“Good things come in small packages” This is an often-quoted maxim, attributed to Aesop. The question is whether this master of wise fables was correct when considering Citadels by Bruno Faidutti. This little box of tricks is old- perhaps ancient by board gaming standards, about 20 years. However, Aesop predates this game by 2600 years!
Citadels, like Aesop’s fables, might be considered a masterpiece. There are a series of familiar characters, all of whom can be expected to make an appearance in this classic story of city building. As you play the game you can become any of these characters in acting out their city building adventures.
Like any good tale, there are familiar individuals. The King is supported by his bishop. The everyday folk are represented by merchants and architects. The court magician makes an appearance. In typical storytelling fashion, there are also less salubrious characters. The thief is certain to pop up from time to time to relieve the unsuspecting of their gold. The mercenary warlord is one chap who can help you in your quest [if the price is right]. If you have a desire to win at any cost perhaps the assassin might do your dirty work.
A City Fit For A King
Citadels takes you back into mediaeval times. The population is starting to grow. Villages are enlarging to become towns and cities- but this needs to be managed. You have the task of developing the kingdom as a master builder but you have to organise this ragbag bunch of characters to do so.
Each round of Citadels is a little like play with two main acts and different scenes. This is a card game that uses drafting for character development. The cards in the hand will represent districts that might be built. These come at a cost indicated by the gold coins required to build each district. The aim is to complete a city containing seven districts and most games will take 45 minutes.
Act One: Scene One
The writer of any good drama must introduce the key players near the beginning of the action. They often have a “back story”. Their previous paths are often intertwined. So it is in Citadels. There are eight characters available. Depending on player count some might not even get walk-on parts, but casting is chosen by each gamer rather than the play’s director.
Act one is all about character selection. At the start, one player is selected to be the director [the King if you will]. They have the pick of the actors and may choose one character to play, passing the remaining cards to the next player. Each player chooses one role but keeps this secret. There is always one more role available than players so there is always some choice, and no one can be certain what other roles may have been picked.
Picking Your Leading Actor
Each role provides advantages and benefits to the player. This phase using card drafting mechanics gives a balance of using the options available [the roles] with the benefits depending on the current state of your town. For example, selecting a merchant role has great value, especially if your city has numerous trading districts. This will generate additional income. If a bishop is chosen this will be an advantage if your town has many churches or cathedrals. So, although you do not know the outcome of the casting couch, a player may have an inkling of what role might be chosen by others.
Act One: Scene Two
Gameplay and turn order are determined by the characters in play. Each has specific lines to say and actions to follow. At the start of this scene, each player takes centre stage. In doing so, this reveals their subplot.
The assassin is first to take off their mask. They must state who they wish to kill [prevent from playing this turn]. Once revealed the assassin completes their part in the story and finishes their turn. They must choose one individual not knowing who is actually playing that part. They might choose to kill the merchant, bishop or even the King if they felt they were becoming too powerful. The murdered individual does not reveal their identity until it is their character’s turn.
The thief is always happy to steal gold to help fund their building projects. They select one character to pilfer. They might even steal from the deceased. There was little morality in mid mediaeval times!
The magician is the master conjurer. The player taking this role can swap any number of cards from their hand with fresh cards from the draw deck. But that is not all. Sleight of hand is his trade and the magician can exchange his entire hand [however small or large] with any other character. At this point in the “play”, only the assassin and thief are known so selecting another “player” will mean risking swapping cards for a weaker hand.
The King stands for all that is right with the nobility. The King gains revenue for other noble districts within their city. They also have the chance to dictate terms of play. This is not a democracy after all. It is the player who is the King that has the full choice of characters for the next turn. This is a powerful position and one that is certainly sought after. However, without protection, the King can be assassinated or robbed, and they do make an excellent, high profile target.
The bishop represents the religious order. Powerful, protected and rich from their land, the player who becomes the bishop has many advantages. Income is determined according to the number of churches and cathedrals within the city. The clergy also commands some respect as they did in mediaeval times. This means that the player’s city is protected from the raiding warlord on his turn.
The merchant classes eventually formed the prosperous middle class. Its “workers” manage to avoid many of the petty squabbles of the nobility but found a comfortable lifestyle. In Citadels, the merchants certainly know how to do deals. They seem to have the most disposable income, gaining coins automatically as well as extra coins depending on how many trading districts are within their town. This is a valuable character to claim – that is if someone hasn’t stolen their money.
Town planning needs architects. The architect may gain additional district cards and build a number of districts in one turn. They work best when a player has sufficient resources to capitalise on their building ability.
The eighth character to be revealed is the warlord. This individual can disrupt other’s cities as well as gaining gold depending on their military strength. Players who have military districts in their city will gain financially if they become the warlord. In destroying other player’s cities, if they choose, they will have to pay a cost but this could be helpful in preventing others from winning.
Act Two: Scene One
As each character is revealed so bonuses are offered and this is dependant on districts already present in the city. On their turn players have the option to gain gold “two pieces” as basic income [without bonuses] or to gain district cards. The aim is to complete your city with seven district cards. Each district may be characterised according to type. The docks are involved in trade; the cathedral would be part of the religious order. Other types include military, nobility and unique [stand-alone] if these district types are present then they will determine a player’s bonus on each subsequent turn.
As an alternative to gaining two gold coins, characters may draw two district cards. They select one to the hand, discarding the other [with the exception of the architect who may draw extra cards]. The choice of district card to be retained will depend on the strategy a player has in mind. Having a diverse city with all five subtypes represented will give an endgame bonus too.
Act Two: Scene Two
At the end of each player's turn, they can choose to add one district card to their city by paying the gold coins. Certain city cards may give additional bonuses if already in play. Small, cheap districts are quick and easy to erect, but will have little value in the end. These areas are also more vulnerable to being overrun but other players warlords.
The Final Curtain
Once a player has built seven districts the others gamers can complete their turn. The victor is determined but a simple tally of the total value of all of the districts built at that point. There are a few additional bonus points available. Most games will run for 45 to 60 minutes with a performance best appreciated at a table with enough space for the cities to develop.
The Critics’ Choice
The fact that Citadels is 20 years old should not detract anyone from trying this game. The artwork on the box has been retouched but this “classic” edition is essentially unchanged. The same formula has won numerous awards and plaudits. While other games now seem to get plenty of attention, it is often these older, slightly more obscure games, that represent very good value for money.
The cards are typical playing card stock. With repeated games eventually, they may become worn. The coins are simple punched out card pieces. We have chosen to replace them with 50, one-penny pieces that have been “washed” in Diet Coke to restore their shine!
The two acts of the game ensure everyone is fully involved. Drafting of the characters takes a few moments. With at least one card removed from the deck and face down there will always be some doubt as to who has chosen which character. After my first few games, I thought that the King would be too strong. Once a player becomes the King, I thought it might be difficult to usurp the Crown. However, the use of the thief or assassin to target the royalty soon undermines their perceived power.
Sometimes being the last person to draught a character [in sitting on the King’s right] can feel as though one is only ever being offered supporting actor roles. However, as the identity of the King seems to move frequently, so the last player position also will move around the table.
The building of the districts [during act two] involves risk and balance. Ultimately a player would want high-value districts. These may require a number of turns until the player has acquired sufficient funds to buy the University, for example. All of this time their gold is sitting untouched, just waiting for the thief to strike. This leads to another conundrum. One might spend several rounds just to place a single [valuable] district card. Others might play small, cheaper districts quickly and at each turn. This may allow them to achieve a variety of districts and complete their city while others are still languishing. It is the old fable of the Tortoise and the Hare but with a card laying twist.
As You Like It
We have quite a large family, especially when girlfriends are included. So many games today are for one to four or perhaps five players. There are relatively few games that scale well for more. Like 7 Wonders, Citadels has a sweet spot of five or six players. Most of the characters have parts to play each turn, but there is still a little doubt as to who has what role. There is plenty of interaction with the assassin and thief causing mayhem. Players individual turns to take cards and build districts takes seconds. This means that Citadels is quick-paced, with little downtime.
When I first saw the small box, I thought that Citadels would just be a filler game. I had obviously been judging the game by the box size. There is considerably more to Citadels than meets the eye. There is an element of bluffing in the character selection. Also, there is plenty of subterfuge with the assassin, thief and warlord causing problems. Sometimes, flying under the radar, with a weaker role might allow you to achieve more. All of the character roles have some advantages. One does not feel hard done by even if one is the last person to select the character during the drafting phase.
Often when we play games, we consider some of the rules and make occasional changes with house rules. And so it is with Citadels. We have put our own spin on this game but only in regard to the warlord role. We feel it is better for the warlord, not only to pay coins to destroy a district of an opponent, but that should allow them to take that district into their hand and play it immediately to extend their territory and build their city. This increases the power of the warlord who, with the original rules, always seemed to be the weakest person in the deck.
The similarities with 7 Wonders are there. Card drafting and city building aside, this has a slightly different feel as each turn players will often be a different personality. We have found that at the end of the game the winner is often victorious but only by a few gold coins. There is rarely a runaway winner as use of the disruptive characters can be used to inhibit another player’s city.
Is Citadels Worthy Of An Olivier Award?
This is a solid game it does not have the hype of bigger, more popular classics. It reminds me of the time in London a few years ago where my son and I stumbled upon a small theatre underneath Charing Cross railway station. One evening we watched a play, previously unknown to us, about a family emigrating to the States. The acting was good. The set was basic but the director used the props very well. The storyline was captivating and we came out from this tiny theatre having thoroughly enjoyed our evening, finding a treasure where it was least expected.