Fresco Review

Players: 3-6

Time: ~45+ minutes

Times Played: 9

Today I want to talk (well, write. I guess I’m not physically talking to any the fourteen people that read my reviews) about immortalizing oneself as one of the greatest Renaissance-era artists as you attempt to complete the most paintings in a cathedral ceiling. How is your influence measured ? Victory points of course! That must mean we are talking about Fresco.

In trying to describe Fresco, I kept stumbling over what I want to say. This game is incredibly light as a worker placement but it is also astonishingly tricky because turn order, after the reveal, is so important.

Personally, I enjoy games with a hidden/simultaneous reveal mechanic and at the base of this game, that’s what Fresco is. Players can choose their destiny by deciding when to wake up and in doing so, that might mitigate some of the chaos that happens from the blind reveal.

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Fresco is all about turn order. The first thing players do each turn is decide on when to Wake Up. Each time slot can only occupy one player and the slots are chosen in reverse order of the current score of the game. So if you are in last place, you can choose when to wake up first.

I go back and forth on if waking up is thematic with being a good painter but I usually say “eh” because I think it’s a great way to start the players out. I love games with a variable starting order. Viticulture is my favorite with this mechanic. But anyways, waking up determines three things:

A)     Player Order. Whoever wakes up the earliest is the first player for that turn.

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B)     The price of buying paint in the market that round. Each time listed corresponds with a coin amount and that is the price you will pay for a tile of paint when you/if you head to the market that turn. I guess they’re trying to say that there is more of a demand for paint at 5:00 AM, thus prices are higher but I don’t think that fits here. Whatever though; it sets market prices.

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C)     Grumpiness from waking up. The earlier you wake up, the grumpier you are. The later you sleep, the happier you are. This is all dependent on everyone going to bed at the same time. I’m cool with this.

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After the turn order is set, players will place their workers on their player boards, which are conveniently hidden behind your player dividers. In Fresco, there are several actions you can take after you have awakened for the day. They are available on your player board.

Normally, you will have five apprentices (meeples) available each day. If you are particularly happy, you will have six but if your workers are more Statler and Waldorf, you will only have four to use. On your individual board, you can do the following:

A)     Buy paints in the market. There are always the same number of paints in the market as there are players. Depending on how many apprentices you sent to the market (up to a maximum of three), you can buy that many paints from the paint stall that you visit. Once you visit the stall, any unpurchased paints are returned to the draw pile as that entrepreneur closes up shop for the day. The benefit to waking up early for here is that you are able to pick which stall you visit before anyone else. If you’re the last player to visit, you may be stuck with something you don’t want.

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B)     Restore part of the fresco in the cathedral ceiling. Again, depending on how many apprentices that were placed on this column (maximum of three), players will paint the fresco on the cathedral ceiling in the order that they have awakened. Players can only paint squares in which they have the paints currently available to them. This is how you score in Fresco.

Depending on how much paint is required or the complexity of the color scheme directly corresponds to the amount of points you will get for completing the tile. No matter how many points you score, you will only receive one coin for completing the tile. You’re doing this for the infamy, not material gain, remember?

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C)     Paint portraits. Okay, so not everything you do is just to bolster your painting immortality. You will need money to buy paints and since you’re a painter, why not sell your services? In the base game, turn order does not matter as each portrait painted is worth a standard three coins. This is pretty dry to me.

Module One: Portraits fixes this by adding portraits that give players a benefit besides money. These include: gaining victory points, gaining paint colors or gaining happiness for your workers. Some of these benefits are one-offs and some are every turn until the game is over. This also introduces a new end-game trigger, running out of portrait cards.

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D)     Mix paints. You can mix two colors for each apprentice you send to mix paints. Basically, you can turn four paints into two paints. Turn order does not matter. Just know that since this happens after you paint the cathedral, you need to plan ahead at least a turn. One of your player dividers has a helpful diagram that breaks down color theory if you do not remember what mixing yellow and blue will give you.

Module Three: Special Blend Colors adds more colors that you can mix and adds new fresco tiles, some worth more points as the paint mixtures are more complicated to create.

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E)     Lastly, go to the theater for some relaxation and enjoyment. You move two spaces towards utter joy for each apprentice you send to the theater. The more happiness you have, the better chance you have at gaining an extra worker to help out.

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Players will do this until there are six or less unpainted fresco ceiling tiles remaining at the end of the round. When that happens, there is one more round left for the players to try and score points. In this final round, you flip your player board over and have the opportunity to paint the cathedral six times as opposed to three.

For any coins that are remaining, players are given one point for every two coins and the player with the most points wins the game!

Before I go into my random spiel of thoughts, I wanted to touch more on the expansion modules.

One thing I have neglected to mention so far was Module Two: The Bishop’s Request. This is a way of trading in completed Fresco tiles for additional points and other benefits. The earlier a player trades in for a tile, the more worthwhile the benefit is. This module is the most average of the first three expansions but we have no trouble including it as it’s easy to remember, has minimal set-up time and it does provide just a little extra in the way of choices for the players.

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Module Three: Special Blend Colors is our second favorite and an easy include with players. With people that can’t remember how to make brown (this guy), it does come with a very helpful color combination aid that assists players. The additional paint cubes are also larger to signify that they are worth more points.

The only drawback we have noted with this module is that the new tiles can make a huge swing in points for the players. We don’t have a problem with this as it makes the games more competitive but it is something to be aware of.

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Module One: The Portraits is a must include. It adds more strategy and a fun variant to the portrait action. We would never play without this.

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With all these additions, how does the player count impact the game? I say with the additions because I have not played Fresco “bare,” nor do I plan to.

At two-players, each player rotates using a dummy third player, Michelangelo, to occupy a wake up space, buy paints, work at the fresco and paint portraits. Some paints are also removed from the draw bag in regards to determining the market.

Playing with just two people is not ideal as you are controlling a third, dummy player but it does make the game go by a little quicker as the fresco is guaranteed to be revealed at least one tile each turn. You’re basically playing a solid game of takeaway each round. Between my fiance and I, Michelangelo looks like a dick so we play him as one.

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Look at that smugness.

He’s always taking the high point or easy to complete tiles or the paint cubes that we know the other player wants. He’s basically Scott from South Park. But you could also play him nicely and never interact with the other player. It’s all about preference.

Fresco at three players is…okay. There’s nothing wrong with the game and it still functions as well as it does at four, but it just feels like something is missing. Each player basically fulfills the role of Serge Ibaka because each round becomes a block party. You are actively trying to keep players from performing some actions.

At four players is where I believe Fresco to be the best. One player cannot be frozen out. Risks must be taken if you want to come out ahead. The game flows fluidly and there isn’t much analysis paralysis happening for the players as there are not that many actions to take.

The components for the game are all of high quality. The board is alive and vibrant with color and is double-sided, depending on how many players are trying to color their way to history. There is religious iconography and some slight painted nudity so if that is not your cup of tea, then one, I would not scroll any further as the game board is the next image that you will see and two, not play this game since it is not for you. Anyways, it’s a board so nice I have to show it twice:

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The cards are of nice quality and the cardboard pieces are thick and sturdy. The differing sizes of the paint cubes is a nice touch and the master painter meeples look like little painters or chefs, depending on your imagination level.

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In the photo above, the wooden brown workers are the extra worker that you gain if your apprentices (the smaller meeples) are overly happy and the white pawn is the bishop, who is overseeing the painting of his beloved cathedral.

The game also comes with two dividers and a player board for each aspiring artist. One will cover your paints and money and the other will shield the player board until the reveal. Both provide helpful information. One has the layout of each round and the other has the basic color theory on it.

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For how light this game is, there is a sizable amount going on and while not a true engine builder, you do have to try and plan several turns in advance if you want to keep everything moving fluidly. Even with this dynamic, floundering a turn or two won’t really set you back too much, which is nice.

We’ve never had someone truly out of the game and with the expansions bringing in some high value paints, someone might run out to a big lead only to be usurped after one of the large point tiles is completed.

Fresco is easy to teach and I have no real issue explaining it to any of my gaming group. If I thought my parents were into the theme, I would have no problem introducing them to Fresco. It also helps that the theme is evident in most actions that you take (minus what I harped on earlier).

You mix paints to create a new color. You use that new color to paint the ceiling. You paint portraits as a side gig to earn money. As far as beginner worker placement games go, I would definitely recommend Fresco as a great place to start.

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I also could not imagine playing this game without the first three modules. When I told my friends that was what we were doing, they all had an uneasy look on their face like “won’t that be a lot going on?”

After two rounds their expression changed to “that’s it?”. I honestly feel like Fresco was/is saved by the expansions (at least the first three). The base game appears incredibly dull and I know if I would have introduced the game as just that, we were likely not to touch it again.

There were a few rules I did not touch on (i.e. bribing/moving the bishop) but one that I really liked that I did not mention was that you cannot share a victory points place with another player.

So if John has fourteen points and I am sitting at seven and score seven more points, I gain one additional point, thus jumping to fifteen on the track since we cannot occupy the same spot. It’s such a small, minute aspect of the game that doesn’t offer appear but when it does, it elicits emotions from at least two players.

One other benefit of Fresco is that there are a total of ten expansion modules, all adding something new and different to the base game. You can buy them in sets, like the first set I have reviewed here, or you can buy the Big Box set, which comes with everything. That’s a benefit all in of itself but also, the ability to mix and match, give and take and combine any to all of these modules means that you can get a lot of longevity out of Fresco. Are all the modules homeruns? I can’t say yet. But for now, this is definitely a game that we will be coming back to.

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