Coimbra is one of those games that I first judged by the cover, I’ll admit. Lucky for me, I judged it positively off the cover. I have a board gaming friend who first brought it to my attention through his love of and interest in anything Portuguese. As at Portuguese man, he loved seeing the place he adored represented in gaming. I remember hearing him gush about Azul and, in turn, Coimbra. Trusting this man and his taste in games, I gave Coimbra a shot. After all, the art is beautiful, the colours are a delight, and dice get to wear PANTS.
It is worth noting that if you are here for a nice, objective review of Coimbra, then I might disappoint you. I will certainly look at the pros and cons as I see them, but Coimbra is a title I absolutely adore, and this Deep Dive series is akin to love letters to various games. I won’t be making a huge effort to talk about what other people may or may not like – this is about why I love Coimbra.
Starting off, let’s talk about the theme. Coimbra falls into a special category of game – games about European cities that are more or less themeless. Is there a specific reason the game is about Coimbra and not a different city? Maybe. Would the game lose anything by being about a different city? Does being familiar with Coimbra inform my knowledge of the game in any way? I don’t really know the answers to these questions, but the fact of the matter is the theme does not matter to me. Sure, being about Portugal in the Age of Discovery informs the various card types (council members, merchants, clerics, and scholars), but before writing this Deep Dive, I did not know it was about the Age of Discovery and I did not know what the various card types were. To me, clerics are just purple cards.
We don’t need to talk about the theme anymore because it just does not matter. Let’s talk about why Coimbra is beautiful — the mechanics! Coimbra has a few different mechanics that work in tandem really well. There are four main elements — the dice drafting, the auction, the influence tracks, and the pilgrimage.
The drafting works exactly as you would expect if you are familiar with the mechanic. Roll all the dice, take turns choosing the ones you want. Easy. How those dice are used is the allure of the draft. The dice are standard D6 dice numbered from 1–6 in 5 different colours: yellow, gray, purple, green, and white. The colour of the dice that you draft will determine what rewards you will get at the end of the round. Yellow gives you money. Green gives you victory points. On top of the die colour mattering, the number on the die you draft does as well (obviously). Let’s talk about the auction. Each round there are 4 auction areas that each contain various items for auction — either 4 cards or 4 special action tiles — for the players to auction amongst each other. In a four player game, 12 of those 16 options will usually be acquired by the players. In player order, each player will place one of their dice onto the board to “bid” on which set of items they want to purchase a card/tile from. The higher the die, the higher the priority. A 6 will purchase before a 5 and so on. On top of priority, the cost of cards increases with the die number. A 6 will cost 6 to purchase a card, a 5 will cost 5 and so on. Is that card important to you? You had better prepare to pony up!
Time to talk about influence. Coimbra uses influence tracks, which I constantly malaprop by calling them temples because of how they function similarly to the temples in Tzolk’in and Teotihuacan. For the sake of my own clarity and to further push the point that the theme in Coimbra is basically non-existent, I’m just gonna keep calling them temples because I can. The temples have a unique benefit in Coimbra, which is that in addition to getting benefits for being the highest or second highest on any given temple, the temples also determine the strength of your end of round rewards. Higher up on the yellow temple? Get more money from drafting a yellow die! There is so much to balance in this game; you have to draft the die value that you want to buy the card you want, while also drafting the correct colour die to get the reward you want. Nothing ever works out perfectly.
The last aspect of this game is the pilgrimage map. To understand this track well you must first know that at various points throughout the game you will gain movement on the map (the purple temple awards movement, as well as many purple cards, among others). With movement, you can travel through a map and unlock various bonuses. Sometimes these bonuses advance you on temples. Sometimes they award victory points or currency. And sometimes they are special abilities. Figuring out when travelling across the map to improve your tableau and when to take other benefits is key to scoring well in this game. While incredibly easy to describe in a reductive little paragraph, the complexities of this element of the game are not easy to distill down.
None of these elements on their own are super groundbreaking or unique, but the way that Flaminia Brasini and Virginio Gigli have combined these mechanics is elegant and rewarding. Your choices are always difficult, but the array of choices in front of you at any given time is never overwhelming. How you draft, how you auction, and how you advance on the temples are all choices you make that directly impact the other players at the table – there is no element of this game that could be ascribed as multiplayer solitaire.
You know the rules. You know the (non-existent) theme. Now it is time to talk about what makes me come back to Coimbra play after play after play. I see a lot of comparisons between Coimbra and Lorenzo il Magnifico and Grand Austria Hotel. These comparisons make sense. Virginio Giglio worked on all of them and Flaminia Brasini also co-designed Lorenzo il Magnifico. But the comparison isn’t entirely fair. They all are basically garbage when it comes to the themes. Working with the church during the Italian Renaissance? Building a little hotel during the Viennese modern age? Woof. That isn’t exactly thrilling storytelling. While Grand Austria Hotel has some mechanics that work quite well to integrate the theme into the game, I would still lovingly refer to all three games as “dry themeless Euros.” That isn’t a criticism, I swear. I love a good dry themeless Euro. But Coimbra, somehow, manages to take the dry themeless Euro to a different level. Your choices are more or less purely mechanical, but the joy comes from the systems themselves, not the story you are telling with your friends. Other Euro games manage to tell a more compelling story: games like Altiplano, Underwater Cities, Everdell. These games have similar weights but create a narrative with how their themes and mechanics are paired. It’s not better. It’s just different. No one finishes a game of Coimbra and tells a story about who they were in Portugal; no one regales about their relationship with the merchant guilds or what they learned from the scholars they recruited. But people tell stories about how, on a critical turn, the card they needed was bought by another player and that cost them 22 points.
The other wonderful aspect of Coimbra is what it has accomplished visually. The colours of the game are beautiful and engaging. It has a relatively unique cartoon historical style that both feels quirky and serious, two of my favourite moods. The art and the graphic design work in tandem quite well, communicating the important information efficiently while also allowing the art to shine. Each player colour has a set of plastic dice pants to put their dice in when bidding to make it obvious who has drafted each die. The pants are just so charming. There is also a little dice visor. Never have dice been so well dressed. As a final note on the art, in stark contrast to the successes of the game, I just want to point out that there are 56 cards that depict humans in this game. Of those, 56 of them are white.
There is nothing wrong with Lorenzo il Magnifico or Grand Austria Hotel, or other games that put their mechanics first. But they are games that scratch a similar itch to Coimbra, even if the mechanics are rather different. I will continue to pick up different games because figuring out how the systems work is incredibly engaging to me, but if I have three or four people and want to jump into the exciting world of the Portuguese Age of Discovery, I’m gonna pick up Coimbra.