Having seen the prototype of Louis XIV at Essen '04 and heard the buzz growing, I was keen to get hold of a copy. Despite several of our Essen purchases still lying in their original outer wrappings, owing to limited time to play new games and perhaps excessive acquisitions, my good lady wife purchased a copy of Louis XIV for me recently. We have now played a handful of games with various numbers of players, sufficient for a "first impressions" review of the original German edition.
Louis XIV is from the same stable as Puerto Rico (Alea) and the same designer as Goa (Rüdiger Dorn), so it comes with pedigree and provokes high expectations. It does not let you down.
At the court of Versailles
The basic theme is that players are courtiers at Versailles, the court of the Sun King, attempting to manipulate the king's closest associates through a combination of influence, intrigue and bribery. The game takes place over exactly four rounds, each with four phases. In the first phase (Resupply), players receive resources in the form of money (louis d'or) and influence cards. Then in the Influence Phase they use their cards to deploy influence with the personalities of the court. During the third phase (Evaluation) the success of influence attempts on each personality is worked out, and successful players receive rewards, which may be further resources or mission chips. During the final phase players cash in their mission chips to fulfil secret missions, which earn victory points at the end of the game and bonuses during play. The winner is determined using victory points in the traditional German game fashion, but Louis XIV has some interesting twists to the conventional resource management archetype.
Louis XIV's neatly packed box covered in fleur de lis contains luxurious components, as befits a game themed around the court of Versailles. The starting player marker has a full colour picture of the palace of Versailles, and the major components have attractive period portraits of significant personalities at the court printed on them, including the chief minister Colbert, Turenne, the Marshal of France and many of the king's mistresses.
Setting up the game starts with the large, chunky personality tiles, numbered 1 to 12, which are placed spiral-fashion in a tile-and-space checkerboard pattern to form the framework of the playing area. In addition to the portrait, each tile has a particular type of reward earned by players influencing that personality. Players have 16 influence markers (wooden barrels of the player's chosen colour), destined to be deployed onto the tiles. At the start of the game all players put a small number of these markers into the space closest to them around the centre four tiles to form a 'common supply', retaining the remaining markers as their 'private supply', of which more later.
Five types of mission chips (rings, orbs, letters, helmets and crowns) are stored in the spaces between the personality tiles conveniently next to the tiles to which they relate. A stack of intrigue cards, one for each personality, lies next to Francois-Michel Louvois (no. 12), while a stack of influence cards, is placed next to Jules Mazarin (no. 11).
Three types of mission cards, easy, middling and hard denoted by different shades of blue on the card backs, are shuffled and placed next to the playing area. Each player starts with an easy mission and a middling one. You succeed in a mission by cashing in two chips; an easy mission requires one specified type plus any one other chip; a middling one needs two different specified chips, while for a hard one you will need two the same. Only one personality tile will reward you with a specified type of chip, for example Anne d'Autriche will get you an orb, but in addition two personalities reward you with a crown, which is a 'wild card' chip that can be used in place of any type of chip.
'Wappen' or 'shields' form another major type of reward, worth 1 VP each. There are 60 of these, 10 each of 6 types, differentiated by a picture of an heraldic shield. When a player earns a shield, it is kept face down, so that no one knows its type. At the end of the game players receive an extra VP for possessing the most of a particular type.
There is also a figure for Louis XIV himself. During the Resupply Phase he is placed on one of the four central tiles. As he grants a bonus crown chip to the winner of that tile, he can quite properly be the focus of attention.
The heart of the game is the playing of influence cards and placing of influence markers in the Influence Phase. The deck of influence cards has two cards referring to each personality and six 'jokers'. By playing an influence card with a personality on it, you may place up to three influence markers from your private supply. You must start with the tile indicated by the portrait, but may choose to move one or two markers to a diagonally adjacent tile, leaving one marker behind. If you move two markers, you may then move one of them to another tile, adjacent to the tile you have just occupied. Thus your markers can only reach tiles up to two steps away from your starting point. Jokers, cleverly indicated by curtains across a hidden portrait, permit you to start from any personality tile, but you can only place two markers.
Players take it in turns to play one influence card from the five dealt in the Resupply Phase, but the last card in hand must be discarded, so players will usually only play four cards. The number of influence markers (16) is limited, so players may run out of markers in their private supply. As an alternative to placing markers on the tiles, any influence card can be used to bring your markers back from the common supply to your private supply. There is therefore a balance between dishing out markers onto the personality tiles and reinforcing your private supply to help you to win friends and influence people in the future.
Players win the battle for influence over the personalities, and hence the associated rewards, in one of three ways: by having the most influence markers on the tile, by having a specified number of influence markers on the tile, or simply by bribery. Personality tiles are evaluated in ascending numerical order. Some tiles give an automatic reward for a specific number of influence markers. A tile with a 'first place' condition rewards only the player with most influence markers, while the failures leave with nothing. A tile with a money condition rewards the player with most influence markers for free, but any other player with at least one marker may still obtain the reward with a bit of bribery. If there is a clear winner in the battle for influence, the tile is turned over, which changes the win condition but not the reward.
In general, the influence markers of players who win the influence battle are discarded to the common supply, while players who lose (even if they bribe) get theirs back for re-use. This promotes some balance, since the game compensates lack of success by return of influence markers to private supply.
In the final phase, those players who have earned mission chips can attempt to fulfil their mission cards, drawing a further mission card to replace each completed one. As a way of preventing a build up of mission chip resources, players may only carry over one mission chip between rounds.
Players tally VPs at the end of the game, scoring five for each completed mission, one for each shield and one for unplayed intrigue and influence cards, and for each unplayed mission chip. A bonus shield is scored for having the most of each of the six types of shield.
When the chips are down
Louis XIV is a medium complexity strategy game, similar to Puerto Rico. Like Puerto Rico, most players will need to play it a few times to grasp how the mechanics fit together. While not a game to use to introduce German games to an inexperienced group and without mass market 'family' appeal, it will quickly gain aficionados in the mainstream of German games players.
The production quality is high, with full colour printed components and heavy duty tiles. Being picky, I would mention that in our set the backs of the dark blue mission cards are not identically shaded, but that is minor glitch and may not be the same in other copies. The rules are well laid out with plenty of graphical and textual examples. Each page has a side panel containing a summary of the main page content. During our relatively small number of games, we experienced no problems with rule interpretation, which is something of an accolade.
Game play flows well without excessive down time between player actions, which are kept relatively short. The longest thinking time is in the play of influence cards and corresponding markers, but even with notoriously slow players, the game should not suffer from analysis paralysis.
The timings on the box seem about right. We played a four-player 'learning' game in less than 2 hours. After a couple of plays an average of about an hour and a half feels correct. Very short or very long games look unlikely, because of the highly structured sequence of play. This may be a distinct advantage if you cannot afford your game to overrun into a vital playoff match.
There are two main elements of luck in Louis XIV. First you just may not get dealt the influence cards you think you need, so you may find yourself forced to concentrate on the 'wrong' side of the playing area. But making the best of it is a vital part of court life, mon vieux. The second luck element is the shields, which may be contentious. Some might take the view that the whole shield mechanic feels a bit tacked on and maybe doesn't quite fit with the elegance of the rest of the design. While a few VPs can produce a late swing at the end of the game, it is a strategic decision to amass shields, or indeed not to do so, and without this mechanic it would be a little too easy to predict the outcome and end up with a more serious 'kingmaker' issue. Although it is unusual to have a random element directly generating VPs, it reminds me a little of the Prestige cards in Princes of Florence, although you cannot plan in detail for the outcome.
I can certainly foresee a lot of repeat playing of Louis XIV within our gaming group, and a variety of strategies will no doubt emerge. As the type of reward gained from the personality tiles determines success, a player may seek to emphasise more mission cards via mission chips, or more shields. Changes to the win conditions on the personality cards when they are flipped (for instance from 'bribe' to 'first place') will suggest that players think about the merits of 'high risk, high reward' strategies. The special abilities of the mission cards and the sudden play of an intrigue card (giving bonus influence markers immediately prior to evaluation) can disrupt the best laid plans. Louis XIV is a game about risk assessment and tactical ruses within an overall resource management framework. Should I concentrate on that risky 'first place' battle, or should I spread my markers thinly in the expectation of winning somewhere and bribing several personalities? Which personality does my opponent's annoyingly concealed intrigue card depict?
If I have a gripe, and this is by no means a major one, it is a concern that there may be an emphasis on tactical rather than strategic play. In similar fashion to Goa, the game may require you to cover all bases to a reasonable extent, while working for tactical advantage in the specific circumstances that happen to turn up. I think it is unlikely that a consistent winning strategy will emerge, which may well prove to be a good thing for replay value.
This game is well produced, an excellent game design, fun and challenging. The colour and beautiful components make Louis XIV an enjoyable experience. Do not overlook this game.
30 May 2005
Some people have said that it has a resemblance with Saint Petersburg; in that case, it would be necessary to expect a time to see the replayability. Because like it happened with SP, many that at the beginning praised SP (as me), at the end cut down their merits for the repetitive of the strategy.
Like Saint Petersberg? I just don't see that at all. In any case, if you're worried about a repetitive strategy, I think you'll be just fine with Louis. A LOT of your strategy for each turn has to do with the cards you're dealt which obviously vary every turn. Your mission cards require certain mission chips to complete. Once you're dealt your influence cards for the turn, you have to decide how best to go about getting those particular mission chips while also picking up handy victory points and money on the side.
Like Saint Petersberg? I just don't see that at all.
One of the things in common is the money vs VP aspects. Ultimately you need VP to win, but you need money--especially early in the game--to help you achieve that goal. Having to balance the two is the key. This is also true in Domaine and Puerto Rico.
"like peurto rico" eh? What if you hated peurto rico? I've been waitng for a 'courtly intrigue' game for a long time but the minimal interaction of peurto rico turned me right off. Please tell me there was much more player interaction in this game?
Can't agree less that PR has minimal interaction -- it is merely that the mechanism of the interaction is less than obvious the first couple of times you play.
Re: Getting that Sun King Feeling
Dunno about Louis XIV, though. (since I haven't played it yet)