Tom Williamson
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This review has been composed as part of the Voice of Experience 2.0 Review Contest which seeks this year to promote a discussion regarding games on the simple side of gaming (i.e. with a BGG weight of 2.0 or less) ostensibly dealing with card games, party games, dexterity games and their associated brethren. A worthwhile exercise I’m sure that you will all agree.

Many thanks to Martin for organizing the contest.

Martin G
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Picture yourself a scene: on a balmy July afternoon last year, a young gentleman and his comrade-in-arms (the latter freshly arrived from Geneva) walk into a games shop in Central London. This gentleman had recently purchased Parade, which he considered to represent a lot of game in a little box, and was therefore on the lookout for other games in the Z-Man Small Box range as he had heard that a good number of these titles were worth the attention of the card games enthusiast.

Amongst the array of card games on offer (to include such monosyllabic mainstays as Loot, Fluxx and Poo), he notices a few offerings from Z-Man, amongst them being a small brown box with a simple white shield in the middle of the front cover. “Bloody hell”, he thinks to himself, “the artwork on this box is dull as dishwater! I might as well check out its rating on BGG though.” A quick check of his handy Android app and he a decision is made that it is worth a punt, considering the low price point and the fact that he was looking for two player games to while away the short break with Genevan friend.

On that day, this gentleman not only purchased Court of the Medici, but also Lords of Scotland (an equally fine Z-Man offering by the same designer as Court, Richard James) and the real reason for his visit to the store, two expansions to Arkham Horror upon which he could splurge his birthday cash. My, what beautiful creations these two expansions were: more investigators; more Elder Ones; more Monsters; a Board Expansion; Heralds; Madness/Injury Cards; the list goes on. The delightful complexity and the myriad worlds it will create!

Since that day, Arkham Horror has seen three plays. Court of the Medici has had 30. During this time, the gentleman in question has spent an inordinate amount of time on BGG researching games in detail by reading through session reports, reviews, and rulebooks etc. However, one of the gems in his ever-expanding collection is the little card game that could – purchased on pure impulse.

At this time, I will, ladies and gentlemen, let you in on a secret: that gentleman was me.

The Ides Of March: The Basics

I will endeavour to keep this as short as possible as I understand that some people do not enjoy lengthy rules synopses in reviews. However, I consider that it is necessary to at least understand the basics of any game if you wish to fully appreciate comments made in respect of strategy, tactics or simply the feel of the game as a whole.

Court of the Medici is a two player card game with a non-existent theme paying lip service to Medici Era Florence. That’s not important: what is important is how the game plays.

The game mechanisms, are as I understand it derived to an extent from the Italian card game, Cassino. I have not had the fortune to play Cassino so am not in a position to comment on it as a game in itself or any similarities it may to Court of the Medici.

Both players are provided with 25 card decks which are identical other than one is red and one is blue (plus some other aesthetic touches which are neither here nor there). These decks consist of: two cards each of a value from 0 to 10, one 15 and two Jesters. Of these cards, only the 0, 1 and Jester have special properties which are dealt with further below.

Of these cards, four from each deck are placed in the middle of the table to form the Inner Court. Players then deal themselves a five card hand. On each player’s turn, they can either:

1. Place one card from their hand onto a card (or set of cards) in the Inner Court;
2. Place one card from their hand in the Outer Court (generally in front of the player in question), either by itself to start a new set or alternatively onto a card (or set of cards). The vital distinction for the Outer Court being that a card cannot be placed by itself in the Inner Court.
3. Place one card from their hand onto the bottom of their deck. This is termed “planning for the future”.

The player then draws a card from the top of their draw deck, replenishing their hand to five cards.

If, and only if, a card is placed onto a card (or set of cards), the player may choose to eliminate another card (or set of cards) of the same total value. It should be noted that Red cards can be placed on Blue Cards and vice versa, and that players can (and will need regularly to) eliminate cards of their own colour to progress their position.

Example #1

R is playing as Red. B is playing Blue. Following the initial set-up of the Inner Court, the total value of Red cards is higher than the total value of Blue cards and therefore R goes first. The play is as follows:

R’s hand: 4, 6, 7, 8, 15

Inner Court: Red – 3, 5, 8, 9
Blue – 1, 6, 7, 10

R, should he wish to eliminate one of B’s cards, can either:

1. Place the 7 on the Red 3 to eliminate the Blue 10 (7+3=10)
2. Place the 6 on the Blue 1 to eliminate the Blue 7 (6+1=7)

In this example, the optimal opening move isn’t entirely clear – it may in fact be the case that eliminating one of B’s cards is not the smart opening play. However, if R is to eliminate one of B’s cards, Option #2 is the most preferable. This is due to the fact that in option #1, R is painting a big target on his set of 10 which if eliminated will represent a swing of at least 10 away from R. On the other hand with Option #2, subject to certain exceptions, if B later wants to get rid of all of R’s cards in the Inner Court (which as set out below is one of the endgame conditions), he will also need to eliminate his Blue 6 which will result in a 5 point swing in favour of R, based on the current make-up of this particular card set.

The game has only just begun and already critical decisions must be made. This will nearly always be the case as well as, due to the random set-up of the Inner Court, there is a strong possibility that at least one player will have a high value target to attack straight off the bat.


The game therefore consists of players adding to and eliminating from the Inner and Outer Courts until either:

1. All of the one player’s cards are eliminated from the Inner Court (hence the importance of not being able to place a card by itself in the Inner Court).

2. One player can play no more cards from his hand.

In both instances, the player with the highest total of cards in play at game end, to include all cards in the Inner and Outer Courts, wins the game. Sounds simple? It is but there’s a roiling strategic undertow beneath the calm exterior.

Three Kings: Touching Upon Tactics

When starting out in writing this review, a number of tactical topics came to mind upon which I could happily pontificate for a few thousand words or so; however, I am conscious that, although written from a position of experience, this review is intended primarily to educate players unfamiliar with the game. There is no need to overboard on this front and in any event I find that one of the great pleasures of a well designed card game, particularly the two player kind, is working out how to outfox your opponent mano e mano.

Luckily, Court of the Medici is a game that truly blossoms if provided with the proper attention. It moves inexorably from the initial amateurish games of attrition focused solely upon dominance of the Inner Court to lengthy battles which last to the end of the players’ decks with regular shifts in power and tempo throughout.

Keeping the above in mind, I will focus my attention from a tactical standpoint on the three special cards available to the players: the 0 (“the Minister”); the 1 (“the Lady in Waiting”); and the Jester. This will look at how each of the cards operates and the various options that each provides.

The Jester

Let us begin with the game’s wild card: the Jester.

As a brief reminder, both players have two copies of the Jester in their decks. When placed by a player, that player can nominate a value of between 1 to 10 which is attributed to the Jester. Accordingly, the Jester is an aggressive card, allowing for a player in most instances to attack their opponent’s high value cards in play. There is a rather significant catch though. Once in play, the Jester’s value can subsequently be determined by the active player in all following rounds, i.e. it will constantly change in value. This means that a player’s Jester can (and will) be used against them. As a result, before playing the Jester, a player must think a number of moves ahead to ensure that the Jester does more damage to their opponent rather than themselves!

Example #2

It is R’s turn with both players’ decks midway through play. The play is as follows:

R’s hand: J, J, 5, 8, 15

Inner Court: Set 1 [R: 7; B: 3]
Set 2 [B: 2]
Set 3 [B: 4, 10]
Set 4 [R: 1]

Outer Court:

Red: 6, 8
Blue: N/A

R can’t add to his 1 (in Set 4, IC) to attack B’s big whale of a 14 (Set 3, IC: not the smartest play by Blue) nor does he see any benefit as yet of adding a non-Jester to B’s 2 (Set 2, IC) in order to protect his Inner Court position. This is because he is relatively safe on this front due to his presence in two Inner Court sets and the fact that his 1 cannot be eliminated at present.

The 14 however is too good of a target to leave alone. He therefore places one of his Jesters on Set 1, declaring it as a 4. Set 1 is therefore worth 14 and Set 3 is chosen to be eliminated by R.

This leaves B with presence in only one Inner Court set (and nothing in the Outer Court). The point count is R: 23 (Jesters equal one for the purposes of end game scoring); B: 5.

R is now in a position of real strength with the flexibility of the Jester allowing him to make this aggressive move at a time when it would have the most impact. Also: (1) although R attributed a value of 4 to the Jester, it is in fact only worth 1 and therefore if the Jester is eliminated he has avoided an additional three points lost (i.e. four points rather than one point would be eliminated if a four had been played rather than the Jester); and (2) he has added the Jester to a relatively high value set (sets in the high teens are very rare or, at the least, very foolhardy in such circumstances where it can be eliminated in one fell swoop) and therefore B is unable to use the Jester against R on his next turn.


The Lady-in-Waiting

The Lady-in-Waiting is a dual purpose card insofar as it can be used for either of the following purposes:

1. In the usual fashion, i.e. to eliminate a card or set of the same value when played to a card or set; or

2. If played to a set, it can break up that set into individual cards, i.e. a five card set become five individual cards.

In respect of the former, an effective defensive play is to add the Lady-in-Waiting to a high value opponent card (or set) in the Inner Court. This usually means that if the opponent wants to end the game by eliminating all of your cards from the Inner Court, they will need to eliminate the relevant set to which the Lady-in-Waiting has been added. This can result in a 7 to 14 point swing. This move however shouldn’t be employed lightly as the player will also be depriving themselves of an opportunity to use the card’s very useful special ability.

It is this ability which means that the Lady-in-Waiting will likely be your defensive MVP in any game of Court of the Medici, insofar as it can rescue a player from what may otherwise appear to be a hopeless situation.

Example #3

It is R’s turn again with both players’ decks midway through play. The play is as follows:

R’s hand: 1 (LIW), 5, 5, 7, 9

Inner Court: Set 1 [R: 2; B: 5]
Set 2 [B: 6, 9]
Set 3 [B: 2]

Outer Court:

Red: 3, 4
Blue: 3, 9

R is in a very difficult position indeed. He has no cards which enable him to directly attack B’s big set (Set 2, Inner Court) and even playing his 9 to the Outer Court will not protect him from a loss if B is able to eliminate Set 1 on his next turn. He does have the option of adding a card to Sets 2 or 3 in the Inner Court but this is not ideal.

R therefore plays his Lady-in-Waiting on Set 1 breaking off his 2 from the Blue 5. B will not be able to eliminate either the Lady-in-Waiting or the Red 2 next turn (this will happen 99% of the time after playing the Lady-in-Waiting regardless of the set to which it is played due to its value of 1, trumped only by the Minster’s zero). R will then hopefully be able to try and rebuild his position, for example by playing one of his 5s to the Outer Court Blue 9 to eliminate Set 2. If he is able to do that, the momentum of the game will have swung in his favour.


The Lady-in-Waiting is not limited to reactive plays. An aggressive tactic than can be employed is to build up a multi-card set of your own cards, beyond the normal attacking scope of any of the other sets in the Inner Court (i.e. a difference of 11 to 14 or 16+) with a view to breaking this set up with a Lady-in-Waiting flooding the Inner Court with multiple new sets. This does however present somewhat of a push-your-luck exercise as the set can (and usually will, if you have my luck) be eliminated by a well placed Minister – see below.

The Minister

In my opinion, pretty much all games of Court of the Medici are determined one way or another by how effectively the players are able to deploy their Ministers – the key weapons in their respective arsenals.

As with the Lady-in-Waiting, the Minister can be deployed in the usual fashion but this is very unlikely unless it represents a final coup de grace. Rather, the Minister should generally be used for its special ability which is that if played to any set of cards (not an individual card) that set is eliminated and replaced by the Minister. So destructive is its effect at times, it is best followed by an “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” accompanied by chewing on an imaginary stogie. It can not only destroy a high value set of your opponent’s cards but then also either prevents you losing your position in the Inner Court (the Minister being incapable of elimination unless first added to) or acts as a springboard for further attacks against the remainder of your opponent’s cards.

The threat of the Minister acts as a deterrent against the players placing all of their eggs in one basket without a real risk of the relevant set being wiped out with the play of one card. It also allows for a rather tasty combo of adding a low value card to a high value opponent card (not set) with a view to then eliminating the newly formed set next turn with a Minister for a sizeable point swing your way.

Both the Lady-in-Waiting and the Minister are key elements of a player’s deck and whilst I would not suggest engaging in a full scale card counting exercise, if you wish to be successful it is highly advisable to monitor how many Lady-in-Waitings and Ministers have been played by your opponent and conversely how many remain primed and ready in their deck to mess with your best laid plans. Many a late escape has been effected by a well placed Lady-in Waiting and many a crushing victory driven forward by the ruthless Minister.

Good Night & Good Luck: Conclusion

The above really is a whistle-stop tour of the tactical elements of this game insofar as it refrains from considering in detail amongst other things: the best strategy to achieve Inner Court victory; the merits of low value cards against high value cards at various stages of the game; when to play cards to the Outer Court; the benefit of planning for the future (i.e. placing a card at the bottom of the deck) in terms of effecting player order; deciding which value card is to be the last in your deck (a high value card gives potential point scoring; a low value card may end the game earlier than your opponent expects). It goes on.

The purpose of the Voice of Experience 2.0 series (as I understand it anyway) is to showcase supposedly lighter games and to demonstrate that these games should not be dismissed out of hand due to their failure to provided eye-popping visuals, afternoon spanning play times, and a seemingly unlimited amount of choices to its players. Let’s face it: Court of the Medici has an unappealing visual design, is constructed from seemingly rudimentary game mechanisms based on a 18th Century Italian card game and is limited to two players only – on first glance, a run of the mill filler. Those first impressions fall away though once you experience the way that it plays - which sometimes we forget is what really matters when it comes to any game, be it an Ameritrash behemoth or a microgame.

My relationship with board games has come a long way since entering that shop a year ago – for which Court of the Medici and its cousin, Lords of Scotland, deserve a good deal of credit. Both are easily accessible games that can be learned in ten minutes, set up in two minutes, played in 15 minutes and then almost instantly play again. The sheer enjoyment that I have derived from Court of the Medici and learning how to really get to grips with what it has to offer cannot be underestimated. Indeed, even on my most recent play, I discovered a tactical play that had not previously occurred to me which had me thinking about the game for a good couple of days afterwards.

If you are looking for a game that will play well in a more casual setting but is also able to offer hard fought tactical knife-fights for experienced gamers, my advice would always be to try Court of the Medici or Battle Line. Yes, I am comparing this to one of the Doctor’s finest works.

In terms of availability, Court of the Medici appears to be out of print and, in fact, no longer appears on the Z-Man website which is a crying shame. Beg, steal or borrow yourself a copy.
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Darrell Hanning
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Quote:
I will endeavour to keep this as short as possible as I understand that some people do not enjoy lengthy rules synopses in reviews. However, I consider that it is necessary to at least understand the basics of any game if you wish to fully appreciate comments made in respect of strategy, tactics or simply the feel of the game as a whole.


If only other writers of reviews could grasp that fundamental concept, rather than lazily stating that the rules are online, or covered in "another review".

Great review. Thank you.
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Dr. Dam
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DarrellKH wrote:
Quote:
I will endeavour to keep this as short as possible as I understand that some people do not enjoy lengthy rules synopses in reviews. However, I consider that it is necessary to at least understand the basics of any game if you wish to fully appreciate comments made in respect of strategy, tactics or simply the feel of the game as a whole.


If only other writers of reviews could grasp that fundamental concept, rather than lazily stating that the rules are online, or covered in "another review".

Great review. Thank you.


Totally agree.
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Kevin
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I am a huge fan of both Court of the Medici and Lords of Scotland. A whole lot of game in little bitty boxes.
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Quote:
The Lady-in-Waiting

. . . ..

It is R’s turn again with both players’ decks midway through play. The play is as follows:

R’s hand: 1 (LIW), 5, 5, 7, 9

Inner Court: Set 1 [R: 2; B: 5]
Set 2 [B: 6, 9]
Set 3 [B: 2]

Outer Court:

Red: 3, 10
Blue: 3, 9

R is in a very difficult position indeed. He has no cards which enable him to directly attack B’s big set (Set 2, Inner Court)


Is there a reason why R can't play one of the 5s on to the 10 in the Outer Court, or have I missed something?
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Nigel Twine
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IIRC the Outer Court cannot conspire against the Inner Court. Whereas the Inner Court can conspire against the Outer Court.
 
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Tom Williamson
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stickywicket wrote:
Is there a reason why R can't play one of the 5s on to the 10 in the Outer Court, or have I missed something?


Whoops. That's just an error on my part. Making up scenarios that scanned correctly was especially hard when writing this review. Will amend so the 10 becomes a 4. In any event, placing the 5 on the Outer Court 10 would be a pretty solid move although you would be inviting an attack from B's Ministers as a single colour 15 is a pretty ripe cherry.

The Outer Court can be used to attack (or conspire against, to use the game's terminology) the Inner Court.
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Tom Williamson
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DarrellKH wrote:
Quote:
I will endeavour to keep this as short as possible as I understand that some people do not enjoy lengthy rules synopses in reviews. However, I consider that it is necessary to at least understand the basics of any game if you wish to fully appreciate comments made in respect of strategy, tactics or simply the feel of the game as a whole.


If only other writers of reviews could grasp that fundamental concept, rather than lazily stating that the rules are online, or covered in "another review".

Great review. Thank you.


Thanks Darrell.

I can understand why, in some circumstances, reviewers take the easy way out with far more complex games that Court. There is of course the other side of the coin where a reviewer just sets out all of the rules but provides little to no commentary which is very helpful to people completely unfamiliar with the game but frustrating to those who have played it and want to gauge the opinions of others.

I just feel that if you set out the rules and at the same time try and set out how those rules affect the overall gameplay, your review is more likely to achieve its purpose.

It's difficult sometimes to find a balance between the two extremes but I hope that I managed it!
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Nigel Twine
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Rompa wrote:
The Outer Court can be used to attack (or conspire against, to use the game's terminology) the Inner Court.


Just checked the rules and you`re right!

WOW. Played it wrong all this time blush

Still, I can recommend my version as an excellent variant!!!!
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Randall Monk
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Excellent write-up, but this seems crazy:

"Let’s face it: Court of the Medici has an unappealing visual design"

It's hard to imagine a more attractive set of cards.
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Tom Williamson
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Monkatron wrote:
Excellent write-up, but this seems crazy:

"Let’s face it: Court of the Medici has an unappealing visual design"

It's hard to imagine a more attractive set of cards.


Well, the artwork is of course stunning in its original context but how that artwork itself is presented, together with the ugly front cover art, is to what I was referring.

Different strokes, yadda yadda yadda.
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Dave C
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Nigel66 wrote:
Rompa wrote:
The Outer Court can be used to attack (or conspire against, to use the game's terminology) the Inner Court.


Just checked the rules and you`re right!

WOW. Played it wrong all this time blush

Still, I can recommend my version as an excellent variant!!!!


Same here. We might have to revisit this game and try playing it correctly.

That changes everything.
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J. M.
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Undoubtedly one of the best 2-player games my wife and I have ever played.
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