influence players bidding. In games where the money is returned to the back, players will spend more to ensure they’re not outbid whereas in The Estates, bids seem to start lower as players don’t want to give too much power to an opponent (as they’ll receive that money and can use it on later bids).
The stashing of one million dollars on a player turn was never a game changer in any of our games and the scoring that has been recorded makes it seem like players that purposefully deposited money each time they could actually had the lowest scores, as they probably had the least amount of money to work with. This could be entirely player dependent though. The one point per check reward seemed to be more risk than reward.
As far as components go, The Estates is solid everywhere. The blocks are sturdy, the linen bags hold the items they’re made for, the rulebook is easy to read, and the checks are large and personable with the signatures of the Kickstarter backers present. The components might be a tad overkill honestly for a game of this depth. The price point due to the nicer pieces might turn people off as like Can’t Stop, this is a game that could be replicated easily by someone with a moderate amount of ambition.
The Estates features colors prominently as they’re the basis for selecting blocks and the way to distinguish companies. Simply Complex included a screen-printed design on each block that adds a unique pattern for each color that will allow our color impaired friends the ability to differentiate the blocks.
The game includes a lot of player interaction and that can result in “meanness” as players target one another either by placing their opponents blocks where they don’t want them or changing the length of a row. This results in a game that won’t be for everyone as actions can and will feel targeted and honestly, that’s the only way The Estates works. If you go into this game knowing that you and those around you will need to play like dicks, The Estates will be much more enjoyable. With the variable game length, there’s really no time to try and play nice with players.
With all auction games, the question will come down to what player count works best for the game. As a two-player game, I cannot recommend The Estates as you’re trying to shoehorn an experience that is clearly not meant for two-players. There are so many better two-player games to bring to the table than to force this one. At two, the game lacks the dynamic of bidding offensively and defensively among one another. It will also always play the same at two-players. Either one player purchases most (or all) of the permits and plays tries to keep a defensive battle won or both players purchase an equal amount of permits and the game is just placing cubes one after the other until the game ends.
At three-players, the game is alright but lacks the real interesting decisions that you’ll find at the higher player counts. I wouldn’t recommend this as a three-player game either.
Four- and five-players is where The Estates is the best. I honestly don’t know if the auction and bidding become better at the higher player count or if just the influx of people makes the decisions more interesting but for whatever reason, it’s more enjoyable with more players around the board. The game becomes more social even though all actions (and interactions) run through the starting player.
No matter the player count, I think the first game or so will run too long and might turn people off of the game. A second and third play lets players take what they learned from their initial games and put it into practice. With experienced players, there is no reason this couldn’t be a four- or five-player thirty minute filler auction game. It takes little time to set-up, the rules are simple, the actions are the same each round, and the most time consuming part would be the auction, which is limited to one bid per player. The static economy also keeps the time down as there is no new information being added (monetarily) and more importantly, no change being made.
I enjoyed The Estates but I don’t know if I loved it. Or if I even liked it. I just don’t know if this beats an economic area control game like Lords of Vegas or an auction/bidding game like Stockpile or Modern Art. What’s the hook for this game over one of the previously mentioned? The prospect of negative points? The game does play quicker than any of the previously mentioned (with the possible exception of Modern Art) but it may have been too quick for me.
I wasn’t a fan of the single bid and the game requires a certain type of group as if everyone is playing too nice or if everyone if going for the jugular, the game stalls and is unenjoyable. A mix of playing styles will make The Estates the most enjoyable but in a long line of bidding and auction games, I just can’t say that this one leap frogs over any other auction game already in my collection.