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Subject: 2-fer-1: game review & comparison of new & old components rss

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Boris Dvorkin
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Do you remember dichotomous keys, those things you had to do in third grade? Where the teacher gave you a leaf and you had to use the key to figure out which tree it came from?

"STEP 45: DOES THE LEAF HAVE THREE FORKS AND A LONG STEM.

If Yes, go to STEP 524.
If No, your tree is The Rheumatism.

STEP 46: DOES THE LEAF HAVE RED BLOTCHES AND A NOTICEABLE FONDNESS FOR STRONG ALCOHOLIC SPIRITS.

If Yes, go to ..."

Since I'm expecting two different audiences for this review, I will use a similar approach to point you in the right direction:

STEP 1: Have you played Citadels before, and therefore don't give a hoot about the review of the game, and just want to skip straight to the description of the new version?

If Yes, scroll down to the bottom of this review until you get to the section headed by the CAPITAL LETTERS IN RED TEXT.

If No, keep reading.

===

Overview:

Citadels is a card game with money. It's a neat game.

Components:

I'll talk more about them later. For now, suffice it to say the components are fine.

General Idea:

There are three things to keep track of when you're playing Citadels:

1) Your hand
2) Your playing area
3) Your money

Your hand consists of buildings that you can buy. After you buy a building by paying gold, it goes into your playing area. Every building has a point value equal to its building cost. Once one player's playing area reaches eight buildings, the game ends and the player who has the most points wins.

Vague Summary of the Rules:

Citadels is played in rounds. Every round you do three things:

1) Select a character.

2) Collect income. You may either add buildings to your hand for more construction options, or collect gold to help you erect the buildings you've already got.

3) Build ONE building (not two, three, eight, etc) or pass.

If steps (2) and (3) were all there is to it, Citadels would be pretty frickin' lame. Step (1) -- character selection -- is what puts Citadels in the BGG top 100.

One player shuffles the eight character cards, discards some, looks at the rest, and secretly picks one. He then passes the cards to his left, whereupon the next player selects a character and passes the remaining cards to his left, and so on, until everybody's gotten a secret character. The characters have two important features:

1) A special power.
2) A number from 1-8.

The number is what determines turn order in the round. The Assassin, for example, is #1. When the characters have been selected, someone says, "Ok, who's the Assassin?" If one player picked the Assassin, he'll flip it over and take his turn. If the Assassin was passed over, the players will look at each other for a second or two, there will be some coughing, and then someone will say, "Ok, Thief?", because the Thief is the #2 character, and so on down the line, until the Warlord (#8) has taken his turn. When the Warlord's done, everybody throws in their character cards and the next round begins.

I have never seen another game with such a free-form variable power selection mechanic. It's neat.

The Cast:

The characters' special powers are executed during your turn, in addition to the income collection and building construction described above. I won't cover all of them now, but the main ones are:

#1: The Assassin.

The assassin selects one character -- character, not player! -- to kill. The assassinated character will magically rouse himself the following round, but he'll be skipped over this round.

Let's say I've taken the assassin and I want to kill Zebediah. I can't just say, "I kill Zebediah," because that's not how the assassin works. If I want Zebediah to lose his turn, I have to guess which character he took and kill that one. Perhaps I picked my character before Zeb did, and I recall that one of the characters I passed him was the merchant, who gives one bonus gold for each green building and one extra gold overall. I see that Ol' Zebby has three green buildings, so there's a good chance he took the merchant. I assassinate the sucker.

Zeb, if he is a good player, says nothing at this point, even if he is indeed the merchant. Play of the round skips from the Bishop (#5) to the Architect (#7), and if Zeb still hasn't taken his turn when the Warlord is done, only then does he begin screaming "YOU SON OF A **** %$^#@ ^%#*@@! THE !$%^# !#$%# !$%^&** LEAFBLOWER !@#$%# @%$#@@! ^%#@@ MONKEY WRENCH."

#2: Thief.

Like the assassin, the thief takes his turn normally and names a victim. The round continues quietly until the thief's target takes his turn, at which point -- and not sooner! -- he hands over all his money to the thief (whose suddently gigantified stash makes him a major target for the next round's thief, of course).

#4: The King.

The king collects one bonus gold for each yellow building in his playing area, and also picks his character first in the next round. The king is important because he prevents one player from getting the cream of the character crop all game, but without using the uninspiring "governor passes to the left" mechanic seen in Puerto Rico and other games.

Strategy or Luck?

Some people will tell you that Citadels is mostly strategy with a little bit of luck. That's just not true -- the breakdown is about 50/50. There are two major sources of luck in this game:

1) The buildings you are dealt.
2) How often you get hit by the assassin and/or thief.

Regarding (1): it's much better to be dealt a mix of colors than a big blob of one or two colors. You score 3 extra points at the end of the game for having at least one district of each color, but there's a benefit throughout the game as well -- the more colors you have, the higher the likelihood that you'll get characters who give you bonus money. I've already mentioned the king and the merchant, for example, who give bonus gold for yellow and green buildings, respectively; and there are two other characters who dole out bonuses in two other colors. Every gold coin is significant, as it lets you build more valuable buildings more quickly.

There are also purple cards that aren't tied to any one character, but have text on them and confer special advantages once built. Some of these cards are really powerful and cool (more on them below), so if you're never dealt one all game (or if you're only dealt the crappy ones), the effect is significant.

Point (2) is perhaps more severe. In my games, there's almost always someone who takes the role of The Bitch and gets screwed over and over again the entire game. People who defend the strategy in Citadels claim that The Bitch should have the foresight not to pick the characters that get screwed, and that's true, but the assassin and thief know that this is what people are doing and react accordingly. The game therefore features a lot of interaction of the rock-paper-scissors variety. While some people claim that RPS is a game of pure psychological skill on par with chess, I personally don't hold this view.

There's enough strategy in Citadels to keep it interesting for me (contrary to games like Munchkin or Chez Geek which make me weep for the boardgaming hobby), but don't expect to get a whole lot "better" at it. This is definitely a "novices can beat the experts" type of game (though whether that's a good or bad thing is up to you).

Teaching and Playing:

The game is reasonably easy to teach, but not completely -- the characters are annoying to explain and newbies tend to glaze over, then forget what all of them are. The characters are also the only major source of downtime, as people often spend many agonizing minutes selecting them. Of course, these agonizing decisions are at the heart of the game's greatness -- you want to pick a character that helps you, but you also have to factor in the risk of being killed or thieved. Nothing is more infuriating than passing a character you really needed and then seeing the assassin and thief go after someone else. The rock-paper-scissors element is superbly executed -- it provides tension and fury without dominating the game.

Let's Get Personal:

Although everybody's got their own hands and their own building areas, neither of these are free from violation by the other players (with the proper character, of course). There's a lot of player interaction, both in terms of direct interference and also the characters you choose to pass to the players on your left. Most of the time you're helping yourself without harming anybody else, but there's just enough of a "screw you!" element to keep everybody on their toes.

Playing Time:

The playing time hits the sweet spot. At about 45-60 minutes, the game is long enough to embroil you without dragging too much.

Oh Crap, the Gang's ALL Here:

Citadels officially supports 2-7 players, and works well with any number except 3. That's because with two or three players, each player gets two characters, and for this to work in a three-player game you need to pull in a ninth character from the Dark City set (which is included). This character, the Artist, blows, so in a three-player game there's always one card going around in circles that nobody ever wants.

Some people claim the game is great with two and too slow with more; others claim the game is fun with lots and lame with two; frankly, I'll play with any number that isn't three. Just note that the two- and three-player game is more strategic, while larger games introduce a good chunk of chaos.

Editorial

Citadels has a lot to like. The character powers are cool, the selection mechanic works nicely, the pace is brisk, the tension high, and there's always plenty of groaning, moaning, bitching, and screaming. I prefer to elaborate on the negative things in life than on the positive, so before I talk about what I don't like about the game, I want to underscore that I really do enjoy Citadels and think it provides a lot of fun for a lot of players in just the right about of time.

Here are the elements I don't like:

1) The luck. I admit, I am biased against luck in games. Still, it's incredibly frustrating to get dealt bad cards or a stray Assassin's dagger many many times in one game.

2) The craptacularness of some of the characters. The Warlord taxes red buildings for a bonus gold each (similar to the King and Merchant). His other power allows him to blow up another player's building by paying one gold less than that building cost to build. This means he can blow up el cheapo 1-gold buildings for free, but everything else will cost him hard-earned cash. It doesn't take a Ph.D in game theory to realize this isn't such a hot deal -- you screw yourself (by losing gold) and one other player, which means that all the other players gain on you. It's unquestionably better to spend that gold on a district for yourself, which gives you a net gain relative to every other player, not just one.

The Bishop taxes blue buildings and his special power is ... immunity from the Warlord. Well, since the warlord's power is hardly used (on account of it being le suck), you can imagine the Bishop isn't exactly earth-shatteringly awesome himself. Thus, the Warlord and Bishop are basically nothing more than money-makers if you've built buildings of their color. That's not to say gold isn't important -- in fact, it's critical -- but they're clearly worse than the King and Merchant, who tax a color AND get a power that's actually useful.

As a result, the Warlord and Bishop are usually "sleeper" characters that people take when they want to duck the 'sassin and the thief. Ok, that's a good purpose in life, but a road trip to Funkytown with a pit stop in Insaneville, it ain't.

Admittedly, the Warlord and Bishop are very useful indeed in the two-player game, where screwing your opponent is as good as helping yourself. Also, the game comes with a deck of alternate characters, and the replacements for the Warlord and Bishop seem to have decent powers. Using them in larger games would take care of the problem I have mentioned. Most of the other replacements, however, seem like nothing more than pansified versions of the original characters.

3) There is a rule against building two of the same district. This rule is enormously retarded since it adds luck to a game that already has a lot of it, and this form of luck is stupid, frustrating, and meaningless. So I get screwed just because I drew multiples of the same card and Ezekiel didn't? Now, obviously, you can just ignore this moronic rule, which is what my friends and I have always done. The problem, though, is that it's in The Rulebook, so you'll have to play with it if enough people in your group demand it.

===

SO WHAT'S UP WITH THE NEW VERSION!

If you have the older version of Citadels, you may be wondering if the new version is worth your money. The answer is surprising: it just might be.

For starters, those damned annoying character chits are gone. I TOLD you they were useless!

Second, the cards are printed on much nicer stock. A major, ringing complaint of the old FF Citadels is that the quality of the cards is terrible. This isn't a big deal with the building cards, but since the character cards are manhandled every round, they get pretty worn rather quickly. My old Citadels characters aren't quite to the point of being marked, but they're scratched and greasy in enough places that it might soon become a problem.

I'm not an expert on materials, so I can't tell you that the new cards are a 57/46 bronze/titanium/chloroborite composite mixed with bovine potash like some reviewers can, but the new cards are more like the Bohnanza cards. They're kind of scratchy, a bit thicker, and sturdy. I can't say they'll last a lifetime, but they definitely resist wear a lot better than the old ones.

Third, the box is much smaller and sturdier, resisting damage and shelf wear much better than the old box. The insert is really cool -- it's got two rectangular boxes for the cards, and two nifty slots in the middle that you can throw the money into. No more opening the box and finding everything a splayed mess!

Fourth, there are some new purple buildings. I was never a fan of the purple buildings in the original game because they had pretty sad powers. "The Warlord can't kill this building!" Uh, great. The best cards were the ones that gave you 8 points but only cost 6 gold to build, since you got two free points that way, but they weren't anything to wet your pants about.

Now the buildings are actually really cool. The Museum lets you put one card under it every turn for an extra point; the Poor House gives you a gold at the end of your turn if you have none; the Park lets you draw two cards at the end of your turn if you have none (!); and others. You can even set up combos with some of the cards. For example, Laboratory (sell one card for one gold) + Park is amazing. First, run out of cards. Collect two from the park. On your next turn, collect income, sell one card, and build the other one. You're out of cards again -- collect two from the park, and repeat again next turn. As long as you draw at least one card valued 3 gold or less each time, you can ride this all the way to the end of the game.

Of course, you won't always get the cards you need to pull off stellar combos, and the crappy purple cards of yore are still in the deck. Still, it's nice to have something to smile about when you get dealt a bunch of purple cards. In the old game, getting lots of purple was a real downer; it was much better to get a bunch of other colors instead, since the extra gold they awarded was inevitably better than the meager special powers.

I didn't actually buy the new version myself: I bought the old version long ago, and my board game club got the new version recently. Nevertheless, the new edition has etched out solid footing on my To Buy list, even though it's a game I already have. The components are that good.

===

In Memoriam

Whether you already own the game or not, Citadels is a worthy purchase, and at around $14, it's not exactly a wallet-breaker. New players will appreciate the tense, agonizing character interactions, while old players will enjoy the vastly improved game components and neato purple cards. I wouldn't say that Citadels has quite attainted the level of ZOMFG U MUST BY THIS GAEM RITE NOW THIS MINUT!!!, but it's a solid, quick, enjoyable game you will likely appreciate.
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Matt Smith
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What is the money like in the new version? I have the FF version with the lame cardboard money, but I believe an earlier version had cool yellow/gold-colored plastic coins.
 
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Vincent
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mvettemagred wrote:
What is the money like in the new version? I have the FF version with the lame cardboard money, but I believe an earlier version had cool yellow/gold-colored plastic coins.


The new money is on the right:

 
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Boris Dvorkin
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Whoa, cardboard money? I guess there's an even older FF version I didn't know about! The one I have has the infamous Butterscotch gold, which the new gold is basically a slightly darker version of (really, the picture says it all -- thanks Mooninite!).
 
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