I’ve been rather satisfied with the Fantasy Flight line of small box games. Cave Troll, Kingdoms, King’s Gate and Drakon are all games I enjoy. When I heard news of Senator, I was immediately intrigued. Billed as “A game of politics and corruption in ancient Rome”, the game tweaked many of my “hot” buttons. I had visions of intense negotiations over various agendas and perils facing Rome, where skillful deal-making, maneuvering, and even back-stabbing would prevail. Boy, was I wrong.
Senator, by Kevin Lang, is really a bidding game, with players placing cards in attempts to win agenda tokens. The card play is similar to that found in many games, including Reiner Knizia’s High Society. Sadly, the presence of assassins and event cards, coupled with the fact that players simply have too few cards, translate into a game that is sorely lacking in strategic options and fun.
Each player receives an identical deck of 7 cards with values of 1, 2 and 5, and including one assassin card. 30 agenda tokens are mixed, and from 7 – 11, depending upon the number of players, are placed “on the docket” and up for auction each round. In addition, two ‘Consul” tokens may be available. Finally, one of the six event cards, which will modify the voting procedures or other aspects of the ensuing round, is revealed each round.
After moving the appropriate number of agendas to the docket, the game enters the misnamed “Debate” phase. I say “misnamed” since there really isn’t any debate that occurs. Rather, this is where players bid cards for the right to gain control of an agenda.
The active player selects one of the agendas and then plays one or more cards in an attempt to win the auction. Each player then has the opportunity to play cards with a sufficient total to exceed the highest bid or pass. Ultimately, the player who plays the highest total value of cards wins the agenda, which is placed in front of his scroll marker.
The winner discards his cards, while the remaining players retrieve their cards for subsequent auctions.
An auction can also be abruptly terminated by the playing of an assassin card. This forces all players to discard their played cards, which can be devastating. Since each player only possesses seven cards, the unexpected loss of even one or two cards can severely limit a player’s options on further auctions. Since each player possesses an assassin card, there is a strong possibility that numerous auctions will be suddenly terminated each round. The accumulated number of cards lost in this manner will likely be significant. The end effect is that a player truly only can compete in a few auctions per round, which is unsatisfying.
When an agenda is won, the player may either keep it or give it to an opponent. Why give it away after a hard-fought auction? Well, each agenda has a special power that can be utilized by its winner. These powers include retrieving a previously played card, acquiring a second agenda, forcing opponents to discard cards, etc. So why not keep them all, since ultimately the player with the most completed agendas will win the game? You see, there’s another twist. Each agenda has two other agenda types that oppose it. If a player possesses an agenda and later acquires another agenda which opposes it, he must discard BOTH of those agendas. Talk about brutal! Thus, a player may wish to win an agenda at an auction and give it to an opponent, forcing that player to lose one or more of his previously acquired agendas. Nasty, but a clever mechanism as it keeps all players interested in most auctions. Players will be keen to win auction even for agendas that would harm them, so as to avoid having that agenda forced upon them.
I need to add an addendum to the above process. As mentioned, when a player acquires an agenda, it goes IN FRONT of his scroll marker. In this position, it is still vulnerable in the manner described above. An agenda can only be made safe and placed BEHIND one’s scroll marker by the acquisition of a “consul” token, which is put up for auction just like an agenda, or by winning an “imperial” agenda, which is automatically completed and safe. This makes the “debates” for an Imperial agenda, and especially a Consul, heated and VERY susceptible to the play of an assassin card.
A round ends when all players have either sued all of their cards, or there are no further agendas remaining in the docket. Players retrieve their spent cards, and the docket is re-filled for the second and final round. The game ends at the completion of the second round, at which point the player with the most agendas, completed and incomplete, is victorious. The tie-breaker goes in favor of the player with the most imperial agendas.
The game SOUNDS good. From reading the rules, I felt the auctions would be tense, and the decisions as to which auctions in which to compete and which cards to play to be tough. A bit of my anticipation was fulfilled, as these were important decisions. However, for the most part, the anticipation yielded much disappointment. There were numerous reasons:
1) Too few cards. As mentioned, players begin each round with only seven cards. It will generally take 2 or more cards to win one auction. In a perfect world, that means a player could, at most, win 2 or 3 auctions. That would be a perfect world without assassins.
2) Assassins. I’ve already outlined the perils of these dastardly cards. Their mere presence causes players to hesitate committing many cards to auctions, which truthfully bogs-down the game. The ability to cause an entire hand of cards to be discarded is devastating and has a traumatic effect on the game.
3) Event cards. These can have a greater ‘skewer’ effect than a kebob. The intent is obviously to add variety to the auctions, but the result is far-too-often distasteful. A few examples:
a. Hannibal: This causes the cards of ALL players to be discarded after an auction. Talk about inhibiting the bidding for that round!
b. Ludi Gladiatorum: Players can only play 2 cards per debate. Again, this ultimate effect is to severely limit the choices a player has during each auction.
The sad truth is that the event cards reduce the options a player has during a round, and actually hindered my enjoyment of the game. My advice: get rid of ‘em.
For a game that sounded so promising, Senator failed spectacularly. It was truly disappointing. My intent is to try it again, but with SO many other games begging for table-time, I just don’t know if I’ll ever get back to it. Sadly, this one quickly went to the bottom of the Fantasy Flight small-box line of games.
Great review Greg but the designer is Eric Lang. You probably just mixed up Kevin Wilson and Eric Lang. If those guys ever did team up on a game it would be pretty cool.
The event card is my favorite element in Senator and wish they added even more variety. Without their added "spice" the game would be rather boring and monotonous IMO.
To each his own I guess.
Excellent review. I also highly anticipated this game when I first read about it several months ago. I have not bought it or played it yet, and it has now lost its place in my list of gaming must-haves due to such negative reviews. Just too many other more deserving games to play.