Game Review: Pamplona: Viva San Fermin!

Pamplona: Viva San Fermín! is a light strategic game that recreates the annual running of the bulls during Pamplona's seven day San Fermín festival. Players not only get to guide a runner to the finish line, but they also take control of bulls to gore and trample their opponents. As the first major release from upstart Canadian game publisher Tartan Grizzly Productions, will Pamplona get them started off on the right foot? Read on for the full review:

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 45 minutes

Age: 8 to adult

Publisher: Tartan Grizzly

MSRP: $39.99

Release: Q2 2011

The Gameplay:

Play in Pamplona takes place over four separate rounds, each covering a different section of the run. Each player controls one runner, one ox, and one bull, all three of which provide their own opportunities to earn victory points.

An important part of each round's setup phase is determining where on the board each runner will start. Each round's board represents an alley of Pamplona divided into a grid that is four spaces wide and thirteen spaces long. Runners who start the round just one row ahead of the furthest bull will receive the highest number of victory points (5), while other runners will receive one less victory point for each additional head start row they take. In addition, the runner closest to the bulls at start receives an extra three points, while the runner furthest away is penalized by one point. None of these points will be awarded until a runner moves off the end of the board, so this initial placement is a major risk/reward decision. Just how close can you cut it?

Runners move two spaces on each turn (any combination of forward and diagonal moves), but this might not be enough to escape the fast moving hooves and horns racing up behind them. Bulls can gore and oxen can trample, but doing so is difficult. Bulls and oxen may only do so by moving into a runner's space from directly behind. Goring awards the bull's owner two victory points and also removes the gored runner from the board, while trampling awards the ox's owner one victory point but merely stuns the runner.

The movement of bulls and oxen is where the element of chance enters Pamplona. Players start each round with five bull and five ox cards, which contain movement points numbered anywhere from two to five. Before runners are placed, players can use one of each card type to perform some initial seeding of the board with bulls and oxen. Once runners are placed, the round begins. Each runner and animal moves forward, starting with those in the row closest to the end of the board and progressing backwards towards start. If multiple tokens are on the same row, the token further right always moves first. Each round ends when the last runner remaining either reaches the end of the track or is gored and removed from the board.

There's just slightly more complexity added to keep rounds from feeling repetitive. There is a selection of eight special power cards, from which players must choose one at the start of each turn. Abilities are one-time-use at the beginning of a turn, and range from diving to the ground to avoid a goring, performing a side-step matador move, or even allowing an ox to gore as if it were a bull.

Players also start the game with two beer cards and one blessing card, which will carry through all four rounds. A beer card can either be used in mid-round to move one additional space or at the beginning of a round to select a second special ability card. The blessing must be used at the beginning of a round as it grants that player's runner immunity from the first gore they would otherwise receive.

The Components:

  • 62 bull, oxen, and special ability cards
  • 84 cardboard counters
  • Four runner tokens
  • Four miniature bulls
  • Four miniature oxen
  • Four double-sided board sections
  • One rules booklet

Pamplona has components that achieve the desired goal in all board games. They are more than a simple means to an end in enabling play. Instead, they actually elevate the gameplay experience.

The sparse yet bright and bold colors used on the board make the graphics pop, and help establish the feeling of a festival. The bulls and oxen are some of the coolest miniatures I've seen in a game of this type. Typically, sculpted minis are reserved for adventure games, while strategy titles such as this are more likely to use abstract wooden cubes. Yes, the runners are represented by cardboard tokens rather than miniatures of matching quality, but given the rest of the successes with these components I choose to look at the glass as being half full. I mean just look at those animals. They have articulated horns!

There are also some minor complaints with the cards, which came with a slight warp to them. Luckily, there is never a deck higher than 20 cards in this game, and all cards are dealt out at the start of a round, so there is literally no impact to the gameplay. This is a far cry from other games where warping in components causes a "Leaning Tower of Piza" effect where you are afraid to draw a card, lest the entire stack fall over (I'm looking at you, Betrayal at House on the Hill).

The special ability cards are not very functional, as have no text on them. The only saving grace is that players are given a reference card to determine how to use them, but if the explanation of eight powers can fit on one reference card, surely they could have been squeezed onto the power cards themselves. As a game that was shipped in five languages off of one print run, I imagine that moving text over to reference cards was a necessary measure to avoid printing five sets of each, thereby keeping the game at a reasonable price. On the plus side, the reference cards and rules for German, Italian, French, and Spanish are all included.

Final Thoughts:

As a light strategy game that only takes 45 minutes to complete, Pamplona walks a tight rope by establishing itself as a game of skill without relying on deeply complicated mechanics. The prevailing strategy in Pamplona is to think several turns ahead, making sure that you can always guard the space behind your runner's vulnerable rear. This can be done by moving your runner around animals, other runners, or special printed spaces on the board meant to represent previously fallen runners. These spaces cause animals to end their turn if moved into, and enable that defensive tactic of the runners.

From round to round, the distribution of these fallen runner spaces is varied to create new boards. Only the final board is significantly different, as it grows skinnier in its second half. That fourth run can become quite hectic when players are squeezed down to only two columns! It's not earth-shaking variety, but these different maps, when combined with the extremely varied special ability cards, effectively extend a simple 10-15 minute game into a full competitive experience.

After the first round, player order is set in reverse of the current point totals, meaning the player in last goes first. This allows them to take the largest risk an ensure that they will receive the three point bonus. Having this sort of catch-up mechanic keeps player from losing interest in the game even if they are seriously far behind. This works great in rounds two through four, but there is a danger in using turn order to handicap the game; the player who begins the first round is given a small advantage.

The largest criticism levied on this game is that it plays noticeably better as a three and four player game than it does with two players. Since players receive a bonus and a penalty respective to the closest and further initial placement from the lead bull, a two player game forces players to take much higher risks as the penalty for allowing the other player ahead is too high.

Overall, Pamplona is a game is a game that succeeds more often than it fails, and one that does a good enough job filling a niche that I would willingly overlook its flaws. You won't be disappointed if you decide to make this one the next addition to your game collection.

Tartan Grizzly Games provided a complimentary review sample of this game.