I remember seeing this game not long after I stumbled across the wider-world of board games. (Oh, happy day! ) It was in Leisure Games, Finchley, London.
At that time I hadn’t discovered the wonder that is BGG & hence made my early game choices just based on the look and description of the game from the box detail.
I liked the sound of this game that involved delivering a message to the Czar’s palace by the best use of couriers. However it was priced at £19.99, which seemed a big price for such a small-box game, so I ended up choosing something that seemed to offer more for my money.
After discovering BGG, I remembered this game & checked its rating and comments etc. It didn’t appear to go down particularly well with BGG users! The general opinion seemed to be that it was a reasonable game ruined by a totally luck-driven ending.
Over the next couple of years the game kept on the very edge of my radar but never completely dropped off. I’ve always been one to not be overly influenced by general consensus, but the UK price kept me from taking a chance on it.
Finally, after discovering that language independent games could be ordered from Germany at a fraction of the UK price, I found ‘Message to the Czar’ on sale for a mere EUR 5,90! So I took a chance on it.
Downloading the translated rules from BGG, I discovered that the random ending had been tackled by the publisher, Winning Moves, & there were various user comments pertaining to its effectiveness.
Having played it several times now, with various number of players, I have to say that I think it’s a great medium-light game that doesn’t deserve its low rating.
This review is my attempt to encourage those who disliked/dismissed the game under its original rules to try it again with the revised ones. You may be surprised to see your opinion change!
For 2-5 players attempting to deliver a message to the Czar using their team of couriers to travel through the countryside to the Palace, occupying inns at the villages along the way. Money must be obtained by the couriers during the journey in order to bribe the Palace guards to take their message in.
Although it comes in a smaller box, the board folds out in six sections revealing a large, nicely illustrated board depicting each of the villages seperating the couriers from the Palace, and the various named inns located in each village.
There is a wooden letter and a set of sturdy cardboard tiles, representing the four types of couriers available to each player, in each of the 5 player colours. Also, cardboard coins with assorted ruble values of 3, 2, 1, & Njet (zero/nothing), and ‘closed’ signs for the inns that aren’t used when there are less than 5 players.
Each player shuffles their stack of available couriers & places them face down in front of them.
The coins are turned face down, mixed up, and placed on the Palace or near the board.
Depending on the number of players, the relevant inns are closed off for the game.
Starting with the youngest, each player turns over the first courier in the pile and places them in the correct room of one of the starting inns where they are entrusted with the precious message.
Only one courier allowed per inn during this initial phase.
A second courier is then turned over and placed beside each players draw pile.
On each turn a player may do one of three actions:
1) Introduce a new courier from their supply to one of the inns in the first village (New couriers can only ever be placed in the first village). The player can either choose the face-up courier or play ‘blind’ the top one from their stack.
2) Move the message from one courier to another of their own within the same village (for better strategic placement).
3) Move valid couriers to inns in the next village.
What makes the game interesting is the combination of where couriers can be placed, which ones can move, & how to get money to bribe the guards at the palace.
Each of the four types of courier; the lady, the gentleman, the cossack, & the soldier, will only ever stay in one particular room in each inn. For example, the lady can only ever occupy the bottom left of the four rooms.
An inn can only ever hold a maximum of three couriers (I presume the landlord/landlady needs somewhere to sleep!) and is considered full when this occurs.
Couriers at a full inn are the only ones that can make a move to the next village. A player must have a courier of their colour in that inn to be able to make this move.
The vacant room at the inn will have an arrow pointing to the next room clockwise. The first two couriers in the rooms clockwise from this arrow, regardless of player colour, are the two that can move to the next village, any carried messages going with them.
The two couriers, however, must occupy two different inns at the next village. Which inns will be at the active players choice.
As compensation for being left behind, the player whose courier did not move gets to take a coin from the face-down selection. They will look at its value (3, 2, 1, or Njet) but keep its amount secret. This is how players acquire the rubles to bribe the palace guard. I like to think of it as the remaining courier staying behind to help out at the inn & getting a little payment, maybe for washing dishes!
At the Palace there are 5 guards (not all accessible, depending on number of players) who can be bribed to take a message to the Czar. One can be bribed with a total of only 6 rubles, two with 8 rubles, & two with 10 rubles.
When the occupants of a full inn at the last village are moved on, any messages are placed with the guard directly above that inn. If the player whose message reaches a guard can, on their turn (if it wasn’t their turn when the move was made), pay the required bribe then their message is taken to the Czar & they have won! If not, then the message holds with the guard until the required bribe can be earned.
Although the rules/gameplay is fairly simple to learn, there are some useful tactics to bear in mind.
It’s useful to spread your couriers among different inns in a village for a couple of reasons:
1) it increases your chance of getting rubles, as you can cash-in on other peoples moving couriers on if yours is the one left behind
2) it also puts you in a good position for moving your message between couriers in a village, giving better options for moving the message on.
When moving couriers to the next village you have the choice of where to put them, even if they belong to another player. The only stipulation is that they must go in different inns. This can produce quite a nice situation called a march-through.
As each courier can only go in one designated room at an inn then, if that room is unavailable in all the inns of a village, the courier can march-through to the next village.
This, combined with the different inn rule, can set you up to march your message right through a village to the next one, or quickly move couriers up to where your message may be waiting for rooms to fill before you can move it on!
Also, when moving on an opponents courier or message you can put them in the least helpful place for them. This can be especially effective when reaching the last village as you put their message beneath the most expensive guard to bribe. Of course they can move the message to another of their couriers, if they have one, beneath a cheaper guard but this costs them another move!
It’s important to remember that the only exception to the march-through rule is when placing couriers in the first village. If a courier can not be placed from your draw pile then it is placed face-up next to the pile & your turn is over.
If a situation occurs when all the rubles have been taken from the supply (only likely with maximum players) and a player qualifies to take a ruble, they can take one at random from any player!
Message to the Czar is a very good, fun game that takes about 45 minutes to play. It’s simple enough to teach to most levels of game-player, and even non-players should find it easy to pick up.
It benefits from repeat plays, as you look for the tactical opportunities, but is light enough not to suffer from any analysis-paralysis.
It has elements of luck in it that keep the game fun but, with the revised rules, it is far away from the luck-driven random ending that was the major criticism aimed against it.
My advice would be to look past the negative comments/reviews and open yourself to try this game. Whether it be your first time to play, or whether you played before by the original rules & were left feeling disappointed.
Give the game a fair try/re-try by the revised rules and you may be surprised! It definitely doesn’t deserve its low rating here on the Geek.
Let’s spread the message!
P.S. Don't shoot the messenger!
I, for one, enjoy this game as well, but yes, only with the revised rules. It makes the whole game come together to a head, making what you do early on matter much much more. I've decided on a few changes depending on the number of players, but the same mechanics shine through in any case.
i like the whole staying behind for a little profit idea to put it in theme. Washing dishes?