Every year, troupes of actors from around the kingdom come to perform at the Munificent Theatrical Festival and attempt to impress the king with their shows. But not just any show will do. Does the king want tragedies or comedies this year? Kings are notoriously moody, so it can be difficult to keep up with his wants. But you’d better figure it out, because guessing correctly is the only way to win the king’s favor.
Get it right and you’ll leave the festival with enough money to keep you in costumes for another year. Get it wrong and you’d better plan some epic bake sales and car washes to bring in some money until the next Festival.
How It Plays
Histrio is a simultaneous action selection card game that has players managing troupes of actors as they travel throughout the kingdom in an effort to impress the king by putting on shows that match his mood. Those who do will earn the most money (ecus, in game terms) and win the game.
Histrio is played over two theatrical seasons. Each season consists of a series of turns which continue until the deck of encounter cards is empty. When the encounter deck is empty, a second season is set up and played just like the first.
A turn consists of three phases: Travel, resolution, and new opportunities.
In the travel phase, each player secretly chooses a travel card from their hand. Each player has one card for each city on the board. (When you have only one travel card remaining, pick up your used cards and your caravels and put them back in your hand.) Everyone reveals their chosen travel card simultaneously and their caravel mini travels to the chosen city to mark your presence. Now the resolution phase begins.
Resolution is carried out in city order, from number one to number eight, with any occupied city being resolved. If a player is alone in their destination city, they resolve all of the encounter cards in that city one by one. One encounter card is placed in each city before play begins, and more are added after each turn until the deck runs out, ending the season.
Encounter cards offer a variety of effects. Bonus cards give you money. Acrobats allow you to “break” the rules of the game in some way, but can only be used once per season. Actors have varying effects, but their big role is in changing the king’s mood.
At the beginning of the game, the king’s mood is determined by a flip of an ecu. His mood fluctuates throughout the game based on the actions of the players. Sometimes he’ll want tragedies; sometimes comedies. Where his mood is at the end of the season and what you have in your hand determines how well you score, as described below. During the resolution phase, you can discard one actor card from your hand and move the needle of the king’s mood the number of spaces equal to the actor’s experience and his nature. (A comedian with level 2 experience moves the needle two spaces in the direction of comedy, for example.)
That’s all well and good but if other players occupy your chosen city, all of the encounter cards are discarded. However, any actors still change the king’s mood. Each player in the city also receives a secret request card. If you meet the requirements on the card, you will earn extra money at the end of the season. You can’t have more than three requests in hand at any time.
After every city has been resolved, a new encounter card is placed on each city (unless the encounter deck is empty, in which case the season ends). These cards are placed on top of any already there, meaning more opportunities may be available in some cities.
At the end of the first season the king’s mood is frozen and players total out their money. Any actors in your hand which match the king’s mood earn one ecu. If your show pleases the king, you earn more money. A show is pleasing when the difference in experience between your tragedians and comedians matches the king’s mood. So, for example, if your comedians have a total value of five and your tragedians have a total value of two, your difference is three in favor of comedy. If the needle of the king’s mood is on the comedy side, you earn ecus (the amount depends on the season).
If your experience differential is the largest of all players, your reward is doubled because your show is not only pleasing, it’s the best overall!
Finally, you can play one secret request card of your choice, earning any ecus specified by the card. The card played during the first season will earn points again at the end of the second season, in addition to the second secret request card which can be played then.
For the second season, any used acrobats are reactivated and can be used again. Caravels remain where they are, but used travel cards are not regained. All encounter cards on the board are discarded and new ones are placed in front of the cities.
Play the second season just as you did the first until the encounter card deck runs out again. Players then total out their money one more time and the winner is the player with the most money at the end of the game.
A Game That Takes Center Stage or Gets the Hook?
Admittedly, I bought this game because it was cute. I saw the artwork with the Shakespearean animals and the colorful minis and fell right into Histrio’s clutches. Sue me. *Hangs head in shame.*
This is one of those games that has a very high production to complexity ratio. Usually you find such attention to detail in heavier, longer games. Histrio isn’t that complex, deep, or long, but the production is top notch. The art is gorgeous, the minis are sturdy, the plastic coins make a nice clinking sound, and the stage is such a fun piece to play with. It isn’t even used all that much in the game and could have been replaced with a simple dial to track the king’s mood. Instead, its presence adds to the theme and it’s just fun to twirl the backdrop.
So, Histrio is pretty and worth the price component-wise. But is it fun? Yes, absolutely, if you’re the right audience for it. Fist of all, this is a light, family-level game. There are choices to make on each turn, but it’s mostly a tactical battle rather than a strategic one.
You will know where your troupe is planning to travel and which troupes currently occupy each city, but you’ll be guessing where your opponents will go. You can try to figure out the likeliest outcome, but you can’t control it in any way.
The decisions you’ll make will be of the, “If he goes there, then he’ll get those cards. Should I try to preempt him and get there first so that at worst we’ll tie and the cards will be discarded, or is there another city that might suit me better? And if I do go there, then what are the odds that another player will also go there? But wait. He’s already used his travel card for that city over there, which means the odds are good he’s going over here.”
It’s a game of trying to outthink everyone else at the table. And you can come up with the finest plan in the world, but all your plans can go down the drain if an opponent does something unexpected, or intentionally tries to cut you off from getting some good cards. At least you still get something on a turn, no matter how many people choose the same city. You can still get a secret request, and the actors can still change the king’s mood. No turn is ever completely empty and this eases some of the pain of having your plan blown.
There’s a lot of randomness in this game. You don’t have control over which cards appear in which cities and when. You also have no control over which secret requests you might get. You might get something you have no chance of fulfilling. You certainly can’t control your opponents. If you require perfect control in your games, this one is not for you.
Still, I find Histrio to be a really fun game as long as you know what you’re getting into. It makes me think in ways that many games don’t. Instead of trying to plan some elaborate, game-long strategy, Histrio has me thinking through the possibilities on each turn, trying to get in my opponent’s heads and figure out what they’re going to do. I don’t want to think like that all the time in every game, but once in a while it’s a nice change.
Histrio is short enough that the randomness and tactical over strategic choices don’t bother me. Most games play out in 30 – 40 minutes, and that feels right for the style of game this is. What’s funny is you’d think that all this thinking and second-guessing would lead to AP, but it really doesn’t. The choices aren’t that numerous or difficult, so most players have no trouble just getting on with things.
Aside from the random/tactical nature of the game (which isn’t a negative, merely a matter of preference for some), the only negative to the game is that all that adorable artwork makes it look like a kid’s game. And that’s fine, but it really isn’t a child’s game. Young kids are likely to want to play but have trouble grasping the concepts and scoring. For an adult or older child it’s an easy game to learn (although non-gamers may have to play a few turns before all the card effects really click), but little kids aren’t likely to get it. That’s not terrible, it’s just a disconnect between the adorableness and the style of game that Histrio is. If you’re shopping for something that little kids can play, this likely isn’t it.
Finally, I want to specifically address the two player experience, because I think it’s really interesting. Usually games that center around second guessing your opponent(s) don’t work well with two. When it’s just two brains working against each other, there’s not very much tension or excitement. And in games like this where your travel destination matters, it’s too easy to stay out of each other’s way.
But Histrio’s two player rules give each player an “allied troupe” to work with. You take the pieces for a second troupe and, on your turn, draw the top card off your allied troupe’s travel deck. You are the only one who knows where this troupe will go. Then you choose where your main troupe goes in the normal fashion. You reveal and place your two troupes accordingly.
Allied troupes don’t take encounter cards or secret requests and, if they’re alone on a city, all encounter cards in their city are discarded with no effects. If two allied troupes end up in the same city, all cards are discarded but the king’s mood is changed accordingly.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the two player game. Like I said, my hopes weren’t terribly high. However, the allied troupe is a great way to give the game more of the “what if” feeling and outthinking of your opponent that goes on when playing with more players. It gives you more to think about when placing your main troupe, as you now know where another troupe will be going. It also makes it more crowded in the cities, making it much harder to avoid your opponent and simply take cards all game.
What’s interesting is that this isn’t like any other two player variant I’ve ever played. It’s not a true dummy player where players have to control another player for the entire game. And it’s not really a case of playing two colors/factions because you don’t control the allied troupes in any way other than travel. Many times these variants feel burdensome and suck the fun out of a game. Histrio has a unique, simple way of improving the two player experience and I really liked it.
Overall, I find Histrio a blast to play. No, it’s not a deep strategy game, but it’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun game of trying to guess what your opponents will do and figure out how to beat them at their own game. It’s fun to look at and play with all the pieces, too. Not every game has to be a brain burner and offer tons of choices to be fun. And that’s what Histrio is to me: Just plain, adorable fun with some humor, groans, and good natured ribbing thrown in.
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