Build the best path then use it most effectively
Toledo is a strategy game of fair-to-middlin complexity for 2-4 players ages 10 and up. It was first published in North America in 2008 by Mayfair Games. The game simulates blacksmithing; you strive to create the best collection of swords and deliver them to your liege lord.
The game’s designer is Martin Wallace, a rather famous and accomplished game designer (see Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, Age of Industry, Brass, and many others). Martin happens to own his own game studio, which goes a long way towards explaining how a game about swordsmithing could get made: he owns the company.
Yes I said swordsmithing. There is no conquering, no saving the world, no defeating of evil, none of that. You make swords.
That rather unappealing scenario kept this game on my shelf, unplayed, for over a year. That and the fact that I’d gotten it from Mayfair’s discount rack, where less-than-stellar games go to die or at least to be sold at rock-bottom prices (note: Mayfair Game’s catalog shows the game as still active. I may have gotten an older version. Or maybe it was just on super sale).
But it did eventually get played. And then immediately played again. Hey! There’s a pretty good game in here!
Toledo is set in the Spanish city of Toledo in the 13th century. The Moors are gone but their cultural legacy remains; the government is stable, the city is diverse and prosperous, times are good.
Your job is to collect sufficient quantities of Toledo steel ingots to build swords, appropriate gems with which to adorn them, assemble the materials into weapons, and advance through the city until reaching the royal palace where your swords are presented (which in game-terms means converted to victory points). You can also buy artwork on the way, which acknowledges Toledo’s cultural influence (and gains a handful of victory points) but feels tacked on: the artwork doesn’t interact with anything else in the game in any way.
Toledo initially seems to be a track-building game, where you compete to position your own road segments where they gain the most income. Or maybe a strategic spatial-relations game where you position your pawns (in this game called Swordsmen) effectively to advance your cause while blocking your opponent. Or maybe it is a card game?
This sounds confusing, and at first it is; Toledo almost seems like two games. In the first game, it is about track-building and maximizing income. But that phase of the game ends quickly. Once the track is built the game shifts and becomes about speed and position. The cards become more important.
What You Get
The artistic theme of the game seems to be based on faded wall murals; the colors are muted, the objects depicted are archaic. Appropriate to the theme no doubt. But slightly drab nonetheless.
The board is well-printed and feels solid. Most of the game pieces are cardboard tiles, but the tiles are thickly substantial and designed to be clearly different one from the other. The Swordsmen are wooden and nicely done.
Only the movement cards feel to have been done on the cheap, being uncoated, but at least they are full-sized and for some reason coated cards are rare in board games.
The rules are clearly written and comprehensive: a big plus for a game that initially seems as disjointed as this one.
Overall the game has decent bits. Nothing that takes your breath away but solidly done even if 90% of the bits are cardboard. I found my version on the discount rack and that is probably a good thing; I tend to expect higher production values at the $50 price point where Toledo lists in the Mayfair Games catalog.
Gameplay Part One: Building the Road
When the game opens the board is empty. There are spaces where businesses can be placed but no actual businesses. No track. There is nowhere for pieces to go.
In the first phase of the game, players take turns filling the business spaces with tiles. The tiles differ in two ways: the number of pieces it may contain, and the type of business on the tile. There are four businesses: one that gives metal, one that gives gems, one that allows swordmaking, and a position improvement business that allows you to upgrade your dueling skills or movement rate.
Tiles that may contain only one piece serve as constraints; several in a row can severely curtail movement. Landing on one of your own tiles means you get the services of that business for free. Landing on another player’s business means you can still have the services but they will cost. Prices are less at the beginning of the track, and higher towards the end, with the fees going to the tile owner.
All prices are paid in movement cards. When you use someone else’s business you increase their movement capability.
Gameplay Part Two: Moving and Smithing
During a turn a player expends movement cards to place Swordsmen in businesses, or to advance Swordsmen that have already been placed. But some sequencing is built in; even if you land on a sword-crafting tile, you cannot actually craft a sword unless you have steel. More expensive swords require more steel. The most expensive swords require gems too. Fortunately, steel and gems can be pooled by the player and passed from Swordsman to Swordsman as desired.
Swords and Swordsmen
Swords are a limited quantity. There is only one instance of the each of the more expensive swords, with more instances becoming available as the value decreases.
Each time a Swordsman completes the track and reaches the fortress, the player may convert any built swords into victory points, and that Swordsman is removed from the game. When a player has three completed Swordsmen, the game ends. Any swords that have been built but not presented are worth only half of their victory points.
There may be no conquering in Toledo but there is a bit of swashbuckling. Swordsmen cannot share spaces. Business tiles have one or two spaces and that is all the Swordsmen that business may contain. Someone else can attempt to “steal” an occupied space by challenging that Swordsman to a duel. Duels are fought by drawing cards from the movement card pile; symbols on the card determine whether the attacker scores a hit or the defender does.
Two hits out of three attempts wins the duel. The victor remains in the space while the loser returns to the beginning of the track.
One of the business tiles sells dueling aids. You don’t have to buy dueling aids to win the game, but each aid adds a significant advantage to a duelist unless the opponent already has the same aid.
During your turn you may either move a Swordsman (including the use of the business where the Swordsman moves), place a business tile, draw two movement cards, or return one Swordsman back to the beginning of the track.
When moving, you play a movement card and then move the number of tiles shown on the card. If you have duplicates of the same card, you can play them consecutively, moving more than one time in the same turn. For instance:
- Play a 3 movement card
- Move your dude three spaces, where you may purchase whatever is sold in the end space
- If you have another 3 movement card you can then play that as well, and again choose whether or not to purchase something wherever your Swordsman lands.
- Another 3? Keep going …
You may only move Swordsmen where there is track; either business tiles, or one of the three board spaces that are occupied by special ability businesses.
- One special ability business sells artwork for movement cards. The first artwork purchased is worth four victory points, the next one only two, and all others only one.
- There are two special ability businesses that sell you movement cards: you turn in two and get to draw three. At first that just seemed like a waste to me; a net gain of one card? Instead of buying steel or jewels or something useful? But I was short-sighted. More on that in a moment.
Maybe It’s a Card Game After All
In our first game, I played for position. I carefully placed my business tiles in such a manner that I could advance through the city and earn materials with minimal need to use my opponents businesses. I positioned Swordsmen at all phases of the road, using the ones in the cheaper parts to acquire goods, while others that had already advanced past the cheap materials waited near the end of the track to turn in completed swords.
I did okay. I didn’t win, but I was close, coming in second out of four and missing first place by only a handful of victory points.
Two of these players are about to have an epiphany. Sadly, I am not.
In our second game, a couple of things changed. For one, all of us played all of our business tiles right away. There is nothing in the rules that requires this, you can play them all game as long as there are spaces remaining, but now that we all understood the value of well-placed businesses we raced for the good spots right up front and the road was set before any Swordsmen were played at all.
But the other big difference was that my Gamer Girl and my youngest son both figured out that Toledo is a card game, and like many card games, maximizing card input is a winning strategy. They both hit the two-for-three spaces with abandon, and it mattered. It seems getting extra cards during your turn is better than getting them instead of your turn. It greatly increases the chance of having a duplicate movement card and getting free extra moves.
I was playing the same slow-developing positional game I’d played in the first go and quickly became just a dimming light in their rear-view mirrors as they raced for the finish. I finished fourth of four, and it wasn’t as close as that sounds.
Toledo was much more fun than the box made it appear. Challenging in unexpected ways, containing a variety of game mechanics that are all well-thought-out and thoroughly designed.
There are a lot of mechanics; at times it seems like a game design exercise. You can feel like you are playing a mashup of minigames. It is not as fluid and cohesive as other Martin Wallace games. This is not a bad thing, it is just a different thing.
Also, I have a nagging feeling that this is a game that has an optimal strategy. If true, that is a downside, because games that have an optimal strategy stop being fun to play once you’ve identified that strategy. It is hardly fair to count this against Toledo; I haven’t found the strategy, and it may not exist at all. It is just a non-quantifiable feeling. Yet I would not be honest if I avoided mentioning it.
Nonetheless. We had a great time playing it, and immediately wanted to play it again. And again after that. That should count for something, right?
BoardGameGeek gives Toledo a 6.3 out of 10, and I think that is about right. This is a good game, much better than average, totally worth playing. But not one that will land in your top ten list.
- My Gamer Girl: “I was surprised by how much I liked this game”. She recommends playing it, and also, buying it, but suggests that one try to buy it on sale.
- Both of my sons recommend the game as well, and both of them would recommend buying it.
I am with my Gamer Girl on this one. Play this game if you can, you’ll have a good time. But don’t spend full price to buy it.