Review of Bacchus' Banquet
Over the years, I've come to like Bang a bit less and less, if only because with some groups the game takes entirely too long. I love the theme, but I want to do something like that in a shorter frame of time. Bacchus' Banquet (Mayfair Games, 2008 - Frederic Moyersoen) manages to do this, as players each take the role of either Caligula or someone at one of his overflowing banquets. Each player has a separate goal for winning, and a lot of gift giving occurs until one player pulls off the victory.
Since a player can win even if one of their characters has been killed, and the game uses belt buckles for player tracks, I was immediately charmed by the game. I was a bit wary of the theme, but it remains suitable for families; and if anything, it teaches the dangers of overeating! The game takes thirty minutes or less and includes bluffing, deduction, and secret roles. All this will cause players to enjoy it enough to want to try it again. Funny and fun, Bacchus' Banquet is an enjoyable card game that will have folks laughing and taunting one another.
Each player is given a player display, which mainly shows the goals for each of the guests in the game but also has a "fullness level" track. The player uses a buckle piece on the track, starting it at zero. Players are then randomly dealt one of the nine guest cards (Caligula is in every game), which they keep secret - except Caligula, who is revealed immediately. All players also receive one privilege card (Caligula gets two), and a pile of Action cards is shuffled and placed face down in the middle of the table. Seven of these Action cards are turned face up in a circle around the pile, and the player who is Caligula begins the game, becoming the first active player.
On each turn, the active player chooses three of the face up cards and secretly looks at them. One of the cards is discarded face down; one of them is placed face down in front of the player; and third is offered face down to another guest as a "gift". The player to whom the gift is offered must either accept it, flipping it face up in front of them, or pass it on to another player, "gifting" it to them. If nobody accepts the card, then the original giver must flip it face up, placing the card in front of them. The player who finally accepts the card becomes the active player for the next round. However, if a player has two fewer cards in front of them than all other players, they may immediately claim a gift card and become the active player.
Most of the cards are food and wine cards - each with a number on them, showing how far the player must move their belt buckle piece. If a player ever moves the buckle to or past the "10" on the track, their character dies; and they must discard their guest card, along with any action cards they have gained, drawing a new guest card (effectively starting over). Other cards in the deck include poison cards (which add enormous amounts of points to the belt track), exercise cards (which subtract points from the track), present cards (which do nothing but are key to some of the guests' victory conditions), dagger cards (which do nothing, but three of them in play kill Caligula), and special action cards (which allow the player to discard food cards, etc.)
Players can also use their Privilege cards once a game, discarding them afterwards. These cards are similar to special action cards, and they allow players to steal gifts, exchange cards, or give back gifts.
The game continues until one of the players can claim victory for their guest. Each character has a different victory condition. For example, Claudius wins if he eats three items of food and drinks at least three points of wine. Caesonia wins if she gets three of the six different "present" cards. Octavius wins if three daggers are on the table, or if Caligula dies. Caligula wins if he eats two items and drinks five points of wine, or if three other guests are killed. It is possible to have more than one player win (since three guests want Caligula dead).
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The cards in the game show a very cartoonish look at the Roman world, and the whole thing has a very humorous effect. I was concerned that perhaps the game would be inappropriate for children (given the theme), but it's all very mild and, if anything, shows the dangers of overeating. The player displays are well designed, showing the sequence of play, each of the nine character objectives, and the buckle display. The wooden buckle tokens are hilarious and look quite thematic as they are slid along the track, showing the fullness level in their center. All the cards are of good quality, and everything fits nicely inside a standard plastic insert in a small box.
2.) Rules: The eight pages of the rulebook show pictures, give examples, and spend some time discussing strategy. The game is one of the fastest I've explained, as players simply are giving and receiving cards the entire time. In fact, the only thing that slows down the explanation for the game is the privilege cards, which have a good deal of text on them and aren't immediately intuitive to many players. Other than that, the game is easy enough for kids to handle, as most of the cards have no text, and the idea of giving/accepting gifts is an easily understood system.
3.) Players and time: The game handles up to five players (I wish it could take six), and I'm not sure I would often want to play with less than that. The more players there are, the more victory conditions there are in play, and the most interaction is going on. With three players, you only have two choices of whom to offer a gift; while with five, you have four folks in the game. Having a limit of five might disappoint some who like that Bang! can handle up to seven or eight, but it does keep the game moving very quickly. The box announces that the game takes only thirty minutes -- I think most games will be twenty minutes or less.
4.) Deduction: I'm a big fan of deduction games, and attempting to figure out who each player is can be a fun part of Bacchus' Banquet. However, this deduction is often mostly guesswork, and it's not entirely critical to winning the game. For example, you may have deduced that Sam is playing the character of Messalina (a character that needs a lot of food to win), and stop giving him food as a result; but if his character dies and he draws another, all of that deduction has become a moot point. I do like the mild reasoning involved in the game, but the main focus is upon the bluffing of the gift cards.
5.) Giving and Receiving: The mechanic of offering someone a card that may or may not be good isn't new to this game; other games (such as Knock, Knock!) have done it before with varying degrees of success. But Bacchus' Banquet takes this gift giving and adds the mild degree of deduction that I mentioned, along with a healthy dollop of humor, keeps the game easy and quite fun. The game all comes down to a big bluff - did Bob just offer me a poison card, or did he offer me something he wants, hoping that I won't accept it? A few strategic thoughts might occur on the way, as players could possibly accept a gift simply to make them the active player on the next turn, but it's mostly one big bluff.
6.) Fun Factor: The bluffing factor, miniscule deduction element, and humor all combine to make Bacchus' Banquet a fun little game. If the game lasted more than thirty minutes, I can imagine that it would likely wear out its welcome, but it's an enjoyable diversion. The heated discussions that players have as they attempt to determine who is who, the laughter as Septimus eats too much lobster and collapses to the floor, and the cries of victory as Caligula succumbs to poison make this a game that will be a raucous, enjoyable time.
Bacchus' Banquet isn't anything to be taken too seriously; it's merely a simple, light card game. However, the funny theme and artwork, combined with the guessing on what kind of gifts people offered to you, keep the game fresh and enjoyable. With five people and only thirty minutes, this is the perfect game to pull out to keep game night moving quickly; and repeat games will likely occur since it finishes in a speedy manner. Some folks will likely not enjoy the bluffing aspect, but I found it entertaining, and the whole concept of keeping your food intake low worked well for the game, giving it a very unique feel. So fasten your belts and eat away!
"Real men play board games"