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Review: Citadels (2016 Edition)

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In recent times our society seems to have a soft spot for movie remakes.  Whether it’s a complete overhaul, modern retelling or just “slapping on a fresh coat of paint,” we’ll flock to the cinemas to watch it (even if on the way we grumble that the original could never be improved).  Though not nearly as prolific, the hobby is trending similarly.  Whether to satisfy nostalgic demand or take advantage of improved production sensibilities, more and more older designs are receiving reprints and even complete makeovers.  Bruno Faidutti’s classic Citadels (2000) is one of the latest retreatments, and at the hands of Windrider Games, a recent division of Asmodee with three previous remakes of popular evergreens already under its catalog.

Out with the Old, in with the New (and Old)

If you’re not familiar with Faidutti’s original cutthroat minimalist design of intrigue, Citadels is a role-selection and city-building game.  But really it’s a role-selection game.  You are one of the kingdom’s great builders working with others to erect a new city.  By “working with others” I mean “stabbing them in the back and rifling through their pockets as they lie bleeding on the ground.”  Completely metaphorically speaking, of course.

Citadels is ostensibly a city-building game because you earn points by building city districts, represented by cards.  The goal is to have the most points when you or someone else builds eight districts (seven with 4-8 players in the new edition), triggering the last round of the game.  You start with four of these and a couple gold.  Each turn you either take two gold or draw two district cards, adding one of them to your hand.  Normally, you may build one district each turn by paying the cost indicated on the card, which is also its point value.  You can nab bonus points by building the maximum number of districts, owning at least one of the five different kinds of districts (noble, religious, trade, military and unique) and finally with certain unique district cards.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The game’s heart, soul and brilliance, however, lay with its role selection.  Each round before taking actions, players secretly draft a character which provides a special ability that turn.  These roles are always resolved in the same order.  In the original game the Assassin may kill another character (you don’t call out a specific player), depriving them of their entire turn.  The Thief steals a target character’s gold.  The Magician can trade cards with the draw pile or another player.  The King gets extra gold for each noble district owned, plus first choice of roles next round.  The Bishop earns gold for any religious districts owned and cannot be attacked by the Warlord.  The Merchant collects one gold, plus one per trade district owned.  The Architect draws and keeps two extra cards and may build up to three districts if you have the cash.  Lastly, the Warlord receives additional gold for each military district built and may destroy another player’s district by paying its cost, less one.  The 2004 Dark City expansion added eight new characters with abilities in the same vein as their numerical counterparts, plus two ninth roles to use interchangeably or in 3- or 8-player sessions.

The city-building essentially serves as a barometer for gauging how well you navigate the role selection and all of its deduction, bluffing and interaction.  This is not a strategic affair with a long-game churn, but a very tactical burner in which you must constantly observe the evolving situation.  The character that seems most obvious to select at first blush could be a poor choice when assessing your immediate position relative to others at the table.  Do you simply choose the role needed for an immediate task?  Do you grab one that you think another player is after, in order to deny them?  Do you pick an attacking ability just to be ruthless and cruel or set someone down a notch?  Do you nab one because you think another player that’s after you won’t think you would select that character, hoping they will choose the wrong character to kill or steal from?  Or do they already know that you know that, so that clearly you cannot choose the glass of wine in front of me!  Citadels teems with mental intrigue, psychological metagaming and tense subtlety.

Unique districts are uniquely beneficial!

It is also seething with sharp, direct interaction – even potentially moreso with the revised edition’s new characters.  That could pose an issue for some gamers.  However, it’s hard to be personal.  The Assassin and Thief must pick characters (never the same one in a turn) to kill and steal from, not a specific player.  Therefore, roles are often targeted just to squash their ability, rather than attack another at the table, and so less spiteful.  Even if just a little.  That element also helps to limit ganging up on the leader – or at least give her a fighting chance.  Many of the other nuisance roles involve a cost or trade-off, so that they don’t seem overpowered or ridiculous.  In the end, you have just as much opportunity to attack others, or block such moves by preemptively selecting a role.  And if all else fails one round, well then revenge is a sweet, cold dish indeed!

The 2016 revised edition is both substantive and decorative.  If you don’t want any of the tweaks and new artwork, you’re welcome to get the classic release in a smaller box and without any changes.  I recommend the revised.

Differences in illustrations – new (left) and old (right)!

The immediately noticeable difference is presentation.  The new illustrations by committee are outstanding, much brighter and cheerier than the mysteriously dour artwork of the original which never seemed to take advantage of the full color spectrum.  These illustrations mimic more traditional paintings one would frame.  The character cards are bigger, tarot-sized.  Plus the graphics extend to the edges on all the cards.  No black borders that just get scuffed.  The king marker is a nifty resin crown, an unnecessary and pleasant touch.  And the new edition includes character tokens that you can lay out to remind you which characters are in that particular game, which order they’re resolved and identifying targets.

In addition to the superficial makeover, Faidutti and company have also tweaked small bits of the classic, nixed a handful of the old unique districts, added new ones and developed a new set of nine characters.  These alterations generally quicken the game’s overall length and also increase the spite.

The new edition omits a few special ability-bestowing unique districts.  Gone is the Ball Room where you had to address its owner with, “Thanks, your excellency,” every time he/she announced your role or lose your turn.  It was more gimmicky than gamey.  Others received the ax, as well, like the Hospital (assassinated player may still take an action), Bell Tower (no longer needed with the endgame triggered by the seventh district) and Throne Room (receive a gold each time the crown passes hands).

The cast of characters…for this game, at least.

There was nothing glaringly wrong with the deleted districts, but some old must inevitably give way to the new.  Overall, the added cards are slightly plainer mechanically, but also help to build faster or better.  For example, the Stables are a quick 2-cost district that doesn’t count towards your building limit that turn.  The Necropolis, value of 5, may be built by simply destroying any other district in your tableau.  And if you have the Framework (value 3) already completed, you’re allowed to replace it with another district from your hand, regardless of its cost!

While many of the revised districts aid in speeding up the game, quickening its pace or potentially boosting scores, the new characters ramp up the interaction.  The Magistrate (1) and Blackmailer (2) can place warrant and threat markers respectively on character tokens.  One is for real, while the others are a bluff.  In the Magistrate’s case, the true warrant is revealed when the targeted player builds a district, in which case the Magistrate gets to take it for free!  The slighted player is at least refunded the district’s cost.  Players threatened by the Blackmailer can give her half their gold when taking their turn.  If they don’t pay, and they are the actual target, they lose all of their gold!

They all look a little suspect to me.

Other roles provide fresh ways to interact.  The Seer (3) takes a random card from every player and redistributes them how she sees fit – of course keeping the one she wants.  The Marshal (8) may seize a completed district of cost 3 or less, reimbursing the offended noble.  And my favorite, the Cardinal (5) may help himself to another’s gold in order to make up the difference to build a district he can’t afford at the moment.  He must compensate the lender with a number of cards equal to the amount of gold requisitioned.  The dynamic element to these roles is not only do they increase the intrigue and bluffing, but they also allow players to build or acquire extra districts each turn.

The rulebook recommends half a dozen character line-ups, and fourteen unique districts to accompany each, with varying play styles in mind. One list focuses on building quickly, another allows for strong defense and gaining resources, while a third creates lots of synergy between roles and districts.  The other three amplify the design’s interaction with casts centering around maneuver, bluffing and confrontation.  You’re always welcome to mix and match and experiment with your own.  These presets just help with the new edition’s eye toward quickening the game and fostering player interaction.

Put them in my hand? These should be in a museum!

It may seem misplaced to call Citadels elegant because of its contentious nature, yet it is so streamlined the description is apt.  It’s easy to teach and new players will pick up on the game play and different character abilities after just a few rounds.  The design is a masterpiece of simplicity and interaction – a poster child of the old adage, “Less is more,” if ever there was one.  Faidutti has created an eminently fun and accessible game simply by refusing to overburden the design with cumbersome and superfluous elements.  I’m not surprised it is the subject of a makeover.  Thankfully, the new edition retains the classic’s heart and soul while polishing it with helpful tweaks and amazing artwork.  Of course, you’ll still look the same while lying face down in a puddle with a knife in your back.  After all, some things never change.

Asmodee North America provided a review copy of Citadels (2016 Edition) for this review.

  • Rating 10
  • User Ratings (3 Votes) 8.3
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Summary

Pros

So much game in such a simle package
New edition plays slightly quicker
Is also more interactive
Amazing illustrations and improved components

Cons

2- and 3-player variants still lacking the design’s interactive spirit

10.0 Perfect

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I’m glad that it’s gotten this update! Though, of course, i wish it came in a compact box rather than that box full of air.

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