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CURSED COURT

Reviewed by Herb Levy

CURSED COURT (Atlas Games, 2 to 6 players, ages 14 and up, 30-45 minutes; $49.95)

 

It’s good to be king! But what about those nobles lower down in the food chain? In this new game designed by Andrew Hanson, players will find out as they are minor nobles who seek to align themselves with more powerful nobility to increase their own influence as members of the Cursed Court

The game involves three “years” of play with four seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) for each year. All players begin with 20 chips and four crowns in their chosen color. The board depicts an array of 9 different nobles in a 3 x 3 grid divided into two types of “regions”: Noble Regions and Set Regions. Noble Regions are the areas that feature pictures of the nine nobles of the game (Courtesan, Merchant, King, Priestess, Queen, Duke, Jester, Sorceress and Assassin). Set Regions indicate various possible GROUPINGS of three or four nobles. Finally, there is a deck of 36 cards, four each of the nine nobles. This deck is shuffled and, unlike in most games where players are dealt a hand of cards, here ONE card is dealt BETWEEN each player!

Players look at the card to their left AND the card to their right. All other cards remain hidden from them. One card from the deck is drawn and placed face up to begin a tableau. Now, players make their wagers. 

In turn order, a player places a crown (and anywhere from 0 to 20 chips) on any of the regions on the board. If someone wishes to occupy a region already claimed, that player must place TWICE the number of chips already there to “bump” a player out of the region. (A bid of 0 chips is permissible and may be replaced by a bid of as little as 1 chip.) Bumped players get their crown (and any chips bet) back and must then place another bet (or bump that player or somebody else). This goes on until EVERYONE has placed a crown on the board. At that point, the season is over.  Now, the next season begins by drawing a second card from the deck and adding it to the tableau. Again, bidding commences and continues until all players have a second crown on the board. This procedure continues with the third season and the fourth season. At the conclusion of the fourth (Winter) season ending the year, all hidden cards are added to the four card tableau and we score. 

Players whose crowns are on one of the Nobles that appears in the tableau will score points: 1 point if only one card of that Noble is present, 2 points if two appear, 5 points for three of them and 8 points if all four of that Noble made it into the tableau. Set Regions will score 3 points for groupings of three Nobles that appear in the specified arrangement or 4 points for a four Nobles set. (It should be noted that even if two sets of the same Nobles are present, you can only score it once.)

With the first year over, players retrieve their crowns and chips, the first player marker is passed and we do it all over again. At the end of the third year of play, the player with the highest point total has accumulated the most influence at Court and is the winner.

Graphically, Cursed Court is aided by thick plastic chips and crowns and exceptional artwork by Lee Moyer that beautifully conveys the idea of nobility with its large board portraits. These large portraits make it easy to see where any bets are placed in those areas. The back of the cards duplicate the layout of the 3 x 3 grid which is a nice player aid too  On the other hand, the smaller Set Region spaces indicating which noble configurations are in play are too easily obscured by placed crowns and stacks of chips. The scoring track is very dark and the separation between points hard to see, a surprising contrast to the high quality of the art.

The names of the Nobles have no bearing on play (and some of the choices chosen – Assassin as a high ranking Noble? Do Nobles do their own dirty work? – are a bit surprising) and, despite the title and the presence of a Sorceress, no supernatural curses or magical spells will be found. In fact, the game could be about anything. At its core, Cursed Court is a Texas Hold ‘Em poker variation (where players have 2 shared “hole” cards) and communal cards coupled with the bidding mechanism found in games like Evo (featured in the Summer 2001 Gamers Alliance Report) and Vegas Showdown. It is an interesting combination that works!

Handling your bids is important. Since you need to double someone’s previous bid to remove that bid from the board, a player could spend 11 (of his 20 chips) on a bid to make such a removal impossible. But if you commit too many chips to one region, you will be unable to thwart attempts to oust you from another, possibly more valuable, region later on. Since this is a game of “limited information” (you only know the two “hole” cards you examined AND the cards exposed in the tableau), you need to glean information from the bids of the other players by watching closely which areas of the board are being claimed and which remain empty. Because the poker aspect to play is buried underneath the “nobility” and the bright colors used, the game is actually suitable for younger ages too. Although the game is for 2 to 6 players, 2 players are not conducive to the spirited bidding that is key to the game while the full complement of 6 makes for an incredibly busy board. The sweet spot for Cursed Court seems to be in the 4 or 5 player range.  (A few variants are provided to make the game “simpler” or “more difficult” too.)

Although this game will not replace Poker for the poker players among us, it does provide an attractive alternative. With its good looks and the inclusion of the bidding and bumping mechanism to give it something ‘extra”, Cursed Court is a notable and noble effort.- – – – – – Herb Levy


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