The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Too Many Words about Phoenicia

This article covers my (evolving) thoughts about Phoenicia strategy, tactics and planning. I’m not the best person to write this, but the better candidates are silent.

In Phoenicia, like any economic game, you manage scarcity. While you eventually need Victory Points, you want workers, technologies, storage, production and discounts. Phoenicia’s secret is that you don’t need all of them. You can win with three workers, or with just hunting and farming. You can beat people who produce two or three more cards than you on the final turns. You can win with only a modest increase in storage.

But if you lag in one area, you need a compensating advantage elsewhere.

Tips for new players

  • A player who wins several items at cost is probably running away with the game.
  • Use your initial workers before buying (many) more. [Don’t get the fort too soon.]
  • Saving money is often better than increasing your production now. It may let you win an auction at cost (or drive up the price). This is particularly true with an early dye house.
  • You can do well by losing most auctions.
  • Watch your breakpoints. Before you bid, know what you’ll do with your remainder – save, invest, or bid on something else. Also know what you’ll do if you lose that auction.
  • If someone has a double (or triple) discount on something, bid them up a fair bit. Don’t pass in despair. (Again, this is why you save!)
  • Don’t ignore storage. You don’t need a granary, but will need more capacity.
  • If you have a granary (and are saving), convert a card into change before the end of the turn … you may earn an extra dollar or two.

Some concepts

Production isn’t everything — You can win many other economics games if you just ramp up your production at every opportunity. You must make sure it’s early enough to pay off, but if you spend money that will pay back the investment in three turns, and there are five turns left, do it. In Phoenicia, this doesn’t always work.

Investing in production pays back in 3-4 turns; but without storage extra production is wasted. Investing also ties up money if a critical auction hits next turn. While big VPs are available on the final turns, those often go for a premium. City Centers (and Public Works) provide great bang for the buck. Investments made then (instead of buying VPs earlier) will be roughly equal to the premium you’ll have to pay for the end-of-game points.

If you can bid on a city walls (or port) before everyone else can, then the production increase will often win. The game shows big differences when it goes one more turn …

Every Fourth Production is special – If you have a production of three, you earn three. If you have a production of four, you earn a card … usually worth five. In the short term, three production with one change ready is the same as four and no change. You’ll earn the same (next turn) and have some flexibility. (But production often comes with VP, which may make you the overseer).

How much does it cost? – Phoenicia is an economic game, and economists should always be asking “At what cost?” As mentioned earlier, it typically takes 3-4 turns to return an investment on production. At the end of the game, Victory Points are usually available (in limited quantity) for around $3-$4 each. On the last turn you can often calculate your best purchase. Someone who will break away from the pack buying an item at cost will fall behind if they pay too much. I’m perfectly happy losing auctions for non-critical items, if the price was driven up.

Concentrate on your problem areas – If you don’t get a granary early, how do you plan on increasing your storage? What will you do if you don’t get any workers in the first deck (there are none in deck two)? You can work around early problems (hopefully every player has some problem), but you must focus on them. It is best to deal with it sooner, rather than later. If you miss a granary and get no storage in deck two, what if the Merchant Quarters show up late?

But beyond looking at your situation, you can usually see other people’s problems.

Specific Tactics

Don’t let good items go for cost – Sometimes this will be unavoidable, but almost every card confers an advantage if purchased at cost. When to bid up and then drop out takes skill and a feeling for the game. My rule of thumb is “don’t bid up unless it covers your weakness, or your opponent really must have it.” Of course, if you are sure your opponent will keep raising (no matter what), then bid it up.

The overseer gets to open items. One nice advantage is to keep opening things at cost (or perhaps one higher), losing, and take the final item (or two) when nobody can outbid you. That requires flexibility; being indifferent to what you get (which may be the case on turn one, or if you have a reasonably balanced position).

Save Money – This is just an extension of the above. How can you bid someone up if you don’t have the minimum bid? Don’t neglect your production, but sometimes saving is the better alternative.

If you must have it, don’t get cute – Suppose you have $10, and the bid is $8. Yes, you could get the item for $9 … but you’ll feel silly if someone bids $10. Sometimes you just have to go “all in.” Not only does this apply for most money, but it also applies for breakpoints. If you have $18, but plan on spending $8 to put a worker on mining, you are in the same boat.

Elements

Workers – At the start of the game, with only three workers, you are looking at a production capped around five (two farmers and a hunter, or two hunters with improved hunting). If you get mining or clothe making, you can improve your finances. There are also advances that provide ‘automatic’ income (such as glass making, dye houses, caravans, and shipping later on). These will be more important if you missed out on the workers in Deck A.

In the end game, spare workers let you convert extra VPs for $4 each (less if they are trained or you have Public Works). If you buy those ‘extra’ VPs before the endgame, you’ll also earn income.

Storage – You must improve storage somewhat to win the game. I believe you can win with four (although five or six is better), although I don’t think I’ve witnessed it. If you missed a granary, you should know how you are going to improve your storage in deck 2. The choices are Caravan, Smelter or Dye House. Even then, you’ll probably need something else, like a Merchant Quarter.

You just can’t win the big auctions holding only three cards. Discounts reduce your reliance on storage. A five discount (like from a Shipyard) is ‘worth’ one card. If you are “storage locked” (production fills your hand) then increasing your storage or buying VPs should be your priority. City Centers let you convert spare income into VPs, as do workers. If you have nothing better to do, buy tools for future workers.

Production – You can fall slightly behind on production, but you should be able to challenge on important items by saving up for a turn (after having bid up a few items on the current turn). If you can’t threaten with two turns income, you are too far behind. If you are behind on production you should consider adding a new worker (if available) or improving a worker (Hunting to Mining or Clothmaking). A player who is ‘slightly’ behind on production should consider trying to buy VPs early via City Center, Public Works, and the Workers in Deck 3. (These also improve production, as well as providing VP). Playing like this, you’ll sometimes wind up in the high twenties and then get outbid on the final turn. If you’ve left yourself enough ways to convert cash to VPs (workers and City Centers) then you may eke out a win.

Production Technologies – Production technologies let you get by with fewer workers. Note that it takes four turns to recoup a hunting investment (cost:2 for training + 2 for hunting, income:1). Farming takes 3.5 turns, mining takes 3.33 turns, and clothmaking takes 3.25. [Update This analysis assumes a ready supply of untrained workers, which assumes a fort. A better analysis would be to assume each trained worker costs $4 (although you get one ‘cheaply.’ That would makes hunting 6:1, Farming 9:2, Mining 12:3 and Clothmaking 15:4] There are substitutes if you miss out on Mining or Clothmaking (extra workers, income via cards, and discounts). The clothmaking technology is interesting because it also provides storage.

Mining is somewhat worse than clothing, but it is the cheapest way to make each worker worth 2VP. Unless you have an overabundance of workers, that ability can provide a few extra points.

Discounts – As discussed above, discounts serve as a way around storage limits and a production boost. New players are inclined to let these go cheaply, since they don’t help right now. All cards that provide discounts are great purchases (at cost) and still very good for $1-$2 more. If you make a $1 profit (after 3 turns) that’s fairly close to the returns discussed for production workers … and you’ll have bought some victory points along the way. Discounts are more dependent on luck of the draw. For example, if you get both dyers (in a 4 player game), and both dye houses hit on the same turn, you’ll probably only get one. On the other hand, if they hit on separate turns, you’ve got a great chance of getting both. On the other hand, if you only got one dyer, your probably happy to see the dye houses show up together. Each player owning a dyer will probably get one. If they show up separately, one of you is missing out.

Victory Points – Lagging early in victory points isn’t a problem, but by deck three you should start focusing on them. Unless you’ve stocked up on workers and just completely dominate production (and discounts) you’ll probably be limited to winning a single auction on the final turn. If you get a city walls and everyone else gets a trade fleet, that’s only 3 VPs in your favor (plus a few workers you can convert to VPs at the cost of $3-4 per VP). So if you are 5-6 VP behind multiple players, the numbers don’t often add up unless all the breakpoints fall just so.

Auction Items [Min Bid, Deck, VPs]

The complete description of items is here.

Dyer (2, 1A, 1VP) – The Dyer gives a -4 discount on the dye house. Dye houses are good, with decent income, VPs and storage. Once players are experienced, these never go for 2; but go for 3+.

Granary (4, 1A, 1VP) – The Granary increases your storage by two, and also allows you to hold six change. This means that when you are saving you can often convert a card to change and buy a card. This makes the granary worth perhaps ½ an income (assuming you save cards every other turn). And even if you never improve your storage again, the extra space means the first card you throw away will often not cost you anything.

Glassmaking (5, 1A, 1VP) – This five turn return on investment (at minimum bid) isn’t great, but doesn’t cost a worker. This ‘extra worker’ costs $1 (over training a new hunter).

Fort (7, 1A, 1VP) – The fort provides three untrained workers and 1 VP. The important thing to remember about the fort is that the workers aren’t for the early game. You’ll spend $7 + $2 + $2 = $11 for your first $1 in income (hunter). Now, if you could convert all three workers to hunters immediately, you’d spend $19 to earn $3/turn. Not a great ratio. So, the fort isn’t an early production boost. Often the forts sit on the board until late in the first deck (or early in the second deck). What the fort does is allow a player who is short on storage to convert money to VPs (and production) in the hope of grabbing storage ASAP. Forts also serve as an investment towards VP. When the fort(s) come out will have a big impact on how the games timing works. The earlier they show up, the more likely they are to slow the game down, letting it last an extra turn. And games that go an extra turn mean that multiple players will want ways to convert their spare cash to VPs.

Indentured Worker (3, 1B, 0VPs) – The indentured worker, on the other hand, is an early production boost. Getting this for cost and then hunting is equal to Glassmaking (but combines with the tracker).

Prospector (2, 1B, 1VP) – This gives you mining technology, 1VP, and a minor discount on the smelter. Mining technology can be tricky to use, as scrounging up the $8 is tricky. If you can get this cheaply and save a card, then you can (next turn) move a hunter to mining (leaving tools) and then spend $2 to train a replacement hunter the following turn. But if you can’t be sure of $8 next turn, this becomes riskier. Winning on an opening turn for a $3 bid (assuming you have a five) leaves you with $4. You can put a hunter in, but then you can’t get a miner until turn 3. And you’ll have to train a worker (or win another auction) or lose your extra change … an intolerable situation so early in the game. You can win with mining, but it has more pitfalls than other production paths.

Tracker (3, 1B, 1VP) – The tracker gives improved hunting, which makes each even worker worth an extra production. A player winning this at cost on Turn 1 can then spend his remaining $4 (assuming a $5 card) boosting his production by two. A player who wins both trackers cheaply (in a 4-5 player game) will run away with the game. Of course, bidding an extra dollar will solve that.

Dye House (14, 2A, 3VP) – Apart from the 3 VP, the dye house provides 3 income and a storage, as well as clothmaking, the best production technology in the game. Dye houses solve all sorts of problems – too few workers, too little production, not enough storage. Therefore, they usually command a stiff premium. If the last turn in deck 1 saw all the cards purchased, then saving up and praying for a dye house often wins the game. Even if you already have a single dye house, the Income, Storage and VP make this a great purchase at cost. Dye Houses remain a constant threat you should consider (until they’ve been bought). “What will happen if I win this card and a dye house comes out next turn?” You don’t need to be able to win it, but if your answer is “My opponent will win a cheap dye house” then you should be concerned.

Caravan (9, 2A, 1VP) – In addition to its VP, the caravan provides 2 income and a storehouse. The tracker provides a -2 discount. If you’ve got a tracker, but no granary, this should be a priority to get your 3rd storage. Even without a tracker, this is often worth a bid.

City Center (4, 2B, 2VP) – The city center lets you buy an additional 3VPs whenever you want. Usually, the last turn of the game (unless you have money you can’t store, or wish to become the overseer). It also provides a -4 discount off Public Works, which is a huge influx of VP in its own right, as well as providing a discount on the City Walls.

Smelter (6, 2B, 1VP) – The smelter acts as a mini-Caravan¬, with only one income (instead of two). However, the smelter also provides Improved Mining. If you already have a worker (or two) on mining, then the improved version should pay out quickly. And, if you already have mining, you have a Prospector, which gives you another -1 discount. This combines to ‘reserve’ the smelter(s) for people who already have mining, but it’s hardly a done deal.

Shipyard (7, 2B, 2VP) – The shipyard only provides discounts, but for so many great cards! Like Dyers, letting a player double up on these means that you need to be bidding against them. Also, winning a shipyard hardly reserves all the Ships, Ports and Trade Fleets for you. Often there will be multiple discounts in one turn, and its likely that you can only afford one item (even with discounts). If that’s the case, and someone outbids you (hoping to drive you up), consider dropping out and going for the second one.

Public Works (12, 3A, 5VP) – Huge VP bang for the buck, usually paid for in bidding, and in having a lower production going into the final rounds. The public works will likely make you the overseer, which is a modest benefit going into the final rounds. The improved Training Grounds may save you a few dollars in the endgame, particularly if you’ve bought a fort (or win a City Wall).

Ships (14, 3A, 2VP) – Worth a full card a turn (and a storehouse), the owner of the Shipyard hopes these hit early (and separately, if he’s the only owner). A generally good card, although a player with a commanding production lead should be looking at converting income to VP by this stage of the game.

Refugee Settlement (8, 3B, No VP) – Three untrained and one trained worker will let you buy some late victory points, especially if you have a great production. However, the Refugee Settlement somewhat occupies the same space as the Fort. Much of the game revolves around when they get bought and how much the slow things down. They aren’t bad, but other items are slightly better.

Merchant Quarter (9, 3B, 2VP) – This provides two storage, as well as a trained worker. The storage should alleviate most concerns (unless you haven’t improved anything at all before this), although you only afford a city wall with only five cards with an above average draw (assuming some stored change, and no discounts).

City Wall (30, 4A, 8VP) – 8 VP usually ends the game right there. If not, then you’ll be able to spend $9 or $12 to earn 3 more (via workers). Depending on how the game goes (will it end immediately), that shouldn’t enter into play. But if the game will last a turn after you get the city walls, it’s a big bonus.

Trade Fleet (18, 4A, 5VP) – With an income of 1 card and a storehouse, the Trade Fleet makes a great appearance if it joins the remainder of deck 3. Its affordable, and the income will be appreciated. When it shows up on the last turn, it’s a consolation prize for the player(s) just a touch short of being able to win the City Walls or Ports.

Port (25, 4B, 7VP) — Nearly as good as the City Walls if the game is ending immediately, and much more efficient if you have a Shipyard. If there’s still a turn, then the 6 income and storehouse come into play.

Update I’ve got several comments (via email and below) that I need to incorporate.

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Written by taogaming

September 4, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Strategy

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. Very nice strategy article, Brian, as usual. Here’s a few initial thoughts.

    First, quite a few beginning players complain that Phoenicia has a runaway leader problem. Once you get a few games under your belt, you realize this isn’t so, but you may want to devote a paragraph to this fact (and mention how players can deal with a player who appears to be a runaway leader).

    You place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of buying items cheaply, as opposed to buying things that work well together (or fill a need). Specifically, your statement, “A player who wins several items at cost is probably running away with the game” kind of surprises me. It hasn’t been uncommon in my games for several items in the early rounds to go for cost. Of course, that means that most players will get their own cheap item, so maybe that all balances out. But it’s hard for me to believe that getting, say, all three Glassmaking cards for cost would give that player such a big advantage.

    Your thoughts on the benefits of leaving yourself money for the next turn are useful, particularly since it’s a non-intuitive strategy. This is an area I tend to ignore myself.

    Our players seem to place much more emphasis on workers than yours do. In particular, Forts and Indentured Workers are often bid up and late in the game, Refugee Settlements can go for very high prices. The fact that no workers come out during the second deck weighs heavily on us. But it’s hard for me to believe that the Forts in your games might last more than a round. I wonder if we’re putting too little importance on the end-game VPs, as opposed to those that come from workers.

    Related to the “runaway leader problem” is the perception of many beginners that Clothmaking is the killer technology. Again, a few words from you that while this is nice, it isn’t a guaranteed win might be useful.

    Finally, don’t let yourself get played out with this one (that shouldn’t be a problem once Race for the Galaxy appears!). I still love Phoenicia, but am having a hard time finding fans in my own group. So I’ll be looking for folks to play this with come next April!

    Larry

    Larry Levy

    September 4, 2007 at 6:06 pm

  2. There is no doubt an element of group think to Pheonicia, which I may be afflicted with.

    I think that if players save their money (particularly going into deck two) that whoever wins the dye house is likely to be bid up enough to balance the game, so I didn’t particularly address it. It is a powerful card, but if it’s bid up, then that’s that. One (strong) local does believe that a dye house is worth “Any price,” which certainly seems like overstating it. And my second bullet point explicitly mentions saving money for the dye house. Perhaps I should just say “Bid 3 on the dyer. Trust me.”

    In the early game most of the cards are good enough that I’d be happy to offer my opponents their choice, as long as they paid $1 over list and I got list. (Remembering that no forts or granaries are in the first turn deal). Now, as the game differentiates, then choices matter, particularly if you have an ‘unbalanced’ setup (like 2 storage but good production going into deck two, or great storage and poor production).

    As for the early game, we often bid up the Indentured servant. If you win it at cost, you only pay a $1 premium compared with training and placing a worker, and you have another worker later on. The fort, though, doesn’t advance you much now (It would take $11 to use the first worker, and that only earns $1/turn unless you have a tracker or two).

    In fact, almost all of our early cards are bid up. Dyers open for 3 (sometimes 4). The only time anyone opens something for list is when they don’t particularly want it. And, in fact, I won last night by snagging both glassmakings at five (3player game) and then lost the second game when I refused to overbid the glassmaking opening, so as to avoid anyone getting a cheap dyer. [Granted, that’s not why I won or lost, but it sticks in my mind[.

    I expect I’ll be playing Phoenicia for another month or two, and then ratchet down to reasonable levels.

    Brian

    September 4, 2007 at 7:27 pm

  3. Just to clarify … I do state that you should fill your needs, but in the early game (especially) players aren’t differentiated enough … so cost becomes a driving factor.

    I also didn’t directly discuss dealing with poor production draws (4s), but I think that most of that falls out from “Paying attention to breakpoints.” A player with a weak draw early on can often outbid another player, reluctant to go past a breakpoint.

    And glassmaking isn’t particularly strong … its one of the items I’m most likely to skip out of bidding. But think of it this way … an indentured worker for $3, moved into hunting, earns the same income/vp as a glassmaker. (The indentured worker, however, can benefit from tracking, or be moved into farming or mining later).

    Brian

    September 4, 2007 at 7:36 pm

  4. Some Thoughts:

    The Fort can be very dangerous in the hands of someone with a Tracker. For anybody else it’s a longer term investment.

    I think you underrate Smelter for those who don’t have Prospector. The storage it gives can be invaluable, and it’s a great, cheap and often winning consolation prize for those who don’t get the overbid Dye House. It’s easy to overrate the Dye House after seeing it win the first few games. Also, if you have plenty of storage I much prefer building improved miners to clothmakers. Costing 3 less each build is a nice savings for getting 1 less production out of 8.

    One important consideration in bidding is when in the deck a card has come up. Cards that give discounts and VPs are usually better late in their respective decks, while production and storage are better early. If someone gets a first turn Tracker at cost they are in a very strong position. A first turn Dyer at cost isn’t nearly as good a deal (although still nice). Similarly if Shipbuilding shows up early the cost relative to when the discounts will pay out makes it a less attractive buy.

    frunk

    September 5, 2007 at 8:41 am

  5. All true points. I’ll incorporate some of these points (and others) in a few days.

    Brian

    September 5, 2007 at 11:18 am


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