There is a certain elegance about the gameplay of Council of 4. The basics of the game can be explained quite quickly. But there is a lot more depth than its simple explanation might suggest.
The game, designed by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, is played on a map, which shows a network of cities, equally distributed across three regions. Each region is controlled by four councillors (hence the name) represented by four chunky miniatures (this is a CMON game, after all). On their turn, players play up to four cards which match the colours of the four councillors, in order to exert influence in a given region. The skill in the game lies in managing your hand of cards, and in electing new members of the council in a region, to make the most of the cards which you have.
Playing Council of 4
There are four main actions in the game, one of which must be taken on every turn;
Elect a Council Member
Each of the councils in the game (there are four: one for each region, plus the queen’s council) feature a row of four councillors. When a new council member is elected, the one on the right is rejected, and a new councillor miniature (player’s choice) is added on the left. In this way, players can manipulate the council to suit their hand. The player also receives four coins (this is the only direct action which provides income).
Acquire a Permit Tile
Permit tiles are specific to regions. Each features the name of one, two or three of the cities in the same region. Players play cards from their hand, matching the colours of the members of the council in that region, in order to acquire an available permit tile. The fewer matching cards played, the more an additional coin cost must be paid. Permit tiles give an immediate bonus upon acquisition (the fewer cities marked on the tile, the greater the bonus).
Place a Merchant using a Permit Tile
Playing a permit tile allows a player to place a merchant (one of their own, marker miniatures) in one of the cities on that permit tile. This gives the player an immediate bonus, specific to the city in which they have just played. However, they also gain the bonuses from any connected cities in which they also have presence... and any cities connected to them... and so on. In this way, players benefit from building a network of connected merchants. However, because the bonuses are randomly assigned at the start of the game, there is some variability between games.
Use the Queen to Place a Merchant
Cards are played to match the Queens council. In doing so, the player is able to pay to move the Queen, and then place a merchant in the city in which the Queen is present. This allows the player to place merchants much more rapidly than using the permit tiles (one action instead of two), but players lose the immediate benefit of taking a permit tile.
There are a number of optional secondary actions available, any one - and only one - of which can be taken before or after the main action. These typically involve the hire or use of servants, which act as a mitigating resource throughout the game (servants are acquired from various different bonuses).
Although there are bonus benefits to placing merchants in a network, this may not be the best approach for earning end game points. The first player to place merchants according to specific criteria (all cities of a given colour, or all cities in the same region) earn a tile which carries bonus points. In addition, the first few bonus point tiles taken also earn an additional bonus point tile, making early careful placement a legitimate strategy.
The game end is triggered when a player places their last merchant. However, there are a number of ways of earning points both during and at the end of the game, which means that timing the end of the game can be really important.
Council of 4 will never come up in discussions about games with a strong theme, that’s for sure. In fact, the game verges on abstract. CMON have tried to liven it up with the inclusion of distinctive, lively artwork and matching miniatures, but you will never get away from the themeless Euro feel. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But if you are coming to Council of 4 without any awareness of its first edition, or of the other games by the designers, don’t be fooled. It may be CMON, and it may have minis (cool or not... you decide)... but it is very definitely a mechanics over theme game.
Players are limited in the amount of money they have in the game – the “coin" track extends up to 20. If you earn more coins than this? Tough... that was poor optimisation. However, don’t anticipate having that much money in Council of 4 – you should expect to be spending all your coins to influence the various councils...
I take it back... it is VERY thematic.
Normally, one of the biggest criticisms levelled at typical Euro games is the lack of player interaction. “You took my spot!” in a worker placement game is typically as much interaction as you’ll get. Council of 4 does little that is different in this respect. If a city is already occupied by the merchant of another player, it becomes more costly to use a permit for that city.
However, by being able to elect (and to decommission) council members, there is a little more indirect player interaction... You may carefully set-up the council in a given region so that you can make the most of the cards in your hand, only to find that, by the time your turn comes around again, other players have ruptured all your plans. Be prepared for plenty of frustration.