Reviewed by Herb Levy
ROYALS (Arcane Wonders, 2 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 60 minutes; $49.99)
The more things change the more they stay the same. Even back in the 17th century, Western Europe was a hotbed of power politics. Players will have a chance to find out just how hot when they find themselves immersed in it as they, as heads of noble families, seek to exert their power and spread their influence throughout the continent to become the dominant royal family in Europe in Royals.
Royals, designed by Peter Hawes with significant development by Bryan Pope, is played on a large map board showing the western portion of Europe with four areas in contention: England, France, Spain and the German States (which, although not unified until the 19th century is, for game purposes, considered a country). The game is played over three rounds representing 1648, 1680 and 1714. The board is lavishly sprinkled with Victory Point counters which will be awarded for a variety of accomplishments. (More on that later.)
Seven different types of royals appear in the game, from the lowly Marshall followed by the Baron, Countess, Duke, Cardinal, Princess and finally, the powerful King, with each country having some or all of them. At the start of the game, all noble spaces are vacant. Each of them exert influence in their countries and, if you can place YOUR royal in his position, that influence will count for YOU! Now, the question is: How do I get my royals onto the board? And that is where the two card decks of the game – Country cards and Intrigue cards – come in!
On a turn, a player may take three Country cards from the display of three face up cards and/or from the top of the Country card draw deck. Alternatively, a player may opt to take one Country card AND one Intrigue card (drawn from the top of the Intrigue card deck.)
Country cards depict a single country, color-coded in strong colors with the heraldry of the country big and bold on each card. All have a value of 1. There are anywhere from 3 to 5 areas in each country and each has a specified place for specific types of royals and their costs. If a space is vacant, all you need do is spend the required number of Country cards to occupy that space. For example, you might wish to place a Baron in his designated spot. To do so, you would need to spend 2 cards of that country. As you go up the “Noble ladder”, the cost in cards become more expensive. The King, for example, requires an outlay of 8 of his Country cards. (To make things easier, three Country cards may be exchanged and used as any 1 specific Country card.) The first royal to be placed in a city gets the VP counter situated there as a reward. As the game continues, vacant spaces become scarce. To claim an occupied space, you need to use those Intrigue cards.
Intrigue cards show two countries. To replace a noble on the board in a particular country, a player must play one Intrigue card depicting that country AND a number of Country cards that that particular Noble requires. (So, for example, to replace a Baron, a player would need an Intrigue card showing the country in which the Marshall resides AND 2 Country cards of that country.) Kings are a bit more difficult to remove requiring TWO Intrigue cards plus 8 Country cards to be successful. (Two Intrigue cards may be used as ONE Intrigue card of a desired country.) A noble cannot be removed unless you can replace him (or her). Replaced nobles are shifted from the city they occupied to a box on the side. They still count for “presence” in a country but no longer exert influence. Presence can be almost as important as influence, however. Country bonuses are earned by the first two players having a noble (or a presence) in ALL cities of a country. In addition, the first three players (in a four player game) earn a bonus for placing at least one of each of the seven types of nobles ( a full “house”) anywhere on the map. When the Country card deck runs out, that round is over and scoring takes place.
At this point, influence in each of the four areas is calculated. The two players with the highest influence receive the first and second place VP counters. This can vary from a high of 10 VPs for first place in France (only 4 for second place) down to 6 VPs in the German States (and 5 VPs for second). If influence is tied, the tie is broken in favor of the player controlling the highest ranking active royal in the country. Play then resumes and, when the deck runs out again, a second scoring done. Finally, when the deck runs out for the third time, final scoring occurs. As with the first and second rounds, influence for each country is checked and VP tokens awarded but now there is a “Title” scoring.
There are seven Tiles, one for each Noble in the game, placed on the side of the board. Every time a player places a noble on the board, he also places one of his cubes on the matching Noble tile. At game’s end, the number of cubes on each Tile is added. The player with the most cubes on a Tile gets that Tile AND its sizable number of Victory Points. (Having the most Marshalls will earn a player 4 VPs, most Barons 6 and so on up to the player who placed the most Kings receiving 16 VPs!) If two players tie, the Tile actually splits in two (!) with each player getting half of the Tile and half of the VPs! If more than two players tie, NO VPs are awarded for that noble. The player with the final highest VP total wins!
Royals is a game that has been percolating for quite a long time. Originally released as Heads of State (and featured in the Spring 2009 Gamers Alliance Report), the game is a vast improvement graphically from the easy to read cards, attractive board and Noble Tiles that split in half which is, admittedly, very cool. As far as game play is concerned, Royals is a reworked, revised and, most significantly, streamlined version of the original. The quest for specified melds required to place nobles found in the original game has been replaced. Now, all cards of a country are equal and may be used for noble placement. Rather than eliminating nobles via the “draw a cube from the bag” method, that game mechanism itself has been eliminated. That luck factor is gone as removals are ALWAYS successful provided, of course, you have the cards needed. (An additional damper on the luck factor is a suggested variant – which we use – where FOUR cards are placed on display rather than the standard three giving you more control over your draws.) Even the word “assassination” has been removed from play. Now, nobles are simple “taken over”, a much more family-friendly terminology.
Royals makes good use of set collection (in that respect, similar to Ticket to Ride) to put their nobles on the board while offering intriguing decisions as to where players need to place them to maximize VPs in collecting bonuses for being the first in a city, the first in ALL cities of a country and having the most influence at the end of a round. It might have been an interesting variant to change for each scoring the VPs awarded for influence for each country. France is always a 10. What if that 10 shifted to the German States? Or Spain? Or England? That would force players to shift their attentions from one area to another and add a different set of strategic choices each round.
The theme of jostling for power is one that lends itself well to games and placing nobles to create your own dynasty in Europe works well as a background. The game’s good looks and its fast, simplified play (as compared to the original), puts it snugly into the category of mid-weight family friendly games, sure to earn the approval of your own (Royal) family. – – – – Herb Levy
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