Ever wanted to run a fantasy universe tavern, but without having to deal with the boring accounting, constant replacing of broken furniture and smashed windows, hordes of unruly adventurers, and laborious staff disputes? Well, now you can thanks to Tavern Masters, an engine-building, coin-collecting card game for 1-6 players. In this game each player takes on the role of a tavern keeper vying to make their watering hole the place to be, stocking up on enticing food, drink and games to keep the local townsfolk coming back for more.
Tavern Masters is played over a series of rounds, and each round is divided into three phases: Day; Night; and Counting the Till. During the Day phase you’ll purchase Tavern cards to improve your tavern; at Night you will (hopefully) bring in some patrons which will earn you money; and finally during the Counting phase you’ll work out how much money you’ve made once everyone has staggered off home. Let’s start by looking at the Day phase.
For the very first round of the game the Day phase features a card drafting mechanic in the manner of Sushi Go or 7 Wonders: from a hand of four cards you choose one to keep, then pass the remaining cards to the next player. Once there are no more cards to pass the drafting phase is over and all players pick up their hand of cards and choose what they want to purchase for their tavern. (For all following Day phases players are simply dealt three cards from the deck of Tavern cards, which they then keep.)
You start the game with just three coins so it’s important to buy wisely in the early rounds so you can get your engine up and running over the forthcoming rounds. Choosing what to buy can be tricky though, as it’s impossible to know what your patrons are going to want in your tavern when you get to the first Night phase. You might stock up on ale, only to find your randomly drawn patrons are looking for wine, or they might want fancy cheeses and you’ve bought a load of parlour games. Thankfully they don’t go looking elsewhere, they just go home, disappointed. Decisions, decisions.
Tavern cards are divided into food, drink, games, and staff, and each card has a cost; this is typically in coins but you’ll sometimes come across cards you can ‘purchase’ for free if you have a qualifying item already in your tavern. The Elven Barmaid, for instance, normally costs two coins but you can recruit her for free if you have any cheese in your tavern. (Elves love cheese, who knew?) You can also trade cards with other players, including cards from your hand or those already played into your tavern.
Many cards also have an effect that triggers immediately or later in the game. In some cases these effects will earn you coins depending upon your having a certain type of patron in the tavern by the end of the night, whilst others will allow you to draw bonus cards, reduce the cost of goods or staff, or bring in a higher class of patron, the Nobles. All players purchase and play cards to their taverns at the same time during the Day phase, so play usually proceeds quickly (for your first play of the game it’s wise to take it in turns while everyone gets used to the buying process).
Once the Day phase is over it’s time to move to the Night phase; this is the moment you open the doors to your tavern and find out how well you chose your goods.
During the Night phase each player is dealt three cards from the Patron deck, which they then look at to see which customers will enter their tavern. Rather than having a cost in coins each Patron card has a ‘Want’ and a ‘Like’. If your tavern contains what they Want, in they will come; have what they Like, and they’ll come back again the next evening, giving you a steady stream of income night after night. Result! Some Patrons also have special effects, giving you the ability to play discarded cards or Patron cards from your hand for free.
If you don’t have anything your Patrons want then they can’t be played to your tavern that round, however they remain in your hand, affording you the chance to play them in later rounds once you have purchased what will entice them through the door.
Each Patron has a symbol in the top-right corner which identifies their class – Soldier, Mage, Hunter, and so on – and many of the Patron card abilities will refer to these symbols for ease of use. There are also special Noble Patron cards which can only be played to your tavern if you have a certain type of goods card allowing you to play them (typically Stinky Cheese or Aged Brandy, the staple diet of nobles everywhere. Or so I’m told).
These Patrons usually bring in more money, so it can sometimes be worth the extra expense involved in buying the fancy goods they want to reap the rewards later. Once all Patrons have entered the taverns the Night phase is over and play proceeds to Counting the Till. Have you made a fortune this night, or barely scraped by?
In this phase each tavern owner must work out how much gold they’ve earned for that night’s business. Each Patron is worth one gold (Nobles are worth two), so it’s a simple matter of counting your Patron cards and then taking that much gold from the supply. Some cards grant extra gold based on their special ability, so those need to be calculated, too: the Chess Board, for example, grants an extra gold coin for each Mage Patron you have in your tavern, whilst the Dwarven Miner grants a bonus gold for each Dwarven Mead drink you have.
If any player has twenty or more gold at the end of this phase the game ends, but if not play continues – after a spot of housekeeping – into another Day phase. The winner is whoever has the most gold.
Housekeeping basically involves checking all Patron cards to see if you have what they Like; if you do, they remain in front of you in your tavern, but if not then they are discarded. Some staff cards have abilities that can be used to keep Patrons; the Luscious Tart (no really, that’s what she’s called) allows you to keep any one Patron in your tavern until the next round, and the Farmer counts as having food in your tavern which will keep those that Like food behind.
At the end of the round the Server token passes to the next player, but this doesn’t have too much significance as there’s no ‘first player’ as such in Tavern Masters, it simply means the new Server will be the one to deal cards out during each phase. The next Day phase begins, and off you go again. And that’s all there is to it!
A typical game of Tavern Masters lasts around twenty minutes or so, though this does of course depend on how quickly players can get their tavern engines up and running to start bringing in the gold during the Night phase. This is where luck can play a huge part in the game. As mentioned earlier, you could end up in a situation where you have purchased goods that none of the Patrons want, meaning you earn little or no gold during the Night phase.
Naturally this impacts what you can buy during the next Day phase, where again you might draw cards that are effectively useless – either none of the Patron cards in your hand want those goods, or the goods or staff are too expensive to purchase. Trading cards with other players can help, but success in this area very much depends on whether the other players are feeling charitable. This initial struggle to build your tavern can be frustrating, especially if you are forced to watch the other players marching steadily towards the twenty gold game-ending condition while you’ve barely got started.
One way to mitigate against this could be to implement a few house rules, such as giving each player a ‘starting tavern’ of one drink, one food, and one staff that cost no more than one gold each, or to set a fixed, longer number of rounds for which to play, ignoring the twenty gold trigger, then whoever has the most gold at the end is the winner (there are round marker tokens that go up to ten; these are used with the solo or cooperative rules). Do whatever you think is best if this issue appears; in my experience it doesn’t happen all that often.
In The Box
But what of the bits in the box? I hear you ask. Cheap and cheerful, like most of the taverns I end up building, or good enough to attract the finest games patrons in the land? The quality of the components is very good. The box is extremely robust with a decent insert, the card stock is of a nice quality, and the player aid boards, round marker tokens and coins are made of thick, sturdy card and are well printed. The rule book is nicely laid out and clear, making learning the game straightforward, though the ‘olde worlde’ typeface can be a little distracting at times.
The cards are well set out, but the use of an all-caps typeface can make the text hard to read on some cards. The quality of the artwork used in the game is good, though a few cards have slightly dubious character renderings on them – the Serving Wench and Luscious Tart, for example, look like they stepped straight off a 60s seaside postcard. Some of the humour on the cards is also a little on the groan-inducing side, though there’s nothing too offensive: the aforementioned Wench ‘serves up the best jugs in town’ whilst the Elven Barmaid ‘frequently works the knight shift’.
The Carry On team would be proud of some of these puns. The game has an age rating of 14+, which it’s safe to assume is for some of the cheesy humour and artwork found in the game and nothing to do with its complexity.
Overall, Tavern Masters is a simple and fun game that regularly sees play in our group as a filler game. It’s quick to play and easy to teach, and the ability to add expansions to mix things up increases the replayability of what is already a highly-replayable game. Recommended!