The Taverns of Tiefenthal is a deck-building and dice drafting euro. It’s for 2-4 players and takes about an hour to play, with the 12+ age limit on the box feeling about right. While some describe it as a gateway game, for me it is a little too complex to earn that tag. While the theme isn’t integral to play, it makes perfect sense and feels well integrated. Your cards largely represent staff and customers – the staff providing beer and the customers money. These two currencies in turn help you get more/better out of those staff and customers, while also improving your own little tavern.

You can’t go wrong with the cartoony fantasy art of Dennis Lohausen and the component quality is also solid. Nice little elements of detail catch your eye throughout, while the iconography is largely easy to follow. But the rather odd idea of using some pretty opaque images as icons on cards took a bit of squinting at. In the box you’ll find, well, a lot. Alongside the basic game you’ll find four mini expansions in the box. This equates to 240 cards, 28 dice, 12 wooden cubes, five boards and more than 150 cardboard tokens/pieces. At less than £30, it offers great value for money.

Taverns tief guest board.jpg

Teaching The Taverns of Tiefenthal

I’m going to talk about the vanilla version of the game here, without the included expansions. I’ll mention the various addons below, but they do little to affect the gameplay basics. They more add an extra tactical and strategic choices as you gain experience.

Each player starts with their own tavern board, a few dice and a basic set of cards. Your tavern has nine upgradeable sections. These can be flipped over to their better side using one of the game’s two currencies – money. But you’ll also want to be paying for more staff with that same money. The game’s other currency is beer, which you’ll be using to attract new customers. Who in turn will in turn allow you to make more money. Both staff and customers are represented by cards – which is where the deck-building comes in.

You start the game with a (very familiar) set deck of 10 cards. Seven customers and three staff (one of your staff is a table – but you get the gist). Each player draws cards until all their tables (you start with three printed on your tavern) are full. So each player will start with 3-7 cards. If you’re unlucky, you’ll just have three customers. But you could have all three of your starting staff, plus four customers (one extra, sitting at your extra table).

Taverns tief staff cards.jpg

Dice drafting

Each player now roles four white dice. In addition, you’ll role a dice of your own colour (up to three extras) if you have drawn any ‘waitress’ staff cards that round. You keep your own coloured dice. But with the white dice, you keep one and pass the others clockwise – until everyone has four white dice. Players then simultaneously assign these to spots on their board (but you can change your mind about placements right up until you use the dice).

Dice placed on customers always give money. While most placed on tavern spaces give you beer. There is also a central board one of your tavern spaces lets you advance around, which gives you little bonuses. But largely you’re getting currency. Then, in typical deck-builder fashion, you spend that currency on extra cards. Or, less typically, tavern improvements. These can be very useful, giving permanent staff or letting you save more beer/money for later rounds (allowing you to afford better cards).

After eight rounds, the game ends. The better cards you buy will give the better end game points, with nobles (10 points each) being the most sought after. These have the added bonus of all sharing a table when drawn from your deck. So there isn’t that Dominion-style worry about obtaining end game points too early (quite the opposite). Most points wins.

Taverns tief bar board.jpg

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game feels like a clumsy finished product. Were they really trying to appeal to a family audience? If so, it feels misjudged. I’d point newer gamers to the clever simplicity of Dominion any day of the week. But the basic game is way too light for gamers. So why make them jump through hoops – and a mess of expansions – to get to the better stuff? Overall, to me, this learning curve feels wholly misjudged. And I’d have accepted that if the final version was amazing. But, for me, it was pretty average.

  • The thinker: The base version is clearly not aimed at me. So, is the most complex version of Taverns satisfying? Sadly no, not really. The first adds another currency (schnapps) you can use to trigger a few new actions. The next a min board to move a token around, akin to the main board of the same ilk. These should both probably be in the base game anyway. The next is good, adding setup options allowing players to start with different cards and bonuses. While the last adds a way to score end game points depending on the kind of customer attracted. A good idea, if you had much control over that. Which you don’t. Overall, its smoke and mirrors. A lot of faff to play what is, underneath, a basic deck-builder.

  • The trasher: Nope, nothing for me here. I had hoped the dice drafting would add a bit of fight, but it fails to deliver. In the early rounds everyone wants the same numbers. Threes and fours are basically useless for everyone Then, once you’ve played a few rounds, you can usually get by with whatever you end up with. And the luck of the draw feels incredibly pronounced here. Especially when you then add the randomness of the dice. Did I have a terrible time playing? Absolutely not. The game is fine. But it isn’t worth all the faff of setup etc. And if you’re looking for an interactive experience, look elsewhere.

  • The dabbler: I like the artwork in The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game. Always nice to see some cute animals thrown in! And the theme works well too, in a euro kind of way. The game is pretty easy to pick up, but there does seem to be a lot going on for not a lot of real payoff. The first few games were fun, as we added in new elements. But they didn’t seem to add much except taking longer to set the game up. And fiddling around trying to find the right bits. I can imagine a new set of gamers opening this box and thinking crikey, what the hell is all this?! And promptly putting it to the bottom of their game pile lol.

Taverns tief guest cards.jpg

Key observations

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve guessed that my groups had an at best lukewarm experience with The Taverns of Tiefenthal board game. But a look over at the Board Game Geek hive mind tells a different story. It averages over 7.5 from (at time of print) around five thousand ratings. And it sits comfortably in the top 500 of all time list because of it. Fans see it as a game with a lovely art and atmosphere (agreed), giving a deep strategic experience and tonnes of replayability (for me, not so much). There are a few paths to victory (true), medium luck (I’d say higher), and it plays well across all player counts (also true).

On the flip side, the levels of luck come up a lot. Card drafting already has that in spades so adding dice drafting – especially with so little mitigation – feels a step too far for many. You can set up your deck engine, but if you don’t get the right dice you can’t really run it. Where’s the fun in that? It just feels like a mess. How can a simple deck-builder have seven ‘phases’ every round? With modules adding even more faff. And why have drafting when its almost irrelevant? It feels much like multiplayer solitaire regardless.

Replayability and choices are also issues. In terms of deck-building, the real choices come with the low cost cards. Do you buy tables, go for extra dice etc. Or try to keep a lean deck and go for tavern upgrades. The big ticket purchases – such as expensive customers – feel like arbitrary decisions. The added modules do nothing to advance this part of the game. So where Dominion et al rely on you changing out interesting cards for replayability, Taverns just gives you ‘modules’. But those modules don’t add a lot of genuine variety.

Taverns tief bonuses board.jpg

Conclusion: The Taverns of Tiefenthal

It’s games such as Taverns that have me questioning myself as a reviewer. I know I genuinely still get a thrill from finding genuinely great new games. And they can be anything from a simple family card game to a complex story-driven adventure or euro. But then a hugely popular game such as this has be doubting my credentials. Am I just too gnarled and bitter after years of playing these games? Out of touch with the common modern gamer?

I think it’s a bit of both. Taverns isn’t a bad game. I rated it a five, but it could’ve been a six. Average. (The lower rank is largely for the faff you go through to actually to start playing.) And I agree with many of the points of praise. Where the old me sprouts his ‘get off my lawn’ temper is in ‘replayability’. I guess, in the ol’ days, that meant hammering something for 50+ plays. Now, a replayable game is going to get five plays in the average group.

Did I get five plays out of Taverns? Sure. I don’t regret those hours, or want them back. But I don’t want to play it anymore, as I think I’ve seen everything it’s going to give me. I would, but wouldn’t pick it. There are so many better deck-builders, including the original classic Dominion. And that has genuine replayability coming out the wazoo. This, for me, is not a good example of a replayable game. But perhaps by modern standards it is.

Taverns tief setup cards.jpg

Originally posted at Punch Board Media