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Pass the Parmesan! (A Review of Chicken Caesar.)

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Bloodthirsty politics.  Cutthroat bureaucracy.  Negotiation, bribery, murder.

Poultry.

Welcome to the dangerous world of ancient Roman Rooster politics; the world of Chicken Caesar.

How It Plays

In Chicken Caesar, players vie to have the most honorable family of roosters, by a combination of gaining wealth (“frumentium”) and earning insignia tokens from the various political offices of the republic.

Each round, there are 6 phases during which players perform actions and the status of the board is updated.  First, all the empty offices must be filled by voting, starting with the higher offices.  Voting is the only thing that goes clockwise around the circle; each player gets one vote, then must pass the vote marker to the left.  In generally, it requires two votes to move a rooster up to the next office.

Welcome to the Republic.

After all the offices are filled, each office has an action to perform.  Aediles set the new tax rate; Praetors assign guards from a deck that is created based on the tax rate (higher taxes means more disgruntled guards).  The Censor gets to exile one Rooster in any office, including himself, but not including the Caesar, and the Consulate gets to approve or disapprove Monument improvements.

After all the actions are completed, each rooster earns an insignia token from their current office; the Aediles and Caesar also gain money from taxes.  Then, the dastardly FOX attacks.  Each office reveals it’s guards, and if there are too many disgruntled guards (Traditors!) the Fox will carry away and kill roosters from that office.

If any roosters are killed, or if Caesar is in his second term, Caesar also dies; if not, he moves to his second term.  If Caesar dies, his Censor is sent back to the Quaestors pool to re-start their political career.  If the game doesn’t end at this point (because of too many dead roosters, generally), players get a chance to propose Monument Improvements – placing their extra Insignia tokens, with a donation to the gods, to increase their family’s legacy.  This is important, because each individual rooster can only have 1 of each type of Insignia attributed to them, and in order to collect larger sets, more roosters in the same family must have identical insignias.

Frumentium makes the world go ’round.

An important aspect of the game is bribery – frumentium can be exchanged for various favors (votes, tax rates, vetos, etc.) in binding deals.

The game ends when an entire Rooster family is dead, or there are not enough roosters to fill all the empty offices, or when all the insignia tokens run out.  Whoever has the most points, through money, sets of insignias, and extra insignia tokens, wins the game!

A Well Seasoned Entree?

Before actually playing Chicken Caesar, I admit – I had mixed feelings.  The humorous theme certainly grabbed my attention, but after reading through the rulebook I wasn’t sure if this game would actually be fun, or if it would be a tedious exercise whose only redeeming quality was the inclusion of roosters to spice up an otherwise dull theme.  The game also being the first entry from Nevermore Games, and a Kickstarter game to boot, did not register well me due to past experiences.  I’ve played enough shoddy kickstarter games and seen enough poor first-time games from new publishers to be wary.

However, I’m pleased to say that Chicken Caesar, while not a perfect game, is certainly a whole lot of fun to play.

Aediles set the tax rate.

The rules of the game are pretty straightforward; each political office has a clear and simple task to perform. Many of the phases are simple effect resolutions based on the current conditions of the game, and only one person really needs to know them completely for everyone to play the game effectively.  However, I will say this: I’m not a huge fan of the rulebook.  After reading through it once or twice, I felt very confused, and I had to look up a few things online to make sure I was interpreting correctly.  There were rules I felt were not detailed well enough, and other rules that were so detailed as to cause confusion.  It was over-wordy and could definitely have been arranged, edited, and presented with much better clarity.  Rule books are so important to a game, and I really wish more publishers would spend more time creating clear and concise rules.  That being said, there are easily accessible resources to answer rules questions, and if read carefully, the game can be learned from the rulebook.

Part of the trouble comes in the form of a few weird/confusing rules mixed in to the otherwise straightforward, clear system, and I find these rules to be a minor detriment to the game.  Voting seems like it should be straightforward, but every time I’ve explained it to a newbie I’ve had to explain multiple times throughout the game and still it gets done wrong.  The problem is too many special cases; it takes a nomination and a second vote to elect a rooster to a higher office; UNLESS the rooster is coming from the Quaesters office, in which case it only needs a nomination, regardless of whether it’s being voted directly into a lower office such as Aedile OR being voted directly into Caesar’s office because every office below it is completely empty.  And, of course, you have to pay to nominate your own rooster, but not to second it, UNLESS you’re nominating your own rooster to be killed by the fox… and so on. This and a few rules just seem out of place and cause confusion.

Too many traditors turn Roosters into Monuments. But hey, it’s hard to win if SOME of your roosters don’t kick the bucket.

That being said, once you get this game going, it is an absolute blast to play.  As long as you have someone that can remind all the players of these quirky rules, and can facilitate actions and phases so that the game keeps moving, it is a whole lot of fun.  The game is rich with subtle strategy and heavy on player interaction.

Unlike many euro-style games which generally feature the construction of efficient economic machines, and each player races to build the most efficient machine in the fewest amount of turns, Chicken Caesar has players competing to get their roosters placed in the limited pool of offices to gain an advantage.  Not only does getting your roosters in offices score you insignias for points later, but it allows you to have some control over how the actions play out, which can have a great effect on the game.

But, unlike other worker-placement games, in which players grab the best available spot with their workers, players must plan ahead.  It’s great to get your roosters into upper offices, but to do that you’ll need to get them in the lower offices first and work their way up.  It also helps to have roosters in other offices, especially the Aediles and Praetors offices, to manipulate which roosters will be most attacked by the Fox. All this requires strategy, planning ahead, and engagement with the game.

Player interaction comes mainly in the form of bribery.  This IS a “worker-placement” game in a sense, but with the way voting works, you’re going to need other players to “place” your workers for you.  You’ll have to bribe them to nominate your rooster, offer deals, and accept bribes of your own to have any success on the board.  You’ll have to forge political alliances and be trustworthy, because if you betray too many people too soon you will not win; but you must also be savvy, as sticking with an alliance too long can hand the victory to someone else.  Either way, a huge part of the game is this bribery, and players will constantly be offering each other “frumentium” back and forth to get what they need.

That being said, if you do not enjoy this kind of subjective interaction, this game may not be for you.  You can never secure a political office permanently, or create a self-sustaining economic machine to win; you’ll have to negotiate, and if you or your gaming group doesn’t get into this, you won’t have much fun.  Players who refuse to accept (or make) bribes will detract significantly from the experience, and the outcome of the game will fall more to luck than player control.  However, it should be noted that in this game, unlike many other games involving bribery, binds any agreement made with frumentium.  Neither you nor any other player can make a deal, exchange frumentium, and then back out, which is a good safety net.  It prevents anyone from ruining the game simply by taking money and running with it.

Bribes will likely resolve this tense vote.

There’s one element of the game that just doesn’t sit right with me; the way Monuments are handled.  For some reason, with this element and this element alone no direct bribery is allowed.  During a special “propose monument improvements” phase players may place their extra insignia tokens, along with at least 1 frumentium, on a monument they wish to improve.  Later, Consuls will approve or disapprove these additions, keeping the money if they approve.  However, if they disapprove, the money and improvement are discarded from the game.  This seems to me that there is never any advantage to approving a monument that is not your own.  Since the player who owns the monument will lose the money and insignia (and the points tied to them), monuments will realistically always be disapproved.  Only if you have a Rooster in the consul’s office to make the approval on your own monument will you get the monument approval.  So my question is why the extra rules regarding monuments that just cause confusion?  Why not just allow bribery?  Why require placement of money, since it will likely just go back to the person who placed it anyways?  The theoretical risk/reward factor of this element is, in practice, non-existent.  It’s all risk, no reward, unless you’re going to have a rooster in the right place at the right time; which is fine, but it makes the extra rules totally unnecessary.

Fortunately, this is mostly only frustrating when trying to explain the rules; it doesn’t detract from the overall game experience other than the number of times I’ve had to clarify the monument rules.

Exile is shameful, but it is also safety.

The game is at its best with 4 or 5 players.  3 just seems to few for the whole system to fall into place.  6 is pretty chaotic; there are too many people for bribes to be effectively made, because voting has to go through so many people before it gets back to you.  I’ve heard way too many “I would, but these other two people will just vote against me and I can’t afford to bribe one of them as well” in response to bribe suggestions.  There are also so few spots and so many rooster families, the 1st player in a 6 player game will only have 1 rooster on the board at the start of the game which is a HUGE disadvantage.  True, they get first choice at placement; but they either have to grab a high office and be left with nothing to work with in the lower offices and no support from any other office action, OR they grab a low office and fall behind with the insignia tokens from the upper office.  Rooster families are so small and there are so many competing families, starting off with this disadvantage is pretty huge, at least as far as I can tell.  In a game that’s all about being in the right place at the right time, 6 players make it very difficult.

In the 4 and 5 player games, it actually is reasonable to bribe people regularly; money will change hands much more frequently, you will have more control over planning and strategic rooster placement, and in general the game is more fun. Not that it’s not fun with the whole range, you’ll just get the best experience with 4 or 5 players.

While I was hoping for a more family-friendly game, I do think Chicken Caesar falls in the realm of “gamer game.”  The actions are simple enough, but the heavy focus on bribery and negotiation is not very non-gamer friendly.  Not that you would never be able to teach non-gamer family and friends, but just a warning that the highly subjective strategy, as well as a few tricky rules, make this game a heavier than those groups might appreciate.

Quaestors bide their time for the right moment to gain office.

The publishers indicated a 90 minute playtime; this is fairly accurate, although I’d put it more like 1.5-2 hours.  This is due mostly to the negotiation involved; many actions, especially voting, can take a few minutes to perform simply because players are trying to come to an agreement.  I wouldn’t mind if the game lasted less than an hour, and it is possible we could speed things up with experience, but it seems like it would detract from the game to artificially cut short negotiation time.  The rulebook recommends allowing 20 seconds for players to come to a deal, but with overlapping actions, planning, and multiple offers this is difficult to reasonably enforce.

The components are high enough quality; the cards aren’t the best but don’t need to be handled very much.  The rooster tokens are large, easy to read, and made of wood.  The quality of the graphic design on the board leaves a little to be desired; to me, it looks less than professional quality; a bit cartoony and not in a good sense.  But it gets the job done and you’ll be too busy haggling your neighbor for the next vote that it wont bother you.  I do wish the different values of Frumentium were more distinguishable – the washed-out grey sometimes blends the V’s and I’s, and I also wish the Traditor and Vigil cards were more clearly distinguished as well.  Not that it’s impossible to tell them apart, but changing the color background of the card would make it easy to tell the difference at a glance instead of reading the card, which would speed up placement during the Praetors action.

The Suffragium marker holds the power of the VOTE.

Overall, Chicken Caesar is a very fun game to play.  It definitely leans towards the euro-style of board gaming, but it steps out of the mold from most other euro-games with heavy player interaction, inclusion of voting to control worker placement, and the limited but influential actions of each office.  Despite a few rough edges and odd rules, the game experience itself is very engaging and will hide any blemishes, which are minor.  The components aren’t superior to anything but they get the job done.  The rooster theme is light, but humorous, and keeps the feel of the game from becoming TOO intense.  It runs a little long, but you can try to reign in negotiating time to keep the pace moving.  You’ll have to put in a little effort to work your way through the rulebook but in the end, it’s worth it.  It’s definitely worth it.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Nevermore Games for providing us with a review copy of Chicken Caesar.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Rooster theme is lite but humorous
  • Rich with strategy and long-term planning
  • Clever take on worker-placement
  • Highly interactive with bribery and negotiation
  • Immersive gameplay overshadows most blemishes

Cons:

  • Some finnicky rules and a few that don't seem to belong
  • Runs a little longer than I'd like
8.0 Very Good

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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