It’s always fun to out-think your friends. Citadelsis one of those sleeper games that always impresses but for some reason isn’t well known. The game has sold consistently for 16 years. We call this an evergreen title. After such a long run, the game was due for a revamp.
BASICS OF PLAY:
The premise is a simple card game. Players play districts cards to the table in front of them to develop their city, paying the cost with their little plastic coins. When someone reaches the required number of districts the game ends. The winner is the player that spent the most money on their city, plus a few bonus conditions like color combinations.
What makes Citadels amazing is what happens between turns. Besides the district, cards is a set of character cards. The first player (usually referred to as the King) takes this pack of cards and removes a certain number to have one more than the number of players, some of these may be revealed but one card will be face-down. Then the King looks through the remaining cards, picks a character and passes the rest to the player on their left. Right there, that moment the cards are handed to you is the most important part of the game. For a few reasons…
Most importantly is that the character cards are numbered 1 through 9. Once everyone has chosen a card (the color last player to pick has a choice between two and discards the last card face-down), players take turns in the order of the characters, not seating order. Characters also have a specific ability and can earn additional income based on the districts in the player’s city. Why is this so important? Because you can work out what other players choose! Citadels is about reading people!
The King knows what the discarded card is because he sees all the remaining cards. The next player has a 50/50 guess of what the King has chosen. The next player sees three missing cards and can work out what characters will probably be played. The second-last player has a 50/50 guess of what the last player will choose. The last player knows one of the two cards that were discarded face-down. The districts that players have in front of them can also inform their decision. If someone has lots of mercantile districts (green cards) they’re more likely to choose the Merchant (number 6) because of the additional income. It’s all about partial information.
What do players do once their number is called? Firstly you choose to take 2 coins from the bank or add a district card to your hand (take two, keep one), then play a single district to the table paying its cost in coins. If your character matches the color of any districts in front of you, they earn an extra coin per card. At any point during your turn, you can activate the ability of your character. The Assassin(number 1) can nominate another character and they’ll skip their entire turn. The Architect (number 7) takes 2 additional district cards and can then play up to three districts, as long as they can afford if. The King(number 4 by the way) immediately becomes the first player and takes over the process of running the game. They’ll also get the first choice on the next round even if they’ve been assassinated. When this happens we jokingly shout “The king is dead! Long live the king!”.
There’s a metagame going on here. To win the game you need to play the best districts to help your machine function without telegraphing your next choice, as players will deny you the character you need or the Assassin(number 1) will target the character you need. To play those district cards you need the right cards in your hand and the money to pay for them. For such a simple game there’s a surprising level of thinking going on.
Citadels has gone mostly unchanged for more than a decade. The expansion named Dark City has been included as part of the base game for many years, allowing the character list to be switched up during setup to bring variety to the game and make it far more interesting.
The game is plagued by a few issues, minor but influential. The art style is nice but the card backs of the characters and the districts are so similar that they sometimes get shuffled in. When switching out characters during setup players get confused regarding the possible actions of their opponents because for instance “I forgot the King is now the Emperor”.
THE NEWEST LATEST BEST:
Finally, a new edition has been printed. There’s an entire third set of characters to add into the game, with a few lists of combinations the designers found work well. But the most important changes, in my opinion, are cosmetic. With a completely revamped look, the character cards are much larger than the district cards, preventing confusion and lending a bit of gravity to the decision of which character to take. There’s a set of reference tokens to place on the table reminding everyone which characters are in play, and by moving the Assassin token to the character they’re assassinating can remind player’s who’s turn to skip. The indicator for the King that used to be a small crown shaped wooden piece is now a small ornate plastic crown, which is much easier to spot.
The original Citadels isn’t gone. The original base game without the expansion is now available as Citadels Classic, at a much-reduced price. If you’re unsure about the game I’d suggest this option. It also makes a great gift. If you’re a regular board gamer I’d go straight for the new edition. It’s a much smoother, fleshed out experience.
These rankings are based on the new edition.
Good quality cardstock as you’d expect from Fantasy Flight Games and very nice cheerful artwork as you’d expect after their recent acquisition by Asmodee. The new reference tokens are a game-saver.
Player downtime can be an issue as you wait for the deck of characters to come around. Though the game supports up to 8 players, the best experience is between 4 and 6.
Complexity vs Depth: 4/5
Because players need to make decisions on their own from turn one, there’s quite a bit of explaining to do, but after the first turn, it all comes together. Maybe play a mock round before setting up for real. It’s fun to see first-time players suddenly grasp the game. Experienced players enjoy mixing the characters to create new combinations.
Though characters have names related to their abilities, the game is quite abstract and doesn’t need a very strong theme.
First-time players take a few minutes to understand the game, but once everyone’s had a go, the game has legs. Our copy comes out at least once a month. We even played over Christmas with the family. Highly recommended.
Citadels and many other board games are available for purchase from fanaticus.co.za