Teaching Time: 2 mins
Playing Time: 30 mins
Setup Time: 2 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Villa Paletti, the 2002 winner of the Spiel Des Jahres is, through no fault of its own, one of the more controversial winners of the prize. For those not aware it’s a perfectly nice and quite simple dexterity game, but it beat Puerto Rico to the award. For those not aware of why that would be controversial, Puerto Rico is one of the most persistently popular and well-regarded Euro games of all time. Which feels a little harsh for poor Villa Paletti. So, the questions are, is it any good, is it a reasonable SDJ winner, and should it have beaten Puerto Rico?
Gameplay is pretty simple, four colours of pillars are set up on a base plate, broken into three sizes, one large, one medium and three small, then a floor is set upon them. Players have to pull out a pillar of their colour from the base plate and stack them on the current top floor. If a player feels they can’t pull a column without knocking over the tower they can ask to be allowed to instead add a new, progressively smaller, floor instead. If someone refuses to allow them they can attempt to move one of the player’s columns, if they do it can be chucked out the game, if not, one of their own columns is forfeit. This carries on until either a player knocks over the tower, and so they lose, or no players can move any columns, in which case the player with the most biggest columns on the highest floors wins.
So, first question, is it a good game? In short, yes. It has a little bit of tactics since columns can be placed to slightly unbalance a floor, pinning opponent’s high scoring columns in place. It adds a layer of thinking since the tower is far more likely to be knocked down by a placed column unbalancing it than a pulled one disrupting it, the asymmetrical design of the tower allows for some careful planning and counter balancing to pay off. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and has the satisfaction in ending in either clattering wooden pieces or a mighty and impressive edifice on the table.
Its not without its flaws, the colour of the first player is selected by rolling a four-sided column that is then used to track the high scoring player in a slightly clunky system for the games where it matters and the three player rules could be more elegant. There is an odd rule where players are allowed to steady the tower with their hand while extracting columns, which suggests that its meant to be more about judgement and planning than dexterity, an odd choice for what's clearly a dexterity game. That's followed up by the little hook for extracting buried columns, a pure dexterity game would delight in making players squeeze fingers into those little gaps and strain to reach. The obvious comparison is to Jenga and it has both advantages and disadvantages next to that most famous of dexterity games. On the upside Villa Paletti gives an option for deciding a winner without the tower collapsing, which can be very satisfying when you’re on a roll. On the downside, the rules of Jenga could be written on a single Jenga block, while Villa Paletti is more complex.
Now, is it a worthy winner of the SDJ, with or without the existence of Puerto Rico? In that the SDJ has a history of having winners from a range of genres and it doesn’t have another dexterity game in its line up then I’d argue that there is at least a logic to choosing it. Its frankly quite odd that the award got all the way to 2002 before recognizing anything from such a huge genre. With retrospect, possibly Jenga should have picked up the award back in the mid-eighties, but it didn’t and it appears that Villa Paletti was the next best dexterity games that the award noticed. Is it a worthy winner? Hard to say, but it is at least a logical winner.
On to the big question, should Puerto Rico have won? This is a tough one, because there is a real and probably accurate sense that Villa Paletti won as the best version of a not well-regarded genre, so should a better example of a better regarded genre, though an arguably over represented one have taken the award instead? Its hard to say, it feels a little like with Settlers of Catan, El Grande and others in its history that the SDJ Committee weren’t going to give the award to any full-on Euro game in 2002 so Puerto Rico was never in the running. The main consistent point about the SDJ is that it avoids consistency, it tries to reward something that it hasn't rewarded before each time. The SDJ is meant to be the best game of a single given year, not an award based on its own history of awards, but it absolutely is sometimes, which is probably why Villa Paletti beat Puerto Rico.
In the end, Villa Paletti is good, it’s genuinely a lot of fun. I’ll certainly have it in the regular rotation and pull it out in the future. Whether it deserved the award or not, it might deserve a place on your gaming shelf.