Review: Opera

Posted by James (admin) on December 8th, 2009

When I first heard of Opera, the theme didn’t instantly grab me.  However, it looked nice and it was getting good reports so I was looking forwards to playing it.

The players’ goal is to score points by performing Operas in different European cities and this takes money, opera houses and music.  The game is played over 9 rounds and players earn income (ducats) after every round.  Some points can be earned during the rounds, but the most points are scored at the end of every third round.

The game mechanics in Opera are quite unusual and took the new players (including me) a round or two before we started to understand the relationship between the different elements.  As the game mechanics are quite a lot to describe, I won’t attempt to explain every detail and I recommend reading the rules (available on the GameMaster web site) if you want more info.

At the start of a round, players blind bid using their ducats.  The amount bid is added to the player’s budget track which is a bit like an action point bank as any action a player performs (buying music, building opera houses, etc.) costs budget.  So, you want enough budget each round to perform actions but you can only add to the budget track at the start of a round.

So, why not just maximise the budget track every time?  Well, you also need money for the actions like buying music and building opera houses.  At the start of the game, money is very, very tight so deciding where to spend it is really important.  This is made trickier because the costs of music and buildings aren’t guaranteed if other players buy items before you.

The budget track also determines turn order.  On each turn, the player whose counter is highest goes first.  If multiple players are on the same row, the player furthest to the left goes first.  When a player uses budget they move their token down the appropriate number of spaces (filling in from left to right if another player is already on the new row).  Turn order in Opera seemed to be critical to get best choice of purchasing the music and buildings available.

When it’s a player’s turn, they select one of the characters on the board.  There are 6 characters in total, each with a different ability – 3 characters can only be used once each round but the other 3 can always be used.  Characters allow players to buy buildings, buy music, sell music for points or cash, double the income in a city, etc.

A player choosing a character, pays the budget cost and uses the character’s primary ability; then, the other players can choose to use the character’s secondary ability (if they have one) by paying some budget.  This is familiar territory to Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, San Juan players; however, there is one clever difference.  In Opera, the primary and secondary abilities are very similar but the budget cost of the secondary abilities is often lower than the primary cost.  This is a good game balancer – Choosing to use a character may cost you more budget but you get to use the ability first which can be critical.

Throughout the game, players build opera houses (which can be expanded to have more halls) as well as buy music to perform in these halls.  Income is based on the amount of halls where music is being performed.  You get more income for opera houses with multiple filled halls, i.e. you get more income from 1 opera house with 3 filled halls, than from 3 opera houses each with 1 filled hall.  However, points are earned only from the music in the main hall of each opera house.  So, you constantly try to balance these two dimensions – big opera houses with multiple halls for cash, and multiple opera houses for points.  (You need to buy music to fill the halls and you can’t have two music pieces by the same composer in the same opera house either – so there’s more to balance.)

The points earned at the end of every third round are based on the popularity of the composer in each opera house’s main hall.  This is determined by a ladder (or music chart) and the composers can go up or down based on the music being performed each round and the critic character can alter popularity too.

In addition to what I’ve described, there are other game mechanics too: Players may get opportunities to sell music for points or cash, some composers score extra points in some rounds, empty halls give minus points, there’s limited music to buy, and more.

Opera is a game of balancing: Money in the budget to perform actions but money in hand to spend during actions; building opera houses which start empty or buying music which needs a venue; initiating an action to use it first or spending less budget but with less choice; taking a secondary action or skipping it so you’re higher in turn order next turn.  My brain was on overtime for the whole game – but in a good way.

I enjoy playing games whose logic is just a bit too big to grasp all at once in turn 1 – it makes them interesting – just so long as it doesn’t take too long to work out meaningful strategies and that a mistake in turn 1 won’t mean I’ve already lost.  Opera does this well.  It doesn’t take too long before understanding the mechanics evolves into applying them.  There do seem to be different routes to victory and disrupting other players can be important. 

I was surprised to find that the decisions got easier as the game progressed as money started to accumulate in the last rounds so we all maxed out our budget track and could buy whatever we wanted (although that may not happen every game).  I get the impression that it could be hard to catch-up – some strategies do deliver points later rather than sooner but it’s hard to see ways of gaining ground on the leader if the leader has a balanced strategy.

I’m not sure how often I will play Opera (I don’t own it) but I did enjoy it and can see that each game could play quite differently.  I liked Opera for its unusual structure and difficult decisions.  I would recommend it for people who want a game with a bit of meat to it like Power Grid.


[Played with 4 players]

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