The Prince has been sitting on my Shelf of Game (games I bought but have never played) ever since I picked it up cheaply at a WBC auction. I liked the look of the game, a small footprint with an interesting theme, and I thought a light card game for 3-5 players would fill a good niche in my gaming groups. Unfortunately, because it's an older game and the theme (power struggles among the great families of medieval Italy) isn't exactly "hot," it took a while to finally get it on the table.
Caveat: This review is based on a single play, and that with only three players. For various reasons, I think the game probably plays much better with 4 or 5.
Each player is one of the great Renaissance families of Italy. This is the era of Machiavelli's The Prince, when the Medicis, the Borgias, and the Della Roveres bought and sold Papal offices and assassination and private mercenary armies were tools of state.
The game itself is primarily a series of auctions in which each player bids for cards. Then you play your cards to give resources to yourself or to damage or steal things from an opponent. At the end of all the auctioning and take-that card play, there is an election in which one player is elected Pope. Then everyone records their Victory Points for the round, and play continues, for a total of three rounds.
Components and Physical Appearance
The Prince fits into a fairly small box - the components consist primarily of five thin player boards, a deck of cards, some wooden tokens, and cardboard counters representing money and cardinals.
The artwork is attractive and the cards have a nice linen finish. The boards themselves are very thin cardstock. Each player has to move a marker on his own board to track his Victory Points. I would prefer a central location to track everyone's victory points, but it is functional enough.
Another problem in the graphic design is the coin tokens (Ducats). There are three colors, but seven different denominations - gold coins may represent 50 or 100 ducats, silver are 10 or 20, and bronze are 1, 2, or 5. You have to look at the small numbers printed on them to determine which. This is unfortunate and inconvenient.
There are three rounds. Each round starts with a number of cards (10 to 12, depending on number of players) being placed face down in the center. Each player takes a turn in which he turns a card over, and an auction proceeds for that card. After the card has been bought by a winner, the current player may then play cards from his hand, and attempt to "seize" someone else's holdings.
While some reviews have pointed out that you need Condottiere (mercenary) cards to attempt a seizure, and that generally it's known (from auctions) who is holding Condottiere cards and what their strength is (there are a few options for obtaining a card in secret, using a Spy), there is actually still some strategy involved. When you declare you are seizing someone's holding, you and your target reveal any Condottiere cards you are playing, or not, simultaneously. This opens up a number of bluffing strategies. Let an opponent seize one of your holdings, knowing he will have to use his Condottiere card, and he will then be vulnerable to your counterattack on your next turn. Or declare a seizure attempt and don't play any cards, hoping to flush a Condottiere card out of your opponent's hand, so you can get him next turn, or prevent him from attacking you on his turn.
That said, starting the game with the right cards can give you a significant defensive advantage. The game seems to encourage ganging up on the leader, who will otherwise run away with it.
The other interesting aspect of the game is the Papal elections. I think the "optional" rule which allows players to offer deals during the election should be used. Every player has a number of votes based on the Church offices they have acquired and their Cardinals (who are distributed each round by the Pope). Whoever gets the majority of votes is the new Pope, who gets 10 Victory Points each round and some powers to redistribute offices and allocate another batch of Cardinals. It's a big advantage to be Pope, although you can also be attacked by some cards like Simony. So obviously you should force someone who wants to be Pope to give you something for your votes, like extra Cardinals or one of his offices. Of course all promises are nonbinding, so this is also an opportunity for backstabbing.
The Prince is interesting in concept, and has a little more strategy than some reviewers seem to think, but it's a very simple sort of strategy (playing chicken and bluffing games with Condottieres, making deals for votes and Victory Points). With the right group, it could easily become a very cuthroat game with diplomacy, double-dealing, and careful calculation of VPs, income, votes, and attack/defense strength.
Mostly, however, it winds up being a race to collect more cards than anyone else. It's basically a "take that" card game with some added layers of auctioning and voting.
In our three player game, we found our options particularly limiting. Generally, no one player will have enough votes to outvote the other two (if he does, he's clearly in a runaway leader position), so it's a three-way negotiation to decide who can get one other person to vote for them. Also, your timing decisions are made fairly obvious in a three-player game. I believe with four or five players, the choices of who to play cards against, whose holdings to try to seize, and voting negotiations, would be more interesting.
It's a fairly long game (our three-player game was over 2 hours), and for the time spent, it seemed less fun than a lot of other games with that duration. I could see playing this again, with more players, but not many times. It's definitely got some potential for those in the mood for a mean, backstabby, take-that game of medieval Italian politics, but overall I felt it was too much accounting and guessing what someone else has in his hand, not enough actual strategy or diplomacy.