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Subject: (2p) The Emperor On The Board Goes Round and Round rss

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cvlw Lebron
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Carolus Magnus is a game that fills a curious space in our collection. It’s fair to mention that we’re at about the 55 game mark, so my feelings on this won’t be mirrored by everyone, or maybe even most, but maybe. It’s a game so simple in its mechanics, yet a bit slippery to get a grasp on. I usually prefer to write reviews after a few plays rather than 5 or more because I feel that my impression of the game and its design is most live to me. Everything from the aesthetics to mechanics are fresh to my mind. I should say, that, for me at least, if I have played a game a few times, am not perfectly clear on how I can be good at it, yet am still eager to play it, it’s a good thing. Carolus Magnus is a deceptively deep and tense game that requires and deserves your full attention.

Carolus Magnus is really the Emperor Charlemagne and it is your job to impress him when he visits your principality. How is this achieved? Good old fashioned majority area control, which is made interesting by factoring in majority control along two dimensions, which I’ll explain below. The game ends when a person has built 10 castles (2 player or 4 player partners play) or 8 castles (3 players). What is perhaps most interesting about this game can probably be broken down into two general topics: what you strategize for and what you cannot plan for. Carolus Magnus represents a very fine balance between strategy and randomness which succeeds very well. In discussing these two topics I will cover the mechanics of the game and my thoughts on the game’s strengths and very few weaknesses.


RANDOMNESS
The game is setup in the following way. There are 15 separate land tiles arranged in a circle in the play area. In the middle goes a pile of cubes in 5 colors. Each player takes the appropriate number of castles and one court – a placard indicating the five different colors. Also, are 5 discs that match the color of your castle which both indicate up to how many positions you can move and also the turn order, but this will be discussed in the next section. Finally, 3 cubes of each color are distributed over the tiles as the players choose in alternating fashion.

Players are always to maintain 7 paladins (cubes) in their play area (in a 2 player game). The random aspect of the game revolves around which paladins players are assigned. There are 4 die, and on each are represented the 5 colors and one “wild card”. The two player game only utilizes three die. A player’s paladins are determined by die rolls. A player rolls the three die twice and one die once resulting in 7 paladins. Simply, whatever color comes up on your roll is the cube you take from the pool. If you get a wild card roll you take any color of your choice. This is a pleasant addition as it reduces the randomness a bit since you are able to possibly grab a cube that can play a crucial role in obtaining or maintaining a majority in one of the two areas.

Now, it might be thought that this level of randomness in such a crucial aspect of the game negates strategy. However, this is not the case. In an interesting twist, this is actually a significant foundation of what motivates strategy. However, it bears mentioning that this can be a weakness of the game as it is possible to simply get bad rolls as happened in a recent game. One player accumulated so much purple that 1) it was useless to put my purple to use and 2) disadvantaged her in being able to spread her bets. However, from a probability point of view, this should not be the norm and we don’t expect it to be.


STRATEGY
Though paladin assignment can be highly random there is a way to maximize what you get. Carolus Magnus relies upon two kinds of area majority control and which type you pay attention to makes a difference as the game progresses. Here’s how it works, told in slightly reverse order.
1. the first area majority control is on the area tiles themselves. The first part of strategy revolves around how many tiles you are going to move the Emperor on your turn. If you play a three value tile, you can move anywhere from 1 to 3 tiles, but not more. What happens is that when the emperor stops at a tile, it is determined who has the majority of paladins at that time. If you control red and have 2 red cubes and your opponent controls green and he or she only has one cube, you control that tile and place a castle there. This not only helps to begin to get your castles on the boards but it also increases your representation. Anyone looking to challenge you will now need to have more than three paladins that they control on that tile in order to take control as your castle now counts as a paladin when counting majority. Moreover, there is the ability to merge adjacent tiles. If you are able to get the Emperor to stop at an adjacent tile you control, you push those two tiles together and the whole construct is yours making you a more formidable challenge.
2. …but this, of course, assumes that you maintain constant control of the color in question. Each turn you place 3 paladins in any combination in any way you want (at the end of your turn you roll the three die and replenish your paladins). You can place 3 on one tile, spread them over many tiles, place them all in the court alongside the appropriate color, or any combination between court and tiles. The choice of assignment is crucial as having those two red cubes on that tile won’t mean much of your opponent takes control of red – the player with the most paladins of that color in their court controls that color and this is indicated by a peg that will shift ownership as players place various paladins. If a player is able to gain control of red in this instance and land the Emperor back on that tile, and they still maintain control of green, they remove your castle and replace it with their own. Now, let’s also say that you had merged with an adjacent tile, a takeover is a bit more difficult if you diversified your color makeup that is. And this indicates the kind of rather complex decisions you’ll have to make as the game progresses. If you have control of red early on and position all the red tiles in close proximity, your opponent, if he or she is clever will try and challenge your control in the court rather than on the board. This indicates two possible weaknesses in the game.

First, there’s the problem with randomness. If you simply are not getting rolls that allow you to balance your bets, well there’s not much you can do about losing control. While there are 5 colors to play, and hence, this ostensibly shields you against bad luck, it may not work out the way you really want. In this way, the best laid strategy might be for naught. Again, we don’t find this to be as big a problem as it might sound, but it is possible.

The second concern is a bit more pressing – early parts of the game encourage fierce competition in the courts rather than on the tiles themselves, hence a significant focus is on how the rolls fall. Also, it seems to divert your attention from an area of action that seems quite inviting.

3. The last aspect of the game that you can build a strategy around revolves around the number tiles. You will constantly have to balance what amount of room you want to move with whether you want to try and maximize the chance of going twice in a row by playing the lowest value. The first turn of the game is decided how players want, but from that point forward turn order is dictated by the move values. If you play a value 3 tile and your opponent plays a 4, and let’s say it was decided you go second, your opponent will choose to move the Emperor up to 4 tiles. You will then move and then play another number tile. On this turn, no matter how high a value you play, you go first, but if it’s higher than the value your opponent plays they will get a chance to place twice in a row which might be bad for you. This aspect of the design is interesting since you mobility is always in tension with priority in the turn order.


PRODUCTION
Carolus Magnus is very nicely produced. The wood cubes, are…well…wood cubes. Seen one, seen them all. The board tiles are nice enough. The cardboard stock gets the job done. They are cut in geometric angles to facilitate fitting them together when territories are merged. My favorite aspect of the game is the castles. They are made of a nicely polished and laminated wood. They provide nice satisfying clanks as the bag they are packaged in is handled. Unfortunately, this is the only aspect of the game that seems to warrant the price. For a game this simple with such simple pieces, the retail price-point seems a bit suspect. However, one may feel better given the novel board set up with the tiles being separate and arranged as they are. You might feel better if you are able to get the game at a reduced price online.

FINAL COMMENTS
We play Carolus Magnus as a 2-player affair. This game is very tense and is great for two. There is always the anxiety of losing control of a color in your court or in being outnumbered on a tile or a merged territory. Nothing hurts more than having a territory snatched from you, but nothing feels better than cleverly playing you paladins and planning your move value in order to do the snatching. To this end, Carolus can incite scowls at many points.

If there were one other area of concern it would regard the pacing of the game. In our experience, it takes a few turns for the game to gather steam. It’s not that early decisions aren’t important; in fact quite the opposite. Rather, it’s simply that it isn’t clear from the get-go what the implications of a decision will be a few turns later when territories begin to consolidate. It’s likely that this changes with 3 players or with partners play. However, this doesn’t stop us from enjoying the game a great deal. For a game built on such simple mechanics and which can be played in just over 30 minutes, this game provides a dynamic, fairly intense challenge. We’ve rated the game a 7.5 with the possibility that his will move up.

-c-
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Tiggo Morrison
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Great review, thanks. An underrated game here on BGG and often knocked for what it isn't (ie it is thin on theme) rather than praised for what it is (ie tense and fun and a great two player face-off). If I may I might hazard a further thought to your analysis of the strategy in the game: you are correct in your assessment of the early part of the game focussing on the courts and the latter part on the tile. What I find myself enjoying is knowing at which point it is best to switch those strategies.
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cvlw Lebron
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Thank you. And, yes, I agree. There is a point in the game where it is prudent to rethink your paladin deployment and the trick is to identify that moment...but then not forget court alotment. I usually think one trigger for re-thinking strategy is when there are at least two or three merged territories in play. But even then it's hard because it might be easier to hijack the colors on the territories. The game poses players with very interesting and engaging decisions.
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