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Courtier

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(AEG, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; $34.99)

CourtierboxThe City-State of Tempest is the place for adventure in a roleplaying world created by the folks at Alderac Entertainment Group. And it is Tempest that will serve as the setting for a whole series of boardgames from AEG. With Courtier from designer Phillip duBarry, the first entry in the series, the focus is on the Royal Court of Tempest in a time of upheaval and unrest as players, acting as powers behind the throne, seek to exert influence on the courtiers of the Royal Court to ensure that their petitions are heard (and completed) before the Queen is arrested!

At the start of the game, the deck of Fashion cards is divided into two stacks of 6 cards each with “The Queen is Arrested” card shuffled into the bottom stack of six. (Excess Fashion cards are removed from the game.)

Players begin with 15 influence cubes in their chosen color (and a bunch in reserve) and a hand of five cards made up of two types: Influence and Power. Players also receive 1 “secret” Petition card with four more arrayed on the table and available to everyone.

The game board is a stylized representation of the nobles of the court divided into 8 groups called “coteries”. Different numbers of nobles occupy each coterie (from only 1 for the “Minister” to 5 in the “Atheneum”) but all nobles share one attribute: Each has one or more boxes which, when filled, indicate which player has “control” over that particular noble – at least, for the moment.

On a turn, a player does one action. He may discard cards from his hand and draw back to five, from the influence and/or power deck, one card at a time. Or a player may decide to retrieve one influence cube from his reserve into his pool for later placement. But, more often than not, a player will utilize the last option: play a card (either Influence or Power).

courtier4Influence cards get your cubes onto the board by allowing you to place one of your cubes on a specified noble (and, in some cases, on ANY noble) while Power cards shift them around. Placed cubes must be put on an empty square of that noble. If all spaces are occupied, however, you can choose which cube to replace. (Replaced cubes return to their owners or, if a neutral cube, back to the neutral cube stock.) To control a noble, ALL squares on that noble must be filled and a player must have the plurality of cubes on that noble. Neutral cubes do not count. (So, for example, if there are four spaces on a noble and yellow occupies 2, green 1 and neutral 1, yellow has control. But should yellow and green each have 2, that noble is not under either player’s control.). Should a noble be totally filled with neutral cubes, that noble will “go with the flow” and can be used by ANY player who needs that noble to complete a Petition. But when claiming the benefits of a coterie, all you need is to have more cubes in that coterie than any other player. And those advantages so bestowed can be powerful.

Coterie advantages range from Commerce (which allows you to place an influence cube ANYWHERE on the board at the cost of returning one of your influence cubes back to your reserve) to Minister (which acts as a “wild card” and may be used in place of ANY noble to complete a Petition) to Culture (which awards you 1 VP each turn) to Royal Court (which prevents any other player from removing one of your influence cubes via Power cards anywhere on the board – EXCEPT for the Royal Court). Because these advantages can be so powerful, players are constantly jockeying for position and dominance in coteries – even if certain nobles there are not required for a Petition – just to keep your opponents from becoming too strong which makes for high player interaction.

After doing a chosen action, a player should, if possible, fulfill a Petition.

courtier2Petition cards list from 2 to 4 specific nobles from different coteries and display a Victory Point value. The more nobles required to complete a petition, the more Victory Points it is worth. When a player’s turn ends and those particular nobles are under his control, that player may claim that Petition card, placing it face down in his own pile. All cubes on the nobles used to complete that Petition are returned to their owners and the Petition card is replaced from the Petition card draw deck. (If a secret Petition was completed, that player draws another Petition and keeps that one secret too.) Now, a Fashion card is drawn.

Fashion cards are drawn whenever a petition is completed and will, generally, add neutral cubes to the board and/or free up reserve influence markers for the players. But when The Queen is Arrested card is revealed, the game ends immediately! Players then tally up the Victory Points of their completed Petitions (incomplete petitions are worth nothing but carry no penalties) along with any VPs earned and charted on the VP track. The player with the highest combined total wins!

courtier3The theme of Courtier is very appealing; power behind the throne games often are. The mechanics of Courtier work fine with the jostling for position and competition for control of the various nobles both tense and exciting. To get right into that competition, we suggest using the “fast start” variant where neutral cubes begin on the board. This raises the intensity level a notch and makes completing Petitions easier.

By having all cubes on nobles removed once a Petition is complete, the struggle for noble control remains in flux – no one can lock up a particular noble easily or for long – so players who need a particular noble for their specific Petition need not be shut out as that noble will, once again, be open to be claimed. It is important to keep track of which coterie advantages you have at your disposal and which are controlled by your opponents. These advantages constantly shift at a sometimes dizzying pace but players need to maintain that awareness as well as being sensitive that the game, with its variable ending, can end without warning. (In one recent session, a player had control of the Senate worth 10 VPs when the game ends. I played an Influence card to add one of my cubes to the Senate so he lost his plurality and control. He then completed a Petition, the Queen is Arrested card was revealed and I won the game – by 1 point over him!) Timing is everything! There is some randomness, of course, as this is, at its core, a card game and the cards you draw and hold can make a difference. But this is a non-issue as that aspect of the game ties in with the theme and the overall uncertainty of trying to control nobles who are not so easy to control. A bit of this randomness is removed as players may actually choose their starting hands from a selection available before the game starts by bidding influence cubes for them. I prefer beginning with a dealt hand (as is suggested for starting players) as this cuts down on game time and gets you right into it. I would also suggest, if doing this, starting with 10 influence cubes instead of the standard 15. But go with your own preferences here. Where the game falters has actually nothing to do with the game design but with a graphic glitch.

Graphics are excellent. The artwork is beautifully rendered and perfectly suited to the theme of royalty. The use of color to differentiate the different “spheres of influence” is also well done as is the large lettering on the board and the summary of the special powers control of each coterie will provide. But the graphics used on Petition cards don’t follow that high standard.

On the Petition cards, you can see at a glance the color of the nobles needed to complete a petition – and that’s great. But, unless you are sitting right on top of those cards, you cannot readily see WHICH nobles you need to complete a petition. A stylized font is used along with small type making reading this important information more challenging than it should be. Room on the card is given to a little “atmospheric” description but the game would have been better served by using that space for bigger and more easily read print or, barring that, simply making the Petition cards larger. But this need not be a deal-breaker. Unless (or until) a second printing changes the font and size of the lettering or the size of the cards themselves, we suggest affixing small colored stickers to the nobles on the board with matching color stickers to the Petition cards so that players can readily identify specific nobles. This simple fix immensely eases play.

Courier is a game of power and influence that is tense, exciting and, despite a graphic glitch, well worth a spot on your gaming table.


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