Designed by Peter Hawes Published by ABACUSSPIELE Playable by 2-5 players aged 10+
ROYALS is the first boardgame we have played recently where we wanted to set it up and play it again immediately after the game ended. It has the most easy of mechanics, take cards (1+1 or 3) and play cards (as many of one type as required for the action being taken). It is based, as far as the map board and the clothing displayed in the artwork, is concerned, in what we now call the Renaissance Period (mid 17th Century).
Having just mentioned the artwork I should also say that the incredibly good illustrations are by Michael Menzel, with an accurate translation into English (despite Peter Hawes sounding like an English name) from the German language by "Word for Wort" aka Sybille & Bruce Whitehill. Together with good solid components, a four-fold board, cardboard counters, wooden blocks and durable playing cards, the graphic design, the rules and the gameplay all add up to a job well done by Abacusspiele
Players each begin with an equal number of wooden cubes, all of one colour, chosen from Orange, White, Black, Grey or Purple - the colours having been chosen to fit in comfortably with the Renaissance hues used in the design of the cards, board and illustrations. They also begin with a card or cards, depending on the randomly decided "first player" and the clockwise order of seating. Actually, having played ROYALS many times we are of the opinion that the "first" Turn should be played as all other Turns rather than stuttered start where the early players (depending on the number participating) take less cards than later players - first Turn only. In fact remembering our first 2-3 games, which we played according to the rules, playing with four players saw the fourth player win every game, in fact the result was the complete reverse of the Turn order. Playing without the first turn card handicap our more recent games have been better balanced. We can only assume that the handicap was put in because the designer and his play-testers must have found an imbalance and thus adjusted the card delivery for the first turn, whereas we started with the handicap and then collectively decided it is more of a game imbalance mechanic than a game balance mechanic. It is understood that the designer figures going first to be an advantage, I can think of no other reason why the first player(s) should begin with less cards. However if, as happened on our very first game, the first player's only card was Red it put them at a disadvantage as there is no City in Britain where influence can be gained by a single Red card - all other Countries have at least one city where a single card gains influence.
Like most games you are out to score the most points by the end of the game and like many games there are intermediate scorings during play. In this case when the deck of Country cards expires you have a scoring, then there is another scoring the second time the deck is exhausted and the final scoring when the deck is exhausted for the third time. With players taking 1 or 3 Country cards each every Turn it doesn't take too long to run through the Country deck. I should point out that on their Turn, players have the choice of taking 3 Country cards (from either/or the cards on display or the top of the deck) or 1 Country card and 1 Intrigue card (more on Intrigue cards in a moment).
The game board is a map of 17th Century Europe with 4 major Countries - Britain (Red), Spain (Yellow), German States (Green) and France (Blue). Each country is represented by several cities, each with one or two dignitaries one of which per country is a King; each of these dignitaries is also represented by two-piece thick cards. These cards are a clever part of the scoring with the first three players to place one of their pieces on each dignitary's card gaining a bonus marker (16, 12 and 8) and at the end of the game each dignitary being worth the value shown on it (4 - 16). The reason the dignitary cards are in two pieces (fitted jigsaw style) is that if there is a tie between two players for ownership the players split the card into two pieces and flip it over so each piece shows the dignitary and 50% of its score value. If more than two players tie on a dignitary then no-one scores it.
Throughout the game the players must take cards each Turn and they need to collect cards of the same colour so that they can gain influence in the cities. The Country cards each carry the Coat of Arms of one of the Countries and of course the colour of that Country. Players may hold up to 12 Country cards and 4 Intrigue cards so collecting the cards you require is generally fairly easy, or at least it should be, but of course the Law of Murphy means that despite the deck carrying lots of cards of the same colours, the one (colour) you want only seems to take ages to appear, luckily game turns are fast so the 60 minute expected game time is more than reasonably accurate.
The Country cards are used for gaining influence in the cities. Each city has one or two dignitaries known in the game as "Titles" and all of these show cards on one side and a numbered Scroll on the other. The number on the card is the number of cards (of the colour of the Country) the players need to hand in to gain control of that Title and the number on the Scroll is the amount of Influence gained. The player that controls the most influence in a Country at the first and possibly second scoring gains the VPs (a shield with a numerical value) which they keep for the remainder of the game. Most countries have 2 shields and so influence VPs are gained for two scoring phases; the shields are not lost if someone overtakes your influence value.
For example to gain influence over the Princess in Dijon you need to hand in 6 Blue cards. You then place one of your cubes on the Princess and one of your cubes on the portrait (the jigsaw card). If someone wants to take that influence from you they need to play 6 Blue cards and 1 Intrigue card (if it was the King they wanted to take they would require 2 Intrigue cards) that shows the colour of the Country where the city is. When playing Country cards you may play 3 cards of any other colour as a "joker" to count as one of the coloured cards you require. Another well thought out mechanic, the influence cube that is deposed is moved to a city suburb so still counts as being in the city, although without influence it does count as being in the city. Also the accompanying cube on the portrait card stays where it is, so the player doesn't lose their influence over the dignitary towards the end game scoring. The first cube disposed from a city gains the VP counter from the suburb space which means that to gain influence by taking it away from another player you are giving that player VPs - a fine balance.
Already mentioned, the rules are so simple that you can explain them to a totally new player and be playing in less than 5 minutes. There are times when this is the sign of a great game and other times when it is a sign of a poor game that has cut corners. I can assure you that no corners have been cut on ROYALS. It is an exceptionally good game and I have to say I was surprised not to see a star splash on the front of the box indicating that it has won or been nominated for one of the Games of the Year awards, it certainly deserves to have such acclaim.
One rule that isn't actually made clear is when the game ends, but commonsense kicks in so it's hardly worth noting. The rule is that all players should have an equal number of Turns. The game ends when the display of three cards cannot be refilled because the draw pile has been exhausted for the third time. If this occurs after the end of the first player's turn in a four player game, as it has done a few times for us, and what we have done is shuffle the discards and played the last few players Turns giving them the same opportunities as they have had all through the game. This hasn't caused any upset to the game's balance or been the catalyst that has turned the game; it also hasn't given anyone the advantage when playing as we suggest and starting the game from the first Turn with all players able to draw three cards.
ROYALS from Abacusspiele is most definitely a game with long term and regular playability.