Fresco, the debut design by Marco Ruskowski and Marcel SüBelbeck published by Queen Games, is at its core a worker-placement game with some interesting twists.
From two to four players represent Master Painters charged by the bishop with restoring the great fresco in the cathedral. In order to accomplish this task, the masters will have to send apprentices to various locations in order to assemble the paints and cash necessary to get the job done. And a little morale-boosting trip to the theater might not hurt either, especially if you wake up early.
The first action each player must decide is wake-up time. Waking up earlier in the morning gives you first pick of the paints in the market (albeit at higher prices) and generally first shot at all of the other locations. The trade-off to rising early is that your apprentices will be unhappy and you will probably have less of them at your disposal than your more lazy counterparts. It’s a careful balance, and really what gives Fresco a lot of its unique charm.
The other actions are more straightforward. After start time is chosen and the number of apprentices for each player determined (usually five each, plus or minus one depending on Mood), the players secretly assign their apprentices to their tasks. Up to three apprentices can be sent to a given location. The first location is the Market, where a number of stalls contain randomly-drawn quantities and colors of paints available. Each apprentice sent allows a player to purchase one tile (representing from one to three cubes of paint) at that player’s wake-up price in wake-up order; the remaining tiles at that stall are abandoned, making “trashing” a stall with a single apprentice but not purchasing anything a viable tactic.
The second location is the Cathedral. Players here may restore one section of the fresco per apprentice, earning the victory points indicated on the specific section, as well as bonus points depending on the presence of the bishop pawn (which can be moved a single space by spending a thaler). Optionally, a player may instead restore the altar by spending paint cubes, but this is typically a less-valuable option than a piece of the fresco that requires the same combination of colors and generally only an end-game option. Like the Market, the players visit the Cathedral in wake-up order.
The last three locations are generally visited by each player simultaneously, regardless of wake-up time. The Portrait Studio earns three thalers per apprentice assigned, the Workshop allows each apprentice to blend up to two colors of paints (which is the only way to obtain purple cubes), and the Theater increases the player’s mood two spaces per apprentice. At the end of the round, each player earns an income based on how many pieces of the fresco (s)he has restored, and then a new round begins with new wake-up times. Since wake-up times are selected from last to first place, it is important to note that scoring pawns can’t share the same score; if a player’s scoring marker would occupy the same place as another’s, that player has to decide to either earn one less point or one more point.
These rounds continue until there are six or less fresco tiles remaining. For the final round, players do not have the option to visit the theater (because there’d be no point to it), but instead have a second opportunity to visit the Cathedral — and importantly, this second chance comes after mixing colors at the Workshop. Whoever has the most points at the end of this round is the winner, with every two remaining thalers earning a point each (there is no income for the final round); final points are assigned in wake-up order, and the “no two players can have the same score” rule still applies — although at this point you obviously take the extra point.
A game of Fresco clocks in at around an hour, although the set-up time can add to that depending on how the pieces have been stored. The board itself has two sides, one for four players and the other for two or three. Two players alternate using a “dummy” player (“Leonardo”) that uses slightly different rules. The game also includes three optional modules to enhance replayability, which makes the entire box a decent bargain at $40ish. It’s not a game I want to play every week, but it is unique enough to warrant some attention from time to time.