PLAYlist 46: The Estates | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, September 26th, 2020  

PLAYlist 46: The Estates

Aug 30, 2019 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

Have you ever had the urge to do something really terrible? Maybe an aggressive thought, one that you’d never act upon but briefly flashed into your mind and made you feel guilty about even thinking of such awfulness immediately afterward. The most famously-cited example of this is when two friends are standing near a high ledge, and one has the fleeting fantasy of pushing their companion over the side. These intrusive thoughts are natural—it turns out that studies have found that a surprising number of sound-minded people have them (and of course, never actually carry through.) Scientists have dubbed these terrible impulses “The High Place Phenomenon,” but the French have a way cooler-sounding name for it: “L’appel du vide,” or “The Call of the Void.”  

That is pretty metal.

Anyhow, now we know these evil urges are semi-normal. Thankfully we have board games to let us carry out our meanest thoughts without, you know, pushing our friends off any real-world bridges.

From designer Klaus Zoch and Capstone Games’ Simply Complex label, The Estates has made me do things that made me feel like a wretched human being—and I liked it. I’ve built floors on friends’ buildings without their permission, roofs on towers they hadn’t finished, and time and again trampled over their best-laid plans like a foam-suited kaiju kicking over a cardboard city. The Estates has turned my mild-mannered gaming groups into the meanest, most thoughtless bunches of jerks ever assembled around a dining room table.

And, you know what? The Estates is one of our leading contenders for Game of the Year, and I’ll tell you why.

The Estates is a game of auctions with a pillow-soft learning curve. On your turn you’ll choose one of the various saleable objects from around the board and put it up for auction. Your opponents will bid for the right to place that object on the board. When the bidding has reached its end, you—as the auctioneer—will have the choice to collect the high bid from that player and allow them to place the item themselves, or to pay that player their highest bid amount and then choose where you’d like that piece to go on the board.

That’s, like, 85% of the gameplay that goes into The Estates. Choose an item, let your opponents bid for it, then decide whether you’d like to pay to place it or take the cash. This process goes around the table turn by turn, with money exchanging hands and towers quickly rising up across the board’s development area. Eventually two of the three rows will fill or you won’t be physically capable of finishing any more buildings, either of which will end the game.

I feel a bit like Bob Barker saying this, but let’s take a look at the items you’ll be bidding on. The majority will be building cubes. These chunky, wooden blocks come in six different colors and each show a number ranging between one and six. These can be placed on an open building area, or on top of an already-placed block so long as the number being placed has a value lower than the one below it. If you’re the first player to place a cube of that color, you’ll take the company card matching it—that color essentially becomes yours for the rest of the game. (You can have more than one company, or none at all—which is rare but more likely to happen at higher player counts.) At any given point, a building “belongs” to the player whose cube is at the top of a stack. That building will only be scored by the player that controls it, and its value will include all of the cubes in the stack, even those of another player’s colors. Thus, it’s very enticing (and easy) to steal opponents’ high-valued buildings.   

The other objects up for bid are the mayor’s hat, which doubles the value of one of line of buildings; permits, which extend or condense how many buildings can go into a single row before it’s considered finished; the cancel cube, which removes one permit from the board; and roofs, which have point values of their own and cap off buildings, “finishing” them and making it impossible for anyone to steal the building from its topmost color.

Now let me let you in on The Estates’ nasty little secret: you can, and probably will, score negative points.

When the game ends, buildings in the unfinished rows are worth negative points equal to their values. (This includes buildings in the row with the mayor’s hat, which drag you twice as many points into the hole.) And, no, your scores don’t bottom out at zero. In all likelihood, you’re going to wind up with a negative score at the end of the game.

Therefore, The Estates isn’t always about winning. Sometimes—many times, actually—it’s about being the player who loses the least. Because it’s within the realm of possibility that none of the rows of buildings will be finished at game’s end, The Estates can result in no players having positive points.  Over my numerous plays of the game, I’ve concluded that ending with zero points really isn’t a bad score.

You can royally screw over your opponents in The Estates, and you’ll almost definitely need to do so in order to come out ahead. The threat of negative points is a big thing to arm players with. Unless your opponents can bid you out of having the option, you control what happens on your turn. With that power comes the ability to be a real jerk. Wanna steal a valuable building? Go ahead. Thinking of extending a row with a building permit, all but guaranteeing your opponent’s real estate will go negative? There’s not much to stop you. Remember that philosophical cliff we were talking about at the beginning of this column? There will be moments where your opponents will all be teetering on the ledge on a shared toboggan and all it will take is one, little kick for you to send them flying over.

The game indirectly encourages cruelty while mitigating the usual hard feelings afterward. That’s because once your turn is over, it’s your opponents’ turn to stick it back to you.

I played one of my favorite games of The Estates with another adult and two young teenagers. (Yes, I’d call this a family game, as it’s so easy to teach and pick up—hopefully your kids are trained to understand that winning isn’t paramount.) In that game, I’d built up what felt like a comfortable lead with several tall buildings in a near-finished row. It was the two kids who caught on to this, and they worked together to turn the table on me by making sure I had no chance to finish off that row. What looked like a good, positive score for me at the game’s midpoint ended in a last-place finish with a whopping -59 points. There was nothing I could do to keep them from running me into the ground.

Nothing in the rulebook outlaws this style of conspiring or kibitzing, which I personally feel is key to the game’s brilliance. The Estates is all about playing and winning mind games, and you’ll need to not only outsmart one opponent to win, but everyone else at the table. When playing in a smaller group of older, more seasoned gamers, many sessions of The Estates would dissolve into a tabletop rendition of mutually assured destruction. If you can’t win with positive points, your best strategy is to drag everyone else down with you. When scores are tallied, hopefully you’ll look down and see your opponents have fallen deeper into the pit under  you. If you have a group of friends who aren’t afraid to scheme, sidestep, or backstab one another, you need to introduce The Estates to the equation.

There are just so many other, little things about The Estates that we love but can only touch on. The fact that you can choose any piece to auction, whether it’s your color or not—which makes it possible to make your opponents bid against each other for your financial gain. You can also stash away money for endgame scoring at a single point per note; the pool of cash in the game is limited, meaning that this shrinks the total amount money all players will have at their disposal.  And no, you don’t have to divulge to others how much cash you’re holding. This led to a lot of players hiding their fat stacks in shirt pockets, or under the table.

It’s a testament to a game’s quality when it’s this beautiful-looking but we fail to even get into its aesthetics until around 1,500 words into the review. Yes, The Estates is awful purdy. Unsurprising as this came from the same folks as The Climbers—which was made of enough wood to build your own microhouse log cabin—the building cubes are chunky and colorfully-painted. (These and the roofs are stored in two branded bags, as you’ll be randomizing which cubes are used at the start of your games.) The money isn’t styled as bogus bills, but $1 million checks—a uniquely cool touch. Even the company cards are mocked up to look like business cards. For a simple game, it has style to spare.

The Estates is once again in stock from Capstone Games at a retail of $50. It supports up to five players and takes about 45 minutes to an hour to play. Get it.

This column’s playlist features more songs about buildings and food, minus the food. We’ve collected eighteen tracks about towers, skyscrapers, houses, or “building” for your next one hour and seventeen minutes’ worth of enjoyment. These include cuts by iconoclasts like Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen, and David Byrne, choice album cuts from Bowie, the White Stripes, and Underworld, and an opener of The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” because we were feeling cheeky. Enjoy!


Previous PLAYlist columns: NobjectsMemoir '44 & New Flight Plan, Bubble TeaUndoGizmosImhotep, Hex Roller, The Table is Lava, Happy Salmon, The Quacks of QuedlinburgThe ClimbersNEOMCrusaders: Thy Will Be DoneReykholtPandemicEverdellKingdomino, CitrusHistory of the World, Altiplano, Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.


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