The Estates is an easy to learn auction game by game designer Klaus Zoch (of Chicken Cha Cha fame). It was previously released as Neue Heimat, but thanks to Kickstarter and Capstone Games this new edition looks virtually identical and differs only in small, barely noticable ways. What makes the game stand out instead is the way in which each step in a turn is cleverly connected to the rest, leading to some tricky decisions throughout the game. It leads to memorable plays because every decision has tangible consequences.
Visually, The Estates evokes the natural charm of a sophisticated child‘s toy. The wooden cubes that players primarily bid on during the game come in bold colors, that even a pre-schooler can easily distinguish. The number printed prominently on them remind you of kindergarten toys. The active player picks one wooden cube (representing the floor of a building) that everybody else gets to bid on exactly once. Whoever puts in the highest bid, gets to place the cube on the board.
As the game progresses you‘ll catch yourself responding with increasing intensity to the bids and decisions of other players. Because The Estates is the kind of game that demands you be mean, allows you to be mean and occasionally makes you want to be mean. The familiar squabble over victory points has a definitive edge to it here. For one thing, your hard-won VP can easily be stolen from you. Worse even, you may end up with negative values in the end. Your 14 victory points may result in -14 victory points, if things don‘t go as planned.
This can turn The Estates into a very tense and occasionally nerve-wracking experience. In some players this brings out ambition and giddy excitement. Whereas others can become frustrated and irritable because of it. The Estates is not the kind of game you should play without first warning or maybe even coaching your group first.
Because under the wheeling and dealing over apartment buildings, you will find an impressively elegant rules set. With laser-like precision players will constantly be given decisions to make, that will invariably leave a mark on the game state. Each block that goes up for auction chances the point balance between players notably. Every special token that is bid on increases the risk of players earning negative points at the end of the game. Each bidding round presents players with a challenging puzzle, in which they not only have to evaluate how important a block is to them, but also how valuable it may be to other players. The Estates is the kind of game that doesn‘t allow you to take your mind off it.
Another clever detail that makes The Estates such a polished design is the closed money circuit the auctions represent. Every player starts off with the same amount of money (or rather cheques with signatures of Kickstarter backers). Payment for winning the auction always goes to the auctioneer or the highest bidder themselves, for the right to place the block where it best suits their personal interest. There‘s some sly political commentary hidden in the overlap of theme and rules mechanisms, provided you have some passing knowledge of Germany‘s social market economy.
Similar to High Society, a similarly clever but much lighter auction game by Reiner Knizia, each bid is basically a challenge to another player, based on strategic thinking and the greed for more victory points.
In this game everybody is hurtling towards the end with eyes wide open. It‘s not uncommon for players to try to run things into the ground, in order to spread negative victory points around the table. This kind of ribbing can be a source of laughter, but it can also be highly demotivating if your plans are constantly thwarted.
Despite its look, the Estates is not an easy-going game. Despite its theme, it‘s not the kind of game that awards victory to the player who build his houses most efficiently. But it‘s a superbly designed hour in which you get to indulge in some unbridled competition.