Designed by Leo Colovini
Published by Winning Moves
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
2 to 4players
I know what I wanted when I saw the pre-release press shots for Carolus Magnus. I had hoped for a novel, Risk-style game using a mutable board. That is certainly what it looks like, even when the box is opened, and I think there is still scope for another title to exploit this field. Instead, we have an abstract, piece placing game with intriguing layers of power struggle, limited actions, and constantly changing fortunes, all played to completion in around half an hour. One of the layers missing is that of theme, which as usual has, I guess, been thrown at the game system late on in the design process. The one that stuck this time was the reign of Charlemagne, aka Karl der Grosse (or Charlie the Grocer, as we know him) in AD800. To be honest, it may as well be a famous East End street market forming rival factions or mergers of football franchises - either would be about as close to reality.
But quickly forgetting my mild disappointment on the theme and structure (hey, I'm used to it by now), and the limited number of players (I will return to this aspect) we sat down to play. And within five minutes we were saying stuff like, 'Blimey, this is alright' and 'A bit like one of Reiner's'. So you can rest easy. This is a proper game with tolerable luck, which has lots to commend. It actually distils most elements of game design and play into a pleasing balance, plus it is quick and punchy. I guess it will appeal to fans of El Grande and the lost treasure that is Vendetta. And, shock horror, I liked it - as many of you have been pointing out, that is becoming an increasingly rare event! I am not sure how many times we will play it again, but I have happily played it a lot recently, and shown it off to sceptical gamers, still wary after experiencing the disappointing Verrat! from the same company.
The basic idea reminds one a little of El Grande. You start play with a group of 'paladins' which can be deployed into either the court of Charlemagne or into the fifteen provinces, control of which will win you the game. These placements are final, so must be carefully considered. The immediate difference is that each paladin in turn belongs to one of five different coloured factions, which start neutral, swear loyalty to a player, and then sometimes stab him in the back, and then shamelessly ally once again.
The control of factions at court is important, because it means any pieces placed on the board count towards majority control of each area. So if you control pink and blue paladins, and there are two of each in one specific area rivalled by a number of yellows, you could in fact play yellows into the court to try and gain control. How? Because the first neat twist is that when you take control of a paladin faction at court, all the paladins on active duty on the board join your cause. This may mean regions switch allegiance, sometimes in dramatic fashion, even to the extent of effectively winning the game there and then. This obviously gives rise to some 'if I do this, they switch, that castle becomes mine, and that gives me six . or .. I do this ..' analysis. A brain that can handle mild look-ahead is therefore an asset.
The second neat twist is that when two or more neighbouring regions are conquered by your factions, the regions are pushed together to form one big super state. The castles remain though, and all paladins present are merged into a combined force. This will usually result is a stronger holding, but like Rheinlaender from last year, this merging of power bases can be a double-edged sword because the ower balance not only needs to tip, but also be maintained. Neatly, the game ends entropically when there are fewer than four regions left in play, or by one player controlling ten castles.
The turn ends by rolling three dice, which indicate the colour of paladins that turn up as your reinforcements. The drawback, which you may have spotted, is that if you don't roll the right dice, you can't get hold of the paladin colour you need to control the court or fight for the castles. This is well handled though, as all paladins are normally useful to have, and one of the die faces represents a joker - permitting a free choice of paladin colour. We have not so far noticed many wild results. Normally you remain in contention at the very least, and if not, the game is a quick one. Nevertheless, slight Settlers concerns aside, the result is a game that has a fine balance between wanting to place troops in your court to wrest control of factions, or to fight in provinces - and there are often two or three of those giving a layer of sub- decisions. That is broadly it on decision making, but it offers enough interest for the light to medium weight game that this is. Additionally, if you can do the necessary look-ahead, you will doubtless find rather more depth than I have explained and encountered.
As nicely produced as Carolus Magnus is, as indeed are all Winning Moves games, it is rather lost in its large, Kosmos style box. Consequently, it is also a little expensive for what is on offer. We are really looking at a fullish FX Schmid size box, and I would suggest a similar price would be appropriate. What seems to have happened is that the marketers have had their say, and we get stiffed for an additional fiver. But there are loads of wooden cubes, a bag, and lots of tiles - and that is all well done.
Carolus Magnus is a pleasant surprise. Not by any means what I expected, it is however a solid, interesting game with constant small decisions going on. It has virtually no theme, is undeniably abstract and, as I said, really needs that look-ahead ability that dissuades many and can also slow the game. But my friend and I sat there playing the two-player game, and really got into it. And promptly played again. The three player was better still, and felt rather different, and that number is probably its forte. Four player we have tried but once so far, and that works on a partnership basis - but not by way of the usual last minute fudge. Again, different in feel and worthy of exploration. Not quite three games in one box, but good, flexible play value and virtually a guarantee that this will make the 'played five times' list - and how many German games can claim that? Recommended, especially if you can find a bargain copy.
Why wait? Buy it now from FunAgain Games!
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell