Hans van Tol


No. of Players:
2 - 4



One of the titles I had on my list of must-see games for the SPIEL 09 was Opera from the THE GAME MASTER, a publisher situated in the Netherlands and distributed in Germany by HUCH & FRIENDS. After a long development phase of three years (!) author Hans van Tol presents a game with a rather unusual topic and takes us back to the prime age of the Opera, with composers like Verdi, Bach or Mozart vying for the grace of their audience and the European monarchs.

In this game the players take the role of noble families who want to patronise the further development of operas and composers around Europe, and during a total duration of nine rounds they try to spend their money wisely on generating income and victory points by performing operas in different cities. However, as all beginnings are humble, all a player possesses at the beginning of the game is 20 ducats and a small opera building in Venice with just one hall in which a composition of the player's house composer has been placed for performance. In addition to each player's starting equipment several other preparations need to be made before the game may start, and so opera buildings of different sizes and located in different cities are placed next to the gameboard, and on the gameboard a random ranking score showing portraits of the six composers relevant in the game is prepared. Cards for six different characters also are placed on the board, with the characters representing the six different actions which can be chosen during a round, and finally some random compositions are drawn from a pile containing compositions of all six composers. One composition each is placed on the rounds track after rounds three, six and nine (here an evaluation takes place), and an additional number of compositions depending on the number of players is revealed and placed on top of their corresponding composers. These compositions are available during the first round of play.

Most important for the generation of victory points is the composers' ranking score on the gameboard. The position of the composers on the ranking score may change during the course of the game, and during the three evaluation phases the players will receive victory points for each composition they are performing in the main hall of each of their opera houses. The value of a composition is equal to the position of the composer in the ranking score, so that the best ranking composer will generate six victory points for each of his compositions performed in a main hall. In addition, each evaluation phase has been assigned a randomly drawn composition, and this composition marks the most famous composer at an end of an epoch. Compositions of these composers generate bonus points if they are performed in the players' main halls.

However, as I have indicated earlier the players start with a humble one-hall opera building at Venice, and before they actually can think about a massive generation of victory points they first will have to generate enough income to invest into new opera buildings and the acquisition of compositions. This is done in the three rounds of each epoch, and at the beginning of each of these rounds the gameboard will be reset by revealing a new set of available compositions and by returning all character cards to their respective positions on the board. Comparable to other resource management games like Puerto Rico, the choice of the character cards determines the available actions, and usually not all six actions will be available during a round of play.

  • The Architetto helps the players to build new opera houses in different cities and to extend already existing houses. For each of the cities a limited choice of main halls and extension halls exists, with the building pieces sometimes featuring up to three halls on one piece. Each hall costs a player two ducats, but they also generate an instant one-time bonus of two victory points each.
  • The corresponding character which is used for the acquisition of new compositions is the Impresario, and the available compositions which were revealed at the beginning of the round each can be bought for a price corresponding to the current ranking of the composer on the ranking score. In addition, the Impresario allows a player to re-arrange his playing schedule, moving compositions between his different opera halls and into and out of his reserves hidden behind a viewscreen. Here the rule needs to be observed that a player is not allowed to have two compositions of the same composer performed at different halls of the same opera house, and furthermore the players also should keep an eye on the ranking score since only the compositions placed in the main hall of each opera will participate in the evaluations.
  • Income is generated each round, and it depends on the number of operas a player performs at each of his opera houses. Here the ranking score of the composers is ignored, but instead the number of operas performed at a house simply is cross-referenced with an income table. As a rule, a large opera house with many halls and compositions generates a higher income than many small operas, but on the other hand each opera house only has one main hall when it comes to the generation of victory points. However, the Signora character allows the generation of additional victory points or income during a running round. With her assistance a player may opt to sell one of his compositions to the royal palace, receiving either the composer's current ranking as victory points or twice the amount of the composer's current ranking as ducats. However, the royal court is rather picky, and so only a total of four compositions can be sold to the court during a whole epoch, and to make things worse all four compositions must come from different composers.
All three characters mentioned so far share the common attribute that - although they are chosen by a specific player - the other players may opt to use the action of the character as well. However, the remaining three characters actually are represented on the gameboard by playing pieces, and they only may be moved and used by the player who has chosen the character.
  • The ranking score can be influenced by the Critico, a representative of the merciless species who pretends to have a taste superior to the broad masses which enables him - and only him - to judge between good and bad operas. In game terms the Critico works more simple, coming to a city and allowing the player to move one of the composers whose compositions are performed in that city to move that composer up to two steps upwards or downwards on the ranking score. The positions of the other composers are adjusted correspondingly, and the only other possibility to change the ranking scores is by a count of each composer's compositions which happens at the end of each round, since now the composer with most compositions presently performed will move up for one step.
  • The Maestro works in a comparable straightforward way. If he is moved to a city he will double the income generated by all operas performed at that city, and so he is a valuable ally to come out of a monetary shortfall.
  • Finally, the most powerful generator for additional victory points is the Esperto. If he is brought to a city he immediately generates a full yield of victory points for the player who has used him, with the total of victory points being calculated just as it is done in an evaluation. However, the price for recruiting the Esperto's help is the player's most valuable composition at that city, and it must be given to the player with fewest victory points after the Esperto has done his work.

Hans van Tol has found an interesting innovation concerning the payment of the costs for recruiting the help of the characters, and instead of the players handling a plain and simple purse he uses a Budget chart as an intermediate step. At the beginning of a round all players have the possibility to add money to they budget for the upcoming round, and the markers on the Budget chart are adjusted accordingly to represent the investment of each player. A nifty Budget chart mechanism determines the player order during the round, and because of the fact that the use of the characters is paid out of the players' budget the player order may change when a payment is made. Thus, a player is not restricted to chose one character per round, but instead he may chose up to three characters if his budget and his position on the Budget chart allows. However, pumping money into the budget means that a player has less ducats available in his purse, and since all investments like compositions and opera buildings are paid out of a players purse a good balancing between the budget and the purse are mandatory.

To my mind the long development phase has led to the creation of a very mature resource management mechanism which perfectly converts the chosen topic into the scope of a boardgame. The only other game which I can remember which puts the player into the role of an impresario is Wolfgang Kramer's Colosseum, but whereas the players in Kramer's game are depending on finding partners for a trade of resources the Opera players feel much more in control of their own fate. The game gets along with a low element of luck, and furthermore the possibility to participate if a player uses some of the characters also leaves some space for strategic planning while at the same time increasing (indirect) player interaction.

Playtesting revealed a somewhat slow start because the mechanisms and possibilities for generating income and victory points first must be taken by all players, but since the mechanism is quite straightforward in its application it does not take long for an exciting contest to begin. The only element which first might seem to be a bit out of place is the final step in the use of the Esperto which requires a player to hand over his most valuable composition to the hindmost player. However, this act of balancing seems to be necessary since otherwise the game mechanics would be too unforgiving, and furthermore the Esperto would be too powerful if circumstances were convenient to grant a player his repeated use in several rounds. With this detail explained, Opera presents itself as a great strategy game with a rather innovative theme.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2009 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany