During my review of Patchwork, I mentioned the idea of my personal Mount Rushmore of game designers, and one of the individuals, Uwe Rosenberg, who would be featured on that monument. Today’s review covers a game from another designer who I’d place on my designers’ Mount Rushmore, Ignacy Trzewiczek. If you’ve read my Up With Meeple bio, you already know that Imperial Settlers is one of my all-time favorite games. So, when I first got bit by the Imperial Settlers bug back in 2014, I started looking for some of Ignacy’s other games to add to my collection.
One option that caught my eye was Prêt-à-Porter, a more traditional Euro-style worker placement game about, of all things, the fashion industry. While I have shelves filled with plenty of games about orcs and elves, pirates, ancient Greek gods, Vikings, civilization building, and even the occasional ninja or two, high fashion is not exactly a common theme in most gamers’ collections. However, this actually intrigued me even more. When they’re at their best, great designers can pair solid mechanics with even the most unusual theme to produce a fun tabletop experience, so I figured that if anyone could make a great game about fashion, Ignacy would be the guy to do it. Curiosity piqued, I had to give this game a try.
In Prêt-à-Porter, 2 to 4 players head rival clothing companies, competing to earn the most profit. Played over twelve turns, each representing a single month, players expand their organizations, collect resources, and plan their clothing collections in the first two months of every quarter, then display their clothing lines at international fashion shows and sell these collections for profit at the end of the quarter. In preparation months, players take turns placing their three action pawns on one of nine spaces. Two of these spaces represent important, ways to expand your business. You can purchase a new building, giving you a permanent effect or bonus and also a place to house new workers, on the first space, while a second space lets you hire a new employee with their own skill or ability to add to your workforce. However, each of these options carries with it a long term cost – buildings need to be maintained every round, and workers must be paid a monthly salary. Both buildings and employees can also be upgraded, improving their starting ability at the cost of higher monthly maintenance expenses. Players can also send their pawn to secure a contract which also gives them a benefit, but one free of upkeep costs. While this can be a good substitute for more costly buildings and employees, contracts expire at the end of each quarter, so balancing long-term investments with short term fixes represents one of many keys to resource management success in Prêt-à-Porter.
Four additional action spaces offer other resources necessary to create your company’s clothing lines. Players can send their pawns to choose from one of four available clothing designs on a given turn, or to one of three locations to secure fabric. In Prêt-à-Porter, clothing is defined by type of garment, the collection to which it belongs (sports, evening wear, etc.), the two colors of fabric needed to make the garment, and its sale price if completed and shown at the end of the quarter. Fabric comes in six colors, each of which can be purchased for a different price, with the money earned from selling completed pieces reflecting the cost of the materials that went into it. The three spaces from which fabric can be bought offer a range of options in price, quality, and quantity of cloth procured, with players paying more for higher quality fabric. Buying cheaper fabric conserves resources and lets you pump out more designs to sell, but since clothing quality is also considered at fashion shows, decisions on the quantity and quality of garments manufactured is another choice players must grapple with in the game.
The final two spaces offer the opportunity to pick up a few needed resources, with one space for taking out credit from the bank and another that allows them a choice between grabbing a bit of extra cash, investing in public relations, improving clothing quality, or enhancing garments’ trendiness. Credit naturally requires monthly interest payments, and unpaid debts come with stiff endgame victory point penalties. However, unlike other games where debt is often a signal of poor planning, knowing when to take out credit is crucial in Prêt-à-Porter, as players who run out of cash are forced to borrow from private lenders at much steeper interest rates and with higher repayment costs.
After the first two months of the quarter, players choose as many garments as they wish from a single collection to display at fashion shows in one or more international locations. Judges in each city have different tastes, placing different values on various attributes of a clothing collection, from PR to trendiness to quality to number of items shown, factors typically resulting from the skills of a player’s employees, building powers, and materials used. The first fashion show is easy to plan for, as all four of these factors will be judged in only one city. However, each quarter adds a different city while decreasing the number of attributes which the judges consider, with the final quarter requiring players to show a single clothing line to four different locations’ judges, with each focused on a single attribute. Your reward for pleasing the judges are gold stars, with the highest and second-highest scoring collections in each attribute considered earning these valuable accolades. While of little endgame value by themselves, each star increases the post-sale price of every item in that quarter’s collection by $1000. Given most items of clothing sell for around $20,000, the four star reward for earning first place in the top feature for one location alone can add 25% or more to the value of a single piece of clothing, and with typical collections including two or three pieces, focusing the strength of your clothing and catering to the tastes of the judges can really add up. Once gold stars are earned, all clothing players exhibited is sold, expenses are paid, and preparations begin anew. After the fourth and final show, the year ends, and the player with the most money is the winner.
A Model Game…
Prêt-à-Porter’s biggest strength is in the economic engine forming its gaming core, and the feel created through its gameplay. It’s no Food Chain Magnate, but Prêt-à-Porter is still on the heavy end of the game weight spectrum, with plenty of decisions to be made and tradeoffs to balance. At the same time, it’s not so much an unforgiving game as it is a game about managing resources as efficiently as possible. Although your opponents are inevitably going to beat you to some of the actions you want to take on a given turn, this poses more of a challenge – how can you best incorporate the options that are left into your existing strategy? – and test of your gaming flexibility than it constitutes a misplay or inevitable swing of fortune. There are multiple paths to success in Prêt-à-Porter. For example, on our first playthrough, while I focused my company on saving labor and upkeep costs while maximizing my clothing’s sale prices, Austin centered his company around winning in the PR and trend departments at fashion shows, both of which proved to be viable strategies. Given the wide variety of employees, buildings, and strategies available, I expect that many other sound paths to victory will unfold in future plays of the game.
Beyond that, Prêt-à-Porter is both challenging and fun, and really captured the feel of a competitive, complex industry with multiple moving parts. While available resources seem extremely tight in the first quarter of the game, with players down to their last thousand dollars in cash yet needing to cover $5,000 in monthly expenses and pay back a $10,000 line of credit, patience and long-term planning pays off, and by the second quarter, you’ll likely find yourself clearing $100,000 after expenses. In that sense, Prêt-à-Porter is more like Caverna than Agricola – there are upkeep costs that seem steep early on, but if you stick with it, the game opens up to a point where you can focus on how well you use your existing money to make more of it, rather than whether or not you can cover your bills. Prêt-à-Porter’s creation of that ‘bounce-back,’ swinging from $1,000 to $100,000 as a result of your personal actions and planning, is a fantastic feeling, win or lose, and part of the game’s experience that I found extremely satisfying. Plus, there’s something to be said for the Scrooge McDuck-like satisfaction of lording over your own pile of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if they are just little bits of cardboard.
…That Still Has a Few Snags
With a theme like fashion, the question inevitably asked about Prêt-à-Porter is “If my spouse/significant other/friend/other regular victim is into fashion but isn’t a gamer, will they like this game?”
Pret a Porter is not a light, entry-level game, and it’s not going to convert someone to gaming who likes fashion but can’t sit through Kingsburg, or even King of Tokyo. If anything, the game is more likely to make gamers appreciate the world of fashion than it is to make fashion aficionados become gamers.
Beyond that, there are a few other respects in which I felt the game could be stronger. While not a big concern for me personally, as my friend Austin would say, Prêt-à-Porter is ‘fiddly,’ and involves a lot of board management and upkeep from turn to turn. More importantly, while the game excelled at capturing the feel of being in an industry where you need to cater to ever-changing public tastes, the mechanics of Prêt-à-Porter would have fit just as well with a game about most industries with this characteristic, making the fashion industry theme feel somewhat superficial. Equally surprising given its theme was the fact that, although the game contained high quality components, the graphics on the board and cards didn’t ‘pop,’ failing to evoke a strong association with fashion or design. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by The Gallerist, but if I’m playing a game about an industry centered on aesthetics, I want pretty bits that enhance the theme, not ones that are simply functionally designed.
I thoroughly enjoyed the game despite getting thoroughly trounced. It started making more sense near the end, but I think it’s a game that requires a good brain to learn it and then teach it, and even with great instruction, your first play is likely to be filled with questions, inefficient moves, and regret. That’s true of many heavier games, but it felt more so here. The game itself would’ve benefited from some larger game components and better iconography. I imagine the game was made early in Portal Games history, and maybe there wasn’t the budget to really make the game pop with bigger cards, a bigger board, etc. Those issues aside, it really is a deep game with lots of meat for thinkers to gnash their brain-teeth on.
After playing Prêt-à-Porter, I learned that it was getting re-released, and I was instantly hoping for a big ol’ deluxe edition, maybe with a little dressmaking dummy for the first player indicator, or maybe tiny little bolts of fabric instead of wooden cubes. But then I was informed that the upcoming makeover will be a re-theming to that of controlling a Video Game company. This saddens me, I think Fashion was a brave theme to tackle. The Video Game theme feels very “safe” to me, a move I’m sure makes sense financially to Portal, but it’s still disappointing that such a great take on an unlikely theme will be gone from the world.
Prêt-à-Porter is a very strong game that surprised me in a number of respects, both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s got a solid economic engine and delivers a challenge, with complexity and replayability that promises a satisfying experience for intermediate to advanced gamers. However, that complexity means it’s not necessarily for everyone, and its visual presentation feels like a ‘no frills’ experience in a game about an industry where frills are often, quite literally, in abundance. Yet despite not being Ignacy’s best work, Prêt-à-Porter remains an extremely strong game that most fans of economic and resource management Euros would enjoy.
Up With Meeple Rating:
Silver medal games are great games, games you make a point to play. They’re a ton of fun, and usually stand out because they do at least one thing really well, like having tight mechanics, unique gameplay, or outstanding production value.
By Ignacy Trzewiczek