The mechanism is clever and well themed to siege warfare in renaissance Italy, but do not be put off as this is no more a wargame than Risk or Stratego. Each player is dealt ten cards, representing but a fraction of the large deck (thus card counters are always frustrated), and must use them in a series of attacks on the towns in the game. Each town is based in a region, which in turn neighbours up to six regions, and the player to first control five consecutive regions wins. At the start of the game there are no castles, so the lead player decides which region will be contested, with the kicker being that every player can contest a battle. This befits the eponymous mercenary troops and allows for constant action for all players, should they choose to stay. Once a winner is determined, a player's castle is placed in the region showing ownership and making subsequent battles easier on the defender. The game proceeeds in this fashion, siege following siege, until one player has the required linked chain of castles. The balancing item, and the reason for the horse, is that the player winning a battle also chooses where the next one will take place allowing weak castles to be picked on, or vacant areas conquered.
Play takes the form of a hand of cards, split into a series of tricks, and continues until only one player has any cards left, at which point everyone replenishes to ten for the next round. In this way, any number of battles/tricks can be fought in a round and card conservation is important - it is no good playing out all your good cards leaving nothing to defend, or preventing you attacking a weak position; conversely you mustn't drop out of battles and hold back too long or you'll lose the cards with the round ending. Each trick consists of the play, one by one, of soldier cards (with numeric values from 1 to 10) and specials, each of which has a marked and different effect on the battle. For instance, a Drum will double all your cards, Winter will make all cards worth just one each, a Heroine adds ten and is hard to shift, a Bishop intervenes and brings the battle to a close, a Surrender ends the battle there and then in favour of the biggest army.
The card combinations and timing are actually quite intriguing and card play is a constant series of gambles and choices, with both long and short term implications. It isn't the heaviest card game in existence, but it is far from light and seems to offer reasonable depth. There is but one vague rule, in both the French and English sets, regarding the Scarecrow card. The rules are unclear as to whether playing this card, as a decoy, allows you to remove a soldier card from another player into your hand or simply to pick up one of your own. We played the former, and felt the game would be less interactive and cutthroat if the latter is correct.
Condottiere plays well and quickly, has some good ideas, reasonable tactics, even some proper cardplay in there. It undeniably has something to offer the fluffy hobby but remains a curious title, and production, to be released in this form. I can't help feeling that the price will kill it stone dead, but we have come to expect this from the French and occasionally from the German market. It may also have a potential problem in actually trying to bring it to an end, as it suffers from Risk's to-and-fro characteristic and the ability to gang up on the leader. However, we had no such problems in three games so perhaps the advantage conferred by control of the horse is enough to balance things out. Whatever, a solid, original game that definitely isn't worth the asking price but if you play it, and enjoy it, you can at least search for a cheap copy.