Citadels Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 09/02/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A fun card game of city building with surprisingly high strategic play value.
Author: Bruno Faidutti
Category: Card Game
Company/Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Line: Faidutti Character Card Games
Page count: N/A
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 09/02/03
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical
Citadels is a card game by Bruno Faidutti that centers around the evolution of competing cities. The hiring of various characters to the cause, from architects to thieves, adds a significant level of strategy and careful consideration to the gameplay.
This game was originally published in Germany by Hans im Gluck as Ohne Furcht und Adel, though that edition only had 8 of the 18 characters released in the later English version.
Citadels is basically a card game with some gold coins required for purchasing. A couple of other components are included to try and help ease the play of the game. Here's what you get:
The district cards are very nicely illustrated cards showing different locations in a city, such as taverns, cathedrals, manors, and observatories. They're divided up into five colors (green, blue, red, yellow, and purple), with each color very clearly marked next to the name. There's also a set of coins running down the lefthand side showing the cost of the card, between 1 and 8 gold, and on the purple cards there's an explanatory text for special powers. Overall the cards are very well laid-out and show the art largely and to nice advantage. They do, however, make it a bit hard to count Victory Points, as I explain further under "Game Design".
The character cards are likewise nicely illustrated, only showing their pictures to slightly less advantage because every character has text. There are two sets of character cards labeled 1-9, each with a name ("Assassin", "Bishop", etc). The 10 cards used for advanced games are clearly marked with a star. 7 of the cards are associated with special types of city cards, and these are very clearly marked with the same color (green, blue, red, or yellow) around the characeter's number, which is a nice iconic connection.
My only complaint about the cards is that they all have monochromatic, blue backs, and the backs of the district cards and character cards aren't very distinct, and thus you have to look closely to separate the two types of cards if they get mixed together.
All of the cards are relatively sturdy and have rounded corners.
The gold coins are simple, circular cardboard markers printed with gold coins on black. The coins are thick enough to be sturdy and the artwork is pretty.
The rulebook is a short, four-page explanation of how to play the game, a page and a half of which is taken up by a listing of the 18 characters and their powers. It's all in black and white with workmanlike layout. The rules aren't entirely clear and took a couple of readings to figure out. Even after that they were some questions during play, such as, "When do these character powers go off?" which were only clarified after a few hunts through the rules. A revision of these rules to clean things up would probably do the game some good.
The card is a cardboard crown and goes on a little plastic stand to show who the current king is. Unfortunately the crown is a bit too wide for the stand, and thus gets dinged up when you try and place them together. The crown is somewhat useful, to help you keep track of who's the king, in case rounds go by where the King card doesn't come into play.
And that pretty much brings me to the end of my list of "required components"--what you need to play the game. Fantasy Flight Games does include a couple of other pieces of cardboard, and in some cases they're marginally useful, but overall they feel like an attempt to bulk out the game so that it could be sold in a board-game sized box, rather than a smaller card packet. Nonetheless, if they needed to package this card game as a board game (and I understand the economic requirements for such), it's nice that they made an effeort to put a few other markers in that might help players out.
The victory point markers are labeled 2, 3, and 4 and are used to denote a few different special conditions when you count up your points at the end.They're relatively pretty to look at and have iconic representations that make it fairly clear what the victory points are for, which is a nice touch.
The character markers are little hexgonal representations that match up with the 18 character cards. Since you only use 8 or 9 of the characters in any one game, the idea is that you lay out these markers to help everyone remember what characters are in the game. If the markers had included names, that might have been useful, but I can't imagine anyone but the most addicted players will remember the pictures of the different characters. The "regular" and "special" characters do also have differently colored numbers on the markers, so perhaps that might help, but I'm not really convinced of the utility of these pieces ...
The one component that I wished I had, but was missing, was a card listing all of the characters. The current holder of the king is supposed to call them out each round, and that would have been easier if we weren't always stumbling over "5 ... was that the merchant? No, the bishop?" It's no good embarassing the king.
My only other general complaint about the components in this game is the lack of any tray or slot to store the deck of cards within the box. If a publisher is going to insist on publishing a card game in a big box, it'd at least be nice to set things up so that the cards will stay in place, rather than randomly floating around or requiring a rubber band.
Overall, for a game with a $20 price point, the components in Citadels deliver about what you'd expect, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. Nice cardboard pieces, very nice cards, and a number of other components which, though not strictly required, might improve your game play. I'd call the style of Citadels thus average for the price point, or "3" out of "5".
The Game Play
Citadels seems designed for between 4-6 players, and thus I'll explain how the game works for those numbers first, with a few notes about otherly sized games at the end.
The game starts out with the character cards. They're what really shape this game and make it unique. In the standard game there are eight character cards, each numbered, and each possessing a unique power. They are:
Each round, at the start of the round, one character card is placed face down, and a number between zero and two are placed face up, so that there ends up being one more character card than the number of players. Then the king selects a character card of his choice (that's the oldest player on the first turn, the previous king afterward), and the cards are passed clockwise around the table with each player choosing a character. In the end the last player selects one of two cards and places the other facedown on the table.
The end result is that each player has had some choice over the "special power" he gets to use during the current round, and in addition each player has some knowledge of what characters other players are using.
After character selection is done, each player then gets to take his turn in the current round. This is done in the order of the character cards, so the player with the assassin goes first, the thief goes second, etc. At least a couple of characters will be out of play every round, and thus skipped.
The ultimate goal of Citadels is to build 8 districts within your city. Districts are cards in one of five colors (yellow: noble, blue: religious, green: trade, red: military, and purple: special) which cost between one and eight gold pieces to build.
Each player starts the game with four district cards in his hand and two gold coins; each turn each player may decide to collect two new gold coins or else take two district cards and keep the best of the two. Afterward, he may build up to one district, and his turn ends.
The player also gets to use his character power sometime during his turn. So the assassin might collect a couple of cards, play a new district, and then kill some other character, the exact fate of which isn't revealed until that character's turn. The bishop might collect some gold, then collect some more gold for his blue districts, then build something expensive. You get the idea.
Eventually after the warlord (#8) has gone, the character cards are all recovered, shuffled, and a new round begins.
The game ends at the completion of the round during which someone built their eighth district. Everyone then counts up the value of all their districts and adds a few bonuses, denoted by VP markers: 4 if the player was the first to 8 districts; 2 if the player made it to 8 districts after the first person; and 3 if the player had districts in all five colors.
Before moving on I should note that the game supports a 7th player by also including a "9" card, the Queen; playing with 2 or 3 players requires players to take two characters and two turns each round.
Also of note is the fact that this game comes with a second set of characters, also labelled 1-9. One or two of these can be substituted in every game for the "normal" characters, allowing for quite a bit of variability of game play.
Relations to Other Games
Bruno Faidutti says that he doesn't like creating expansions to games when he could be working on a new game instead. However, a surprising number of games share some characteristics with Citadels.
Game designer Marcel-André Casasola Merkle apparently appropriated the idea of character cards into his own games, Verraeter and Meuterer and introduced the method for choosing the characters, which was then used in Citadels.
Fist of Dragonstones was more recently developed by Bruno Faidutti & Michael Schacht. It started out as a "sequel" to Citadels, and indeed does share the idea of characters with special powers, and you'll meet many of old favorites, such as the thief, the alchemist, and the wizard in the new game. However the core mechanics and the way to select characters are very different in Dragonstones, which is an auction game.
Finally, Castle was developed by Serge Lalet and later refined by Bruno Faidutti, at the same time that Citadels was being developed. The original idea had been for each designer to develop their own gameplay about characters and locations and then combine them, but the games ended up too different. Citadels had 60 locations and 8 characters while Castle almost exactly reversed that ratio. Word is that Castle is a fun but light game.
If you're interested I highly suggest Bruno's Citadel's page which has all kinds of fascinating information on the evolution of the game.
And I plan to review some of these other games in the future ...
The Game Design
The game design of Citadels is very strong and robust, and for a fairly simple card game allows a surprising amount of strategy and cognitive gameplay.
Here's some of the best game design points:
Good Balance: The idea of trading the characters off every round allows for a nice amount of balance, because of the fact that an "unbalanced" character will move around. This is further helped by the inclusion of the assassin and thief, who prevent other players from holding on to specific characters because it makes them vulnerable. (The thief and the assassin attack characters, but if a specific player keeps pulling the same character, the thief or assassin player can then de facto attack that player, which has some very nice advantages.) Other characters create innate balance too, such as the fact that the thief will act as a balance to someone hoarding gold and that the warlord will act as a balance to someone who's out in front on districts.
Good Replayability: There are a lot of different factors that add up to good replayability of this game. First is the fact that the game dramatically changes based on how many players you have, even within the original 4-6 player constraints. At 4 player, for example, 2 extra characters are out every round of play, as compared to a 6-player game. Second is the inclusion of the 9 extra cards, which allow every game to be a bit different because the powers available will constantly be changing. Third is the fact that it would be very easy to totally change the dynamics of this game by adding in new characters (though, alas, FFG didn't include any blank cards).
Good Control of Randomness: Though there is a random element in the game, based on what district cards you draw, lots has been done to control that randomness. The magician and architect characters are the most obvious helpers, since they can allow you to draw more or different cards. However, the king, bishop, merchant, and warlord are also help offset randomness because you can usually select the specific character who will benefit whatever your mix of district colors is.
Those points address some of the most common problems with strategic game design, and that's saying that Bruno Faidutti has done a good job of making sure this one will be fun.
Here's the only complaint I had:
Victory Points Hard to Count: Victory Points are largely based on the cost of district cards, in gold coins. Those are denoted by a number of gold coins running down the left-hand side of the card. This is pretty to look at, but ultimately hard to count. When you're trying to figure out if you're the leading player or not, it's a pain to count through all the coins on someone else's districts. If they'd instead been shown by a singular number (ie, "5") inside a gold coin, the iconography would have remained equally clear, but counting would have become much easier in the end game.
I was tempted to give Citadels a "5" for substance, but I think, even with the multiple character cards and other factors, Citadels will ultimately be somewhat limited in replayability, because of the fact that it's a fairly simple card game. Thus, I give it a "4".
Overall, Citadels is an excellently designed card game that's a lot of fun to play. Bruno Faidutti's game design is spot on. Ultimately the simplicity of the game will probably constrain it's replayability, but you'll get a lot of plays out of it first, and will probably continue to return to it every once in a while afterward.
Looking back at my definitions of game components I'd say that Citadels makes primary use of arbitrary tokens (the district cards); the character cards act as a sort of power marker. There is no environment. This is the same general category that I put most card games into, from Bridge to Magic: The Gathering.
Looking back at my definitions of game play I'd say that Citadels is primarily a building game, through the placement of district cards, though marker collection is also an important game element, in that the disbursement of the character cards every turn is a sort of auction. At the end, victory is determined by best builder--through the values of the district cards. This is the same general category that I place Sid Meier's Civilization 3, into, though Citadels is on the opposite end of the complexity spectrum.