Note: since first writing this review I've understood that we were playing with a wrong interpretation of the rules. I understand from the designer that the correct rule is that additional placed disks is the first method for resolving ties. This should lessen or maybe even evaporate some of my suggestions about the lack of options in the game. It would probably address my concerns regarding the Midwife option as well. Thus, while the positive comments about the game remain intact, those which question whether it is a good enough game should probably be discarded.
The Background to the game is that the players are attempting to become the ruler of the land, the Keymaster. To do this, they must acquire the Regalia from the goldsmith, a Treasure Chest from the blacksmith to store it, the Key to unlock the chest from the Locksmith and, training in Key Lore.
To help, you have your family and each family has a family business, one of Fishing, Foresting, Quarrying, Farming or Brewing. The first part of the game consists of Allocating, face down, different disks in your color, which represent family members, which are numbered 2-9 into the Harbor, Forest, Quarry, Farms and Breweries. Players do this one at a time going around the table. Then, one at a time, the 5 areas are resolved by turning up all the disks in that area and having players choose their positions from highest to lowest. There are one Foreman (what, no Foreperson? ;)) slot and four pairs of laborer slots. If you have two disks covering a pair of laborer slots, you will produce two resource items appropriate for that area (represented by small wooden blocks), or four items if that is your family's area of specialty. If two different colors cover a pair, then the foreman decides who gets what. If there is no foreman, the items are split evenly. There is some tactical depth here in analyzing who is likely to place the revealed disks where considering the player order (ties are broken using the turn order), although it becomes fairly straightforward after a few rounds. I think that sharp players will also realize the value in allocating pairs of consecutively-numbered disks which will help to ensure that you get to place two workers together, or possibly the addition of a foreman. This kind of activity is probably the only thing that players will be doing for the first couple turns and while it always continues throughout the game, by turn 3 the players will have enough blocks to consider some higher-level actions.
Instead of allocating disks to resource collection, they may instead send some of them to the specialists of the Town as follows: the Soldiers can arrest disks (keeping them from doing their activity, particularly the Priest and Outlaws) – one slot; the Traders permit you to exchange the resources of your choice with resources from the bank – five slots; the Midwife permits you to add another member to your family – two slots, both of which must be occupied, requiring two turns to finish; the Wizard sells his spells – three slots; the Outlaws let you steal from another player, including, if you are willing to pay the price, one of the four key treasures mentioned at the start – one slot. Most of these activities not only require allocation of a disk, but also you may not get to execute the activity if someone else has placed a higher-numbered disk than you have, and, you will also have to give up some resources to pay these specialists for their time. In some cases costs are negligible, but in others you need to come up with some kind of special combination such as one item from each of four different colors or in the Outlaws case, much more.
Past these specialists is the collection of the actual Four Treasures – regalia, chest, key and lore – and the claiming of the Keymaster title. The treasures are fairly expensive (although not as expensive as the Outlaws), usually about eight resources in some amount of required variety, although no specific varieties are required. In addition, Key Lore, just like the Midwife, means that one of your disks needs to spend multiple turns in the process (perhaps a good thing to start on the turn that you are going last as you will not be winning any precedence ties anyway). Once you have collected the four treasures, you have the right to place one of your disks on the Keymaster itself (probably your 8, with your 9 on the Soldiers to make sure you are not arrested and to ensure that you arrest the top Outlaw and your 7 on the Outlaws) which you will probably do on the turn that you go first so as to ensure winning any ties, placing all these disks as late as possible to disguise your intentions. As all the items and resources are hidden behind a personalized color screen, only players who have bothered to remember what treasures you have taken will know if you are qualified to be the Keymaster.
If I haven't mentioned much about the Spells, it is because they do not appear to be very useful. There are some which cause your personal production to be doubled, but beyond that most of them appear to be rather costly – they cost items as well as a winning disk – without having much effect on the game. In addition, new spells are laid out face up at the start of the turn, and the highest disk will get the first choice. So you might allocate and not even get the one you wanted.
In Theme, the game is reminiscent of Talisman in which players need to collect certain items – the game board seems to share the tri-level nature of that game as well. Absent perhaps is the sort of narrative adventures one might construct though this is a very personal thing, but the game art is enjoyable, the only objection possibly being the screens which are of simple line art, somewhat flimsy and easily knocked over.
The Play of the game is in the allocation style familiar to players of games like El Grande, Die Macher and Elfenwizard. And like El Grande, there is a memory element which must be considered. * Play of the game will probably depend a lot on the group dynamics of the players. While this is true in any game, it is probably more so here. If the players are very keen, they may spend a lot of time arresting one another and thus cause the game to drag on quite a long time. On the other hand, if they are mostly concerned with advancing their own cause – as they properly should be since stopping one player helps not only yourself but three others in a five-player game – it can run fairly fast. Each turn the player who is second should probably be most concerned with stopping player 1 since this player is probably going for the win, but if this player fails to achieve it, player 2 will have the very best chance to win.
Picture from the The Game Cabinet
The game rules are simple enough, which is appreciated – ten-year-olds interested in games can probably play and compete quite well here. What I miss are sufficient avenues for strategy as I really don't find much of it beyond what I have already outlined here. Collecting resources no matter what you do is not really all that difficult (which suggests that the game spends more time doing this than is really justified) and getting everything you need and more to collect all the treasures also not that difficult. So it's really a race to get these things done and simultaneously time it so that you have everything you need just before it is your turn to go first. In fact, it would not surprise me if there were an optimal seat to be in for winning this game. My expectation is that this noble effort will find a lot of excitement for its first couple outings, but I think it may mostly sit on the shelf after that, except perhaps in a family setting.
Thanks to Ken Tidwell for the chance to play this game. You will also find more information on this game at his famous web site, The Game Cabinet. Readers who have German may like to peruse this review at the website of Mario Boller-Olfert. More pictures are available at Trev's Boardgames.