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Review: Council of 4

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Council of 4 - Box

Ah, business. You can have all the talent and ingenuity in the world, but it’s always going to come down to who you know. Well, that and whose palms you can grease to smooth your way through the bureaucratic red tape. Council of 4 celebrates this pursuit of corruption…er, capitalism. You’ll snivel, grovel, and butt kiss your way into favor with those in charge, all so you can expand your merchant empire throughout the kingdom! Your goal is to become the most renowned merchant in the land, even if you have to bribe, spy, and sabotage your way to the top. 

How It Plays

Council of 4 combines route building with set collection (and a little racing) to create an engine that will grow your business empire over the course of the game. Your goal is to become the most successful merchant in the kingdom (AKA, earn the most victory points). So how do you do this?

At the beginning of your turn, you will draw a politics card and add it to your hand. These are really just colored cards that you’ll be collecting and using to manipulate the council in your favor. This is an important step. Don’t do what we did in our first game and forget this. Cards are scarce enough as it is without forgetting to draw one every turn!

Then, you must perform one main action (out of four), and you can optionally perform one quick action. You choose the order in which to perform the actions. (This can make for some interesting decisions as the game goes on and you have the chance to use your quick actions to set up a stellar main action, or even do two main actions on one turn.)

Council of 4 - Board
The double-sided game board.

The four main actions are:

Elect a councilor. Each region of the map has a row of councilors at the bottom. These are the people you need to impress in order to gain business permits and place your merchants. Trouble is, the people in charge aren’t always the ones who can help you. When you take this action you choose a new councilor and insert him/her into the first spot in the row, booting the councilor in the last spot out of the row. When you do this you gain four coins, as well as create a council that is more favorable to you.

Acquire a business permit tile. Here you can trade in a set of politics cards and get a business permit tile in one of the regions of the kingdom. Of course, things go more smoothly (and cost less) if you’ve arranged the council in your favor. If you have cards that match the colors of all the councilors in your selected region, you won’t have to pay any additional money. However, if you don’t have enough cards you can still get a business permit tile, but you must pay money to cover the cost of the missing cards. Once you’ve satisfied (bribed) the right people, take one of the two business permit tiles in your chosen region and immediately take any bonuses shown on the tile. (Bonuses can give you extra cards, money, servants, points, the ability to advance on the nobility track, or the ability perform another main action.) Keep the tile in front of you until you’re ready to use it.

Place a merchant using a business permit tile. Got your permits all lined up? Great. Now you can actually set up shop in a city whose letter is indicated on your permit tile. If the tile indicates more than one city, you get to choose which one you want. Once used, turn the tile face down to show that it cannot be used again. When placing a merchant, note that you can only place one of your merchants in each city. If the city already has someone else’s merchant in it, you must return a number of servants equal to the number of merchants already in that city. If no one else is there, you don’t have to return any servants.

When you place in a city, you immediately get the bonus shown on that city’s token. (City tokens are distributed randomly at the beginning of the game, so each game will be a little different.) In addition, you get the bonuses of any other cities directly connected by roads, provided you already have a merchant in the other city/cities.

If you’re the first player to have a merchant in all cities of one color or region, you get the corresponding reward tile. You also get the topmost queen’s reward tile. (These go down in value as the game progresses until they run out.)

Place a merchant with the help of the queen. When you get help from queen, you get to skip the whole “acquire a business permit tile” thing. (The queen is top dog and cuts out the middle men, after all.) The queen has her own line up of councilors and you appease them in the same way that you elect councilors above. Once you have the matching cards/money, you can place a merchant in the queen’s current city for free. If you want to place a merchant in another city, you’ll need to move the queen there, paying two coins per road she must travel to reach the new city. (You don’t expect her to travel for free, do you?)

Council of 4 - Cards
Politics cards (the ones in the upper corners are wilds).

The quick actions offer you additional ways to improve your standing, but they require servants to accomplish. (You’re a busy merchant. You don’t have time to do everything yourself so you hire some servants. It’s quicker, but costlier, to pay someone else to do your dirty work for you.)

The first quick action is to hire a servant. Pay three coins and take a servant.

The second allows you to change the business permit tiles. Return a servant to the pool, remove the two permit tiles from a region and draw two new ones in their place. 

You can also send a servant to elect a councilor. Return a servant to the pool and manipulate the councilors just as you do when electing a councilor as a main action. You do not receive the four coins, however.

Finally, you can return three servants to the pool and take two main actions this turn. You can take the same action twice. 

A word about the nobility track: The more successful you are as a merchant, the higher your standing rises in the kingdom, and the further you move along the nobility track. (Translation: You’re rubbing elbows with the “right” people now and you’re greasing some serious palms!) You get to move forward when a city bonus token or a business permit tile shows the nobility track symbol. The nobility track offers bonuses of its own. When you reach a space showing a bonus, you immediately receive that bonus. Nobility bonuses include: taking the bonus from cities in which you have merchants, taking a business permit tile without paying, or receiving the bonus from a previously used business permit tile.

The game ends when a player places their tenth merchant. That person gets three victory points and everyone else takes their final turn. Players then add up their scores. The player furthest ahead on the nobility track gets five points and second place gets two points. The player with the most business permit tiles takes three points. Points from acquired reward tiles are added to the above and the player with the most points wins.

Council of More or Council of Bore?

Council of 4 was a pleasant surprise in many ways. I’d been intrigued by the game since the original version released overseas a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t willing to pay import prices to see if I loved it. So when CMON announced their version, I said, “Woohoo!” Still, though, I went into it a little reserved. Euro games and I have a long standing love/hate relationship. As in, there are some I love and some I hate and very few fall in the middle zone of, “I like this even if it’s not the best thing ever.”

Council of 4 has actually created a new category for me. I call it the, “I like it plus” category. Meaning: I don’t love it beyond all reason and it’s not the best thing ever, but I like it more than most others. How’s that for a perfectly random classification system?

So how did this game manage to open up a new category in my already disorganized mind? First and most important, it’s just fun. Step away from the medieval-ish  theme (which I’ll get to in a minute), and you have a game that’s a fun race to get your engine rolling and be the first to place ten merchants. But simply placing ten merchants first doesn’t guarantee you the win. You need to rack up bonus points, advance on the nobility track, and even have a boatload of business permits if you want to win.

Council of 4 - Player Mats
Each player gets their own player aid.

There’s a fair amount of things to manage in this game and resources are tight. Money and cards are the things you need the most, but they aren’t easy to get. You have to constantly balance the need to make money against the need to spend money. For example, you can satisfy the council with fewer cards as long as you throw in some extra money. But is that the best way to spend your money right now? Maybe you need to hire a servant, instead. Are you in a position where you’ll soon be getting another influx of cash from city bonuses?

Cards come up a little easier, as you get at least one each turn. Still, though, it takes a lot of cards to satisfy the council without paying money, so one big move can wipe you out of cards for the time being. Is it wiser to pay to supplement your hand, or do you need to hoard some more cards for a while? But you can’t wait too long because once your opponents move into cities, it’s going to cost you more (in the form of servants) to get into that city. And the more expensive things get, the slower your engine is to get rolling. 

Plus, once you start building, there’s the question of how to go about it. Do you rush to build first in cities all over the board to claim bonuses and make it more expensive for others, or do you try to create a chain, even if it’s more expensive to do so?

Council of 4 - Minis
The minis in their trays.

And you can’t ignore the opportunities to move up the nobility track. In addition to earning more bonuses as you go along the track, the leader on the track at the end of the game gets five fat VP’s. So when you have a chance to move up, it may be wise to take it even if it means giving up another opportunity. Or not, depending on how you’re doing in other areas of the game. Decisions, decisions…

The game usually starts slowly as people are just moving councilors around to gain money, or buying their first permit tiles. You think, “Okay, this is kind of a snore.” But as the game goes on and people start getting merchants into cities, things pick up. Once you have merchants in connecting cities, each new placement in the chain starts a snowball of bonuses rolling in. The more money, cards, servants, etc. you have rolling in, the bigger your turns become.

And when those bonuses allow you to move forward on the nobility track, you trigger even more bonuses! You can strategically set yourself up so that your quick action turns into a power move allowing your main action to contribute even more to your engine (or even getting to take two main actions on a turn). Once this starts happening, things get fun and the race is on to the finish.

Council of 4 - Business Tiles
Business permits (the backs show the regions where they are placed).

What I enjoyed most about Council of 4 is how it manages to accomplish all of this without being rules heavy or a long game. Most games are over in under an hour and the rules are easy to explain. It’s a very accessible, medium-weight game that, while I wouldn’t recommend it for non-gamers, makes a good step up for people used to playing Ticket to Ride, Catan, or other gateway games. Anyone who’s mastered the “collect resources and trade them in for other resources” idea behind many Euros should find this easy to understand. Yet despite the streamlined simplicity, there’s a lot to think about. 

Turns are quick, too. Well, at least until you get to the point where you drop that worker into a city and have to spend time saying, “Okay, now I get the bonus from that city and that one and that one. Oh, and now I move up on the nobility track and get that bonus and that one. Did I get everything?” And your opponents sit there and roll their eyes at you as you collect your bounty.

So are there any negatives to the game? Well, nothing’s perfect, but I did have a few gripes. (What I find to be negatives might not bother you.) Gameplay-wise, the first potential negative is that the game, despite its accessibility, can be a little punishing. If you fall behind early it can be hard to catch up. When newbies play with experienced players, they are likely to get hammered.

Council of 4 - Tokens
Servants and bonus tokens.

Part of the problem is that this is a low-luck game. That’s great from some people’s perspectives, but if you’re going to play it in a family setting or with gamers making the next step up, you might want something that offers a better chance for leveling the playing field. The only luck comes from the card draw and the draw of the business permit tiles. When you top up your hand you might get cards you need, but you might also get stuck with colors you don’t need right now. Similarly, someone might take the permit tile you’ve been eyeing and its replacement is nothing you wanted. Or, you may take a quick action to replace the permit tiles only to draw nothing any more useful than what was there before.

Other than that, though, everything is on you. If you let your opponent get a lot of cities connected cheaply so he starts rolling in the bonuses, you’re in trouble. And since cities are more expensive to enter as the game goes on, it can become impossible to overcome an opponent who gets her engine going quickly. You also need to prevent your opponents from racking up the bonuses for being the first to have a merchant in all the cities of one color or region. The trick, of course, is to watch what everyone else is doing and make certain that you break up their easy access to cities, even if it sometimes means taking a sub-optimal move for yourself. Easier said than done.

The other gameplay issue (it’s not really a negative, at least not for me, but some people may find it off-putting) is that I found this to play better with two than any other number. (The two player game uses some neutral merchants placed in random cities at the beginning of the game to tighten up the board.)

Council of 4 - Score Track
The nobility track, with the Queen’s council slots at the bottom.

I prefer games that don’t get too chaotic when there are more players. Council of 4 at two players is much more strategic and I like it that way. With more, there are too many board changes between turns. The council you went through so much trouble to set up will likely have changed again by the time your turn comes around. (Which is one reason why it’s important to get yourself in position to perform two main actions on a turn. Then you can change the council and place a merchant before anyone can mess you up.) The city that was empty now has occupants. You can try to make a plan, but it’s likely to need amendments by the time it’s your turn again. The game plays fine at three and four, but for me the best experience was with two.

The attempt to theme Council of 4 as something other than traditional medieval merchants will either thrill you or fail miserably. The game is loosely themed after a medieval court, but the minis and artwork look like the standard medieval trope mated with the Fifth Element, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Alice in Wonderland. The results are… interesting.

For me it wasn’t a total turn-off, but I did find myself wishing (in a shocking twist) for a more standard medieval approach. I know it’s weird to wish for that when So. Many. Games. already have it, but this seemed to really need it. It’s hard to explain to people why, for example, there’s a pirate-looking guy in the middle of this medieval setting and, no, you don’t get to do cool piratey things with him. I guess the re-theme was an attempt to oomph it up (and justify the minis), but for me it ended up being simply weird.

Council of 4 - Insert
Everything stores neatly away.

One other negative for me was one that may not apply to everyone, but I still feel the need to mention it. My copy of the game had a weird musty/hot burning smell that I could not get rid of after a week of airing it on the porch. I don’t know if all copies will be like that. Maybe mine was from an early print run, or the problem was caught on the line before too many copies were made. Hopefully mine was a one-off, but I mention it in case it’s not.

Finally, the CMON version of the game does not have the modular board of the original version. That’s kind of a bummer, as I would have liked to tinker with the map more. This version is double-sided, which helps with replayability, but if having the original modular board is important to you, know that you won’t find it in this version.

Overall I enjoyed Council of Four more than I expected to. I thought it might be another boring Euro, but it ended up being pure fun. That’s not due to the theme, which is pure boring Euro with a hallucinogenic twist, but to the enjoyable nature of building up your engine and pulling off big turns that have you rolling in bonuses. The weight was just about perfect for us. Heavy enough to be challenging, but light and quick enough to be played with a variety of groups and on weeknights.

If you’re looking for a solid, quick, fun, and accessible engine builder, Council of 4 may be what you’re seeking.

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks CMON for providing a copy of Council of 4 for review.

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Summary

Pros

Lots of decisions to make and bonus chains to chase.
Big turns are oh so satisfying!
Accessible medium-weight game.
Quick playing given the decisions you get to make.
Good next step game for those who like engine/route building.
2 player game feels most strategic.

Cons

The councilors and merchants are a weird looking bunch.
If you fall behind, it can be hard to catch up.
Luck and board changes make higher player count games chaotic.
CMON version lacks modular board of original.

8.5 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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