Monday, May 28, 2018

Dave Reviews: The Failure of Medieval Politics

Council of Four

Short review: Council of Four shows the fallibility of the monarchy and why it was destined to fail as a form of government.

Game's not bad, though.

Council of Four, much like owning a multinational corporation, is a game about being a merchant, using people in government for personal gain, and replacing them if they don't suit your interests anymore. The board consists of fifteen cities split into five different regions. One of your goals is to put a merchant in every city in a region before your opponents do to gain a bonus; alternately, you can put a merchant in every city with the same color, which spread across regions and are usually not connected, to earn different bonuses. The more efficient you can be with your merchant placement, the better, as you'll be able to earn more bonuses. Getting to them quickly matters too, though: Queen's Rewards go to the players who earn bonuses the fastest, and they drop precipitously in value as the game goes on.

You get merchants into cities by influencing the noble councilors of the three regions, or the councilors of the queen herself. There are four councilors assigned to each region and the queen, determined randomly. As an action, you can push a new, unused councilor into one of those groups, pushing the one in the end out of favor and changing the set. Often this is done to earn money (you gain four gold for doing this with your main action). Sometimes it's mainly done to adjust the council so it fits your cards. Rarely, since it's usually hard to tell what another player needs, you'll change a council to try and mess up someone's plans. However, usually you can only tell what a player needs when they assign someone to a council. Because a newly-placed councilor has to cycle through all four council spots before getting booted, it's unlikely you'll be able to kick that person off before the player doesn't need them anymore.

To influence councilors, you need to collect cards matching the set currently on the council. The cards relate to the six colors of councilors (related to how they dress, it's not a racist thing... I think). You start with four cards and draw one per turn. This makes set-gathering slow; however, if you don't have a full set, you can pay to make up the difference (you need at least one card of the set). Early on you'll usually be able to get a merchant placed for free or cheap. Overall, however, part of your task is to minimize how much you spend per city on average while getting your merchants into as many cities as possible.

If you build a set for a regional council, you take one of the two available business tiles for that region. Business tiles have bonuses that are immediately earned. They also have a letter or letters on them; these refer to cities that start with the same letter. If you take an action to buy a business tile, you can take another action (usually on a different turn) to place a merchant in one of the cities on the tile. Should other merchants already be there, you have to spend one servant per merchant in the city to place yours.

Servants, by the way, serve numerous purposes, most of them revolving around taking a secondary quick action after your main action. Think of them like Five Tribes'... fakirs.

Alternately, you can collect a set aimed at the Queen's Council. By spending the cards and then two gold per city the queen must travel through to reach the one you're interested in, you can bribe her into letting you place a merchant there (servant costs still apply). You don't get a tile, which means no tile bonus and one less tile to potentially boost your endgame scoring a little bit. However, bribing the Queen means you only need one turn instead of two, you need a different set of colors (so you can work around the hand you have more easily), and you can place your merchant in a city even if there's no tile for it immediately available.

When you place a merchant, you earn a small bonus connected with that city (except the capital, where the Queen starts). As the game progresses and you place more merchants, you get bonuses from merchants in cities connected to new placements. It's not just adjacent ones, either; for every adjacent city, you also earn bonuses for each city another remove away. So, if you spread around the board and then drop one of your last merchants in a central area, you can earn a boatload of bonuses.

Bonuses come in a few varieties. First are the aforementioned city bonuses. In addition, if you're first to hit every city in a region, you earn the region's five-point bonus. There are also four colors of cities: blue, orange, purple, and yellow, with two, three, four, and five cities of these colors, respectively. Blue's fastest and worth five points; yellow is hardest, but it's worth twenty. Orange and purple are eight and twelve. Nobility bonuses exist if your nobility increases far enough, but that's something of a side bonus—you can read about it if you play.

Biggest of all, however, are the Queen's Rewards. These are so big (at first) as to seem out of line with the game's general balance. The first person to finish any regional or color bonus gets the first reward, which is an extra twenty-five points. The second to do so earns eighteen. The rest are, I think, twelve, eight, and three. This puts a major impetus on playing for the first Queen's bonus, which gives a major advantage to people who have played before over those who haven't. Even if you explain its importance, a newbie may not realize what they have to look for to try and get that bonus. (It's pretty much always going to be whoever finishes the two blue cities first, barring a nutty tile draw.)

However, if you go for that bonus and miss, then you're behind in going for #2 if anyone else decided chasing that one made more sense. If you don't get either of those two, you almost don't have a choice but to go for yellow, but if someone's already got a head start on that... you have time, but you're still working from behind.


That explanation of the game took longer than usual. Let's discuss what makes the game good or bad.

First off, the balance between the actions and how they effect your play is very polished. It's easy to throw down your cards and spend your money to gain a few quick cities, and if they're the right cities/business tiles, that may be able to propel you forward. But there's no combination that leads to an outright snowball unless your opponents are paying no attention and let you take all the best stuff. There's an optimal way to proceed, turn by turn, but with enough randomness between what tiles are available, what the councils look like, and what your opponents do that you can't autopilot anything.

Finding the right city bonuses to connect to each other is somewhat dependent on how the game goes, but making a nice chain and then maximizing the resources you get out of it is a good feeling. It's hindered slightly by the difficulty you sometimes run into when making those chains, but in some ways that makes it all the sweeter when you do connect several merchants.

The scoring mechanisms, though...

Let's go back to the Queen's Rewards. If you're careful/lucky, you can snag the first two blue cities by turn three, maybe four. In doing this, you earn a five point bonus for the blue, and twenty-five for the first Queen's Reward. It feels insane to watch that many points go out that fast. In pure balance terms, it's not as bad as it looks; if the eighteen goes with the three city bonus, that's twenty-six, and if you can get all the yellows, that's twenty plus whichever Queen's Reward you can manage, if any.

However, winning that blue bonus early still gives you the single biggest bonus in the game, and getting those blue cities is effectively a question of luck. They're spread apart, so you either need business tiles for both or one tile and then use the queen for the one near the capital. The first strategy takes longer, but is a little more reliable. The second is faster, but only if you get a perfect set of cards. The skill is more in recognizing whether or not you'll actually be the one to complete that pair first. That's a legitimate skill, but because it happens so early, there really isn't anything about winning that bonus that takes what we might think of as a 'gamer skill'—planning ahead, setting up your moves ahead of time, etc. Plus, watching those bonuses go away so fast lends a sense of inevitability to the outcome, even though it's not inevitable at all.

Furthermore, the larger the group of cities you need, the harder it is to collect them. You can only rely on the queen so often; you'll need business tiles for most of all of the ones you want. They're not always available, so you have to be ready to grab them when they are. In addition, the yellow group is worth a pretty good number of points, but the regional bonuses are only five. This is supposed to be offset by the fact you're getting many more gameplay bonuses from connecting your merchants. However, they toe this weird line of not being worth the effort, yet being tantalizing because we all like bonus points. There is real value in getting bonuses from connected cities, but it's almost like they added regional bonuses because having four colors and three or four Queen's Rewards didn't seem like enough.


In the end, calling Council of Four 'good' seems correct, but too safe. The gameplay is very good, and as mentioned, the balance between actions is spot on. The variety of cities and bonus types mean that, while everyone's going for the same basic goals, the way you set up your actions to get there needs to be flexible. In that vein, it's almost comparable to classics like Terra Mystica (though not quite there).

The scoring, though, makes everything feel out of whack. This is a game best played with four people, but there are only three truly major bonuses available. VPs can be earned as the game progresses, and by the game's end, before bonuses are added, scores can vary quite a bit. However, the bonuses are most of the overall scoring, and the impetus on taking them takes away from the options a player can pursue without borking their chances at victory. It's not a fun experience to watch all of them get snatched up and feel like you're dead in the water. And there's no obvious fix; changing the values would merely change the importance placed on them. When you house rule stuff like that, then whether the changes are good usually depends on the whims of the players unless you hit just the right note.

I'm sure the designers think they hit that note here. I think they're wrong. But play it, because it's fun enough to check out once and see which side of this you fall on.

Score: Three angry, yet dapper, councilors out of four.

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