Every two or three years German games company ZOCH zum Spielen diversify from their renowned children's and family fun game publications and bring out what we like to think of as a "gamer's game". With MEA CULPA they have really thrown off the shackles of fluffy cuteness.
MEA CULPA's box cover is a bit of an oxymoron, having a quartet of amusing caricatures, the type of which can often be found on Euro family games, and the name "Mea Culpa" which isn't a particularly well used phrase, the meaning of which is possibly not known in the majority of homes (it basically means "my fault").
This game, from Rüdiger Kopf & Klaus Zoch, is for 2-4 players aged 14+ years and from many other companies it could easily have been on the "Game of the Year" short list as it is easily as good as any of the past four years Spiel des Jahres; Codenames, Colt Express, Camel Up and Hanabi all of which were worthy winners. The game features the artwork of renown game illustrator Franz Vohwinkel. If you don't know the name just Google him and look at the number of top selling award winning games that bear his work - it is legendary!
Mea Culpa begins like most board games, opening the box and popping the die-cut pieces from their sheets. It then takes a different route for a while as players are required to make up their personal collection of special pieces: a Shield, an etched Post and a Matchbox with a drawer that has two compartments. Most of these do not need to be glued or taped but they are a bit fiddly and you have to be careful, especially with the etched post, that you don't over bend the scored cuts. This was obviously a problem in play-testing as exact lengths of sticky tape have been added to go round the top and bottom of the posts, holding them in position. These etching posts are hexagonal with "scratches" /, //, ///, // //, // /// & /// /// (1-6) one scratch or series of scratches on each flat side, making them look at first like a novelty d6 but in fact they are never rolled. We were all struggling with the matchbox and its inner compartments until one of us (my wife) became a master of origami and succeeded, the instructions on the card sheet which held the pieces were not particularly clear. Once made however the boxes are quite strong and the drawer slides very smoothly.
The Rules book is 12 pages of German and 12 pages in English. If you do not understand German then fold it back on itself from its centre and you will get an easy to follow set of English language rules. The playing board itself is square but the playing area is created in circular fashion with different sites clearly marking it into four specific quarters: The Cathedral Site which shows the three possible building sites where two only Cathedrals are to be built. Then there is the Market, where you can visit different stalls; Bread, Wine, Cloth, Jewels and Letters of Indulgence; the House of Pleasure, where 4 Rooms and 2 Suites await he (or she) who enters and the Dens of Sin, where the Pope stones Lord over the Den of Lust, the Den of Petty Sins and the Den of Greed. These all surround a central area where the four main character cards and the Pope die await to be chosen. One of the things I have had a few complaints about with some recently played games is how busy the board is, too many spaces crammed together etc. Well the Mea Culpa board is a busy board, but it has been designed with enough space that it remains clear where the meeples and wooden blocks on it are, so there is very little chance of pieces being moved in error (unless a cat jumps onto the table while you are playing).
Three of the board's corners are used as part of the game. One states the game's name printed in a curve across a blazing sun, this is the one that doesn't affect play but it does look really good. The other three sides are the pathways leading up and down from where the player's Pawns (aka "poor souls") begin, towards either Heaven or Hell. The board and the origami pieces have been designed to make you want to play and it instills a feeling of good will towards the game even before you know what the game is actually about; that is both very clever and thoughtful designing.
The players are merchants who have been visited by a sooth sayer who has told them that their ways of drinking and debauchery will only lead them to the Gates of Hell. Fearing this, they all set out, in their own ways, to be, at the end of the journey, the furthest along the pathway to Heaven, or at least at the back of the group on the road to Hell. To do this they have to be really nice to everyone; yeah okay I made that bit up. They have to visit the Red Light District, indulge in all manner of illegal activities, bribe officials but most of all donate their wealth to the building of two impressive Cathedrals. There are three Cathedral sites though which means that one of them cannot be completed and anyone who has put their faith, and their gold etc into it have lost it all.
In MEA CULPA the players characters are represented by colour ID pawns which are the ones they move along the Road to Hell (at this point I suggest you dig out your old Chris Rea "Road to Hell and Back" cd or mp3). Each turn players take over one of the game's main characters; The Pope, the Emperor, A Merchant and the Petty Sinner, and send them to the various quarters, yes you can send the Pope to the House of Pleasure though he enters (and presumably exits) incognito telling the Vatican that he is off to "an urgent meeting". When the Pope does this the player controlling him secretly chooses a number on the Pope's die and keeps it secret. The other players then confer and one of them (the closest to hell) declares which room or suite (by number) they believe the Pope to be in. If they guess correctly then the Pope is caught being a naughty boy and his poor soul takes a step Hellbound.
MEA CULPA is a very clever game where players each begin with a different bonus. I am usually not a fan of games where the players begin with different amounts of money or goods, usually supposed to be a balance for going first against going last but generally not evenly awarded. At the beginning of the game the pawns are randomly placed on the Record of Sins (aka Road to Hell or Heaven) and the player whose pawn starts closest to Heaven goes first, selecting one of the four "special bonuses". Three of these bonuses need to be donated as soon as you get them, the other, the Letter of Indulgence, is placed behind the player's screen. When donating the money, goods or gems are placed in the matchbox. They can be put in either compartment (or split between both if you have more than one unit to donate) via the end marked "I" or the end marked "II"; these ends representing the Cathedrals you are donating to.
Turns are quickly resolved and reset with goods being drawn randomly from a draw-sack and placed on their respective stalls in the Market, character cards are returned to the centre, everything runs like clockwork if you follow the well laid out rules. The only areas of confusion that might catch you out to begin with is that some of the characters have a preliminary action that they carry out immediately they are selected and then the player controlling them can also take one or two other actions - the number of scratches showing on your etching pole determining if you have the points to spend on those actions. The etching pole is used in a number of ways including deciding who picks a character first, money can be added to the etches on the pole to increase this bid. Taking a regular action is free but if you take a second action it cannot be the same as the first one and it costs you a notch on your etching pole. The Merchant character has no preliminary action but they can, at the end of each of their Turns, take a goods from the Market for free, thus, as it reads, if the Merchant takes two actions on their turn they get two free goods - letting someone repeatedly take the Merchant is never a good idea, though sometimes you have to sacrifice your plan to prevent this occurring; as I said, it's a very clever game.
There is such a lot going on, so many options and all of them good in a different way but this means it is easy to get wrapped up in the buying and selling and pleasures and pains, that the goal of the game can be forgotten and although you think you are doing well before you know it your poor soul is on the slippery slope towards the red hot fires. The Pope has a large influence on the game and sinners (player's ID coloured Sin Stones) that are sent to the Dens of Sin will eventually be punished and thus cause your poor soul to move further away from Heaven.
There are many small mechanics going on behind or leading up to every player action and most of them somehow involve moving the poor souls along the Record of Sins. It is akin to playing a myriad mini-games at the same time whilst competing with other players for the right (or should I say "rite" ?) to do so. Nothing about this game represents what most people would consider the norm for Zoch.
The building of the Cathedrals requires the player to place a Building Crew on one of the Cathedral Building Sites; then when a second crew joins them the first part of the two-part Cathedral is built. When the second and final part of the Cathedral is built then it pays out dividends according to donations made - players open the "I" side of their Matchboxes and compare their donations - the chart under the completed Cathedral details the rewards. Players do not have to have helped in the building of the Cathedral but they do have to have given the correct type of donation, again this is a very well thought out part of the game and it relies more on good play than luck of any kind. In fact the only real luck factors are the drawing of the goods from the bag and the order that the House of Pleasure room cards are dealt out into play and these are less luck and more like opportunities that you can see and strategise around.
There are a lot of board games from Europe and the States that I really like but not that many I would recommend as much as I do MEA CULPA. It's playability is strong, though like most great games if you play it day after day with the same players it will eventually become a bit samey - tell me a game that doesn't? But played sensibly, say once every two to four weeks, you will have a game that will remain fresh for years and years.
You can purchase MEA CULPA from your local games store from between about £35.00-£40.00