Reviewing is more of a hobby for most of us, but for a select few it’s become a career, such as Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower. Part of Tom’s financial success has recently come from the Dice Tower Essentials, a line of games curated by Tom and published by Arcane Wonders (who are primarily known for the wizard combat game Mage Wars). The games so far show Tom’s diverse and refined tastes. Sheriff of Nottingham, a bluffing/party game, and Onitama, a two-player abstract game (imagine if Chess had a random setup), have been very well-received and even garnered a few awards.
Royals, the third game in the line, is an entirely different beast: it merges set collection with area control, and I’ve already nicknamed it “Ticket to El Grande.” Those are great mechanisms when used well, and certainly Tom’s been two-for-two so far – but the grumpy king on the cover doesn’t look too happy… (And if you follow Tom, you know just how ironic this cover is!)
The original Royals has been out in Europe for some time, but that printing of the game fit the stereotype of European strategy games: bland, faded artwork that somehow makes medieval castles unexciting. A complete overhaul of the graphics was done for the American release, and I have to say that I am quite pleased with the results. The cards are bright and colorful, while still looking distinctly medieval, and the iconography is very clear. The rep at Arcane Wonders told me they were unhappy with the cut on the card corners, but I think the cards are fine. I was a little disappointed to see cubes for the players instead of meeples, but I understand that the price of the game would go up considerably in that case (and it would be near impossible to fit the meeples onto the Royal tiles). More importantly, I do have two small, but more legitimate, gripes. The first is that, while the graphic design is very good, there is one particular city, Rennes, that’s easily mistaken to be in Britain, or at least “not France.” The second is that the game is fairly simple, but still desperately needs player aids due to a lot of “tiny” rules. Overall, though, this is a beautiful game with a fair price ($49.99) and a clean layout.
Gorgeous, simplistic artwork for the Country cards.
What I’m referring to by those “tiny” rules are small, mostly irrelevant (until they are) exceptions and things to remember. For example, there are two types of cards in the game, and they both have a different ratio for how many you need to discard to use as a wild card. The third scoring has slightly different timing than the first two, the first turn has different card-drawing rules, and so on. It can be a pain to remember these exceptions for the first game or two, but don’t be fooled. For the most part, Royals is an extremely clean, slick design with a wonderful mix of tactics and strategy. The game’s mechanisms are highly intuitive otherwise, as you are essentially just drawing cards so that you play a set of one color to place influence where you want.
Placing influence is such a simple concept, but so tricky to do masterfully. Players influence different royals in each city on the board, and taking that action gives you influence both in that country and among that particular brand of royal (duke, princess, king, etc.) The countries are scored three times in the game, while the royals are scored at the end. The royals are brilliantly intertwined with the map, giving you another consideration for majorities, while also acting as a tiebreaker so that points never need to be split mid-game (and there’s a clever point-splitting mechanism for endgame scoring). On top of that, there are a variety of bonuses for reaching a city first, influencing every city in a country, influencing every type of royal, and so on. For a game that consists primarily of drawing colored cards and playing them in sets, there’s a lot to chew on here. It’s very tense, because so many of the points are about “getting there first.” Every game has played out very differently so far, and I like the game more each time, though the static nature of the map has me curious about the possibility of future expansions.
To make sure American gamers had a proper experience, Arcane Wonders went back and did a few gameplay tweaks as well. The primary difference is that Britain is much different in layout than it is in the European version of the game. I haven’t played the original to tell if it’s truly an improvement, but I’ve been happy with the way that portion of the map plays out. However, one side effect is the addition of three cards to the deck, and an adjustment in how many cards get removed at each player count (fewer are now removed). This makes the game take a little longer to play. The game also has the weird problem of your removing fewer cards with more players present, which is already going to take longer anyway. Three-and-four-player games feel just right, but the five-player game is noticeably too long.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Intrigue cards, which allow players to replace their opponents’ cubes with their own. Despite being a very important part of the game, I never felt like this “take that!” aspect was very pronounced; it was rare to feel like anyone was attacked vindictively instead of strategically, as there are lots of reasons why you might want a particular spot. This aspect of the game adds more strategy, but more importantly, a hefty dose of interaction; this is a Eurogame of days gone by, back when they were called that simply because they were streamlined. Nowadays, the term mostly refers to complex, multiplayer-solitaire-style games, and Royals is definitely not that.
In the end, Royals is very much a design straight out of the early 1990s, and that makes it quite refreshing in 2016. None of the mechanisms are new, but they’re combined amazingly well. Despite the small rules to remember (which could easily be done with a self-made player aid), this is a game that hits all the right notes for me. It’s accessible, yet deep, it’s timed just right with three or four players, it’s beautiful, and it’s easy to set up and tear down. None of my small complaints can overshadow the fact that this is an absolutely excellent game.
+ Gorgeous game, wisely redone for the U.S. market
+ Simple gameplay makes this a great gateway game
+ Lots of strategy in balancing paths to VPs
+ Card system allows for just the right amount of luck
+ Game is tense and exciting throughout
- Theme is pleasantly done but irrelevant
- Needs player aids badly
- Too long with five players
Royals is a wonderful introduction to area-control and set collection, but with enough strategy and interaction to keep players coming back for more. The Dice Tower Essentials line is now three-for-three.