Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Citadels - a Review by Sam Stafford

I'm gonna recommend you a good card game that fills a very particular and difficult niche by meeting the following criteria:
  1. It is playable with anywhere from 2 to 8 players.
  2. It is playable in under an hour (even with new players).
  3. It is playable while you are drunk.
  4. It is playable while you aren't drunk.
  5. Its playability does not depend on the novelty of funny stuff on the cards.
The game is Citadels. I picked it up this past Christmas on a "best games for your family" recommendation from SU&SD, and so far it's been a hit with every group I've played it with. I'll walk you through it.

To start off with, we each get two of these little gold coins, and four cards. The object of the game, see, is we're all building cities. Each of these cards is a district you can build in your city. On your turn, you get to take an action, which is either to take two gold or take one card (draw two, look at 'em, put one back on the bottom). Then you get to build one district by putting a card from your hand in front of you and paying the gold cost (see it there on the card?) back to the bank. Once one of us has eight districts, the game is over, we count up the value of our cities, and the best city wins.

So far so boring, right? Wait, I'm getting to the good part. Before we start taking turns, we gotta pick our characters. Each round we're each going to have a different character that gives us a special ability and decides which order we take our turns in. (Players of Twilight Imperium are saying "hey, that sounds familiar," and you're right; take a cookie from the jar on my desk over there.) The good part, though, is that we don't get to know which character everyone else is until they take their turn. Each of us picks a character in secret before passing the deck of character cards. You'll have some idea of what other people might have picked based on what cards are missing by the time you pick, but some of the cards are face down and unused, so there's always uncertainty. The game is ostensibly about building your city, but really it's about getting inside everyone else's head.

Okay, we've all picked, so let's see who's what. First up is the Assassin -- he gets to name a character (not a player, a character) and that character just doesn't get their turn this round. Ouch. Next is the Thief, who names a character, and if they take a turn, the Thief takes all their gold at the start of their turn. Next is the Magician, who gets to swap his crummy hand of cards with someone else or draw fresh from the deck. After that is the King, who gets extra gold from noble districts, and also gets first pick of character next round. Then we have the Bishop, who gets extra gold from religious districts, and is protected from the Warlord (we'll meet him in a bit). After him is the Merchant, who gets extra gold from trade districts and more extra gold just because. Then is the Architect, who gets extra cards and gets to build up to three of them if he's got the gold to do so. And last is the Warlord, who gets extra gold from military districts and can spend his gold on destroying districts in other people's cities. If we were playing with eight people, the ninth card would be the Queen, who gets a bunch of extra gold if she happens to be sitting next to the King.

Now that we've all had a turn and you've got an idea what each character does, we gather up the cards, and pick again, starting with last round's King. Now you've got a pile of gold in front of you, and here's the Architect card that'll let you spend all of it in one fell swoop, catapulting you closer to victory... but the Thief card is missing, and the other players are eyeing your pile of gold. They know you'll want the Architect, so if one of them has the Thief they'll target the Architect to take your gold before you can act, so clearly only a great fool would take the Architect card. Better to turn the tables on them by taking the Assassin and killing the Thief, repaying them for their treachery! And so you do that, and then it turns out that nobody was the Thief, and they were just psyching you out and somebody else got the Architect and now they're sitting on a big pile of built districts, and trying to figure out how they're going to deal with the inevitable Warlord problem. Now you see why this game is awesome. It's Vizzini's "only a great fool would drink the wine in front of me," played X different directions and Y levels deep.

I haven't even gotten to this part of it yet, so I can't include it in my review properly, but there are extra optional cards you can mix in when you want to spice it up (it's like having an expansion built into the basic game). Each of the basic characters can be replaced with a different character that does sort of the same thing but different -- for example, you can replace the Assassin with the Witch, who bewitches characters instead of killing them; they get to take the main part of their turn normally, but she gets control over their special ability. There are also extra districts that grant special bonuses when you build them in your city.
To sum up, Citadels doesn't require a lot of tricky math or logic, and it's quick enough to play in a lunch hour or over a drink or two, so it's a great game for when you can't set aside a big chunk of time and a group of hardcore gamers. I will say that by its nature there's a lot of backstabbing and double-crossing, so people who take that sort of thing personally might not be the best group to play this with, but that's the only caveat I can think of. This is an excellent game to have in your library for when the comical shock value of Cards Against Humanity has faded and Munchkin starts to feel like a slow death march.

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