Alma Mater: Spotlight Series

How big is your brain? Maybe you did well at university, but can you run a university? Alma Mater is a worker placement strategy game where players are headmasters in a Renaissance school of higher learning. Manage your income, hire professors and attract students for big points!

Of course, running a university is no small feat. There are many demands to keep up with, and your tools for meeting those demands can be complex. Fortunately, Alma Mater turns all this into an intriguing, engaging puzzle. Alma Mater is a mid-to-heavy Euro-style game, in the same vein as Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Grand Austria Hotel, that strategy enthusiasts will love.

Ex Libris Commercium

So, let’s talk about how Alma Mater plays. There are many sources of the prestige points players need to win, but prestige points mostly come from buying Student tiles and Professor cards. To get Students and Professors, you need books. Lots and lots of books. And while the other major resource for players are money-like Ducats, Books are the heart of the game’s economy. Not only do players have to obtain and spend Books, but each player has their own color of Book, so players also need to buy each others’ Books. On top of that, Books can and probably will change value between rounds.

Books come from a variety of sources, too. Many Students will provide books immediately when they’re purchased, or have an ability to obtain books throughout the game. Professors can give Lectures, which does cost a Book, but some Professors will pay back more.

So the cycle of using Books to get Students, to get more Books, to get more Students seems pretty straightforward. However, there are two interesting twists that make this cycle much more challenging and strategic.

Firstly, Books change value at the end of every round. Each player’s Books are ranked based on the player’s position on the Science Track. Getting Students requires more Books that are higher ranked (obviously the more science your university does, the better your books must be, right?). So advancing on the Science Track indirectly makes your Books more valuable to other players. And other players will pay you cold, hard Ducats for your famous Books. 

The economy that arises from buying and selling Books is tense and tight. Players have so much to juggle, between creating Books, buying other player’s Books, doing Science so your Books don’t fall behind, and oh yeah, giving a Lecture or two when you have the time. For board game hobby fans that like a challenging game, where there’s so much to do and not enough time and resources, Alma Mater scratches that itch with style.

Going Back to School

There’s one last twist to the game. Chancellors grant unique bonuses to a single player. The board has a Hall of Fame section that displays a selection of Chancellor cards. Meeting the requirements of one of the Glory tiles in the Hall of Fame awards the player with the associated Chancellor card. The best players will be able to not only fill their university with Books, Students and Professors, but also jump through the appropriate hoops to score a Chancellor.

For the sake of replayability, the Hall of Fame elements - the Glory tiles and Chancellor cards - are randomized every game. Additionally, the different steps on the Science track are randomized as well, and players are given different starting bonuses every game. These randomized elements keep players from developing a rote, perfect strategy and make Alma Mater deep and replayable.

Study Buddies

The Book-driven economy of Alma Mater kinda requires three players to operate. Many of the costs players have to pay require three different colors of Books. Fortunately, Alma Mater comes packaged with our friend Ignotus. He takes the form of a deck of cards that simulate a human player. With Ignotus, the game only requires two players.

The Ignotus cards are random, but not excessively so, and are only executed at the beginning of each round. This gives the human players something to react to and strategize around, without randomly blocking or destroying the progress. Ignotus, in some ways, “shrinks” the board in addition to providing the third color of Books, allowing two human players to duel strategically.

Judging a Book by its Cover

We must say a word about Alma Mater’s components and presentation. As one can tell from the eye-catching cover, Alma Mater features fantastic artwork and graphics. Especially when compared to contemporary games by the same design group, Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Grand Austria Hotel. The visuals in Alma Mater are a little cartoony, but not whimsical. Instead, the “flat” cartoon style makes the more mechanical elements easier to read. All of the icons (and there are a lot of them) are easy to understand at a glance, and the warm, cozy color palette provides enough contrast to further enhance readability.

The game pieces are really nice, too. There’s a standard array of cards, cardboard tiles and tokens, and wooden markers. But the books really make the game stand out. The Book tokens are thick, chunky plastic that feel great to collect and hoard - which serves Alma Mater well, since Books trade hands so much. There is both a red and a green player color, but fortunately for color-blind players, the red is a deep maroon and the green is a pale leafy green, to make them easy to see for almost every player.

Endpapers for a Mid-Heavy Strategy Game

Alma Mater is a fantastic choice for players who want a tight, tricky strategy game with a fair bit of player interaction. Mastering the Book economy is a feat that rewards not just judicious strategic evaluation, but a fair bit of intuition of what your opponents are going to do. And wrapped up in such a gorgeous package, Alma Mater will look lovelier than most other heavy strategy games, or make a great gift for the heavy strategy gamer in your life.

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