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Subject: A Tribute to Trimalchio rss

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Richard Pickman
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"But," demanded Trimalchio, "what did you have for dinner?"
"I'll tell you if I can," answered he, "for my memory's so good that I often forget my own name. Let's see, for the first course, we had a hog, crowned with a wine cup and garnished with cheese cakes and chicken livers cooked well done, beets, of course, and whole-wheat bread, which I'd rather have than white, because it puts strength into you, and when I take a crap afterwards, I don't have to yell. Following this, came a course of tarts, served cold, with excellent Spanish wine poured over warm honey; I ate several of the tarts and got the honey all over myself. Then there were chick-peas and lupines, all the smooth-shelled nuts you wanted, and an apple apiece…”

Petronius Arbiter, The Satyricon (transl. W.C. Firebaugh)

Bacchus’ Banquet by Fréderic Moyersoen is a medium-light hidden-role game for 3-5 players. The length is approximately half an hour. One player takes on the role of the notorious Roman Emperor Caligula; the other players are his guests at a deliciously decadent, and often deadly, dinner.

It is known from the start which player is Caligula, but the identities of the other players are secret. There are eight different possible guests, with varying agendas. Claudius, Messalina, and Vespasianus are there to satisfy their gluttony by devouring a certain number of different dishes and perhaps a certain amount of wine. Caesonia and Agrippina are satisfied if they can carry off three different presents. Cassius, Octavius and Septimus are on a mission to kill Caligula; if Caligula dies of overeating, or if three daggers are ever exposed simultaneously at the table, these conspirators instantly win. As for Caligula himself, he can win if he eats two different dishes and drinks five points of wine, or if three of his guests are “incapacitated” (to follow the instruction booklet’s euphemism) as a result of overeating, overdrinking, and/or poison. Apparently, it’s not a party unless three people die.


Image courtesy of Guantanamo

Food, wine, dancing, music, servants, gifts, poison, and daggers are all dispensed liberally from a 93-card deck. In deference to imperial protocol, play begins with Caligula. At the start of each player’s turn, seven cards lie face-up on the table. The active player takes up three of these and decides which one he will keep, which one he will discard, and which one he will offer to another player as a gift. All these cards remain face down until the end of the round. The player who has been offered the gift must decide whether to accept it, in which case he immediately applies it to himself, or to offer it in turn to another player. If every other player refuses the gift, the active player must apply the gift to himself. Once the gift has been revealed, the active player reveals and applies the card that he chose to keep for himself. Play now passes to the player who accepted the gift. This is a very clever touch, because it means that an overly cautious player who never accepts any gifts will never take a turn.


Image courtesy of rgatti

Applying a card to oneself is a simple affair. Each player’s board includes a track that runs from 0 to 10 and shows how full the character’s stomach is. This is represented by a belt buckle, which must be loosened as the character eats and drinks, but which is tightened as the character dances, carouses, naps, or uses a feather (the exact purpose of this instrument is left to the player’s imagination). Applying a card will usually have some impact, positive or negative, on this belt buckle. If the player is ever forced to loosen their buckle past 10, that character is “incapacitated” and is out of the game. If that character was Caligula, all conspirators at the table (if any) win the game. Otherwise, the player discards all his face-up cards, draws a new character, and keeps playing. All cards applied to oneself remain face-up near the player’s board, and watching a player’s collection grow can help everyone guess that player’s role.

Each player except Caligula receives one Privilege card at the beginning of the game. Caligula, being the emperor, receives two Privilege cards. Each Privilege card is different, but they all interfere with the gift distribution process in some way: they might force another player to accept a gift, or they might switch the keep card and the discard card, and so forth. Privilege cards can never be replaced, even if the character dies, so they are best held as trump cards for use in an emergency.


Image courtesy of Guantanamo

The gift-giving process leads to endless deduction and bluffing. Did the active player pick up that poison card because she intends to give it to Caligula? Or did she only take it in hand so as to discard it, because Caligula’s belt is close to bursting and she’s trying to head off a conspirator victory? Or did she do it because she intends to poison a fellow guest whom she suspects to be too close to winning? (This is a dangerous strategy, because every guest who dies brings Caligula closer to victory, but in some cases it might be appropriate.) A gift is often passed around like a hot potato, as in Kakerlakenpoker.

Like any bluffing game, Bacchus’ Banquet is very dependent on the mood and personalities of the group. It can lead to a bit of roleplaying and a lot of laughter. In one game I played, Caligula picked up a food card that would have killed him if applied to himself, then an assassin played a Privilege card to exchange the keep card with the discard card, then the guest who was offered the gift card played another Privilege card to exchange the keep card with the gift card… saving Caligula’s life in the nick of time. On the other hand, the game can also fall a bit flat when some players approach it from a purely rational perspective.

The five player boards are very sturdy, and the wooden belt buckle tokens are neat. The cards are somewhat delicate, and suffered damage when I spilled some beer on them. Fortunately I was able to remedy this with a sharpie; then, having learned my lesson, I sleeved the entire deck.


Image courtesy of pizza the hut

I am very partial to unusual themes, and this is a delightfully rare one. The integration of theme with mechanics is nearly flawless. The art is cartoonish and amusing, and it is perfectly appropriate to the subject matter; it is reminiscent of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix comics. I do have some very minor gripes with the theme. Firstly, I wish the cuisine had been slightly more over the top. The dishes available in this game are lobster, carp, fowl, piglet and deer; I would have preferred dormice, peacocks, and other exotic Roman delicacies. My second gripe is that not all the characters featured in the game are recognizable members of Caligula’s circle. The future emperor Claudius and his wife Messalina did eat at Caligula’s table, Cassius was the chief conspirator against Caligula, Agrippina was Caligula’s sister, and Caesonia was one of Caligula’s wives; but who are Octavius and Septimus? Surely this doesn’t refer to the Emperor Augustus, who died before Caligula’s reign, and the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born about 100 years after Caligula’s death? [NOTE: See below; the names "Seventh" and "Eighth" are used as stand-ins for unknown Praetorian conspirators.]

One brief note about the balance of gameplay. The roles are asymmetrical, which means that each character has his advantages and disadvantages. Caesonia and Agrippina can win without necessarily loosening their belts at all, which means that they do not often risk overeating; on the other hand, unless they eat and drink at least a bit, their gift-collecting will make them easy to detect. Caligula is handicapped in that his goals are public and that he is an obvious target for the conspirators, but on the other hand he does have two Privilege cards, and he gets to play first. Generally, this variety is fun, and keeps the game fresh, as each type of character has a different optimal strategy. On the other hand, the nine roles are not perfectly balanced. Vespasianus, who needs to eat one of each of the five different dishes, is almost certainly the hardest character to play, and will need to do a lot of dancing and dozing. I do not find this to be a very significant problem, since the game is short and a player may assume more than one character during a single game, but it may be frustrating for some. [NOTE: See below; I got schooled on the rules. I'll play this again, correctly, and then re-evaluate.]

In conclusion, this is a very fun, light game with a unique theme. I would recommend it to fans of antiquity, as well as to anyone who enjoys a good bluff.

EDIT: Updates per above.
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Edwin S
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Thanks for the review! Interesting theme.

The names Septimus and Octavius are etymologically related to the Latin for seventh and eighth, to do with either birth order or the month of birth. If the designers were looking to make up the numbers with seventh and eighth characters, they seem reasonable ones to choose: I don't think we know the names of the other conspirators who succeeded in "incapacitating" Caligula.
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Frederic Moyersoen
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rpickman wrote:
Vespasianus, who needs to eat one of each of the five different dishes, is almost certainly the hardest character to play, and will need to do a lot of dancing and dozing.


Vespasianus must eat 5 dishes, not five different dishes. This is too hard.
Similarly, all characters who must eat dishes, may eat similar ones.

You are right about the character's names. I needed 3 murderers for the game balance, but found only one real murderer after some research. Therefore, I've added 2 common Roman names.
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Richard Pickman
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Ilikegames wrote:
Thanks for the review! Interesting theme.

The names Septimus and Octavius are etymologically related to the Latin for seventh and eighth, to do with either birth order or the month of birth. If the designers were looking to make up the numbers with seventh and eighth characters, they seem reasonable ones to choose: I don't think we know the names of the other conspirators who succeeded in "incapacitating" Caligula.

But of course! That must be the answer. Gratias tibi ago.
 
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Richard Pickman
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Frederic Moyersoen wrote:
rpickman wrote:
Vespasianus, who needs to eat one of each of the five different dishes, is almost certainly the hardest character to play, and will need to do a lot of dancing and dozing.


Vespasianus must eat 5 dishes, not five different dishes. This is too hard.
Similarly, all characters who must eat dishes, may eat similar ones.

You are right about the character's names. I needed 3 murderers for the game balance, but found only one real murderer after some research. Therefore, I've added 2 common Roman names.

Thank you for your input. And thank you for this game, which my group and I really enjoy.
 
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