San Francisco

San Francisco, Rebel Studio, 2022 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

3 Plays (3 & 4 Players)

San Francisco is one of the surprisingly few big box releases coming from Dr. Knizia this year (alongside My Island and the newest edition of Ra).  I say surprising because last year we got Whale Riders, Tutankhamun, Witchstone, Mille Fiori, The Siege of Runedar, and Equinox.  Don’t worry folks, he’s still putting out a ton of games this year and beyond.  That much I can assure you of ?.

But an entirely new game from one of my favorite working designers is always a special occasion, and I was delighted to receive this review copy from publisher Rebel Studio.  Based on their previous work (most notably Meadow from 2021), I knew that San Francisco was in good hands.  As expected, the production here is charming and top-notch.

The components display the tall skyscrapers, colorful districts, and bright cable cars of sunny San Francisco.  The theme and presentation perfectly match the gameplay which is rather warm and laid-back for a Knizia game… at least on the surface.  Players each have their own city board where they’ll be building out a tableau of district cards, establishing a network of cable car tracks, erecting skyscrapers, and earning bonuses.

All of this is accomplished by claiming project cards from a shared market and then laying them out in their matching rows from left to right.  The pattern of card drafting and card market establishment follows in the footsteps of Coloretto: on your turn either add a card to a row or claim an entire row.  Yet the chill vibe of building out your own personal area of California and using cards to do so also reminds me of 2020’s Santa Monica.

Although San Francisco is kinda, sorta a combination of Coloretto and Santa Monica, it’s moreso neither of these games.  Even more interesting than that is the fact that San Francisco does not feel like any other Knizia I’ve ever played.

Coloretto is different in a couple key ways: 1st, the moment a player takes a row of cards, they are out of the rest of the round.  2nd, the decisions are much more cut-and-dry, meaning it’s easy to parse what is valuable to who and how to hurt others most.  With San Francisco, you’re still not able to abuse the action of claiming a row as much as you’d like because each row comes with a contract and you can only take a row that contains more cards than you possess contracts.  Basically the players who claim less rows on a regular basis will generally have more options available to them.

And while the scoring in San Francisco is not as simple or sharp as Coloretto, it’s also not as sterile and solitaire as Santa Monica.  With Santa Monica, I never knew (nor did I care) what was going on with my opponents’ tableaus.  Everybody just moseys along like heads-down sloths until the game finally ends, somebody ends up with the most points, everybody shrugs, and that’s a wrap.

No, with San Francisco the vast majority of your points depend heavily on what your opponents are doing on their city boards.  Players are racing to fill each district (colored row) first, competing to fill each district with the most valuable cards, wrestling over the coveted master builder medal by having the most skyscrapers, and aiming to have the largest cable car network by the end of the game.

You’ll have to claw your way to each and every point, as San Francisco awards out very little and the winner often squeezes by with a score like 9.5 to second place’s 9.  So while the actions and look and vibe of the game presents a laid-back attitude, the underlying competition is delightfully passive-aggressive.

Opponent boards are readable enough, even from across the table, to tell when a certain combination of cards is far too lucrative for a hungry competitor.  The two actions offer a refreshing challenge that few other games feature: that of valuing options for your opponents’ boards far more frequently than valuing them for your own board.  If you want to prevent someone from running away with the victory, then your group needs to have a trained eye on the entire table as they decide which drafting row to add their drawn card to.

San Francisco, Rebel Studio, 2022 — sample cards (image provided by the publisher)

Initially, the decisions are rather straightforward: add new cards to the empty rows first then the weakest rows next.  Take a row when it looks like the most valuable option available.  Yet in the second act, drafting decisions pivot to more of a race—a race to finish a row first or a race to erect the first skyscraper and keep that lead.  Finally, the third act transfers the spotlight to a contest of majorities—because the player with the most value in a row or the most cable cars on the board will score more points.  Second place still gets a point at least, third gets nothing, and fourth place loses a point.  Aside from their network potential or displayed value, you’ll also be enticed by foundation cards (where you can build skyscrapers if you surround them properly) as well as cards that offer significant bonuses and advantages.

There’s even more layers to this interesting arc.  For example, if Camille beats everyone to finishing the port district, then she claims a point that the rest of us can never have.  A 1 point swing is huge when the winning score could be 10 points.  Yet now any port cards that come up in the card market are suddenly entirely useless to her—she has no more space for them!  Not only will that devalue certain drafting rows for her, but she has also set an obvious bar for the rest of us to clear.  If I can build a port district that has a higher total value than what hers clearly displays, then I’ll be denying her valuable end-game points and calming them for myself.  In essence, claiming the first-to-finish point comes with the downside of putting an easy target on your back.

You’ll also be closely watching the number of contracts that your opponents collect.  If you don’t see the best cards for your board coming out of the deck, then you can simply sit back and let your opponents collect one, two, three contracts each while you bide your time.  Eventually a lucrative combination of cards will come along and you’ll have first dibs on it because everyone else is locked out by having too many contracts.  Milk this strategy too much, though, and you may find it hard to catch up to the other player boards which display more cards in general.

While the interaction is perhaps not as spicy as many other Knizias, and enough of the game is steered by luck of the draw where card reveals can occasionally have bad timing for you and great timing for others, that doesn’t take away from the engaging decisions and uniquely chill experience that San Francisco offers.

Where the competitive majority scoring is what keeps this interesting for me, I’m not keen to try it at 2-players, but I’d happily play it more with 3 and 4.  Then again, perhaps the contract drafting is even more interesting at 2.  Because the cards come out different every time, and the triggered bonuses can be situationally powerful, and (most importantly) the player interaction is poignantly present, I don’t see myself growing tired of this one.

Prognosis: Good

San Francisco, Rebel Studio, 2022 — gameplay example (image provided by the publisher)

Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition

Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition, Bézier Games, 2022 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays (4 Players)

Cats are all the rage in the modern board game industry.  You’ve got adorable cats illustrated by Beth Sobel and lounging on cozy quilts in the puzzly Calico.  You’ve got colorful refugee cats stretching and bending into all kinds of strange shapes with the polyomino drafting game Isle of Cats.  You’ve got Cat Lady, Purrrlock Holmes (yes, that one is real), Spicy (featuring big cats), and our own upcoming Pumafiosi.  

The latest game in this cat craze is a twisty trick taker from a Japanese designer.  No, I’m not talking about 9 Lives (although that one will be releasing in just a few months).  I’m talking about Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition.

Just when you thought that no stone was left unturned in the land of trick taking, think again.  Cat in the Box found a big old boulder, and with a push of its paw it rolled that thing right on its back to expose a juicy underbelly.

Players are dealt a hand of cards ranging from 1-9 and featuring four suits: green, yellow, blue, and red.  Players must follow the lead suit if they can, highest number wins, but the red suit trumps all.  Earn points for winning tricks and try to bet how many tricks you’ll win in a hand for bonus points.  So… it’s your standard trick taking game. Nothing to see here, right?  WRONG.

All the cards in your hand and everyone else’s hands are always black.  Shapeless.  Formless.  Suitless.  A blank canvas of opportunity.  Each card only takes on a suit once it is played from your hand and designated as a certain color—all at your whim.  The only restrictions are thus:

  1. You must mark off the exact card that you’ve played on a shared board… meaning the yellow 2 can only be played once by anyone during an entire hand.
  2. The moment you don’t follow the lead suit, you can never play that color again for the rest of the hand.  X it off on your personal board and never look back.

And you’re not just trying to win exactly as many tricks as you had bet on at the start of the hand.  You’re also trying to play very specific cards that are orthogonally adjacent with each other on the shared board.  By playing the Yellow 4,  Blue 4, Blue 5, and Red 5 across four different tricks, I’ve now connected all of those spaces into a cluster of my own tokens on the board.  You’ll score as many points as your largest cluster if you hit your trick bid exactly.  This scoring challenge pairs perfectly with the freedom of choosing the suit of each and every card you play… Well, more like shrinking freedom.

The board spaces quickly fill as players claim every possible combination of suit and number.  If you’re not careful, you might end up with a hand of three 5’s and only one space left where you can legally play a 5.  There are more cards of each number than there are suits on the board, and other players might claim those suit spaces first, and you might regret locking yourself out of suit too early.

The moment a player is unable to legally play any card from their hand (because their numbers are claimed on the shared board and/or the available suits are X’d out on their player board) is the moment that player triggers a cat-astrophic paradox.  The hand ends immediately and that player’s won tricks now count as negative points instead of positive points.  It’s brilliantly poetic and addictively compelling across its multiple rounds.

Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition is yet another standout winner in the crowded field of trick takers and cat-astic games.

Prognosis: Excellent

Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition, Bézier Games, 2022 — box and components

Lost Cities: Roll & Write

Lost Cities: Roll & Write, KOSMOS, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays (2 Players)

Despite my repeatedly mentioned exhaustion toward the genre, roll and write games don’t seem to be going away any time soon.  You’ve got sprawling behemoths such as Hadrian’s Wall that are turning what once was a simple assortment of mini games into a full blown Euro.  You have titles such as The Guild of Merchant Explorers masquerading as big box games yet built on the same foundation as Welcome To or Cartographers.  You have interconnected cobwebs of bonuses triggering bonuses from the likes of Three Sisters, Five-and-a-half Times as Clever (undoubtedly coming soon), and others.  And we now see every publisher under the sun succumbing to its siren call as they cram their popular IP into this design space, giving us games like Rolling Realms, Rajas of the Ganges: The Dice Charmers, and Lost Cities: Roll & Write.

While my eyes grow increasingly blind to this style of game, there are still a few titles here and there that manage to catch my eye, at least for a fleeting moment.  Games such as Super Skill Pinball—pinball in tabletop game form—as well as designs by Reiner Knizia that introduce a twist to some of my favorite games such as Lost Cities: Roll & Write or My City: Roll & Write.  I finally succumbed to the opportunity to play My City: Roll & Write when I stumbled across it for dirt cheap at a local game store.

This roll & write retains much of the feel, focus, and vibe of the 2-player card game that inspired it.  2-5 players are embarking on voyages where the first step into a new color has them clawing their way out of crippling point-debt before the end of the game.  Much like That’s Pretty Clever, you’ll take turns rolling a handful of dice, selecting some to keep for yourself, and leaving the scraps out for your opponents to pick at.  Also like That’s Pretty Clever, you’ll be progressing along various tracks and triggering bonus points and bonus actions as you reach them.

While the combos and bonuses here are less bounteous than most roll & writes, the player interaction is notably heightened.  The player sheets of your competitors are much more readable and vulnerable than most roll & writes, where you are likely to choose a die result that hurts your opponents more than it helps you.  You’ll also be racing to cross the bridge on each track where 20 points are awarded to the first player to cross.

Despite the opportunities for competition, players have plenty of flexibility in their strategizing.  You’ll always have multiple values to choose from and multiple columns where you can enter your chosen value (assuming the dice don’t roll the same result).  And if you don’t like any of your options, you can pass on all of them and score points by crossing your way up your pass track!  Of course, if you max out the pass track, then that track’s points drop back down to zero.

This wrinkle and others demonstrate the brilliant twists that Reiner infuses into the genre.  Offering players flexibility at a cost—just as the original Lost Cities does it.  The numbers you record in each column must be greater than or equal to the last number written in their column, and the higher you cruise up the column the less points you’ll lose (and eventually more points you’ll score).

Lost Cities: Roll & Write both soars and suffers by being so similar to its source material.  Most noticeably, the experience loses much of its tension.  Yes, it’s possible to lose up to 100 points from a single column that you started into and embarrassingly didn’t progress further along.  But the increased flexibility from the dice options and track bonuses means that this will basically never happen to anyone who plays with even an ounce of caution.

The 2-player experience of this roll & write especially suffers in comparison to it’s older sibling, as you’ll be able to cruise much further up all the tracks before the game end is triggered.  On the other hand, you’re more effectively able to zero in on the opposition when there are less player sheets to scan for vulnerabilities.  But of course, Lost Cities the card game already has this kind of tit for tat in spades.

Credit to Reiner for making a game in this genre that benefits from a higher player count, where starting another expedition is a riskier endeavor; but at the end of the day, if I have a group of 4 or 5 players at my table, the last game I want to break out is a roll & write.  This one might have a bit of a kick to it compared to everything else in the genre, but that’s the equivalent of my grandmother calling Taco Bell’s mild sauce “spicy” when there’s a whole world of genuinely fiery, dramatic, and interactive games from other genres that I’d rather reach for.

Prognosis: Fair

Lost Cities: Roll & Write, KOSMOS, 2021 — contents (image provided by the publisher)

The Golden Ages

Stronghold edition front cover

1 Play (4 Players)

I spent perhaps the first 30 minutes of The Golden Ages (the rules teach and the initial stages of Era 1) expecting that I would thoroughly dislike this game.  While I showed up and sat down, willing to give it a try, I found my mood souring at the mess of iconography on my player board.  If there is any form of genuine burnout that I am experiencing in this hobby, it is undoubtedly related to the symbology vomit that so many Euro designers are happy to spew across their game.  Maybe it’s just me, but so much of it is starting to feel like 50 shades of economic management and resource conversion.

The Golden Ages is not easy on the eyes, that much is for sure.  And the graphic design certainly tries but largely fails to be of much use to novices or even relatively experienced players.  The game is jam-packed with tile and card symbols that rarely make sense and frequently require players to reference the player aid for clarification.  The aid itself is likewise atrocious, with a mess of cards that are difficult to track down or connect to their matching culture.  Yet the aid is basically mandatory because it does a better job of displaying the cost of wonder cards thanks to the 4 pt font used on the cards themselves.

Straight out the gates The Golden Ages is a gaming experience that lands flat on it’s face… yet somehow manages to keep rolling.  Apparently it doesn’t need to stay on its feet when it has the accelerating momentum and relentless gravity of zippy decisions and engaging strategies to keep it going.  Where it lacks a graceful presentation, it compensates by offering up a surprisingly solid civilization game within a tight 90-minute Euro.

The game manages to traverse massive time periods, embrace unique civilization traits, encourage technological diversification, foster regional competition, provide lucrative wonders, and more within an impressively condensed session.  It rewards players for careful planning, tactical pivots, and thoughtful gambits.  And while I have no desire to bring something so outwardly obnoxious and hideous into my own collection, I also would’t be opposed to playing it again.  Just like in real life, if you’re going to embrace civilization, then you have to be ready to embrace it all… the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Prognosis: Fair

The golden ages

Coloretto

Coloretto, Rio Grande Games, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays (4 Players)

The wisest and most battle-hardened among us hobbyist gamers would be proud of me—I only bought two games during my entire trip to Origins Game Fair.  Both were small box card games.  One was Longboard, and the other was Coloretto.  I probably spent $30 on games total.  If we leave it at that, then the facts show that I either have massive restraint or I only have a taste for light gaming.  Neither is true.  In reality, I already owned all of the other hottest games and feature titles of Origins that suit my tastes best.  The real truth is that Longboard and Coloretto were simply the latest games on my wishlist that I was finally able to get my hands on ?.

Coloretto has been on my wishlist not because it is flashy or new or exciting (it’s none of those things).  I simply understand it to be a classic filler of a card game that many still tip their hat to.

All you’re doing here is building a tableau of colored cards.  There are seven colors in the deck, but you really only want three colors, and lots of them at that.  A few more cards in a fourth or fifth or seventh color will merely weaken your final score.  Play proceeds in quick rounds where your turn is either adding a card to a growing row or taking a row of cards to end your round.  

The fun lies in the fact that you can yuck the yum of a row by pairing an opponent’s favorite color with a color that they absolutely don’t want.  You can also swipe a perfect card early in the round, but you might end up squirming as the round continues on without you and even more valuable cards emerge from the deck to taunt you.

That’s really all there is to Coloretto.  It’s a simple as they come, yet it still manages to be compelling within its simplicity.  There are also two ways to play or score the game.  But here’s a plot twist: the ruleset recommended for beginners is actually the more interesting and dramatic of the two.  Trying both variants back-to-back made that clear as day.

Prognosis: Good

My game :(

Poison

Amigo edition

1 Play (3 Players)

I recently had the pleasure of trying Reiner Knizia’s Poison (aka Baker’s Dozen aka Friday the 13th aka Thirteen).  And you can probably guess that a card game with so many versions and such names is probably a solidly clever little design that has something to do playing numbers that relate to 13 (you’d be right).

The premise and vibe of the game reminds me in a lot of ways of a trick taker.  3-6 players are dealt a full hand of cards from a deck that contains 3 main suits and 1 wild suit.  The main suit cards contain multiple 1s, 2s, 4s, 5s, and 7s.  Meanwhile, the wild suit is poison made up of only 4s.

Also like a trick taker, you’ll be playing one card at a time and following suit (or playing poison at your leisure).  Only there are actually three tricks happening at a time, and each trick is only claimed when its numbers collectively exceed 13.  

In the center of the play area you’ll find three pots—each reserved for one of the main suits.  Your turn is as simple as tossing a card into a matching pot and avoiding the explosion that makes you take the entire pot of cards.  That’s because each card will count as a single point toward your score (poison cards count as 2 points), and the player with the lowest score wins.

The finishing ingredient to this concoction of cards is a perfect little rule with big ramifications: the player with the most cards of a single suit will score zero points for that suit.  So rather than try to avoid causing potion explosions entirely, it can be delightfully strategic to collect the most of a color and then try to feed other players a little bit of that same color so they score points while you score none.

So there is a little bit of chicken here in that you can get into a suit-specific competition with somebody else where one of you will get hammered at the end of the round and the other will get off scot-free. Meanwhile, when a player gets a strong lead in a color and is content to keep raking in that color, then this is the perfect time to start feeding poison cards into that suit’s cauldron, because there’s no getting rid of those pesky 2-point poison cards once they are in your pile.

Poison was originally released in 2005, and I can absolutely see why it’s been reprinted in various versions by a dozen publishers over the years.  It’s good, clean card gaming from the reliable Dr. Knizia himself.  But where it’s been so prevalent over the years, I wonder if it directly or indirectly inspired some of the similar card games that other designers have created since.

You have Arboretum which is likewise a mean, tight, tactical hand-management game where players want to have the most of a particular suit at the end of the round.  Only in Arboretum, the point scoring is completely reversed (points are good and you only score for having majority of a suit) and the cauldrons of tricks are replaced with a spatial tableau.

Then there is Insider, where you’re likewise playing chicken with other players in an effort to have more cards of a suit than them.  Only in this one, the players with less cards of a suit pay points to the player with the most.

Finally, Parade is another great little game where, just like Poison, earning cards is bad because all cards will score you points and the lowest score wins.  But if you have to earn cards, you desperately want to have the most of each color you possess because the points for those colors will be drastically reduced.

So I have to give props to Reiner Knizia’s Poison for likely having at least some small effect on likely several games that have followed it.  Then again, perhaps Poison itself (and the above mentioned games) were inspired by even older titles like Stick ‘Em or 6 Nimmt!  But the real kicker here is that I would never choose to play Poison over Arboretum, Insider, or Parade.  Perhaps it’s because Poison feels a tad too similar to these designs as well as trick takers I’ve already enjoyed.  Maybe it’s because those other three games offer a pinch more strategy, drama, and flavor to their recipes that Poison lacks.  Probably a bit of both.  But that doesn’t necessarily undermine my enjoyment of this tactical card game.  It just means I don’t need to own it.  No doubt my overflowing shelves of Knizia games are relieved to hear it.

Prognosis: Fair

uncaptioned image

Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina

Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina, Capstone Games, 2022 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

1 Play (2 Players)

That Catherine is devious one, she is.  I don’t normally gravitate to these kinds of games, but somehow Crafty Catherine managed to seduce me with her short playtime and easy rules and touted clever card play.

This brand new release from DLP and Capstone (the publishers behind Orleans and many others) is one that feels most similar to Race for the Galaxy.  While Catherine does not feature action following, which is one of the key ingredients of Race, they do share much in the way of simultaneous action selection, hand management, a relatively quick playtime, and using cards in multiple ways.

So you could say that Catherine is like Race for the Galaxy minus the interactive action following… and the dynamic engine building… and the pressurized tempo…  and the focused scoring… and the small, portable box… and the more interesting space theme… and the massive deck variety… and the strategic game arc.

Alright, I admit, it’s not exactly fair to compare any game to the legendary Race for the Galaxy. But Catherine makes herself an easy target by largely trying to evoke the same style of decision making in a slightly different yet more generic way.

In Catherine, players are managing a hand of cards which is constantly in flux as you draw two from the deck and play two to your tableau each round.  One card will go above to your action row and the other will go beneath to your activation row.  Players reveal their two cards simultaneously and then activate whichever action card they played beneath.  The catch is that the deck has three colors, and you can only activate an action card with a matching colored card played to your activation row.  This system is pretty neat and it’s what makes Catherine bearable to play for a briny gamer like myself.

When activated, a card will earn you an action and a bonus that players will all execute simultaneously.  This is where the game starts to lose me but will likely excite others.  These actions include things like:

  • Earn X points for having all four types of goods
  • Draw one card for each of these specific types of goods you have
  • Build 1 residence into a city on the board
  • Discard a card to gain X points or move up the favor track

It’s not completely solitaire, mind you.  There are three times during the game where you look over at your neighbors’ cards and say, “Oh, looks like I have more cannons than you… that’s 4 points for me.”  Or “Oh, looks like you have more books than me, so I get nothing and you get to build a residence. Kudos to you, good sir/madam.”  But after interim scoring, more than half your tableau is tossed into the discard pile and you start over again.  

The only thing that changes from one decade to the next is that your hand size and resource collection slightly increase.  Otherwise, the three decades feel almost entirely the same.  Oh, did I mention that the objective is to impress Catherine?  She likes books and cannons and iron and caviar and food and fur and friends who own a large parade of vacation homes across 18th century Russia.

The game starts with a slightly novel action activation system and then relies entirely on common, solitaire, point salady set collection, resource conversion, and track advancement to get the rest of the way to a complete experience.  Some folks are going to love it.  And at its quick playtime and low complexity level, it certainly answers a lot of the same questions that many overly complex Euros aimlessly circle around for far too long.  But for me, those questions and answers are monotonous and overly familiar.

So I’m afraid it’s just not going to work out between us.  It’s not you, Catherine, it’s me.  I’d just rather spend my time with Race.  And to be honest, I never really wanted a serious relationship with either of you.  You’re both a little too introverted for my tastes.

Prognosis: Poor

Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina, Capstone Games, 2022 — components (image provided by the publisher)

Municipium

Box front

6 Plays (3 & 4 Players)

For months now, the following thought has repeatedly crossed my mind, “Man, I can’t believe Reiner Knizia hasn’t designed a game centered around the area majority mechanism… that would be absolutely killer.”  It turns out that I was both right and wrong:

  • Wrong, because he already had designed one (and undoubtedly more) over a decade ago, I just hadn’t looked hard enough.  
  • Right, because it is absolutely killer.

Municipium is one of those unicorn Knizias for me.  Not because the game is thrilling and agonizing—he has plenty of those.  Rather, it’s a unicorn Knizia because the game is thrilling, agonizing, and entirely overlooked by the industry.  It’s only been owned by roughly 1600 BGG users and rated by half that many.  Even worse, it took this Knizia super-fan years to stumble across the design.  And, like any old rock in the path, I would have simply stumbled over it and kept walking without a second thought if a fellow Kniziaphile (thanks Scott) hadn’t forced it onto my radar.

If I had to select one single factor that kept Municipium from getting the attention and acclaim that it has deserved since it’s 2008 release, I would place all the blame on the box cover.  In a vacuum, the art is actually quite nice.  But as a board game product, it doesn’t exactly scream play me ?.  Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Municipium came from a sketchy (and now dead) publishing company and featured an alarming swath of questionable production decisions.

Presentation aside, I wouldn’t exactly say that the gameplay of Municipium is for everyone.  Some hardcore gamers have accused the design of having a little too much luck to the outcome or chaos in the proceedings.  Others have claimed that the decision space is too arbitrary or the experience is too uninteresting.  That’s certainly fine, people are entitled to their own opinions, but I have no idea what these folks are smoking.  

Here’s my take:  Municipium is freaking phenomenal.  It’s the legendary Reiner Knizia’s response to the masterpiece that is El Grande by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich.  Yet it isn’t just El Grande with a twist… it’s El Grande completely turned on its head.  

You’re not progressively adding more of your figures to the board in a cyclical round structure to score dozens of points like in El Grande; rather, you are shifting and repositioning your fixed number of figures across the map in a race to earn five points first.  You’re not bidding to guarantee yourself the best powers from the available market of El Grande; rather, you are playing the odds and positioning yourself in the most promising institutions at hopefully the perfect time.  Instead of combining auctions and area majorities like El Grande, Municipium blends in worker placement where the blocking of space actions comes in the form of majority influence.  Where El Grande shines as a purely strategic and carefully methodical competition at 4-5 players, Municipium sings as a cleverly chaotic risk-management romp at 2-4 players.

As I mentioned, the goal of Municipium is to earn 5 points that look like coins but probably represent some kind of favor or prestige within Ancient Rome.  Each of these tokens is earned by collecting a complete set of four citizens—one of each color.  Players spend their turns chasing after the citizens on the board that appear to be the most likely to get awarded out next.  

You can start your turn by making two movements—scooting one family member each along a single path or transferring a single family member across two paths.  Family members can be positioned across seven possible institutions—all connected by a circular path with a central institution having two routes branching out from it to the circle.  After your figure movement comes a card event and then the end of your turn. 

Cards can trigger three possible events:

-Advance the praefect

-Pop a citizen bubble

-Activate institution powers

All three of these events will award the player who has the most influence (family members) in the triggering institution.  Yet the pattern for how each type triggers is deliciously dynamic.  The praefect moves around the circle in a clockwise motion—awarding the first-place player with a wild citizen and the second-place player with the citizen on display (which could be any color).  Meanwhile with citizen events, meeples are added to one of their matching institutions until the bubble pops (the third citizen is placed)—so that first place gets to claim two meeples and second place gets the remaining one.  Institution powers only go off when a card says they do, and the player with the most influence at that area then gets to use the power.

So Municipium is a constant juggling act where each player must determine what is most crucially important and easily opportunistic.  The thing that keeps the game from becoming completely computational is how the cards are activated.  Most often, you’ll end your turn by drawing a card from the facedown deck of twelve.  With only twelve total cards (and four types) within the deck, it’s easy to understand the odds of what event may trigger next, and playing those odds is half the fun.

So you’ll start your turn by placing your bet (in the form of positioning your family members) and end your turn by finding out how that bet payed off.  Yet the game also allows to you prepare for multiple turns ahead, as there’s just enough predictability to the system for long-perspectives to pay off.  You’re not totally victim to the randomized deck either, as each player has three one-time-use cards which act as a shot of adrenaline to your momentum if you save them for the opportune moments.

Beyond the tough decisions that each turn brings, I love the drama and insanity that emerges from the institution powers…

The temple determines the tie-breaker track—this is the beating heart of the game board, as power struggles often come down to a tie.

The tavern lets you  completely drag a player out of another site, as if their family members have abandoned their post to engage in some drinking and recreation.

The baths let you crown one of your family members and double its influence for the rest of the game, but you must completely leave the baths if you do so.

Three other sites offer powerful abilities for collecting citizens or transforming them into easy points.

And finally the Praetorium breaks the movement rules completely by allowing you to reposition any and all of your family members.

It’s the kind of thing where all of the institution abilities feel completely overpowered when used in the right moment and in the right way.

You won’t see Municipium solve all of the common complaints of area majority games—like when everyone bashes the leader or when overlooked players sneak away with the victory.  But none of that prevents me from having the most delightfully stressful hour of fun that a game can possibly provide.

Prognosis: Excellent

Game Overview

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Prognosis: a forecast of how the game will likely fare in my collection, and perhaps yours as well.

Excellent– Among the best in its genre.  This game will never leave my collection.

Good– A very solid game and a keeper on the shelf.

Fair– It’s fine. It’s enjoyable. But I’m not likely to seek it out or keep it around.

Poor– Really doesn’t fit my tastes; not one I want to revisit… but hey, that’s just me.

Hopeless– Never again. Run & hide. Demon be gone.


Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Martin Griffiths

    Municipium is great! For area majority games, he also has the minimalist Imperium, most recently appearing in an updated form as King’s Road.

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